What is Tello’s Bark?

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This Ray Aker illustration shows the risky manner of careening the Golden Hind and how Tello’s bark could have assisted with the procedure. .

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This 1970 reconstruction by Ray Aker suggests the size of Tello’s bark.

When Drake reached the Strait of Magellan, Drake paused with his three ships. While at the Cape of Virgins, which stand at the Atlantic entrance to the Strait of Magellan, Drake held a ceremony in which he renamed his ship as the Golden Hind. This was a measure possibly meant to curry favor with Christopher Hatton, a wealthy and influential English politician. Upon leaving the Strait, the encountered a storm which prompted the Elizabeth to return to England. The Marigold was lost with all hands amidst the storm’s violence. Only the Golden Hind continued up and into the Pacific Ocean.

Drake also left England with pinnaces, light boats which could be propelled by oars or sails. Pinnaces were carried aboard larger sailing vessels of the day and were handy for conveying water and provisions, scouting anchorages, ferrying passengers, and the like. They could be so diminutive that they even lacked a deck.

On March 20, 1579, while off the coast of Caño Island, Panama, Drake chanced upon a small ship owned by Rodrigo Tello. While at this point in the journey, when Drake no longer needed any prizes, he did understand the great value this small ship could provide. The Golden Hind required a safe harbor so that the crew could make lengthy repair, and the small ship could help for searching in close to shore for that type of safe harbor. He was in totally unfamiliar waters and the small ship would help him find a haven, safe from the pursuing Spaniards.

While a pinnace could manage the job, the small ship of Tello offered significant advantages. It was of a class that the Spaniards called a fregata, and it is typically referred to now as Tello’s bark. She was probably square rigged with two masts and a small mizzen. Drake, during his exploits on the Spanish Main, had developed a fondness for this type of steady, nimble craft. Very importantly, aboard Tello’s bark were navigation charts and sailing directions which probably gave Drake his first up-to-date information of the north Pacific Ocean and the route Spanish galleons took between Manila and Acapulco.

As was his usual custom, Drake was polite and careful with his prisoners when he took the small ship. The bark had a total of 14 persons aboard, six of whom were passengers, not crew. After ensuring they would all fit into one of pinnaces, he put them aboard the pinnace with enough provisions to get them safely to the nearest port, Rio de la Barranca. He told one of the passengers that he could not return the bark because he did not know what need he might have for her at sea—his own ship, the Golden Hind, was leaking. He was somewhat apologetic saying that even if the ship belonged to his own father that he would still have to take it.

The bark was of extraordinary value to Drake: his crew’s safety and the completion of his mission was greatly improved with its use. For the duration of the trip to Drake’s Cove at Point Reyes, the leaking Golden Hind was probably relieved of the weight and space of at least 14 sailors and the additional weight of food and water needed for them. And besides exploring strange waterways and unknown harbors without risking the Golden Hind, Tello’s bark would also be helpful with careening. Scraping barnacles and repairing leaks required careening, and the bark would be an outstanding, floating anchor point to assist with the delicate process. Drake in fact careened his ship immediately after capturing Tello’s small ship and used the bark by transferring the Golden Hind’s artillery and her cargo’s heaviest chests to facilitate that process. Lightening the Golden Hind’s load to reduce draft was essential in the careening process. One foot of reduction would have required the removal of about 13 tons, and transferring the artillery alone would have easily accounted for this.

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Much of the California coast is rocky, studded with sea stacks, and foggy.

The bark was probably about 38 feet long and 10 feet at its widest point. It had a deep draft of about 5 feet. The rail seems to have been open or very low. This is thought so because Drake mentioned, to one of the displaced and detoured passengers, that he intended to add a solid wale to increase her suitability for sailing in the open sea. Constructing this type of modification would have been well within Drake’s ability. He traveled with complete independence from the need of shipyard services as he carried carpenters, caulkers, coopers, and a blacksmith equipped with a forge. During his plundering of Spanish sites, he augmented his stores with lumber, nails, cordage, and canvas.

The bark proved a steady and capable sailor as it and the Golden Hind pushed northwest, deeply into the Pacific from Guatalco up to approximately 44° latitude. At this point they made landfall (nearing and sighting land without actually landing a crew on firm soil) by seeking shelter at what is now Cape Arago, near Coos Bay, Oregon, on June 5. From there, Tello’s bark would have served as a pilot boat leading the Golden Hind down a mysterious, uncharted coast. The smaller size and shallower draft of the bark provided a fitting platform for close into shore scouting. This length of the Pacific, from Coos Bay to Point Reyes is not easy sailing: near shore, the water is dangerously rugged with large rocks, sea stacks, and dense fog making for a hazardous trek.

Soon after reaching 38° latitude on June 17, at what is now Point Reyes, the crew set about effecting repairs to the Golden Hind. Again, the Golden Hind was careened, and Tello’s bark would have been used again. Drake named the land Nova Albion (New Albion) and sailed for England several weeks later. When Drake departed on July 23, he sailed with only the Golden Hind. We do not know exactly what happened to Tello’s bark. John Drake simply states that it was left behind. He gave no reason, at least none that was recorded by his Spanish inquisitors. Even the most comprehensive accounts of Drake at New Albion, The World Encompassed and Hakluyt’s Famous Voyage, are silent on the matter.

No serious archaeological search and study has been rendered at Point Reyes for any of the bark remains. Several shipwrecks are within Drakes Bay, but none have been positively identified as Tello’s bark. Where Rodrigo Tello’s small ship came to a final rest is a mystery.

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Tello’s bark and the Golden Hind pass Point Reyes and enter Drake’s Bay in this image.

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Monument near Coos Bay erected by the Oregon Historical Society and Oregon State Parks marking the latitude Drake first encountered land on the North American west coast.

  • Aker, Raymond (1978). Francis Drake At Drakes Bay, Palo Alto: Drake Navigators Guild
  • Aker Raymond, (1976). Report Of Findings Relating To Identification Of Sir Francis Drake’s Encampment At Point Reyes National Seashore. Palo Alto: Drake Navigators Guild.
  • Sugden, John (1990). Sir Francis Drake. New York: Touchstone.