Travel & Outdoors
|Cruising in the Wake of Don Pedro Alberni|
Jim Hume - Victoria Times Colonist
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January 09, 2011
A few kilometres south of here there's a fly speck on the map marked San Blas, and a few hours after I have finished writing I should be sailing past it in the dark of night. It is by all accounts nothing much to miss these days. Just another sleepy coastal village with little to commend it in the great order of things. The natives fish, do a little farming and observe with cynical calm the explosive growth of other communities up and down the coast as their own once-powerful presence slips ever deeper into non-entity.
There was a time in the 1700s when the now- bustling tourists meccas of Puerto Vallarta and Acapulco were minor players, when San Blas was one of the main ports of call for the Spanish convoys carrying silver and other treasures from the Philippines to the royal coffers of Spanish kings. There was a time when English adventurer Francis Drake prowled these sea lane. A lone marauder capturing or sinking Spanish treasure ships and earning praise from Queen Elizabeth I and a knighthood for himself as he enriched her treasury with his Spanish booty.
The Spaniards called Sir Francis a pirate, and on 21st-century cruise ships with amateur historians, entertain passengers with tales from the past they quote from local histories where Sir Francis remains "an English pirate."
Those same local histories and modern shipboard lecturers relate their tales with tourist city backgrounds but never mention that it was off San Blas where the action took place, not off gaudy Puerto Vallarta or ultra tourist flashy Acapulco. And none of them mention that it was from San Blas that Don Pedro Alberni sailed, under arrest and confined to the care of Bodega y Quadra, with a destination on the northwest coast of Vancouver where the Spanish had planted their flag and claimed what later became Vancouver's Island and part of the British Empire.
The Times Colonist has reviewed that piece of history many times so I'll ignore the details on the epic meeting of Quadra with Captain George Vancouver and the signing of the treaty which saw Spain relinquish its northern claims and retreat to the more salubrious climes of southern California and Mexico. But as an old fan of the rebel Don Pedro Alberni, I couldn't in good conscience journey through these waters without remembering the perilous voyage he took so long ago and under conditions wildly different to my own.
I thought of him last night as I sat down to lamb shank perfectly braised and roasted to perfection with a touch of excellent wine to help digestion. Alberni wouldn't be starving on his way north to a wet, cold, punishment posting, but neither would he have been lolly-gagging around in cruise-ship opulence with tablecloths starched to white perfection, silver sparklingware and waiters in hand to attend every need.
He would probably have dined well by 1700s standards as he bobbed about on the Pacific Ocean on a vessel not much larger than the dozen or more lifeboat tenders slung along the sides of the Rotterdam. But it would not have been in comfort - and there would have been no cabin steward to turn down his bed at day's end with a couple of fresh chocolates on his pristine pillow.
And his journey would have been so much more laborious. Unlike my ocean liner aided by all the wonders of 21st-century electronics and navigational aid, Don Pedro's ship would have sailed from San Blas heading directly out to sea where it would hope to pick off favourable winds to swing it north then east to find its remote island destination. It took a minimum of a month, and none of the days would be easy.
So, sentimental old guy I may well be, but as I swing north on this magnificent ship tonight and voyage, probably for my last time, just a few miles out to sea off San Blas, I shall pour an extra toddy and lift a glass to the man who gave the Alberni Canal and Alberni city their name.
In two days after this writing I should be back in San Diego, where the ship's news informs me it is still raining as it was when I left two weeks ago. A good thing, maybe. Sort of breaking me in for a January homecoming to the wet coast.
And I'm starting to understand how Alberni must have felt when ordered to leave the sun.