Posted by: Brad Nixon | December 10, 2017

Time Traveler at My Doorstep

A few years ago, a ship sailed into San Diego harbor. After a stop there to replenish supplies, it followed the California coast about 100 miles north, and entered the harbor of Los Angeles.

That wouldn’t be remarkable, were it not for the fact that the year was 1542, and the galleon San Salvador (with 2 escort ships) was the first European ship to visit California. Its captain, Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo, claimed, first, what later became San Diego in the name of the King of Spain, and then repeated that for the other promising harbor he discovered, which became the Port of Los Angeles, as well as all the land between and for a great distance northward.

Thus began the European occupation of the west coast of what’s now the United States.

That harbor Cabrillo discovered looked promising. Today, it employs more than 800,000 people locally and handles about $1.2 billion of freight every day. It’s changed in 475 years.

Port of LA Brad Nixon 7198 (640x413)

I live about 2-1/2 miles straight up the hill from where I shot the photo above. Despite having the country’s busiest container port at my doorstep for the entire time I’ve been writing Under Western Skies, I’ve scarcely touched the subject here. I expect to change that in 2018. Today’s blog post is a start, and there’s no better place to start than at the beginning. Two months ago, the San Salvador was back for a visit.

San Salvador Brad Nixon 8488 (590x640)

That’s a replica of the original San Salvador. It’s based at the San Diego Maritime Museum. In the photo, it’s tied up a few steps from the Los Angeles Maritime Museum, right along the main channel of the port.

LA Maritime Museum Brad Nixon 7196 (640x480)

The ship was impressively tiny against the looming backdrop of today’s port operations, but with the right framing, it represented a scene from a long-ago era.

San Salvador rigging Brad Nixon 8482 (480x640)

The replica is the same size as the original, rigged the same way, 100 feet long, with a 10-foot draft. The San Salvador was built on the west coast of New Spain, at present-day Acajutla, El Salvador. Cabrillo’s actual mission was the standard one of the era: He was searching for a trade route to China.

Today, a massive amount of cargo steams along that channel of the Port of L.A., is unloaded by enormous assemblies of cranes and transporters, then distributed across the United States by truck and rail. In an irony Cabrillo might not have appreciated, a significant percentage of those goods have come from China. The irony is particularly bitter, because after sailing as far north as the mouth of the Russian River on the central California coast, he returned to winter on Santa Catalina Island 22 miles from Los Angeles. There, he stepped out of a landing boat, splintered his shin and died of gangrene. The fact that several landmarks along the California coast bear his name is probably small compensation.

The replica is equipped with modern facilities for greater comfort, including auxiliary engines, but unless conditions are unfavorable, it sails with the same technology Cabrillo’s crew used.

San Salvador rigging Brad Nixon 8480 (640x498)

Continuing to write about the port of today could occupy several years’ worth of blog posts, and I’ll never exhaust the world-within-a-world it represents. I look forward to mixing it into the 2018 blog subjects. There’s a great deal of land and water to cover.

Touring the San Salvador

I didn’t have an opportunity to sail on the San Salvador while it was here for a few weeks, but you can visit the ship at its regular berth in San Diego. Here is a link for information. 4-hour excursion cruises are available. Be careful getting in and out of the boat.

N.B. The west coast, as well as the entire North American continent, had already been occupied by an indigenous population for approximately 10,000 years prior to what’s referred to as “contact.” Those native populations did not fare well with the arrival of newcomers. I’ll address their prior residence in the area, too, acknowledging that Europeans didn’t invent the place.

© Brad Nixon 2017, 2018



  1. Those steps back in time can be real eye openers – what they were able to accomplish is amazing.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’m not certain what those sailors would’ve thought about the ships your Smitty was sailing on!

      Liked by 1 person

      • Something as heavy as steel would surprise them that it actually floated!


      • Heck, I still have a hard time accepting that

        Liked by 1 person

      • I have trouble with cement boats!

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Amazing Ship. Its amazing how the people of that time were able to circumnavigate the world using tall ships.

    Liked by 1 person

    • In many ways, the sailing technology wasn’t vastly different from centuries earlier, although I read up enough to understand that some of the construction methods that went into ships of the San Salvador’s era were superior to their predecessors. Thanks for the comment.


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