Baja California

Ship's story revealed in 435-year-old wreckage

By Carl Nolte - San Francisco Chronicle

Edward Von der Porten, a San Francisco nautical historian and archaeologist, has a sea story to tell - of disease and death and the shipwreck of a Spanish galleon full of the treasures of Asia.

He holds up a piece of delicate blue and white porcelain, part of a broken bowl. It shows a bird standing in a pond, a boat, a Chinese pagoda.

It is a piece more than 435 years old, salvaged from a bleak and remote beach in Baja California. It is part of the cargo of the galleon San Felipe, which sailed from Manila in the Philippines for the nearly unknown coast of California and the port of Acapulco, Mexico, in the summer of 1576.

The San Felipe was never seen again until the wreck was found not long ago, allowing its story to be told for the first time.

It is a centuries-old tragedy - a horrible last voyage that ended with the crew starving and racked with scurvy or some other dietary disease, so weak they could not sail the ship any longer. The San Felipe ran aground, everyone aboard dead or dying, "like a ghost ship," Von der Porten said.

The beach where the San Felipe ended up had no water, no food, no people. Even now, it is remote - "the middle of nowhere," Von der Porten said.