Alpha Males

I’ve often compared California to Portugal, based on relative geography. Both are on the western edge of large continents, and are subject to wind systems that drive oceanic gyres, cause coastal upwelling, and result in large, cold-water fisheries for schooling species such as sardine and anchovy.

Both areas have been occupied by the Spanish in past centuries, but whereas in Portugal the ingress is now seasonal and driven by economics—a large invasion is currently forecast over the Spanish ‘Semana Santa’, or Easter week—in California there is a more permanent character to the Hispanic settlers.

It’s unquestionable that Spain was a major driver for Portuguese maritime exploration, simply because Castile shut off all land alternatives to trading. A similar case can be made for the Vikings, the Dutch, and the English—driven either by hostile neighbors or hostile geography.

If the global ocean discoveries had begun in San Francisco instead of Lisbon, here’s what would have happened: the Californians would have built their caravels out of oak and redwood—a quick foray into the naval-architecture arcana of sequoia suggests it would have done planking very nicely.

The sailors would have understood the dynamics of the south-flowing California Current, much as the Phoenicians once conquered the Canaries current and headed south. These American Argonauts would have sailed past Baja down to Mexico and Guatemala.

Once there, two things would have occurred. Much like the Portuguese did in the Congo, the Americans would have explored the land mass—they would quickly discover, just as the Spanish did when headed in the opposite direction, that Central America is as slim as the neck of a beautiful señorita, and spotted another ocean to explore.

Natives would have been indentured, ships built, and the Atlantic Ocean would have opened for business. The Californians would, within ten years, have sailed all the way north to New Brunswick, and within twenty, traveled the Gulf Stream to Europe—their trip would use the route of Columbus—sailing east to the Azores, and then on to Lisbon.

The routes of the Californian argonauts, circa 1500 a.d.

The second branch of this great adventure would take the Franciscans and Angelenos down the coast of Peru and Chile. Like the Portuguese, they would have lost ships and men battling the north-flowing winds and currents—the Peru Current, responsible for the greatest fishery in the world, an annual take of fifteen million tonnes of anchovies, and the southeast trades.

In their attempt to round Cape Horn, the equivalent of the Cape of Good Hope, they would have tried the tricks described in The India Road, the clever ruses of Abraham the Astronomer. Somewhere down Mexico way, the Calgonauts would have changed the course, on a 270 degree bearing, sailing the parallel on the North Equatorial Current.

They would know the route well, because it was the Californian equivalent of the Portuguese ‘torna-viagem’, the road home from West Africa—westward until the trades softened, then north to the Azores, and a downwind run to Lisbon on the roaring forties.

The Calgonauts would sail a course for Hawaii, and somewhere along the parallel, change heading to NW, or even NNW, as the winds and currents allowed, until they hit the North Pacific Current—this is the Pacific Ocean cousin of the Gulf Stream, a lazy, warm, easterly current that would drop them back in Frisco.

Our California stalwarts would have needed this knowledge, together with the astronomical knowledge the Portuguese acquired, to enable them to sail at night, far from coastal line-of-sight, and return home from their southern adventure.

In so doing, the Calgonauts would have taken a leaf from the books of Vasco da Gama and Pedro Álvares Cabral, and sailed a little further west along the North Equatorial. At some point, two things would have happened. The first would be the discovery of the great circle route, which would include some navigation on a 180 degree bearing to cross the equator and catch the East Australia Current, the Pacific equivalent of the Brazil Current.

This would take our intrepid argonauts into Antarctic waters, where the east-flowing Antarctic Circumpolar Current would carry them into the Atlantic Ocean, south of the evil dangers of Cape Horn. I hesitate a little on this particular theory, because although the Portuguese had little choice when they explored the maritime route to the Indies, the Californians would easily have established a naval base in Central America—the isthmus is so narrow that it begot the Panama Canal—which incidentally also begot my favorite palindrome: A man, a plan, a canal, Panama!

Furthermore, if they were keen on exploring the east coast of South America, it would have been far easier to sail south from the eastern side of the isthmus.

The second, ‘Brazil’ option, is far more plausible. The Californian caravels would have progressed a little further west along the Pacific and hit the NE coast of Australia, along with Java and Sumatra, and a little further north, none other than the ‘Indies’ of Columbus—zhong guo, the Middle Kingdom, and of course Cipango.

How cool would it be if they’d come across the Portuguese heading the other way?

The India Road, Atmos Fear, Clear Eyes, and Folk Tales For Future Dreamers. QR links for smartphones and tablets.

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