Queen Calafia

Marc Revere

© Copyright 2021 by Marc Revere


Photo by Michael Held on Unsplash
Photo by Michael Held on Unsplash
There ruled on that Island of California, a queen, great of body, exquisite for her race, at a flourishing age, desirous in her thoughts of achieving great things, valiant in strength, cunning in her brave heart, more than any other who had ruled that kingdom before her, Queen Calafia.” Garcia Ordonez de Montalvo, “The Adventures of Esplandián” (1510)
The footsteps echoing overhead crossed over the ceiling midship ending with the pulleys slamming against the mast. The stretching lines tightened by the starboard winch followed. Looking up, I tracked Captain Alexandrovs’ feet shuffling back to the cockpit. Glancing over at Mark, lying on the couch, who earlier had nodded off, his eyes too were tracing the captain’s footsteps. We both stood and worked our way to the stairs leading to the cockpit. It was a precautionary maneuver that turned out not to be necessary. Before taking a step up the stairs, our self-imposed tension decreased hearing the helm enclosure zipper and the sliding of his metal carbineer along the jack line, a piece of ¾ webbing designed to keep him from going overboard. This meant he was safe inside the cockpit. Being attached to the jack line was one of my few requirements when on night watch, which it was. Or when the crew is asleep any time of day and or when the weather gets nasty, which it has been. And it hasn’t let up since we sailed out of San Francisco.

The hatch above opened, bringing with it a gust pressurizing the cabin with Captain Alexandrov following. He left the pitch-black nocturnal world above and entered an eerily reddish world inside of the rocking sloop; red lenses replaced the normal white light to protect our night vision. 

I’d just finished the midnight entry in Windswept’s log. I’d acquired two fixes, Surf which was the first near Vandenberg Air Force Base and the second, Point Arguello Light. It’s an old-world technique requiring the use of a hand-bearing compass then actually plotting the course with a pencil on a paper chart. Most ships and sailing vessels don’t carry paper charts aboard anymore. And to my friend Mark, who delights in reminding me that it’s analogous to having a Thomas Brothers map book in your car. “With cell phones” with map applications he says, “what’s the point?” Regardless, of his demeaning verbal abuse, I enjoy telling my crew I was checking the accuracy of our GPS units. The reason for the plural is that we have a redundancy of three GPS units aboard. Actually six if you count our I-phones. However this doesn’t come close to Ferdinand Magellan in 1519 who had fifty compasses, twenty-one quadrants, 24 navigation charts, seven astrolabes and eighteen hourglasses for his circumnavigation of the world. The crew smiles when I go through the machinations to get a fix, but I know they are not impressed.

Captain Nikolay Alexandrov was in his early forties and whom I had actually just met in person less than 48 hours ago, looked over my shoulder at our location on the chart plotter screen. While Windswept pitched and yawed, he poured himself some coffee and calculated our distance to Point Conception, then asked in a Bulgarian accent, “where did the name California come from?”

We were on a board reach, in 20-knot winds with a following sea and eight-foot swells were running every 12 seconds. But before I could answer, a gust took our comfortable 15 degrees of heel, pushed us over 30 or more. Windswept started to round up (pointing her nose into the wind.). The Captain quickly handed me his cup and scrambled back up to the cockpit. Mark followed. Other than a lot of sail flogging back and forth, caused by heading into the wind, they soon had control and we were back on course in less than a minute. After resetting the autopilot Mark returned to the couch.

I had hired Captain Alexandrov months earlier to assist in sailing my 42-foot sloop from Sausalito out of San Francisco Bay to San Diego, 450 nautical miles. This was a requirement of my wife who said it was a requirement of my insurance company. Not the boat insurance, but my ‘life’ insurance. Since I have spent a lifetime in high-risk activities, work and hobbies with a medical record to validate it, she has over insured me. Her worst fear is when I sail offshore, which I have done all my life. There is a clause in one or more of my policies stating if my body is not found, then the payoff will come seven years after I am lost at sea. She loves me, and has for four decades, but she is practical too. Her lifestyle trumps grieving as a poor widow, and tells me grieving is easier being a rich widow. Thus she insisted that I hire someone more experienced than myself to ensure that I come back or at least my body did.

By way of emails and telephone conversation, I learned that Captain Alexandrov and his twin brother have made a cottage business as delivery boat skippers. Born in Bulgaria, both sailed when they were young and were a part of their countries sailing teams. Now both live in San Diego. My good friend Mark Baker, a former Fire Chief like myself, flew up with him from San Diego to come along on the adventure and as Ballast, his call sign. 

Back on course as we resumed 15-degree heel to port I pondered the Captain’s question. Working my way to the galley I poured myself a cup of coffee. I did not know if his was a question or a challenge. Regardless I thought to myself, how do you explain the unexplainable?  

Finding some liquid, reminiscent to nasty burnt tar, like residue in the bottom of the coffee pot at any firehouse at midnight, I began the process of heating, and breaking up the sludge. Once satisfied, I added a liberal dose of Baileys Liqueur and immediately realized I made a mistake. I should have just poured several drams of Baileys into my cup without the coffee. But I theorized the synergy of the two would smooth out the contents, bring the viscosity level somewhere close to ninety weight motor oil instead of molasses. Taking a sip, I worked my tongue over my teeth while watching the dark coastline, the northern edge of Point Conception slide past through the galley porthole, and wondered how badly I had damaged my enamel. 

The seas were getting rougher as we headed deeper into the Points always-turbulent waters. Old sailors have a saying about rounding Point Conception. “Death loiters on the horizon and where the premonition of doom is profound.” Maybe my wife heard this as well?

At this specific latitude and longitude, five miles west of land there is a 30-mile gap between mountain ranges. When terra firma heats up, hot air rises and creates a vacuum below. And since Mother Nature abhors a vacuum, she’ll do anything to fill it. Cool ocean air is sucked into its interior like an engine of a jet on takeoff. In these waters consistent winds coming down the coast, north of the Point, can suddenly exceed 40 to 50 knots making a normally unsettled ocean into a tempest with 20-foot greybeards, Point Conception rollers, rouge waves and jumbled swells coming at you from every direction. 

Well, where did California come from?” Mark challenged me as he lay back down on the couch. His body not entirely fitting, with his head bent at an angle that would make a chiropractor jump for joy. He added, “I’d like to hear that explanation.” 

Mark and I have known each other for over four decades and we love hurling invectives at one another. So with disdain dripping from my tongue, taking his question literally, I scornfully uttered, “are you asking about the formation of the planet and plate tectonics?”

Mark squinted and looked at me as if I was speaking in a foreign language, which was often the case when I used words with two or more syllables. “Huh?” was all I got for a response. So, I added, “or are you talking about how the state got its name?” This is how good friends communicate.

Game on!

Mark just smiled as if he just scored the game ending home run by officiating the question.

Ignoring Mark, it never occurred to me to wonder where or even to ask where did the names; England, Spain, Portugal or Italy comes from? They just existed and always the largest print on the map or chart. Probably the best source on that matter would be the all-time Jeopardy winner Ken Jennings’ book Maphead: Charting the Wide, Weird World of Geography Wonks.

Though I have never been asked where the name California came from, I did know the answer. 

California started out as a myth, then a fable from a work of unadulterated fiction that was taken as an absolute fact by artistic chart makers and the treasure hunting mariners of old. It was a name based upon a fictional island, next to the fictional west coast inlet of the fictional Northwest Passage, based upon an actual fictional book. 

But the only way to explain it is to connect historical dots that weave through two separate mystery’s and as many centuries. A mystery so strange that Sherlock Holmes could easily apply his age-old methodology. “It is an old maxim of mine that when you have excluded the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.” In this case, the improbable truth comes from improvable fiction.  

The short answer, which would be no fun to regurgitate and end any kind of discussion on the topic, is California was named after Queen Calafia. She was the main character in one of Garcia Ordonez de Montalvos’ book. It was written a decade after Columbus thought he found the route to the western edge of the Orient by bumping into the West Indies. Columbus was wrong on both counts, but that didn’t stop de Montalvo from extrapolating some of what Columbus wrote about after his third voyage while fantasizing the rest.

Holmes that old sleuth without any observations, or forensic science could, with simple logical reasoning, follow the clues. But the clues were located in Spain, Italy, the West Indies, Caribbean, the Orient and New Spain (Mexico). And not one clue coming from California, the real California. And the suspects and witnesses involved were Columbus’s, Cortez, and Marco Polo all of whom never met and a few lesser-known historical figures and dozens of map and chart makers who were more artist and visual storytellers than accurate cartographers. Maps of the world in the 1400s, 1500s and 1600s were not designed for navigation, but for the wealthy that hung them like works of art.

The sloop pitched and yawed as I looked around the teak panel salons vertical surfaces. To help tell the story, I would design an impromptu storyboard by placing yellow post-it’s on the flat surfaces with clues written on them. Each clue could help lead to the next logical explanation. But the answer was anything but logical and connecting the dots required some mental gymnastics. Though time-consuming, the three of us were in no hurry.

The first question to answer in this mystery is who is de Montalvo? And the second is how did he end up naming California?  

The seas were building. The manageable 20 knots of wind had increased to 25 with gusts up to 30, and the interval between the swells had decreased. But still, Windswept was nicely slicing through the waves at 9 knots. This area of the ocean has been credited as the most dangerous passage on the West Coast, where countless ships have been lost.  In 1834, after a harrowing passage in gale force winds, Richard Henry Dana, Jr. called Point Conception “the Cape Horn of California, where it begins to blow the first of January and blows until the last of December.” He should know, he sailed through both.


Garcia Ordonez de Montalvo in the 16th Century wrote a book titled, Las Sergas del muy esforzado caballero Esplandian, hijo del excelente rey Amandis de Gaula.  Loosely translated, The Adventures of Esplandián.  It was the fifth book in a series of six, which tells the story of a mythical island called “California” ruled by Queen Calafia and warrior women. The queen and her warriors seized and killed and ate any men that they found in their domain. Although they had children, they only kept daughters and killed off their sons. Also they lived near the ‘Terrestrial Paradise’, where the only metal in existence was gold. This book was written in early 1510.

Reading the text carefully, you can see that the writer’s work of fiction had been enhanced by current events of the time. Especially with the term, “Terrestrial Paradise”.

The first voyage of Christopher Columbus, in 1492, sparked a new interest in the search for Terrestrial Paradise, or Earthly Paradise, that he wrote in his book El Libro de los Privilegios, Book of Privileges (1502), detailing and documenting the rewards from the Spanish Crown and his second, Book of Prophecies (1505). Both were published several years before de Montalov’s fifth book.

Terrestrial Paradise was a legendary land of ease and riches, with beautiful women wearing gold and pearls. That’s how Columbus described the Native Americans he saw on Caribbean Islands in terms of their beauty and specifically their nudity. In very simple terms, Columbus’s voyage of discovery can be summarized into the four G’s; God, gold, glory and girls. And for Columbus, it was in that order and in equal measures. However the others that followed were mostly interested in the last three of the four G’s and added a capital C: Conquest!

It would appear that de Montalvo drew upon reports from the New World to add interest to his fantasy world of chivalry and battles of riches, victory and loss, of an upside-down depiction of traditional sex roles. In his novel, The Adventures of Esplandián, he writes: “Know ye that at the right hand of the Indies there is an island called California, very close to that part of the Terrestrial Paradise, which was inhabited by black women without a single man among them, and they lived in the manner of Amazons. They were robust of body with strong passionate hearts and great virtue. The island itself is one of the wildest in the world due to the bold and craggy rocks.”

A wave broke over the bow sending green foaming water back along both port and starboard walkways. I listened to the water rush past overhead. Given our current location, I wondered as we sailed in Force 6 winds, 40 miles from any port and no ship within 70 miles that one could argue the three of us existed outside the range of “normal human experience”?
When Columbus sailed, he wasn’t looking for Amazon’s, and he failed to find the Orient and spice. He did find a new world, although he did not know it. In 1493, when he returned to Spain, he was certain he found the Orient and the West End of the Indies. Sailing there three more times, he remained convinced until his death he found the route to the Orient.  

Amerigo Vespucci didn’t share the Lord Admiral of the Seas conviction. He was a navigator and wrote a couple of popular books expressing his views that from Brazil north including the “West Indies” wasn’t the Orient, but a new ‘super’ continent. One cartographer, and one of the most famous Martin Waldseemüller took note that Vespucci called it the “New World”. And in 1507, by applying the Latinized form Vespucci first name "America" was written for the first time on a map, depicting the New World.

Chart makers and sailors turned conquistadors soon were looking for the Indies, Columbus’s Terrestrial Paradise, Amazons and the Island of California. California according to myth and validated by a growing number of chart makers was part of a new continent on a straight that lead to the North West Passage (NWP) which was considered the mythical Strait of Anián on the west coast of the new world. And both were already drawn on the charts of the west coast long before any sailor ever sailed there.

The Strait of Anián came from the book of another explorer, Marco Polo. Columbus had Polo’s book in his ship’s library. He knew the world was round, he just didn’t know how big around. His spherical calculations were off by a continent and an ocean. He studied books and made hundreds of marginal notations in them. In his personal library was Livres des merveilles du monde (Book of the Marvels of the World), also known as The Travels of Marco Polo, c. 1300. This book introduced Europeans to Central Asia and China. Christopher Columbus was inspired by Polo's description of the Far East; a copy of Polo’s book was among his belongings, with his own handwritten annotations.

Unfortunately, the acceleration of exploration increased at the expense and inhalation of the native people in North and South America. In 1518, explorer Hernán Cortés, familiar with Columbus’s voyages, set out to find what Columbus didn’t, the Terrestrial Paradise. However, he must have known The Island of California written by de Montalvo was fictional.  Or did he? It was Cortés who shifted the fiction to fact.

Cortés, sailed through the Gulf of Mexico and reached the Yucatan making landfall at Cozumel in 1519. He eventually set his sights on the Aztec empire. Finding and taking Aztec gold only affirmed de Montalvo’s book to the point in 1524, after working his way west to the Pacific Ocean, he started using the term “Island of California” in his letters.

In 1526, Francisco de Ulloa sailed north from Acapulco to explore the Pacific Coast to seek the mythical Strait of Anián that supposedly led to the Gulf of St. Lawrence, proving the existence of the Northwest Passage.

He concluded there wasn’t a Strait of Anián and there wasn’t an Island of California. His reports were never used. The primary reason, Ulloa never returned.

However the credit for discovering that Baja (Lower) California is a peninsula, not an island, goes to de Ulloa through his crewmembers that returned. It was soon after Ulloa’s voyage that the name of “California” came into widespread use. But the myth of both, for mapmakers in Europe was too alluring, and they continued to draw them as if they were there, even though his discoveries lent support to the fact that Baja California was a peninsula.

Captain Alexandrov came down in the salon to get warm, another sweatshirt and another cup of coffee. He stopped long enough to slowly follow my post-it path around the cabin. Then focused on the last, affixed to the starboard hull, and with furrowed brows asked, “so, where is the Strait of Anian? I have never heard of it.” But before I could answer, an uptick in the wind added five more degrees of heel. He headed up to the cockpit with Mark in tow to put another reef in the main, our last.

The name California appears in a 1542 journal kept by explorer Juan Rodríguez Cabrillo, who used the title casually, as if it already existed. 

Years later, the name California does appear three times in reports about Cortés’ explorations written by a man named Giovanni Battista Ramusio. Now here is another twist that leads to another fact. Giovanni was born and raised in Italy. He worked mostly in the Venetian government services, starting in a position of Secretary to the Ambassador to France. His position ensured that he would receive news of all the latest discoveries from explorers all around Europe. He was fluent in several languages and he compiled documents and translated them into Italian, the most widely understood of the European languages.

Apparently without stepping outside of the comfort of his villa, Ramusio published “Navigationi et Viaggi” (Navigations and Travels), a collection of explorers' first-hand accounts. This had not been done before and was very popular with the readers of the day. Eventually there were three volumes of Navigationi et Viaggi, the first in 1550, fifteen years after Cortés’ last voyage, and the last one in 1559. Now California was becoming a common term, leaving the fictional world while slowly entering the real world of sailors.


I looked up from the table at Captain Alexandrov kneeling in the cockpit, looking down at me. “Where did the name California come from?”

OK, come on down, let me connect the dots.”

When Columbus returns to Spain from Hispaniola”, I began “before his fourth voyage, to what he believed was the Orient, he produced two books, in which he considered his achievements as an explorer. This is clue number one.”   

Wait a minute Sherlock, the question is about California not Hispaniola.” Mark fired a sarcastic shot across the bow.

Sherlock? Hispaniola?” Captain Alexandrov questioned.

I haven’t gotten my first sentence out and Mark, aka Ballast, challenged me and for no other reason than to do so. That’s how firefighters communicate.  

I glared.

Mark grinned. “So, what does Columbus’ book have to do with anything about California?” I simply ignored him.

Years later, Hernán Cortés sails for Mexico. Bored after crushing the Aztec empire he continued to look for gold and the Terrestrial Palace. He worked his way across the Mexican mainland to the Pacific Ocean. In the 1520s, he sent out ships on the west coast where they made landfall known today as La Paz, Baja California Sur.

In 1524, Francisco de Ulloa discovers and names the Sea of Cortez. He navigates up one side and down the other, thus learning of the misconception of the existence of the Island of California. Juan Cabrillo sails north in 1542 discovers San Diego and in his journal, the name California appears several times.

The capstone for this mystery comes from Giovanni Battista Ramusio’s three books, written between 1550 and 1556, acknowledging California as an actual place.” 

So where did the name come from?” Mark shouts in disgust.

There is no known reference to the word California in any language until Garcia Ordonez de Montalvo’s makes it up. So, as it turns out, the Island of California and the Strait of Anián were pure fiction, each coming from two different books, Polo’s and de Montalvo’s, while illustrating the power of chart makers whose works were more speculative than factual. Charts still had the Island of California on them for another 100 years after it was proven it didn’t exist.”

Captain Alexandrov nodded his head in approval. Ballast shook his head in disbelief.

One has to admit that Queen Calafia had a tremendous impact upon explorers, kings and queens and cartographers in Europe. Her legend may have been forgotten over time, however her fictional empire is now the most populous state in the United States. If it were a country, California would be the sixth largest economy in the world.

The wind had increased another couple of knots. We were 10 miles from changing our course to 120 degrees so we could enter the tranquil waters of the Santa Barbara Channel.

The captain stayed below and dove into the front bunk. I grabbed my offshore jacket and climbed into the cockpit and snapped into the jack line for the 2am watch. I was excited to take the helm and sail through California’s roughest passage. The swells had grown from 12 to 15 feet, while their intervals had lengthened to 15 seconds. With the storm jib up and on a broad reach, we were making 10 knots as we rounded Point Conception Light.

It is blustery night that Homers Odysseus and Neptune and Poseidon before him would be proud of. But in fours hours, Windswept and crew will greet the morning sun deep in the Santa Barbara Channel, on the windward coast of Island of California “one of the wildest in the world due to the bold and craggy rocks.” And for many that live here and those that flock here annually, California is a Terrestrial Paradise.

And as Windswept climbs up the backs of swell after swell, cresting over them at a 30-degree angle, surfing down the front and racing through the troughs, I have wonder: If these early explorers discovered America on the west coast, making landfall first on the Island of California, would anyone have traveled east?

The story that I have entered is entitled “Queen Calafia”.   It is based upon a question that I was asked while sailing off the coast of Point Conception, California, “How did California get its Name” by a Bulgarian deliver captain. I had hired him to help me reposition my sailboat from San Francisco to San Diego.  The story explains how California got its name from a historical prospective, while the captain and a long time friend sail thru storm one night as we sailed down the California coast.

I am a Harvard Fellow and served as a Fire Chief for sixteen years, with 37 years in the fire service and a past President of the California Fire Chiefs’ Association.

My passion is sailing, the fire service, and story telling of historical events involving sailing and the fire service. I have sailed since I was four years old.  The first word I learned to spell was port, written on my left four knuckles by my grandfather before he lowered me in a Sabbath (a small sail boat) then shoving me off the dock in the back bay of Newport, Ca.                                                                                        

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