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Phantom Ship of the Gulf of California (Ives)

Widely and thinly scattered about the shores of the Gulf of California (aka Sea of Cortez) are a group of legends dealing with some sort of a “phantom ship” which is seen only during violent storms. In most tales, the vision is an re-enactment of an ancient sea battle. usually between “El Draco” and a Manila galleon. The tale, as commonly told, has a quasi-supernatural implications and is at a variance with recorded historical fact. A summary follows:

Cosnag Island

In the time of our grandfathers, during the cordonza, the Manilla galleon ” La Reina” was attacked by “El Almirante de los Dracos” in the waters of Cabo Falso. The ship fled northward, into the Guilf of California, with the ship of El Almirante following behind, firing it’s cannon. The chase lasted all day, all night andthe next day. At mightfall of the second day, the galleon was at the head of the Gulf, with El Draco still following. In desperation the captain of the galleon sailed up the river toward Cerro Prieto, and ran aground and the galleon disappeared amid thunderings and lightnings.

To this daywhen there is a cordonazo over the Gulf at nightfall the chase is repeated and the fleeing gaLleon can be seen clearly, surrounded by lighting, near the head of the Gulf.

Search of the historical records discloses that this chase never took place and that Sir Francis Drake never entered the Gulf of California. His probable course in this area was westward between Cabo Falso and Revilla Gigedo Islands and his next landing was at Drake’s Bay, north of the Golden Gate where he left his famous “Plate of Brass” in 1579.

Possibility that this legend was based on the capture of the Santa Ana by Thomas Cavendish, at the Bahia San Bernabe in Baja California in 1587, was investigated and evidence for certain identification found wanting. No other documented account of piracy in this area fits the legend more than vaguely.

The “phantom ship” near the head of the Gulf of California, however, is a different matter. This can be seen many times yearly from the seaport of San Felipe, in northern Baja California and occasionally from the shore of Bajia de Lopez-Collada, in Sonora. This object is very real, being the Consag Rocks, a volcanic pinnacle, whitened by guano, which resembles a ship under sail in some lights This is made visible over a wide area of the Gulf by abnormal refraction, which is most common here late in the day. Hence, although the legend of the “Phantom Ship” has little known fact basis, the “ship” itself is a real and natural object, visible over a wide area of the Gulf shore, under conditions which are somewhat predictable.

Ronald L. Ives

This story appeared in Western Folklore, Vol. 14, No. 2 (Apr., 1955), pp. 137-138

Featured photo courtesy of https://www.facebook.com/Consag-Island-Isla-Consag-1127383170935021/

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