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Vacationing With Pirates On The West Coast

By Land ~ Sea Discovery Group Staff

Shiver me timbers, mate! Yo ho ho and a bottle of Perrier. The ship I'd been running for the last nine months with a full head of steam was starting to shake and shiver each day as I took her out of port. I too had the wind taken out of my sails. The boss, a Captain Dougherty said get the hell outta here boy. Take a vacation. You've been working too hard

So the wife and I set off in our land yacht for ports unknown. Perhaps the best vacation I've had in years laid ahead of me. We tossed trips of a general nature into a hat. The desert, which would provide us with searches for lost mines, petroglyphs, ghost towns, and a stop at Las Vegas. Gold country, would provide us with panning, sluicing, history, and a bed and breakfast or two. The coast had its own peculiar lure. Ships, the ocean, detecting on the beach, and a good seafood dinner just to name a few.

I knew I could have a good time on any of the three choices so I let Sue pull the paper from the hat. The coast. Sue was happy. She missed being at the ocean. For her this trip was sand, shells, and seafood. For me it was pirates, shipwrecks, and metal detecting. We had two days notice so after work Thursday I packed the truck with the essentials, my Spectrum, Sue's Fisher, and a couple of sand scoops. In five minutes I'd gone back into the house and stated, "We're ready." It really was that simple, just some clothes, a map, and the detectors and Saturday morning we were gone with the wind.

It's only a three-hour drive to the shores of the mighty Pacific from our home in Glendora, California. We were on the beach at Ventura looking out towards the islands. Sue chose to walk the beach and pick up shells and I headed for the library.

The first pirate story I came across involved the Manila galleon San Sebastian. It was 1753 that this galleon sailed for Acapulco from Manila with an estimated 2 million dollars in cargo. The usual route brought the brave seafarers across the stormy pacific to the coast of California. They then would have hugged the coastline down to Acapulco where the riches were unloaded.

Unfortunately for this crew as they entered the outer Santa Barbara Channel they spotted the sails of a British pirate ship captained by George Compton. This bad boy from Bristol, England spent his younger days in Vera Cruz where he was literally ousted from the region by the Spanish. After a short stint in the rowdy ports of Panama, Compton headed north to the Santa Barbara area attacking Spanish ships along the way.

The captain of the San Sebastion foolhardy decided to try to outrun the pirates. His cumbersome galleon was quickly overtaken and given a broadside of cannon fire that knocked out the ships' rudderpost. The San Sebastion lost control and struck a rock protruding from the sea near the shore of San Clemente Island. The ship split open and sank right away. Twenty-one survivors managed to make it to the rocks nearby.

Compton, was very upset that his prize was lost to the sea so he lowered his longboats and rowed to where the survivors lay exhausted. Then he proceeded to torture and mutilate the survivors until they were all dead.

The San Sebastian lies in 170 feet of water off Northwest Harbor, San Clemente Island. In 1924 some of the treasure was recovered before rough seas and shifting sands forced the salvers to abandon their work.

After the trip to the library where I gathered lots of information on the wrecks off the coast I met up with Sue and we headed up Santa Barbara where we stayed the night. After a nice meal at BJ's Cafe we saw the movie Cutthroat Island which really put us into the pirate hunting mode for the next day.
We hugged the coast in a northerly direction stopping at beaches and all the small towns along the way. We stopped at all the book and antique stores looking for treasure hunting and pirate books, maps and whatever else looked interesting.

Near Lompoc, California we saw a sign for Jalama Beach. The narrow road wound through pastures and groves of oaks until 14 miles later it ended right at the ocean with a beautiful secluded beach. I grabbed my White's and Sue her Fisher and shortly we found the pay line on the beach. We spent nearly six hours on the beach finding trinkets of little value and coins that kept us going strong.

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Some of the pirate items found on our vacation.

When we took our break I checked my "Buried Treasures of the United States" book by Robert Marx and found that along the railroad tracks, just above the beach, were the sites of four or five ghost towns. Also just up the coast was Point Arguello the site of many sunken ships including the gold rush steamer Yankee Blade. This was definitely an area to check out again. Perhaps staying in an RV on the beach and taking out trips from there would be nice.

Working our way through the small villages we found some interesting items, all pirate related. A copper plated pirate standing menacingly next to his treasure chest, a bronze belt buckle complete with hidden compartment, and a coffee mug of Lafitte. Other things of interest were a Jolly Roger brand fruit crate label, Fortunes of Captain Blood movie poster, and swashbuckling pirate book ends. Then on the map we saw Pirates Cove. This sounded really interesting. We got a room on the beach at Pismo and started asking around about the cove. As it turns out the spot used to be called Cave Landing until the 60's when treasure hunters were speculating that Drake careened his ship there and buried part of the $500 million in treasure he had on board.

That evening we treated ourselves to a seafood sampler on the beach and ate while the sun went down. It was early to bed that night because the next day we would be hunting for treasure.

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Rounding a bend in the trail we came face to face with a cave

I asked the locals where to find the cove. No one seemed to know the names of the streets to take but had a general direction. When I saw a little one-lane road called Cave Landing with a sign that said "PROCEED AT YOUR OWN RISK", I knew we were hot on the trail. The road winds up a small mountain to the top then runs a few hundred yards from the cliffs overlooking the ocean. At a parking area we found a trail leading downward to the beach. A few other smaller trails led off in different directions and I decided to explore them each. One led out towards the edge of the cliff and out along an outcropping of rock. I half expected to find a cave tucked away here but instead I found the remains of an old fortification. I found holes in solid rock in a very inaccessible area that would serve little purpose except to mount guns. The spot had a clear shot of the whole cove. Was this where Drake refitted his ship? I poked around every nook and cranny finding little of value. I put a small loop on Sue's detector and searched the holes around the large boulders. All I found was a few coins and a lot of trash.

We followed another trail for a short distance and then rounding a bend there loomed before us a huge cave. The inside was blackened by the smoke of many a beach party or who knows what. I put my Spectrum through its paces inside while Sue worked the trail and the outside of the cave. To our surprise we found a lot of everything, coins, trinkets, and trash. I don't think the area had been worked for quite a while. Perhaps the last time was during the treasure-hunting boom of the 1960's. The oldest coin was a Liberty half-dollar dated 1934 but the bulk of the coins were 50's or newer.

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Old fortifications overlooking the water

After exhausting the site we went back to the main trail and headed to the beach of Pirates Cove. Once on the beach we noticed a few seals and sea lions sunning on the nearby rocks. This beach was fun. The marine life was abundant in tide pools, the weather was great, and the coins just kept popping out of the sand. As we neared the end of the moon shaped cove we spotted a couple walking towards us. Looking up from the ground as we detected we got the shock of our life as they were almost upon us. They were nude except for hats and sandals! "Well I guess it's time to head back Sue." I said. Later we learned it was a clothing optional beach.

It was a long climb back up the trail to the truck. During the next day we investigated stories about The Caves of Mystery on Shell Beach, an old tourist attraction now fenced in due to danger of a cave-in.

Farther up the coast we followed up leads on the burning and sacking of Monterey by French pirate Hippolyte Bouchard in 1818. He was met with no resistance and after several days of having his way the port city of Monterrey was in ruins.

We learned alot in 5 days about piracy on the west coast but it was time to head back to the grind of work.


1. Thomas Probert, Lost Mines and Buried Treasures of the West, Univercity of California Press, 1977.
2. Randall A. Reinstedt, Tales,Treasure, and Pirates of Old Monterey, Ghost Town Publications, 1976
3. Robert F. Marx, Buried treasure of the United States, Bonanza Books, 1978.

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