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)
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
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
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.
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?”
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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
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
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.”
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?”
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.
just smiled as if he just scored the game ending home run by
officiating the question.
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.
I have never been asked where the name California came from, I did
know the answer.
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
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
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.
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.
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.
first question to answer in this mystery is who is de Montalvo? And
the second is how did he end up naming California?
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
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
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.
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
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.
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”.
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
(1502), detailing and documenting the rewards from the Spanish Crown
and his second, Book of Prophecies (1505). Both
published several years before de Montalov’s fifth book.
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!
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,
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.”
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
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.
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.
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.
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
the Marvels of the World), also known as The Travels of Marco
Polo, c. 1300. This book introduced Europeans to Central Asia
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.
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
Cortés who shifted the fiction to fact.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
name California appears in a 1542 journal kept by explorer Juan
Rodríguez Cabrillo, who used the title casually, as if it
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
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.
looked up from the table at Captain Alexandrov kneeling in the
cockpit, looking down at me. “Where did the name California
come on down, let me connect the dots.”
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.”
a minute Sherlock, the question is about California not Hispaniola.”
Mark fired a sarcastic shot across the bow.
Hispaniola?” Captain Alexandrov questioned.
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.
grinned. “So, what does Columbus’ book have to do with
anything about California?” I simply ignored him.
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.
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.
capstone for this mystery comes from Giovanni Battista Ramusio’s
three books, written between 1550 and 1556, acknowledging California
as an actual place.”
where did the name come from?” Mark shouts in disgust.
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
Alexandrov nodded his head in approval. Ballast shook his head in
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.
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.
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.
blustery night that Homers Odysseus and Neptune and Poseidon before
him would be proud of. But in fours hours, Windswept
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
Windswept climbs up the backs of swell after swell,
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
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.
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’
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.
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,
of the message
won't know where to send it.)
Marc's story list and biography
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