Pirates? Pshaw! Boat's shape is the big worry


POSTED: Monday, May 11, 2009

SEA OF CORTEZ, Mexico » I'm sailing alone in the Sea of Cortez. Usually when I'm without crew, my main fear is having a mechanical failure I won't know how to fix. But with pirates in the news lately, my worries grew darker. Have there been incidents here? I wondered. I Googled Sea of Cortez pirates and then spent an entire afternoon reading about them.

The details of captains and crew being killed or set adrift and ships being stolen, burned or sunk made gruesome reading. But it didn't scare me. All the events occurred in the 16th and 17th centuries.

After war broke out between Spain and England in 1585, Queen Elizabeth enlisted private vessels to go after Spanish ships and settlements. Such captains were called privateers. When a ship's captain took it upon himself to hijack a ship, he was known as a buccaneer, a euphemism for pirate.

As long as it was English sailors attacking Spanish ships and towns, though, the crown didn't care what they were called. The line between naval war and piracy was a fine one in those days. The only pay the sailors, including British naval officers, received was what they could steal.

The first pirate in this area was Sir Francis Drake, a captain better known as a navigator and explorer than a pirate. Drake plundered millions of today's dollars in gold, silver and jewels from Spanish ships captured along the Pacific coast.

But the significance of Drake's conquests was more than money. He also obtained charts and, in these, discovered the Spanish were hauling enormous amounts of money from Manila to Spain. These loaded-with-loot vessels were re-provisioning in the southern Sea of Cortez.

For the next 200 years, English pirates were hot on the trail, raiding ships in anchorages around Cabo San Lucas and La Paz. Taking advantage of local wind patterns called Coromuels, the English captains struck when the wind trapped Spanish ships inside the bays.

Closely following Drake was Thomas Cavendish, famous for capturing the enormous Spanish galleon Santa Ana off Cabo. The treasure was so large Cavendish couldn't carry it all, nor did he have enough men to sail the seized ship. Taking all the money he could stow and still float, Cavendish set the Spanish crew ashore and set fire to the Santa Ana, leaving some of the booty aboard.

A century later, English sea captain William Dampier set out for a Baja raid in two leaky ships. Mutiny broke out when the crew discovered he'd not cleaned the hulls of wood-eating worms. The ships eventually sunk.

Most of the men made it home with one notable exception, Scottish sailor Alexander Selkirk, who got stranded on a coastal island. Four years later another privateer after Spanish booty found and rescued the stranded sailor. This captain's friend was Daniel Defoe, who upon hearing the story wrote the novel Robinson Crusoe.

Another noteworthy Baja buccaneer was Thomas Dover, a former ship's surgeon. After a stint of pirating, Dover returned to medicine. Sometimes known as the quicksilver doctor, Dover became infamous for his fanatical devotion to mercury and bleeding as cures for everything.

I found no current Sea of Cortez piracy stories in my search, but even if there are some, I don't want to know. Keeping this boat working is enough to worry about.


Susan Scott can be reached at