Brief Sampling of Evidence: Drakes Bay, Drakes Estero, and Drake’s Cove

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This chart depicts Drake’s likely route into the Point Reyes area and the related soundings. Of all the bays in the Drake landing area, only Drakes Bay compares favorably with The insets, are from Dudley’s Manuscript chart No 85. La Punta is unquestionably the maritime reference to Point Reyes and the Bay is encompassed to the point’s south, just as it is today at Point Reyes. Dudley even draws the Estero off the Bay. Within this bay, comparable depths were found and recorded by Cermeño in 1595 when he took a similar course. They all compare favorably with the actual depths in Drakes Bay—8, 6, and 5 fathoms off the east end of the geographical point of Point Reyes where one enters the bay and diminishing depths to 3 to 4 fathoms towards Drakes Estero where good anchorage can be round in those depths just over 400 yards from shore under the white cliffs.

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Seven Sisters, England

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Drakes Bay in California

The National Historic Landmark for New Albion encompasses three bodies of water, all salient to Drake’s 1579 landing: Drakes Bay, Drakes Estero, and Drake’s Cove. Across several centuries—beginning shortly after Drake’s circumnavigation—historians, cartographers, explorers, anthropologists, and geographers have continued to identify the area near Point Reyes as where Francis Drake spent several weeks at his New Albion claim.

Ample indicators regarding Drakes Bay, Drakes Estero, and Drake’s Cove all point to this location as Drake’s haven. All of the period source descriptions—as well as modern descriptions—are in full accord with each of these as waters in which Drake navigated, harbored, and careened, his treasure laden ship, the Golden Hind.

Beginning in the 16th century, maps began identifying the land at Drake’s Bay as New Albion. The location of Point Reyes was typically indicated as is reality: 38° latitude. Drake’s errors were small, usually within 10 miles when he could take his measurements from land rather than a rolling ship or when using dead reckoning. Michael Turner, in his quest to visit all Drake sites in the world, consistently found Drake’s measurements to be extremely accurate.

In 1793, British Royal Navy explorer, Captain George Vancouver, who also sailed these waters, concluded Francis Drake was at precisely this locale at Point Reyes. In the last half of the 19th century, Professor George Davidson of the United States Coast and Geodetic Survey comprehensively explored and studied the Pacific Coast of the United States for decades. This noted geodesist, astronomer, geographer, surveyor, and engineer researched and wrote extensively about Francis Drake’s presence in California, and he too firmly concluded Drake’s presence at Drakes Bay. Davidson’s research was the work that originally prompted early Guild members when they began the search for Drake’s precise landing site and careenage.

Drakes Bay

This is where Drake began his first full landing after sailing 62 days from Guatalco, Mexico. The Famous Voyage states, it pleased God to send vs into a faire and good Baye, with a good winde to enter the same. The precision of the phrase, send vs into a faire and good Baye, is a very telling point regarding the identification of this as Drake’s bay.

Few navigators are ever sent into a bay, especially in a square rigged galleon such as the Golden Hind. Navigating an unknown bay ordinarily requires great care and caution. Often, as was the case of Juan de Ayala who captained the first ship into San Francisco Bay, it can be a prolonged, dangerous, and difficult struggle. When sailing south around Point Reyes, the northern sweep of the Bay was revealed to Drake. Due to the prevailing northwest wind, Drake would have found a single tack sufficient to send him into the bay, the one described as a faire and good Baye, with a good winde to enter the same.

George Davidson wrote much about the Bay, and he particularly noted its superlative suitability for Drake’s purposes. He noted that

Drake's Bay is a capital harbor in northwest winds, such as Drake encountered. It is easily entered, sheltered by high lands, and a vessel may anchor in three fathoms, close under the shore in good holding ground.

The 1917 edition of the United States Coast Pilot describes Drakes Bay also providing key indicators in harmony with it as Drake’s anchorage.

Drakes Bay affords shelter in northwesterly weather in 5 to 6 fathoms, sandy bottom. From the western headland, which is the eastern termination of the ridge forming Point Reyes, high white cliffs extend northward and eastward in a gentle curve for 6 miles, terminating in high white sand dunes.

The book goes on to observe that lagoons on the northern shore were regularly navigated by light draft vessels through a common channel connected to the bay. This is particularly significant because Drake did just this a few days after anchoring in the Bay; he navigated through the common channel and, it led him to what we now know is Drakes Estero.

Critical to the location are the miles of white banks which line Drakes Bay. The author the The World Encompassed recorded that the bay they sailed into had white banks and cliffs which lie toward the sea. In his period book, The Voyage Of Francis Drake Around The Whole Globe, Richard Hakluyt wrote a description of the site’s cliff geography. He specifically states white cliffs when he writes: Our general called this country Nova Albion, and that for two causes: the one in respect of the white cliffs, (emphasis added) which lie towards the sea: . . .

When on the sweep of the Bay at the entrance of the Estero, these same white cliffs lie precisely toward the sea. These white cliffs, which are exactly as described in the period records, are a determining, identifying factor of Drake’s anchorage and landing.

So significant were the cliffs to Drake that he named the land Nova Albion, or as we say, “New Albion.” Albion being an archaic name for England means white. One must imagine that the remarkable cliffs evoked tender memories to sailors who were very familiar with strikingly similar cliffs along the shores of their homeland.

Drakes Estero

Another key indicator of Drake’s California landing in 1579 is the geographical combination of a point, bay, and estero, all within close proximity to and contiguous with each other. Estero is a Spanish word that corresponds to the English word estuary and used to label in inlet or near the sea. Drake’s Estero is found in the charts produced by Drake’s staunch, seagoing friend, Robert Dudley. He undoubtedly had reliable information from Drake himself. Dudley’s personally drawn manuscript chart of California shows a bay at 38° north latitude. Marked la punta—a point—and the words B. di noua Albion, Bay of New Albion. It also shows a line of soundings and an anchor mark off a harbor which is shown as an estuary or river mouth. The label Il Por: to boniss: mo—the best of points—denotes the estuary. This firmly indicates that both an inner and an outer body of water must exist in Drake’s landing area. And it clearly shows 38° latitude. The location at Point Reyes is exactly so, and the relationship to each other is strikingly similar.

From The World Encompassed, we know the Golden Hind was in need of significant repair. The outer body of water, the Bay, was sufficient for a protected anchorage but not adequate for weeks long repair which required careening the ship. A harbor of greater protection for careening would have been needed, and that was provided by what is now known as Drakes Estero. The World Encompassed states that Drake fell with a convenient and fit harborough. Anonymous Narrative affirms this by recording that Drake was in a harborow for his ship where he grounded his ship to trim her. John Stow simply states that Drake stayed in the latitude of 38 to graue and trim his ship. Ground and grave similarly mean to expose the underwater hull of the lightened ship by bringing it aground at high tide on a sand or gravel berth and then letting the tide fall to bare the hull. Trim means to remove the marine growth.

To careen a ship was a hazardous and delicate operation. It required a well-protected haven; the Estero which is north from the bay was just that.

Drake saw that the channel from the Bay would lead to the better long-term anchorage inside the Estero. This channel was in all probability short and directly to the anchorage just inside the bar. In the late afternoon of June 17, 1579 when Drake entered the Estero, a flood tide hit a 5.4 high mark. Considering that in 1595 Sebastián Cermeño recorded three fathoms of water at high tide in the same location, the Golden Hind would have had ample room to navigate the channel even if she were down to her fully laden draft of 13 feet.

In 1951, a small expedition explored the entrance to the Estero when Guild members sailed a salvage boat through it. An apparatus supported dive was made into the channel. The diver reported a sandy bottom with rocks near the cliffs and recorded that the incoming tide was sufficiently strong to drag him horizontally through the entrance—a further indicator that the Golden Hind could navigate the channel.

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These details from Dudley’s Chart Number 85 indicate Drakes encampment at Point Reyes.

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Looking generally southeast from the perspective of a high hill, the Estero, its entrance and Drakes Bay are visible. The Cove is to the right and just out of sight.

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Looking generally southeast at the channel from Drakes Bay into Drake’s Estero in 2004. The Cove is to the right and partially filled in with bulldozed dirt. Some of the white cliffs and banks are visible.

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Looking south at Drake’s Cove in 2004. The land between the pond and Estero is the dam built by Bill Hall in the 1940’s. The altered area was a major part of Drake’s Cove in 1579.

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Looking generally southeast at Drake’s Cove in 2004.

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Outline Drake’s Cove. The red line indicates the extent of the cove before the dam was built.

Drake’s Cove

Matthew Dillingham was the Guild member who actually made the discovery of Drake’s Cove as the site of Drake’s encampment and careenage basin. This set the stage for over 70 ensuing years of constant confirming inquiry, analysis, and documentation.

Immediately to the west of the Estero, and in the Estero waters, is the careening basin. Admiral Nimitz gave its current name, Drake’s Cove. The Cove is tucked in under high ground on the west side of the Estero, and its gentle eddies are removed from the currents of the Estero channel—the perfect place for careening the ship.

An important part of what we know regarding Drakes New Albion landing—Portus Novae Albionis—is from one of four insets on the Hondius Broadside, a map drawn by Jodocus Hondius in the 16th century which shows Drake’s circumnavigation. The Portus Novae Albionis inset is often referred to as the Hondius Inset—it is a detailed drawing of Drake’s New Albion camp site and careenage basin.

As noted by Captain Adolph Oko, Drake’s Cove meets the requirements of strict correlation with the Hondius Broadside inset of Drake’s California landing titled Portus Novae Albionis. An important part of this strict correlation is because the Cove fits the sixteenth century definition and usage of the term portus.

Derived from Latin and commonly used in the sixteenth century, a portus denotes a port or harbor within a river or estuary near its mouth. Portus was the classical name for the artificial port at Rome which was situated at the mouth of the Tiber River. Indication that Hondius, or whoever drafted the original Cove drawing, regarded Portus Novae Albionis as a port at the mouth of an estuary is established by the use of the word Portus Javae Majoris in another inset on the same map. It shows the Golden Hind anchored in the mouth of an estuary, or river. Such is exactly Drake’s Cove—it resides just inside the entrance to the Estero. Furthermore, the site meets the direct shape and scale of the inset.

Captain Oko also noted that the Cove was particularly and especially suited for an anchorage and careening. This greatly due to the excellent shelter it provided from the Bay. Tipping a 150 ton ship onto its side is a delicate operation. The Bay was a good anchorage, but not sheltered enough for careening. And significantly, the Cove was especially suited for the Golden Hind’s careenage needs because it was sheltered from the Estero itself. Removed well from the mouth of the Estero, where it meets the Bay, it was not subjected to the flow of currents and vigorous tidal action as was the Estero. Oko noted that water in the Cove moved in gentle eddies and swirls, an excellent careenage site.

What many people do not know is that the configuration of the Cove was changed by a rancher, Bill Hall in the 1940s. Hall, wanting to make a stock pond for his cattle, bulldozed a dam across the Cove’s entrance. A fresh water spring and the sloping high ground funnels water in significant quantities from the 33 inches of annual rainfall which sustain the pond. Hall’s construction project makes the Cove difficult to identify by using satellite maps and even when hiking to the site; one needs to know where to look for all of the 1579 cove. The following photographs will help the reader see the changes and original configuration. Detractors commonly misidentify the Cove’s precise location due to their limited knowledge.

As shown, any site claiming to be New Albion, must have a bay, inland harbor, and portus. And Point Reyes does: Drakes Bay, Drakes Estero, and Drake’s Cove.

Discovery of the Cove

Matt Dillingham was one of the founders of the Guild. As a resident of Point Reyes, he was keenly interested in establishing, with precision, Drake’s landing site. Key to this was answering the question: Where was the Golden Hind careened? In 1952, Dillingham, as a part of the Guild’s search for Drake’s landing, created a composite of photographs he had taken while hiking along the Point Reyes shores. Upon examining the photos, Guild members saw the Cove and how it fit the Hondius inset. It was the key to the Cove’s discovery. As research intensified and continued over the decades and into the twenty-first century, all of it came to be internationally recognized as affirming his initial discovery.

A notable feature of the 1955 photograph is the resemblance of the high-water line to the outline of the spit on the Hondius Inset. A reconstructed view, drawn by Dillingham and one which takes into account the Bill Hall’s dam, shows Drake’s careenage and camp site as it would have appeared from the bluff above the north shore of Drake’s Cove. It depicts the position from which the period illustrator would have been drawing the Cove as it was later depicted on the Hondius inset. This is the place from which the Portus view was apparently drawn by the 1579 artist, perhaps Drake himself.

The National Historic Landmark for New Albion encompasses three bodies of water, all salient to Drake’s 1579 landing: Drakes Bay, Drakes Estero, and Drake’s Cove. Across several centuries—beginning shortly after Drake’s circumnavigation—historians, cartographers, explorers, anthropologists, and geographers have continued to identify the area near Point Reyes as where Francis Drake spent several weeks at his New Albion claim.

Ample indicators regarding Drakes Bay, Drakes Estero, and Drake’s Cove all point to this location as Drake’s haven. All of the period source descriptions—as well as modern descriptions—are in full accord with each of these as waters in which Drake navigated, harbored, and careened, his treasure laden ship, the Golden Hind.

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Dillingham’s composite photo shows the Cove, Estero, and Bay. To the west (right) Bill Hall’s dam obscures the full dimensions of the Cove.

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This Ray Aker map depicts Drakes Bay, Drakes Estero, and Drake’s Cove in the contemporary setting of the Point Reyes area.

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This aerial photo shows New Albion (Point Reyes) looking west at dusk. Drakes Bay is on the left and the entrance to Drakes Estero almost at center and on the north (right) side of the bay.

  • Aker, Raymond (1978). Francis Drake At Drakes Bay, Palo Alto: Drake Navigators Guild
  • Aker, Raymond; Von der Porten, Edward (2010). Discovering Francis Drake’s California Harbor. San Francisco: Drake Navigators Guild.
  • Allen, Bob. Very Early History of the Drake Navigators Guild. Undated autograph manuscript, Drake Navigators Guild files.
  • Davidson, George (1887). Annual Report of The Director. Washington: U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey, Government Printing Office.
  • Drake, Sir Francis, (2005) The world encompassed by Sir Francis Drake, being his next voyage to that to Nombre de Dios. Collated with an unpublished manuscript of Francis Fletcher, chaplain to the expedition. With appendices illustrative of the same voyage, and introduction, by W. S. W. Vauz, esp., M.A. Boston: Adamant Media Corporation.
  • Hakluyt, Richard (2015). The Voyage Of Sir Francis Drake around The Whole Globe. United Kingdom: Penguin Classics edition.
  • Oko, Captain Adolph S., Jr., Francis Drake and Nova Albion, California Historical Society Quarterly, Vol. XLIII, No. 2, June 1964.
  • United States Coast Pilot, Pacific Coast (1917). Department of Commerce, US Coast and Geodetic Survey, Washington Printing Office.