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The Wreck of the San Agustin

By Land ~ Sea Discovery Group Staff

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Sir Francis Drake

Manila was discovered in 1571 by the Spanish explorer Magellan during his famous trip around the world and the city was developed as a colonial outpost for the Spaniards.

The Manila galleons, as they came to be known, would sail from Acapulco, Mexico usually in December and would take roughly 8-10 weeks to arrive using the trade winds. Officially the commercial traders were allowed to send two ships per year of 300 tons each carrying no more then 200,000 pesos of silver between them. The traders wanted very much so to do more business with the Manila sea port because they could profit by six times their investments. The silver was traded for Oriental silks, clothing, porcelain, and other valuable things not so readily available in Europe where they commanded high prices. The porcelain was as valuable as gold. The Spanish government tried to restrict the trade because they wanted the silver pesos in Spain, but as in most cases where peoples are restricted, the merchants simply found ways to bribe ship captains and port officials to load on more silver. Most ships actually carried two million pesos! The captains alone could receive as much as 40,000 pesos in goods and gifts for his part in the adventure. By the end of the century 3-5 million pesos a year were being funneled from the mines in South America, to Acapulco, and finally on to Manila to be traded.

In the late 1400's the Pope had decreed that the Spanish had the jurisdiction over the Pacific Ocean and until Sir Francis Drake came into the picture in 1578 the Spanish had a free run of the sea. Drake an English captain ravaged the ships he encountered on the Pacific coast. King Philip II of Spain decided that he needed the coasts of Alta California charted so suitable harbors could be found and the Manila galleons would have a safe haven from privateers and stormy seas.

King Philip II chose as the man for the task, the diligent and determined Sebastion Cermeno. Cermeno sailed his own ship the San Pedro to Manila. It was a harrowing trip and Cermeno, a skilled navigator and excellent leader, determined the San Pedro would not be up to the challenge of crossing the Pacific Ocean. He proceeded to make arrangements for leasing another ship called the San Agustin and securing the finest crew he could assemble to chart the new lands of upper California. He was a very determined man that wanted nothing to go wrong.


The San Agustin left Acapulco on July 5, 1595 for Acapulco. She was laden with a cargo of silks, porcelain, and gold. The ship sailed in a northeast direction until like others before they reached the latitude of 35 degrees north and the westerly winds carried them towards Acapulco. The ship arrived in the new world battered and leaky from the stormy voyage. The ship loaded with 150 tons of treasure rode low in the water and the men were forced to spend two out of three watches manning the ships' pumps. The crew was very concerned about the condition of the ship and petitioned the captain to sail on to Acapulco instead of taking the time to chart the coastline.
The ship arrived at the coast near Cape Mendocino and sailed south until they spotted a high ridge jutting way out into the ocean far beyond the general line of the coast. As they sailed around the ridge they entered a protected bay that had a river flowing into it with plenty of fresh water to take on. This bay is known now as Drakes Bay and little did the Spaniards know that some years earlier Drake was afforded shelter in the same bay.

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A wrecked ship

Cermeno against the wishes of his almost mutinous crew anchored off the entrance of the estero from which the fresh water flowed. The crew assembled a launch they brought with them from Manila called a vicoro, basically a dugout log with planks on the side. They set up a camp on the beach and the San Agustin rode easy at anchor in the bay protected from northwesterly winds. The men explored the esteros and camped at the beach for nearly three weeks. During this time they had encounters with very friendly Indians called Coastal Miwok. They traded and sampled the native foods.

In November a gale came from the southeast and ripped the San Agustin from its moorings. The harbor did not afford protection from the southerly winds. On the beach the already dismayed crewmen watched with disbelief as the ships hull hit the sandy bottom in the shallow water and wallowed helplessly. The ship was then pounded by great breakers into pieces. Two men drowned and the rest of the men were left on the beach, in a foreign country, with only the clothes on their backs. Cermeno and his crew managed to salvage some supplies and a couple bales of silk that was left stacked on the beach to be picked up at a later date, which never occurred.

Dedicated Cermeno was left with but three choices now. 1. Settle in and take up living with the Miwok until another ship happened by. 2. Walk down the 1500 miles of coast to the nearest Spanish outpost. 3. Gather up his men and using the launch sail to Acapulco. Perhaps Cermenos dedication and perseverance to his king's commission saved all of his crew, for he decided to forever abandon the San Agustin and its treasure and head for Acapulco in the launch. 76 men and a dog crammed in the vicoro and headed south. The men gathered up acorns, seeds, and fruits to eat on the journey as well as a few silks to trade with along the way. As he left the bay Cemeno entered in his log the name of the coastal indentations Point Reyes and Point San Pedro. In the coming days of fog and merely taking on the tasks of surviving the crew completely missed the greatest natural harbor in the world, San Francisco Bay.

Cermeno and his men who still were angry with him, arrived in Mexico in January of 1596. Not a man was lost on the arduous journey.

In 1941 and in 1952 archeologists from the University of California uncovered Indian graves that contained iron rods and over 50 spikes characteristic of Spanish galleons of the period. They also discovered 125 porcelain pottery shards from the orient. One can almost picture the Miwok sleeping on fine silks and eating acorns out of fine china.

The San Agustin had been anchored in seven fathoms of water when it broke away and headed for the beach. It's been said the San Agustin carried $500,000 in treasure aboard from the silks and gold, to the blue Chinese porcelain of the Wan Li and Chai Ching varieties. In all the abandoned treasure not recovered was over 130 tons. All the heavy cargo and cannon have sunk deep to the bottom. Recently at an auction house in Amsterdam similar china was sold in over 1000 multiple lots for over 7 million dollars.

The Point Reyes Peninsula is a natural hazard to ships and since the San Agustin, one of its first wrecks; there have been over 50 ships that have piled up on the beaches in this vicinity.
If you feel inspired to go in search of the San Agustin or any shipwreck might I suggest a good reading called Complete Wreck Diving, by Henry Keatts and Brian Skerry. The book will take you from research to cleaning your finds.
Be sure to also check federal and state laws regarding shipwreck diving or artifact recovery in the area you're searching

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