Author Topic: "Rowing so swiftly that they seemed to fly."  (Read 9956 times)

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"Rowing so swiftly that they seemed to fly."
« on: August 16, 2011, 11:16AM »
Estimadas Marinistas,

We are, of course, not the first to paddle canoes out to the Channel Islands. The Chumash, Gabrielinos, and other tribes beat everyone there. Early Spanish explorers were understandably impressed. Over 400 years ago, Sebastian Vizcaíno was directed by the Spanish viceroy in Mexico City to explore Alta California. The objective was to find safe harbors for ships laden with treasure stolen from the Philippines, as the lumbering Manila galleons with exhausted crews were prey for English pirates.  Vizcaíno's diarist,  Antonio de la Ascensión, recorded their arrival at Santa Catalina Island on November 24, 1602:

Thereupon we continued our voyage, skirting along the coast  until the 24th of the month, which was the eve of the feast of the glorious Santa Catalina, when we discovered three large islands [Catalina, Santa Barbara, and San Clemente Islands]. We approached them with difficulty because of a head-wind, and arrived at the middle one, which is more than twenty-five leagues around.
   On the 27th of the month, and before casting anchor in a very good cove which was found, a multitude of Indians came out in canoes of cedar and pine, made of planks very well joined and caulked, each one with eight oars and with fourteen or fifteen Indians, who looked like galley-slaves. They came along side without the least fear and came on board our ships, mooring their own. They showed great pleasure at seeing us, telling us by signs that we must land, and guided us like pilots to the anchorage. . . . Many Indians were on the beach, and the women treated us to roasted sardines and a small fruit like sweet potatoes.

Sebastian Vizcaíno continued north, with his men suffering from cold, fatigue and exhaustion, and his ships laboring against contrary winds. They soon entered the Santa Barbara Channel:

. . . on Monday, the 2nd of the said month, we sighted two other large islands [Santa Cruz and Santa Rosa, presumably]. Passing between the first and the mainland, a canoe came out to us with two Indian fisherman, who had a great quantity of fish, rowing so swiftly that they seemed to fly. They came alongside without saying a word to us and went twice around us with so great speed that it seemed impossible; this finished, they came aft, bowing their heads in the way of courtesy. The general ordered that they be given a cloth, with bread. They received it, and gave in return the fish they had, without any pay, and this done they said by signs that they wished to go. After they had gone five Indians came in another canoe, so well constructed and built that since Noah's Ark a finer and lighter vessel with timbers better made has not been seen. Four men rowed, and an old man in the centre, [singing] as in a mitote of the Indians of New Spain, and the others responding to him.

The Indians appeared to have little fear of the rough conditions in the channel, which sailors and paddlers have complained about since the expedition of Cabrillo in 1542, to Richard Henry Dana in Two Years Before the Mast in 1835, and on to the present day:

A canoe came out with two Indians and a small boy, their eyes being painted with antimony. They asked us to go to their land; however, there was such a heavy sea and the island presented so many shoals that we did not dare go to it, but veered out to sea . . . .

The Spanish continued to be impressed by Indian paddlers for centuries. The following passage is from the diary of Miguel Costansó, an engineer with the expedition of Gaspar de Portolá and Father Junipero Serra, who traveled up the coast from San Diego to San Francisco in 1769. From the description and and solar observations, it is believed to be Ventura:

Monday, August 14, 1769. We broke camp in the morning, directing our course to the west-southwest for a distance of two leagues. We reached the coast, and came in sight of a real town — the most populous and best arranged of all we had seen up to that time — situated on a tongue or point of land, right on the shore which it was dominating, and it seemed to command the waters. We counted as many as thirty large and capacious houses, spherical in form, well built, and thatched with grass. We judged from the large number of people that came out to meet us, and afterwards flocked to the camp, that there could not be less than four hundred souls in the town.   
     These natives are well built and of a good disposition, very agile and alert, diligent and skillful. Their handiness and ability were at their best in the construction of their canoes made of good pine boards, well joined and caulked, and of a pleasing form. They handle these with equal skill, and three or four men go out to sea in them to fish, as they will hold eight or ten men. They use long double-bladed paddles and row with indescribable agility and swiftness. All their work is neat and well finished, but what is most worthy of surprise is that to work the wood and stone they have no other tools than those made of flint; they are ignorant of the use of iron and steel, or know very little of the great utility of these materials, for we saw among them some pieces of knives and sword-blades which they used for no other purpose than to cut meat or open the fish caught in the sea. We saw, and obtained in exchange for strings of glass beads and other trinkets, some baskets or trays made of reeds, with different designs; wooden plates and bowls of different forms and sizes, made of one piece so that not even those turned out in a lathe could be more successful.
     They presented us with a quantity of fish, particularly the kind known as bonito (this was the season to catch it, judging from the ease with which they took it); it had as good a taste and as delicate a flavor as that caught in the tunny-fisheries of Cartagena de Levante and on the coasts of Granada.

The Portolá expedition was also recorded by Father Juan Vizcaíno (no relation to Sebastian).  His diary was discovered by Arthur Woodward, who was curator of anthropology in the Los Angeles County Museum, and who made excavations on San Clemente Island in 1939-40:

   It was through these excavations and others, on San Clemente Island as well as on the islands of San Nicolas, Santa Rosa, Santa Cruz and to a lesser extent on San Miguel that I was able to corroborate in detail the keen observations made by the ethnologically inclined Fr. Vizcaíno one hundred and seventy years earlier.
   The good father's notations on the laced plank canoes, the double-bladed paddles and the method of handling the leaky craft were correct in every detail.
   These canoes were composed of small planks, some only nine or ten inches in length and four or five inches in width. They were ingeniously fitted together with the edges of the boards scored with indentations made by a stone knife and then daubed with boiling hot bitumen. Holes were bored about one inch from the edges with chert drills and shallow channels gouged out in which heavy cords made from the inner bast of the red milkweed or wild hemp were laid. These holes and channels were arranged in pairs opposite each other in two opposing planks and after the cords had been knotted tightly, more tar was poured in to make the joints waterproof. Since there were no stone axes used on the California coast, these planks had to be wedged from the tree trunks with elk antler or whalebone wedges, and smoothed with wet sand on the beach. One account noted that for the longer planks a hole was bored in one end, to which a heavy seal sinew rope was attached. This was taken to the beach and after tow or three small indian children had climbed on the board, the plank was hauled up and down the smooth beach at water level, during which process it was beautifully sanded.
   When completed the canoes were covered with tar and painted an oxide or iron red and at times bits of nacreous shell were mosaicked [sic] in the tar along the upper edge of the gunwales and at the prow. In shape these canoes were double-ended, much like the fishing dories of the eastern Atlantic coast. The plank canoes had no ribs but were fitted at intervals with solid, truncated, triangular bulkheads. The paddlers knelt and used double-bladed paddles with circular ends in a very dextrous fashion.
   But, as Fr. Vizcaíno observed, in spite of all the caulking, these cranky little boats leaked and the services of a bailer, using either a large abalone shell with the gill holes caulked with tar or plugged with small sticks, or a small wooden utensil with a short handle, were needed when the craft put out to sea. In such canoes these Indians ventured as far out as San Nicholas Island, some sixty miles off shore from San Pedro, and made regular crossings between their homes on the Channel Islands and the villages of their kinfolk on the mainland.

In honor of our predecessors, I propose that we replace our plastic bail buckets and pumps with abalone shells!


Diary of Sebastian Vizcaíno, 1602-1603; Antonio de la Ascenión (diarist of the expedition);

Diary of the Portolá Expediton, 1769-70; Miguel Costansó, engineer.

The Sea Diary of Father Juan Vizcaíno to Alta California 1769; Fr. Juan Vizcaíno; Arthur Woodward (translator).

Arthur Woodward, “Channel Island Artifacts,” from Los Angeles: Biography of a City; John and LaRee Caughey; University of California Press; 1977

Postscript: there is a theory of contact between Polynesian sea voyagers and California Indians, based on canoe and fish hook design. I am as yet unconvinced, but the historiography of Polynesian exploration in the Pacific should teach one not to be too skeptical about their abilities as sailors:


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Re: "Rowing so swiftly that they seemed to fly."
« Reply #1 on: August 16, 2011, 11:15PM »
Good find Potter..

in case everyone was unaware, Potter is a good writer, not just a malcontent.  I read one of his books, and recommend it.  Since he don't pimp it, I will give him a free plug
A ship in harbor is safe - but that is not what ships are for.