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2000 Expedition Journals
After 3 months of endless and often sleepless preparation I spent the last night packing and repacking all our drybags and went to bed around one o’clock in the morning. Lying awake all night, I turned from one side to the other every fifteen minutes. The lack of sleep over the past few months wasn’t enough to overcome the excitement and worries I had about the first day of our expedition. It was already October 5th the launching date for the first leg of our expedition which would take us from San Felipe to La Paz Baja, a paddle of over seven hundred miles on the Sea of Cortez. In just a few hours, Luke and I would get up with the sunrise, load our kayaks and start our long odyssey. There was no turning back; we knew it too well, no matter the difficulty. We had already invested too much in our great expedition. It wasn’t the money or the time and energy spent in preparation that we would waste by turning back, it was the dream we had of a fantastic voyage where we could both learn and teach others. No fear would stop us we said, but on this last night, I could feel my heart pounding and my head was packed with more thoughts and visions than I could handle. Did we forget anything? Do we have all the equipment we need? Do we have enough food and drinking water? Do we have the right camping gear? Do we have the skills necessary to paddle the Sea of Cortez? I must have fallen asleep numerous times, though the wind shaking the windows always woke me up. When I stepped outside in the morning, a full gale, thick with sand blasted my bare chest and face.
October 5th was not a good day to start. The windstorms in Baja are notorious; in the desert they can cover a truck with sand in less than an hour. What makes them very dangerous at sea is the speed at which they form. Fishermen had warned us that storms were unpredictable and very quick to come. The worst ones come from the north and are therefore called Nortes. In minutes they can transform the glassy water of the Sea of Cortez into mad waves. While the swell never reaches the immense size found in a Pacific storm, their danger comes from their irregularity and the lack of distance separating them. I woke Luke up and we fought our way to the wet sand beach to observe the waves all the while trying in vain to protect our eyes from the sand that was whipped through the air around us. The wind was coming from the North and it would push us from behind, but we were too afraid to even try launching our fully loaded kayaks into this sea. We were not even sure they would stay afloat. The waves were not bigger than five feet, but white caps were everywhere. We postponed our departure and launched with empty kayaks to test out the conditions. We paddled north into the wind and against the breaking swell and in twenty minutes only covered a few hundred yards. Before reaching total exhaustion we turned back and surfed toward the beach. The wind was so strong we had a hard time keeping a grip on our paddles. As prepared to land, I lifted my paddle too high and the wind caught my blade capsizing me instantly. In waist deep water, I stood up and I dragged my kayak back to the beach followed by Luke. It was our first Baja storm and it lasted for three days.
We spent that time resting and wondering what it would be like to be caught in a storm like this with our loaded kayaks in the middle of a large bay or island crossing. The forced break didn’t ease our apprehension about the Sea of Cortez, but it allowed us to sleep, which I needed dearly. In my planning, I hadn’t chosen the Sea of Cortez for its notorious storms; its nickname “The Vermillion Sea” first attracted my attention. I had read that the colors of the sky and sea would merge into rainbows of spectacular colors with every sunrise and sunset. I had heard that the marine life was some of the best that could be found anywhere on the planet. The fishing in the Sea of Cortez was also world famous and as a scuba diving instructor and freediving enthusiast, I was enthralled with the idea of putting dinner on the table with a one-breath dive. Baja was also famous for its bird watching and desert landscapes. Paddling seven hundred miles along a desert coast with few villages, we would have to become one with the desert and the sea. We would have to adapt as we went along, and learn what it meant to survive in this arid but unspoiled land. Baja was the dream of many kayakers, for us it was the beginning of a bigger dream. It was our paddling school. It was our testing ground. If we survived it and could make our way to La Paz, we thought we could make our way to Panama as well. We waited for the storm to pass and finally launched on October 8, 1998.
Our first paddling week was a combination of awe at the spectacular sunrises and sunsets nature offered us and suffering mainly due to our lack of physical conditioning and mistakes. We set off on glassy water and never encountered much wind or waves during our first days. This was good as our kayaks were so loaded they were barely floating. With the water line two inches from our cockpits, all that could be seen from a distance were the huge blue, green and red drybags we had lashed on both front and rear decks. Our rear loads were so high we could hide behind them. We looked like two giant snails carrying their houses and we were not paddling any faster. In Thailand we found we could maintain a four and half knot speed; here without wind, we were struggling to paddle three miles in an hour. Softened by the constant water and rubbing against the paddle handle, the skin on our hands quickly became a mess of broken, sometimes bloody blisters. The joints of our fingers cramped, as they were not used to the constant pressure of gripping the paddle. Although we only started paddling an average of four hours a day, our seat positions weren’t the most comfortable and we soon suffered from lower back pain. The new stress of pulling so much weight with each paddle stroke quickly tired our upper backs, shoulders and triceps. Paddling loaded kayaks wasn’t as easy as we though it would be, but we knew we would get used to it. We took ibuprofen as a supplement with each meal. Every morning we started paddling slowly for thirty minutes to warm up our sore muscles. Some days I experienced terrible lower back pain. When the pain became unbearable, I accelerated and focused my mind on something else. Luke didn’t understand why each time I complained about pain, I paddled stronger leaving him behind. With a faster and more powerful stroke, the body creates more endorphins, which help kill the pain. After a couple of hours I couldn’t feel anything anymore. The pain didn’t return until after I stopped, so I didn’t take many breaks. On calm sea, with all our bags we could see each other over a mile away, so I often waited for Luke at our destination but when I lost sight of him, I jumped in the water and cooled off, while stretching my back.
Afraid of missing things, we packed too much. The Sea of Cortez wasn’t as cold as we thought it would be and after our first day we unloaded my thick wetsuit and some of the weight from my diving belt to our friends who drove on the beach to share our first expedition dinner. The day after, we came to learn that in spite of the big tide changes in northern Baja, the wheel cart we were hauling was useless. The beaches were often rocky and we had to time our launching and landing with the tide. On our second day, we stopped for a breakfast break and partly unloaded our kayaks on the large slippery rocks covering the beach with our sterns still in the water. By the time we decided to resume paddling, the water was quickly running away. We raced to finish our loading, but it was too late. What had been knee-deep water five minutes before, receded rapidly and a garden of rocks extended hundreds of yards to the shoreline. No wheel cart could help us get back to the water. The only thing we could do was to wait for the high tide to return. Stranded there temporarily we understood the real value of carrying a large plastic tarp. Without any trees, there is no shade in Baja. The nights may be cold, but the days are deadly hot. We pitched our paddles into the sand and used them to set up a roof with the tarp. It gave us shade and protection from the sun, but not from the heat. We spent six hours waiting before we could see the water moving back up.
I had anticipated that paddling long hours would not always be comfortable, so I thought we owed it to ourselves to bring some good and comfortable camping chairs. We bought a pair of Walrus mini chairs for they folded into a small size. Under our tarp, we couldn’t even set them right on the soft sand; they always pitched to one side and were useless. In our first week it became clear that we carried too much frivolous equipment, but we weren’t sure yet what was the necessary gear. One thing was certain, we didn’t need a wheel cart, we didn’t need camping chairs, and I didn’t need as much weight on my diving belt. The nights were not yet too cold and even though winter approached, we were paddling south, so we probably could go without our thick fleece jackets as well. From San Felipe a road follows the beach south until the bay and fishing camp of Punta Villa. We gave all the extra gear to the few people we met and lightened our kayaks every chance we had. In spite of the inch of clearance we gained from the waterline, our kayaks remained slow.
Paddling flat water for hours without a puff of wind tested our patience. Sometimes we felt we were paddling on a lake; not even a wrinkle disturbed the water. Distances seemed longer, temperatures hotter and we found ourselves wishing for some wind. Our first 20-mile crossing to the island of Miramar was particularly grueling although we were rewarded with the sight and sound of a raucous sea lion colony. It must be human nature to always wish for what we don’t have, and so after a week our wish was granted to a proportion we had not imagined.
On our seventh day we got set to paddle a 23-mile distance to a place we had called camp 5 on our map. After 15 miles we encountered strong headwinds and progressed very slowly. We headed for the closest beach that happened to be next to a fishing camp called Calamaje. It didn't look appealing so I decided to keep going and try to push to camp 5, but Luke stopped me and re-routed me to the beach. We set up among the debris of an old wreck with empty cans and bits of garbage from the nearby fishing camp flying around in the wind. It was the dirtiest beach I experienced in Baja. We were both exhausted and didn't have much energy to try fishing. We went to bed after a simple dinner of reconstituted refried beans and tortillas. We secured all our bags and equipment from the violent wind. The wind never stopped increasing. In the middle of the night it became a full gale. The tent was miraculously withstanding the abuse. I ran outside to check on the rest of the equipment. While I was tying a few bags together, a gust lifted my T-shirt and sand blasted the skin of my back. The same gust flipped the tent on Luke who woke up rolling around in surprise. I quickly grabbed the frame, set it back and jumped inside to protect myself from the flying sand. Neither Luke nor I could sleep that night. I was sure that we wouldn't be able to kayak the next day and would be stuck on this ugly beach until the wind abated.
In the early morning the wind was still blowing hard, but not to a gale force. Luke prepared some pancakes with dried fruit while I packed the tent. Incredibly it had withstood the storm and the only damage was a bent aluminum frame. Our kayaks, once loaded, were too heavy to be carried or dragged an inch on the beach. We loaded them in chest deep water to avoid the small breaking waves on the beach. Luke held the kayaks in the water, while I went back and forth with all the gear to load. We started paddling south in a fair but manageable headwind. Our destination was still camp 5, less than 10 miles away. The wind kept changing directions, sometimes blowing sideways from canyons, at other times pushing us from behind and sailing us down rolling swell, and toward the end we had it in our face. The gusts were so powerful that we had to grip tightly on our paddles to keep them from flying out of our hands. In spite of intense effort the wind matched our power and we had to fight our way inch by inch to cover the last hundred yards to camp 5, the first place where we could possibly land. Some strong gusts nearly capsized us a few times.
The beach was a field of large round rocks. We walked further hoping for a better campsite but didn't find any. It turned out to be a blessing after all. The wind kept increasing and we felt lucky not to be on a sand beach. We would have been blasted and confined to crunchy food. We thought about our wish of a few days ago. God had cured our boredom; he had given us wind. Thinking we had experienced the worst, we were unprepared for the following night. It was one we will never forget.
By the time the sun set, the wind was gusting up to 50 knots. These gusts were stronger than anything I had ever experienced. We knew the tent would not hold. We would have probably flown away in it if we tried to use it. So we entrenched ourselves. We dug a hole in the gravel and made a small semi-circular wall with large stones on the windward side and packed layers of drybags tied together inside it to protect us from possible dropping stones. We attached all our small bags to heavy water containers. Before we could better secure our solar panels, they had flown away. I instantly ran and grabbed them before the next gust. We oriented our kayaks into the wind and tied them to the diving weight-belt and two large boulders. We secured everything on deck and hoped that with their fully loaded weight the kayaks would still be there in the morning.
To sleep, we set a plastic tarp in our hole and put our inflatable pads, sleeping bags and fleece pillows inside our Goretex bivisacs. It was like having two mini tents. The bivis are slightly larger than sleeping bags and completely enclose them, sealing us away from the elements. They were comfortable and didn't catch the wind and fly away or break like a tent would. In spite of the protection provided by the hole and wall, they were flapping loudly with each gust of wind and constantly shaking us. It was amazing to see that there wasn't a single cloud in the sky. The stars looked as clear and bright as ever, but we were in the middle of a raging storm and it seemed like it was here to stay. The gusting wind constantly woke us up during the night. Once I tried to get up to urinate. I couldn’t stand up against the wind. If it had been regular, maybe I could have tried to lean into it. But gusting like it was, I would have been on my knees in seconds. So I opted for that position from the start. I crawled out downwind and relieved myself like if I was doing a one-arm push-up. I had never been to the toilet in that position, at least not since I could remember. I quickly returned to burry myself in my warm sleeping bag and flapping bivi. A few hours later, when I finally pulled my head out of the bivi, the sunrise was beautiful, but the storm had not decreased. I looked at the magnificent red sky for a couple of minutes and withdrew into my cocoon.
In these conditions kayaking was unthinkable, so we stayed in bed until late morning. When we got up, we dug our pit deeper and added more stones to our fortress. Then after breakfast we fixed some broken gear and maintained the rest of our equipment. Joints of waterproof cases needed to be lubricated, zippers needed to be waxed, paddles, rudders and spearguns needed to be oiled, punctured drybags needed to be taped, solar panels’ electrical wires needed to be greased and sealed, and I also had to seal all the seams of my kayak. After all the maintenance we settled down to do our best to enjoy our involuntary rest day. And then the wind suddenly died. It disappeared as quickly as it had come on us the day before. I had never seen such a phenomenon and that made me think again about the notoriously dangerous winds of the Sea of Cortez. There was not much we could do to anticipate these storms.
Less than half an hour after the end of the storm the wind picked up again, this time blowing consistently toward the south. There weren’t any irregular gusts and we had to take advantage of the free ride it was offering us. We started packing in the early afternoon. A small pod of dolphins swam by less than fifty feet from shore as if to tell us it was okay to go. Again we loaded the kayaks in chest deep water to avoid the surf breaking on the rocky beach. With a 3 PM departure, we couldn't go very far, but we progressed easily in the following wind, current and waves. Just before Punta Bluff, a whale sounded twice next to us and disappeared. Young sea lions were enjoying the last rays of sun from nearby rocks. After eight miles, we pulled off on a beach. The tide was low and large rolling boulders covered our landing area. Our kayaks were strongly shaken by every wave. Worried they would break, we quickly unloaded and carried them, gingerly stepping over a field of slippery rocks. We finished our day with dinner in front of a bonfire. The storm had gone by and on our 9th day, Baja had revealed much of its power and majestic nature.
With the wind come the waves. Baja was fantastic kayaking terrain, for its coastline was carved into hundreds of coves and small bays offering good protection from the storms. We usually picked a camping spot inside a bay, so no matter how large the swell would be on the ocean we could get out without fighting powerful surf. However, some days we had no choice but to camp on unprotected ground. It made coming in and going out more challenging. On our eleventh day, we learned that lesson the hard way.
The morning of October 18 started like a usual Baja morning. Guardian Angel Island provided us with a beautiful background of canyons cutting deeply into the dry mountains. All of it was enveloped in a purple sky. The wind was still blowing but not nearly as hard as previous days. We moved our kayaks down to the last stretch of sand at the edge of a large boulder field and loaded them. The shore was too steep and the waves too big for us to be able to load the kayaks in the water like we had done before. Each wave dragged the large boulders up and down the shore and we feared injury. We thought that we could wait for the quickly rising tide to reach the sandy strip higher on the beach and lift us off. The surf looked big as it came closer to us, but we had launched in similar conditions before and thought we could manage it. We held the bows of our kayaks toward the incoming waves. I was in position first. I started to pull my kayak into the first wave. As soon as the boat was afloat, it turned itself into the wind, parallel to the beach and surf. Focusing on the challenge presented by the surf and dangerously shifting boulders, we had completely forgotten that the strong side wind would not let us launch straight into the waves.
My kayak was hit broadside by the next wave, which tipped it over and filled it up. Standing in waist deep water I had no power to turn it back up. The following waves came one after another and crashed onto my boat dislodging all the gear I had on the rear deck. I pulled the boat back onto the beach as much as I could, but couldn’t get the stern out of the waves. I pumped most of the water out, removed the gravel from my sea sock, quickly repositioned my rear deck load and tried again. I thought that by pulling the bow from the side and by timing the waves, I could keep the boat straight long enough to go through the first set of rollers. Luke was still holding his boat on the beach watching my progress. The same thing happened but this time the second wave completely capsized my kayak, yanked it out of my hands and dragged it upside down farther on the beach. All my gear came loose and the kayak full of water was flexing to its limit. I thought it was going to break before I could run back to it. I screamed out of frustration and anger. The weight of the kayak and the power of those waves were such that I couldn't do anything. I didn’t have the power to drag it up out of the waves, and I didn’t have the power to hold it still in the surf.
Luke had to keep a hold of his own kayak so he couldn't be of any assistance. I threw my paddle on the beach and held the bow as strongly as I could until the set of big waves passed. Then Luke let go of his craft and came to help. We unloaded the deck, cleared the sea sock and carried the kayak bending under its load a few feet up onto the sand. (The sea sock is a bag fitting in the cockpit with just enough space for our legs, intended to minimize the amount of water that can enter the boat. Foldable kayaks don't have any bulkhead or watertight separations between the cockpit and hatches. Without a sea sock, they could fill up and lose all their buoyancy as I had experienced in Thailand.) I was upset and pessimistic about our chances to leave this beach during the day. I thought we should launch at night when the sea and wind are calmer. Luke had a different idea. He thought that it would be easy to get one boat out with one person paddling and the other pushing from behind. He would then return and pull his own boat through the surf stern-first (the heaviest end) into the waves, he thought he could keep it straight in spite of the cross wind and go through the first rollers. By timing it he could jump and paddle through the smallest series of breakers.
So we re-strapped everything onto my deck and prepared to go. I pulled from the bow into the waves while Luke pushed the stern. I walked through the first breaker, jumped sideways in the cockpit with both legs hanging out to the left side. Luke pushed me off. I lost my balance and nearly ended in the water but was able to recover and bring both legs on deck and paddle hard into the breakers, which filled up my sea sock. After the surf zone I finally put my legs in the kayak, put my sprayskirt on and started pumping all the water out through one side. I was out, afloat and ready to go. Now it was Luke's turn.
For about 10 minutes, he tried to pull his kayak off the beach, but could not drag it an inch. Finally a set of bigger waves floated it a little. He pulled hard, then pushed straight into the waves. He passed the first breaker, then the second and was still not in the boat. I wondered what would happen then. He passed the last set while swimming and still pushing his boat out backwards from the bow. Then he called for help. His sea sock was full and he couldn't get in before emptying most of the water. The kayak would have not have stayed afloat. I paddled to his side and pumped the water out while he was keeping both our kayaks straight into the high swell coming at us. I notified him when it was half empty. He swam to the side and jumped in while I held his boat. We were still facing the beach and needed to quickly paddle backward into the coming swell. I turned around to face the swell and set myself against his side to pump the rest of the water out of his kayak from the front of his sprayskirt while he maintained his balance. A boat full of water has no stability. We arranged his deck gear that had been pushed to one side to rebalance his boat. We were already tired when we finally began to paddle. Fortunately, the wind, the high swells pushing from the back and the ebb tide were to our advantage. We quickly covered the ten nautical miles separating us from our destination, camp 7.
After a small point we entered a wide bay. We rode the small swell to a steep sand beach. I timed my landing and paddled hard on the backside of a wave, jumped out of the kayak grabbed my bow and pulled out of the water as the next wave arrived. I landed well without any problem and redeemed myself from my terrible launching experience. Luke was still on the water judging and timing the wave sets. He back paddled to avoid the shore break. From the beach I could see that the coming set was smaller, I signaled him to go which he started to do but then he saw a wave and decided to back up in it. The next series was bigger; unfortunately that's when he decided to go. He timed it well between the surf and was able to make it without incident. I jumped in the water to grab his bow as he arrived in knee-deep water. In his hurry to jump out, he capsized. This would have been funny if the next wave had not taken the full boat sideways and dumped it on the beach. The heavy kayak returned to the ocean with the wave and passed by us to the side before we could grab on to it. As we were in knee-deep water, the next wave pushed it back against my legs and swept me down in the water. When I surfaced Luke was also under water. Drybags, water bottles, life jacket, paddle float, and much more equipment had come loose and were floating everywhere. The kayak was still moving back and forth between the beach and the trashing waves. We ran, grabbed as much gear as possible and threw it onto the beach. Then we tried to hold on to the kayak and point it to the beach. Using the waves to push it, we pulled it half way to the sand, pumped all the water out of the cockpit and carried it a few feet off the water.
When we thought everything was over, Luke noticed that his speargun was missing from his deck. We looked around for a minute, but they don’t exactly float! Suddenly it appeared in the curl of a small shore break. Before we could jump on it, we lost of sight of it. We stood where we last spotted it and I jumped on it a few seconds later. We retrieved it and were relieved. We returned to our kayaks to finish unloading and carrying them up. Luke who had kept his calm in spite of all the events of the day suddenly screamed furiously. He called me to show me his boat. One of the side straps sewn into the seam of the bow had broken loose and left a three-inch hole between his hull and deck. It was between the hull and deck fabrics at the level of the sponson and could not be patched with any normal repair accessories. We finished unloading and left the kayaks to dry.
After a few minutes the adrenaline rush passed and we looked around and noticed the beauty of this campsite. We were at the mouth of a small canyon. To the left, the beach extended to mountains colored in various tones of yellow, orange, pink, red, brown, blue and green. The island of Angel de la Guardia, whose inside shore we had followed for 46 miles, was illuminated with orange sunbeams reflecting on its rugged peaks. The beach was a flat, thin, sand carpet and a nice change from the rocky camps we had dealt with for the last few days.
After a snack of granola with peanut butter, Luke went fishing while I started fixing his boat. I pulled out some 10 lb test fishing line, a large curved needle and my Gerber pliers. When I was through stitching up the gaping hole the boat looked like it had received surgery with eight stitches and a nice scar. I seal-seamed everything, including the nylon knots so they wouldn't slide. We enjoyed our daily sunset with our neighbor, a coyote wondering here and there about along the beach. After dinner and a bon fire, Luke escaped the coyotes and pitched the tent. I stayed out sleeping under the stars.
Coyotes are funny, we sometimes spot them early in the morning or in the evening, but they are shy during the day. At night they can become devious. A few days ago while we camped under the stars in our bivi bags, Luke woke me in the middle of the night. He shook me frantically and screamed. As I was still half asleep I asked what was happening. “Didn’t you see the coyotes” he asked. “I was sleeping and one came to lick my forehead!” I laughed, but Luke said; “I’m serious. I’ve been screaming and throwing stones at them and you didn’t even wake up”. In the morning, with the daylight I saw that Luke had some mud and a few claw marks on his forehead; he had not been licked, but pawed by a coyote.
Coyotes can be sneaky and in Baja they have the reputation of being thieves. We knew they were visiting us almost every night as we often woke up surrounded by footprints. One morning I woke up very slowly. I’m usually the first up and I kick Luke out of his sleeping bag by 5:30 Am, but that morning, I had a white shield over my eyes and felt very lazy. Luke was up and boiling water for our tea. When the water was ready he asked where my cup was. We each had a great cup insulated with a double layer of very tough plastic and covered with a lid. His questions surprised me. Usually we have a last drink while sitting in our sleeping bags at night, and we put our empty cups, with their lids on, next to our heads. So I told him, “Well it should be here, didn’t you take it?” He had not and the cup was nowhere to be found. We wondered how it could have possibly disappeared from our campsite, and then we spotted coyote's tracks and quickly understood. We always took great care of hiding our food, but I never thought they would steal my mug. I climbed a hill to look for it. Then I walked around the beach and after ten minutes I eventually found the lid with tooth marks and later on the cup without any damage. I washed it and drank my morning tea. From now on we would be more cautious no to be robbed by these sneaky thieves.
From day three, the scenery and marine life had been excellent but various factors prevented us from truly enjoying our Baja experience. Our kayaks were severely over loaded. Our bodies had not yet adjusted to paddling long hours each day. Our kayak seats were not properly set to prevent lower back pain. Our skin was not used to the constant exposure to the sun and the salt that became embedded in our pores. Our kayaking skills were raw and we still fought the sea more than we adapted to it. We took over two hours to repack our kayaks each day. We learned that there was a price to pay to discover the true beauty of wilderness paddling. We had to adjust our routine and it took almost two weeks.
Little by little our bodies metamorphosed, we got lean, almost back to the shape we had achieved during our training in Thailand. Our kayak skills, especially for launching and landing also greatly improved. Our daily muscle pain nearly disappeared. Our skin adapted to the salt. With a little less equipment, dry food and drinking water, and with more efficient packing we still looked like two giant sea snails, but moved much faster. We learned how to use the waves to our advantage and increased our average speed to four knots. Another motivating factor was that each paddle stroke south took us over clearer water. We had left behind the high tide variations and all the silt and mud they carried. We didn’t need to worry so much about carrying tons of gear for hundreds of yards to cross the high tide line. As well, clearer water meant we could start freediving to look for food. Each paddle stroke south took us closer to the paradise we had imagined Baja would be.
When we set off on the Sea of Cortez, we thought it would take us three months. We knew we would be alone most of the time. The 1200 miles of coast bordering the Vermillion Sea is sparsely populated. Only 3 towns, Santa Rosalia, Mulege, and Loreto, and a few fishing villages or camps lie along the coast. We had to carry enough food and water for the weeks necessary to cover the distance between each town. Although we could store 20 gallons of water in special bags, it was not sufficient and we had to rely on pumping salt water daily with a desalinator. For food, we relied principally on dry food such as pasta, rice and beans. What we badly needed but could not carry was protein. Paddling long distances daily we couldn’t survive on starch and carbohydrates, we needed to supplement our meals with a source of meat. Baja was a famous fishing ground and supplying ourselves with fish was as important as covering distance or desalinating water. Not much of a fisherman, I longed for the time the water visibility would allow me to put on my mask and test my underwater hunting skills. An experienced diver and freediver, I had never held a harpoon in my hand. The only two times I could get in the murky water, I came back with fish that were hardly edible. I was desperate to encounter some of the yellowtails, groupers or sea bass for which these waters were famous.
On October 20,our thirteenth day, we came to understand the magnitude of Baja’s legendary fisheries.
I opened the zipper of my bivi bag and poked my head out of my cocoon. The sunrise was beautiful and the view of Isla Smith 12 miles away seemed like an invitation to paddle to it. At least that was our plan for the day. The water was calm and pristine. I got up, grabbed my swimming goggles and went for a morning crawl. When I was waist deep, as soon as put my head underwater, I noticed a nice ray laying down flat on the sandy bottom. I yelled to Luke to bring me my speargun. We had not caught any fish in three days. After spearing it, I cut off its wings and boiled them with some Italian spices, garlic and a touch of lemon. It provided and excellent substitute to our normal breakfast of granola and peanut butter.
After packing our gear, we first set off toward a small island named Alcatraz. It looked pretty and the northern rocky end seemed like a good fishing spot. Arriving before Luke, I paddled closer to check it out. As I approached, I could see noticeably larger waves forming. It was clear that two strong currents from different directions were merging and creating some strange water. When I paddled into that zone I suddenly found myself in a white water situation. I was surfing down some big waves but wasn’t moving forward. Instead I was drifting to the side, closer to the rocks. Side waves hit me at the same time, forcing me into bracing strokes to maintain my balance. I turned my kayak broadside to the waves and with series of quick powerful strokes I managed to get out. I had underestimated the danger. Meanwhile Luke was watching fifty feet away in almost calm water wondering what I was doing. We could not land on Alcatraz, so we would fish somewhere else.
We started our crossing to Coronado (another name for Smith island). We followed the western shore of this long island until it opened into a protected bay with a beautiful sand beach. Entering the bay, we were welcomed by dozens of pelican dive-bombing a school of fish. . So many pelicans meant the fishing would be good, and for the first time the water was crystal clear. We landed and started unloading our kayaks but were distracted by a strange sound that called our attention to the North side of the lagoon. It seemed like the water was in full boil. In the bay of Punta Villard, we had seen large rooster fish chasing hundreds of small fish which all jumped out of the water to flee their predator. That sight had impressed us, but here we were truly awestruck. It couldn’t have been hundreds of roosterfish hunting together. The water boiled for more than three minutes over a surface area spreading more than a hundred yards. The gyrations of thousands of fish had not only attracted our attention, the pelicans who were diving on the south end of the lagoon took off in formation, did a half circle in the sky over the zone and all dove together. We had no idea what kind of fish could move so much water, but we didn’t want to miss the party.
I finished unloading my kayak as quickly as I could, grabbed our only fishing pole, and paddled toward the activity that didn’t seem to stop. I was barely halfway there when everything stopped. The pelicans were all floating over the water. The feast was over and I had missed it. I tried to cast a couple of times with a spoon lure, but nothing happened. Disappointed I decided to paddle a little further to try one more time. As soon as I packed my line the water started boiling just behind me. I quickly turned my kayak and threw my spoon ahead in the middle of this natural Jacuzzi. When I reeled in the strong resistance on the line indicated I had caught something. A novice fisherman, I was exited about the prize I was going to bring back. Any fisherman would have known better. The melee moved to another part of the lagoon and the only fight remaining was mine, to retrieve my hook from the stone it had gotten stuck onto. It finally came loose after a few minutes of frustration. I went back to shore. Luke had disappeared with his freediving equipment. I was going to do the same when the fish decided to have their party just next to shore. I ran with the rod and threw the lure in that direction. My line broke when the leader and spoon were still in the air. I wasn’t sure how I could have described this situation best; I hate fishing or fishing hates me. All I could hope was that Luke would come back with some nice fish. Soon after he came out of the water with the shaft of his spear bent. He had missed a ray in shallow water and hit the rocky bottom.
Dusk was coming quickly, fish were jumping all around us and we still had nothing other than plain rice to put on our plates. I replaced the fishing pole with my freediving equipment. By the time I was all set in my wetsuits, weight belt around my waist, fins in one hand and speargun in the other, the sun had already disappeared behind the mountains of the island. The water temperature was chilly and when I immersed myself all I could see were rays everywhere. Considering the little time we had before total darkness, I decided that a few ray fins would make a fine dinner. I shot a small one. Hit with the spear, it quickly twisted around and unscrewed the tip of my spear and swam away with it. I couldn't let an injured fish go, especially taking one of my spear tips. I dove after it and tried to subdue it. Its tail snapped around back and forth so violently I couldn’t hold it. I had to return to the surface to take another long breath. I pulled out my knife and dove again. It took me nearly a minute to get into a position to cut its tail. I surfaced again for some much needed air and went back for the kill. I swam to shore with the ray to retrieve the tip of my spear, gave it to Luke and returned for more food.
The second time I speared a larger ray. To prevent it from spinning around, I quickly swam back to shore dragging it behind me. On the beach as I was going to remove the spear, it snapped its tail with incredible speed and barely missed my wrist. Horrified I noticed a five-inch dart on the side of its tail. I had no idea I had been spearing stingrays. A flashback came to my mind. I remembered the stories I had read about the terrible pain and sometimes death inflicted by stingrays. Then I noticed that the first small ray had cut through half of my neoprene glove. I was lucky; my ignorance could have cost me much pain. I cut off the tail, killed the ray and brought it to Luke. It was already dark and I was getting cold, but we felt we didn't have quite enough meat to feed two hungry paddlers. I returned to the water for a last catch. I couldn't see much anymore, not even a ray. Suddenly as I dove I was surrounded by hundreds of large fish swimming quickly around me. Because of the darkness, I had not recognized what they were right away. Then as their curiosity brought them closer, it struck me; I was in the middle of large school of yellowtails. I had only a few seconds of air left in me and couldn't waste any time. Spinning myself around, I focused on one out of hundreds, aimed and pulled the trigger. Without waiting to see if I had speared the fish I was aiming at, I dashed to the surface to breath. As soon as I was up, I felt a strong pull. I looked down as the fish was fighting at the end of my spear. I quickly pulled the line back and grabbed the shaft, which I tried to lift out of the water. I swam back toward shore with the fighting fish. For my first real catch in Baja, I had speared an eight-pound yellowtail. I was excited as this fish was my favorite. Its meat makes the finest sashimi which Japanese people call hamachi.
We cut a few strips to eat raw with some wasabi powder (a radish based paste used by Japanese to prepare sushi and sashimi) and soya sauce and cooked the rest of the fish over a fire we made with all the driftwood we found. Spear shafts set between rocks made a perfect grill. As we were feasting, the water still boiled from time to time. The pelicans slowly retreated, flapping their powerful wings as they flew over our heads. We then understood that in spite of the harsh life of the desert, there was paradise to be found in Baja.
Our next encounter with stingrays came a few days later in Bahia de Los Angeles. Here is Luke’s description of our stay there and his ray encounter:
El Barril is a small fishing village between San Francisquito and Santa Rosalia, just north of the 28th parallel, the boundary between North and South Baja. It doesn't look like much. From a distance all we could see were a few tin roofs, a mess of fishing nets and, perched on the cliff above the gravel boat ramp, an unfinished and abandoned hotel, used for nothing more than a landmark from the sea. We weren't impressed when we pulled in last night.
As soon as we landed, we got a feel for the harsh life those people were living. Perhaps forty men lived in the camp, and only two women and three children had come to visit. Very few live here permanently. Most people come here to fish for months at a time, leaving their families in various towns throughout Baja. A few come from as far away as the state of Chiapas in southern Mexico. We were greeted with a bit of curiosity as we pulled up next to the pangas (15-20 foot local fishing boats equipped with 75 hp motors) in our narrow kayaks loaded to the gills. People were friendly and helped us carry the loaded kayaks halfway up the ramp. We had stopped here to meet our friend Wade Smith, a young marine biologist studying the shark fishing industry in Baja. Our friend took us around the fishing camp and talked with enthusiasm about the best shark processing facility he had seen in North Baja.
After an evening learning all about the shark fishing and preparation techniques and listening to extraordinary stories, I lay in bed with my head full of vivid pictures of what I was going to see in the morning. It was the end of the shark-fishing season and the last day fishermen went out. They usually set the nets on the surface of the water all night and sometimes for up to 24 hours during which fishermen stay next to their net as they drift. Because the moon was almost full, no boats went to set up nets for large sharks. They believe that during the full moon, sharks can see their nets, so they don’t bother setting them out. Early in the morning, pangas left the camp to set bottom nets in 30 to 80 feet of water. These bottom nets primarily catch small sharks and rays. Among the big sharks, fishermen distinguish two types of meat. The Mako, Thresher, and Great Hammerhead shark meat is red and is bought directly by an American distributor. He loads them in his truck and sells them to supermarkets in California. People usually cook them as steaks. Other species like the Smoothhound, the Smooth and Scalloped Hammerheads, Blacktip, Silky Smoothhound, and Hornsharks and rays are all prepared together. Their white meat is salted and dried.
At 6:30 AM we were up and waiting for the first boats to come in. They arrived with a wide range of species. Fishermen unloaded their catch, set them on a long wood table, and weighed them to later claim their wage. Then the team of marine biologists quickly went to work, disturbing the locals as little as possible in their cleaning tasks. They measured and weighed all species, identified males from females and recorded their approximate ages. Among other things, they tried to find relationships between size and age and to predict what it would be for each specie when it reached maturity (age at which they are able to reproduce). Their notes will be compiled later with other groups working on the Sea of Cortez to give feedback to the Mexican Government on the shark population and help to prevent over-fishing.
Already the cleaners had started to cut off all the fins. With knives that they re-sharpened constantly on a stone they removed the heads and guts, which they discarded. In minutes flies covered all the bloody parts. The fins are sent to Asian countries. Japanese people use them in soups and Chinese make medicinal powders. They are sold after being salted and dried for three days under the sun set on cactus wood drying racks. It doesn't look like much more than cartilage and skin with a thin layer of meat. Locals don't consume them. With the exception of the red meat sharks sold whole, the flesh is cut into thin fillets. Then it is passed on to the salters. On another wood table, they have 100 lb. bags of marine salt, which they use to rub into the white flesh. When well coated with salt on both sides, they hand the fillets to two more people who pile them up into neatly packed, cross laid, square stacks. There, they stay for a day in the shade of the tin roof before going through the salting process one more time. The second time they are piled up, they are kept for eight days. When a stack is ready, they take all the layers of white shark flesh and spread them to dry in the sun on the same cactus wood racks used for the fins. Unlike the fins, they are only dried for three or four hours. They are then ready for consumption and sent to Ensenada and Mexico City. A Mexican specialty is machaca. The dried meat is popularly used in tacos and burritos.
After talking to Mike, the gringo buying all the large read meat sharks, I understand that fishermen in Baja are paid the least per kilo in Mexico, but they are among the wealthiest. What they don't make in price, they make in quantity.
We arrived in El Barril for the last day of the season. Sharks are fished from April to November, the best time being in the summer. The full village is very organized. El Jefe, the fishing chief sometimes comes to supervise the operation while sitting in a hammock watching TV. He makes most of the money as he sells the sharks between 13.5 to 15 pesos per kilos. On the other hand he pays the food, gas, and repairs for all. Fisherman are the next up the ladder, they make 5.5 pesos per kilo of read meat (whole) and 7 pesos per kilos of white filets. Expert fileters get the next best wages and salters are paid the least. When the season is over, the Chiapas people return home for the shark season there. Other people return to their families elsewhere in Baja and the few left get ready to catch yellowtail with long-lines trolling from their pangas. It is a tough life, but the Sea of Cortez still provides plenty in a land where farming would only produce cacti and thorn bushes. Like in most fishing camps, all the fresh water needs to be brought in by trucks. Fishing is the only means for people living between the desert and the sea.
For two more weeks we lived like sea
nomads, surviving on our food from the sea, hopping from islands to little
mainland coves and back to islands. Everyday we encountered dolphins, sea
lions, and occasionally whales and killer whales. Giant manta and bat rays
jumped high out of the water with a full spin to fall back flat with a big
splash. Pelicans and blue and black footed boobies gave us fishing lessons
while frigate birds never stopped their aerobatic shows. Our first week of
suffering had long been forgotten and we started to feel like we belonged
there. For over a month we had not seen a single tree. Our landscape had
been a moonscape bordered by a blue sea, yet there was more wildlife than we
had ever imagined. . We got used to solitude and when we arrived to Punta
Bufeo on November 11, we were surprised to see all the tourists camping on
the beach. With our new companion James, that we had met in Bahia de Los
Angeles, we landed in a small bay hidden from the crowd, but the increasing
wind forced us to join all the campers in the more protected bay. We were
just one-day paddle from the town of Mulege, the only oasis on the full
coast. To get there we had to paddle twelve miles across a large bay to
enter a protected river leading to town.
In Punta Bufeo, a young Canadian and his father introduced themselves as Max and Dad. They had been trying to catch up with us for the last two weeks. Max and I had been in email contact for the last year. His kayak expedition started a year ago in Vancouver, Canada. His dad was a high school teacher and had just retired. For years he led river canoe tours in Canada and had come to kayak the Sea of Cortez with his son. Max walked to our camp and asked us if they could paddle with us to Mulege. They were camping on the other side of a small reef south of us. We told them that we would launch and paddle by their camp by 9:30 AM the following day.
By 9:00 in the morning the wind had picked up and the swell was big, even in our protected cove. The wind had blown hard all night and had pushed clouds from the north. The swell had built enough that white caps had formed everywhere. Eight footers were breaking out on the bay south of where we camped. Our kayaks were still heavily loaded and unlike the hard-shell ones made of fiberglass or plastic, we couldn’t drag them. So again we had to launch while walking through the first waves. The waves were too close to each other to allow us the time to put our sprayskirts on. As soon as we jumped in after a wave, we had to retract our legs to fit them in the cockpit and start paddling forward or else the waves would push us sideways and back to the beach where would be grounded and flipped. When the waves are not very big, but coming close one after each other, the best technique we had found was to jump in and paddle with maximum power straight until we would clear the surf zone. By the time we cleared it, our sea socks were usually half full or entirely filled up with water. We then need a few minutes to pump it all out and put our sprayskirts on to start paddling. Later we learned to be more efficient and quickly put our sprayskirt on after passing the first or second wave. Our cockpit still filled up, but not as much. So the launch from Pta Bufeo was one of these, we just had to punch through the surf and pump the water out on the other side. While we were pumping, the wind pushed us to Max’s camp. His father was nervously looking at the waves and decided not to launch. James who was a kayak instructor and guide was giving them a kayak surfing show, which might have frightened Max’s dad.
On the other side of the point was another beach that was entirely protected. Max convinced his dad to launch in the calmer area after a short portage. By 9:30 AM the five of us started paddling toward the open sea. After five minutes, Max and his dad changed direction and retreated toward the beach. We thought they were giving up on the crossing and would set up camp in the bay until the conditions would be better. The wind was blowing at a constant 35 knots and did not make for easy conditions. Luke and I felt much more confident in the waves than we had a month ago. Our bracing techniques greatly improved. Bracing is a special stroke you apply with the blade of the paddle flat on the surface of the water to recover your balance. You lean with your weight on the paddle to compensate for the power of a wave pushing you from the side. The stronger the wave, the more you lean into it with your weight.
The more we paddled, the more impressive the surf became, but James was with us and was still wishing for more. We followed his example. A large swell lifted my kayak. When it started, my bow went underwater for a second as I started surfing. When it broke back through the surface, I rushed down the wave. I surfed for a few seconds. It was exhilarating. Without any pause, I was already paddling hard to catch the next wave. After surfing, the wave catches up and passes under the kayak. This greatly reduces the speed. The next wave starts to lift the kayak a few seconds later. Only if the kayak has enough speed will it be picked up and surfed, benefiting from the power of the wave. So it was essential to paddle hard to catch the waves with our overloaded kayaks.
A large wave started to lift me, and after a few quick strokes I leaned my body forward and dropped eight to ten feet gaining fifteen yards on James in a couple of seconds. I missed the next wave and James rode the two next ones. In seconds he was more than fifty yards ahead of me. The size of the waves was perfect. If they had been any smaller we would have surfed very little because of our heavy boats. If they had been bigger we could have not handled them safely with all our dry bags on deck.
With all the gear we had, we could not fit half of it in our kayaks so we stowed what we couldn't fit on top. When we had helped Ed Gillet teach a kayak class on the Pacific Coast. I remember him telling apprentice kayakers; “You should never have anything on deck. Big waves will remove anything you have no matter how well you lash it down. If you capsize, you will lose everything you have on deck”. Each time we we were out paddling in heavy seas, these words came back to my mind. We didn’t just carry drybags on deck. Our kayaks looked like war ships equipped with everything you could imagine. There was no unused space on our decks. In front of the cockpit, we had a deckbag in which we fit our sunscreen, sunglasses, diving gloves, fishing lines and snacks. On top we set our compasses and a map case. In front we had a speargun and a bilge pump lashed on one side and a spare paddle on the other side. On top of these we had a large dry bag.
Right against our backs, we had a paddlefloat, a pair of sea-wings, a repair kit, and a sea anchor. Then behind we had our mountain of gear. 2 or 3 large drybags, our diving wetsuits, our solar panels, and camera equipment protected inside Pelican waterproof cases. Everything was lashed with two large spider nets and strong bungees. On top we kept our lifejackets, which we rarely used in the tropical heat, and our diving masks. Behind, towards the rudder, we had our long freediving fins. This exterior load would make any kayak instructor grim. We had no choice, we needed every last bit of equipment, but we were keenly aware that we couldn’t afford to capsize.
There was a good reason the words of Ed Gillet were coming back to my mind here. After a couple of hours, the swell kept growing bigger and I didn’t feel like I was the master of the ocean anymore. Once, a large swell lifted me up, opening a big hole below me and sent me racing down at high speed. The adrenaline rush turned to fear as I lost complete control over the direction. This often happened before, but with less power. As I went sideways, the wave caught back up with me and forced me into a low brace where I had to lean with much weight to avoid capsizing. As soon as the wave passed me, I put all my energy into redirecting the kayak in the correct direction before the next swell. I checked my partners’ positions. James was a hundred yards ahead to the right. Luke was hundred and fifty yards behind and to the left. We couldn't talk but we checked on each other every five or ten minutes to make sure everybody was still up in their boats. The fun at the start of the paddle was replaced by worry as I became more and more fatigued. I felt like I was bracing almost as much as I was paddling. It wasn't exactly the case, but it felt like it. After a few close calls I started to feel nervous. There was no way out. The closest shore was five miles away. Luke had stopped a couple of times to pump the water out of his kayak. He too had nearly capsized a few times. James, in his lighter kayak without any deck gear and with years of experience on class 5 whitewater and surf kayaking, was enjoying himself. We felt good he was paddling with us. After a few minutes of anxiety, I regrouped, telling myself that I was strong and skilled enough to handle these conditions. I had already gone more than half way and the only close calls were because I had not anticipated the action of the waves. After all, this was one of the reasons we chose to paddle the Sea of Cortez. We wanted to put that experience under our belts before paddling the Pacific and Atlantic oceans.
I restarted paddling vigorously, chasing after James. One wave pushed me to the left, the next one to the right. I was bouncing up and down, and left and right like a buoy, but eventually making good distances forward. I looked at James. He too looked like a bouncing cork, one time to the left, one time to the right always sweeping, and sometimes going straight down leaving a white wake in the wave behind him. I looked up too long and forgot to paddle as hard as usual. Instead of surfing I only glided down a little on a big swell, which broke when I was on top of it. I was in the water up to my neck. My full boat was submerged. Even my shoulders seemed paralyzed by the weight of the water. For a few seconds, which felt like minutes I couldn't do anything other than hold my paddle flat to one side for balance. After a few seconds my submarine-kayak popped back up and I was in position for the next wave, but I wondered how many times my foldable kayak could handle this pressure before collapsing.
Maybe one wave out of five was breaking. When we started they seemed regular. The wind was pushing us straight toward Mulege, and at first, the swell was all going in the same direction. As we approached the end of the large bay, waves refracted on the round shoreline and were increasingly coming back at us from different directions. It meant surfing down a wave, losing momentum as the wave passed below our kayaks, and being hit sideways by a breaking wave on the bow. In a stalled position, I felt quite unstable. I remembered James's advice: "Don't do any side braces unless you really have to. Keep your momentum and apply small braces to your forward strokes." It helped, but it still wasn't easy. Each time I submerged to a level varying between the chest and the top of the shoulders, water made its way through our sprayskirts and filled up our sea socks. Even our sea socks were not completely watertight. Water found its way through our kayaks. With each stroke our boats felt heavier and were more difficult to handle.
The wind was still blowing hard on the blades of our paddles. Luke's hands were numb because of the pressure of his grip. I has other problems. I needed to urinate and each time my boat was submerged, the weight of the water on my spray skirt was applying direct pressure on my bladder. (I learned later than most kayakers relieve themselves in their kayaks, which I had to do a few times at the end of the Baja trip). Each stroke required involvement of the abdominal muscle group. I was dehydrated but couldn't drink. I could see the small lighthouse marking the entrance of the river leading to Mulege. I could also see the surf breaking on the reef protecting the entrance. White spray exploded everywhere. I kept paddling hard behind James to reach the protected water.
Luke was fighting his own battle behind me. The entrance of the small bay was protected by a half-submerged reef that we had to avoid at the last minute. We surfed our way through and turned back against the wind to paddle up to the rocks. At last we had finished the rough crossing and found the calm water of the river mouth. In the last two hours we had seen each other leaning way out on one side or the other. Each time we thought it would be unrecoverable. But we were still up.
We discovered a new world. After five weeks in a rough desert, we had reached an oasis. Mangrove trees lined the shores of the river. High palm trees grew on both sides. We saw the first flowers, patches of grass, palm trees and plantations of dates and bananas. Egrets flew away as we paddled by, and butterflies danced all around. Was I dreaming? Had the wind pushed us way past Baja into the tropical zone? Everything was real. The last ten miles took us from a dry desert to breathtaking lush green. It felt good after four hundred miles of rocky shores. We paddled up the very shallow river at a slow pace enjoying every bit of green, every flower and fruit tree. All the vegetation was concentrated around the water while the hills in the distance were devoid of anything but cacti and small thorn bushes. The line between arid desert and lush oasis was evident. It reminded me of the Nile Valley of Upper Egypt. We felt like the nomadic desert people must feel when they reach an oasis after months riding camels through the dust.
The people who discovered Mulege and settled here were privileged. We paddled by little wood houses with jetties and panga boats. We passed beautiful houses owned by American ex-pats. Then we arrived at the Orchards, an RV campground where people grow dates, bananas, and mangos. We shared a campsite for $2 per person. After our first fresh shower in weeks we left our gear under the protection of the armed security guard on duty and walked half a mile to discover a very pleasant town. We stopped by the renowned bakery that lived up to its fame and in the evening finished our day in a great restaurant where we sampled various Mexican specialties and waddled back to camp with a food coma.
Back at our campsite we noticed Max's kayaks. We thought they had stopped, but they had kept paddling. Max's dad capsized four times and couldn't handle the waves and wind. They had tied their kayaks together to gain more stability and rafted to the shore. After nearly 5 hours drifting, the wind had pushed them close to Mulege where they resumed paddling to enter the river. It had been a day full of challenges for everybody, and no coincidence, it happened to be Friday the 13th.
Note: In tropical water, the risk of hypothermia isn't very high. We feel like paddling with a life jacket isn't very practical. It’s hot and less enjoyable. Luke and I swam two to three miles in open water on a daily basis during our training in Thailand. We felt like if we had to, we could crawl ten miles in rough water. On the other hand, I like to keep the life jacket accessible in case of a capsize near a reef or some other dangerous obstacle where we couldn't get back up quickly.
We rested for 6 days in Mulege, enjoying all the restaurants, bakeries and fresh fruit we had missed for weeks. Mulege was a charming town with friendly people where we felt very welcome and comfortable, but a stronger feeling began to invade my senses. The campground with its showers suddenly overwhelmed me with all the modernity it represented. I quickly missed a simple beach with no amenities. It is interesting to notice how things we perceive a certain way change with a new perspective. Even sunrises and sunsets don't seem as colorful when seen from an inhabited place. The stars fade in the lights of the campground. The mystical desert and ocean of Baja called me back.
In six weeks we've already become strangers to urbanization. One would think it would be easier to adapt to the city life than it would be to progress through a rough landscape of seawater and rocks. This is what I thought, but I know now that the biggest challenge won't be to become one with nature. It will be to return to society. When we paddled out, the small river and its green surrounding valley that seemed so lush when we arrived had changed. We saw diminished beauty, less than a few days ago when we arrived.
In the morning we looked at the ocean. The wind was blowing lightly in the bay. We knew it would be stronger on the open sea. The swell looked big, but there were few breakers. We put our seasocks on and set off for a 22-mile crossing to the town of San Sebastian. After leaving the sheltered water, large rolling swells pushed us toward our destination. The swell was so big we lost sight of each other very quickly. I usually look back every ten minutes, but after just a few minutes, Luke wasn't in sight. I waited, facing into the wind and bobbing up and down on ten-foot swells. When Luke finally appeared he was already very close to me. I resumed paddling and surfed as much as possible. I only realized the wind was strong when I faced it to wait for Luke. The waves were regular and didn't present much difficulty.
After a couple of hours, I had to wait much more often and for longer periods of time for my paddling companion. I wondered why he was slow in what I considered the fastest and most fun kayaking conditions of the trip. With the strong wind, and large regular waves in our back we were able to move quickly. The paddling was fun, with opportunities to surf almost one wave out of two. The waves were big enough that we often lost sight of all our landmarks. Because of this Luke had become sea sick and was struggling along at an extremely slow speed. His only wish was to get out of his kayak and onto solid ground. The problem was that we were in the middle of a long crossing and the size of the waves was keeping us from landing anywhere but behind a protected point. When I sighted the lighthouse of Pta El Medano Blanca I thought that there would certainly be a sheltered place behind it. After the lighthouse I discovered a very small cove within a larger bay. We paddled past a reef on which large surf was breaking, and moved behind it to a little beach of round rocks. We landed without any waves. It was a beautiful spot, and Luke was relieved to arrive.
Read Luke’s account of his own struggles that day.
From Punta El Medano Blanco, we set off to paddle across the large bay of San Nicolas. Our destination was Pta San Antonio. Both Ed Gillet and Sid (a yachtsman we met in Santa Rosalita) had recommended this place to us. The crossing took four hours in two to three foot swells. It wasn't high enough to surf with our heavy loaded kayaks but it was still more interesting than flat water. At least we got the feeling we were moving. The point was lovely. Its walls were scored with small narrow canyons of light blue water. The water visibility was excellent. We decided to stay the next day to explore the bay.
In the evening I walked a couple miles through the desert to the next bay. The contrast between the land and the ocean was so strong it still surprised me. On this land of sand and rocks, nothing else was growing but cacti and thorny bushes. I ended up bushwhacking through thorns and spikes. After admiring the sunset over the distant mountains, I tried to walk back quickly through the cacti and bushes. I ended up running to try to arrive before total darkness. I didn't want to bushwhack blind. My legs had already received their shares of scratches. I made it back just on time. Luke had just started the camp stove and the large flame burning off the excess of fuel pooled in the burner reservoir guided my last steps.
I woke up before the sun was up and took the video, my SLR camera, and the tripod and walked to the point. There a male sea lion was barking loudly, as if to warn intruders that the little rock, on which two females and a baby were sleeping, was his. I approached slowly. The sun emerged from the horizon and beams of orange lit up the rocks. A coyote slowly moved away from my path, but the sea lions weren't yet showing any signs that they had noticed my presence. I stayed there for a couple of hours. Dozen of red crabs were running between all the cracks in the rocks. I walked back to the beach and stopped en route to film and photograph the pelicans that had started to feed. It was nature at its best.
Later Luke and I went spearfishing. I speared a nice pargo fish and put it on my rope stringer (a rope to keep the speared fish at a distance in the water rather than directly attached to my waist, so that in the rare event of shark or moray attack, all that is bitten is the fish). I went out of the water to warm up and left my fish in the water with the rope tied to my weight-belt, set in the crack of a rock. I took the pole spear and the mesh bag and filled up the bag with enough crabs for dinner. Fifteen minutes later I came back and showed the fish to Luke who was in the water. A minute later I tried to pull it out of the water but it suddenly felt very heavy. I pulled stronger on the rope and lifted the head of a moray eel out of the water. It had swallowed my whole fish and my stringer. I had it hanging at the end of my rope that it cut with a quick jerk of the head. Their small teeth cut like razor blades. With the hump on their head and their big green eyes they're a scary sight. The moray raced by Luke who was still in the water and disappeared in a hole. I lost the fish but swam back with a mesh bag full of crabs attached to my paddle float. We swam by a reef where Luke speared a lobster. When we made it back to shore, both of us were freezing. We had stayed in the water for too long and our thin wetsuits, warm enough merely a month ago weren't sufficient anymore. Although we paddled south everyday, the water temperature had dropped significantly between October and November.
Read Luke’s story:
The ebb tide left a small sand bar separated from the beach by twenty yards of water. I threw some fish bones in the shallows near shore and watched a turkey vulture scavenge for them. Turkey vultures often fly over the desert hills of Baja. You can spot them resting on tall cacti, with their red head and black feathers deeply contrasting with the natural colors of the landscape. In less than a minute another vulture joined the first one and a seagull landed four feet away, hoping to get a piece. We often see seagulls fight over everything. Each time we clean a fish they wait for the guts, screaming all the while. They usually drive us crazy. This time the seagull was quiet. I wondered if the gull would dare attack the vultures. It stepped closer, little by little. The annoyed vulture raised its head and faced the seagull that took the hint and flew away. Just when I thought the show was over, thirty or forty pelicans dive-bombed the small stretch of water twenty yards away from me. Beak first, they broke the surface of the water at great speed. Their splashing sounded like large rocks being dumped in the water. Their bodies are so buoyant they never get submerged. Only their heads go underwater. Most came back up with a fish in their beaks. They stretch their neck upward to swallow their fish. It's funny to see the shape of the fish going down their throats. And then when we see the pelicans' small tails shaking frantically from side to side, we know the food was good. In less than a minute dozens of new pelicans joined the group dive-bombing all around us. The thunderous splashing of so many pelicans was breathtaking. It intimidated the two vultures feeding twenty feet away. They abandoned their fish bones and flew away into a dark pink sky. The sun then disappeared behind the mountain. A few clouds stretching over our heads reflected the hues of the sunset into the glassy water of the bay, which changed from turquoise blue to a dark orange.
The pelicans scared the vultures away but the boobies understood they were onto something. They joined the party, diving in the middle of the Pelicans. Unlike their big friends, boobies close their wings completely and dive deep with little splash. For thirty minutes the scene didn't change. Boobies only stay on the water for few seconds after feeding, and fly away to dive again one by one. Pelicans take a break for a minute or two and often take off in groups of five to ten. They fly in formation on a loop and all dive at the same time one foot from each other. The scene in San Juanico cove at sunset is extraordinary, but there's better.
At sunrise, much before the first sunlight, the stars fade away when the sky and ocean turn to a deep blue, separated by a very sharp line of red at the horizon. The line thickens and from a bright red, spreads upward into gradients of mauve and purple. Then the colors fade into a light pink that lasts until the sun rises over the horizon.
The pelicans are already awake and fly in formation with their motionless wings flirting with the ocean, two inches from the surface. They spot their first fishing ground, rise in the sky, turn back on themselves, half-fold their wings and start feeding in a frenzy. After thirty minutes the sun slowly breaks the surface of the water sending beams of orange incandescence through every undulation in the water. This is the time black and blue-footed boobies choose to join the pelicans for breakfast. This is nature at its best.
When I heard of Baja years ago, I heard countless stories of whales, dolphins, sea lions, and fish. I knew pelicans were also abundant but I had never imagined we would experience this to such magnitude. Every day nature gives us a lesson of beauty, harmony, and life. Everything seems so well balanced.
You must think by now that Pelicans are the kings of the birds in Baja. If I had to elect the masters of the sky, I would choose the frigate birds. Like their neighbors the Pelicans, they aren't very pretty from a close distance on the ground, but when you see them in the air, they are majestic. Their long tails and V-shaped wings are unmistakable. Faster than any other birds, they will hassle them all. We've seen frigate birds fly at full speed around seagulls and pelicans to steal their food. Seagulls, much bigger and stronger, try to ignore them, but frigates come back at full speed, poke them in flight, cut them off, and always seem to win. Annoyed seagulls let go of their food which frigates catch before it reaches the water. Frigates can't dive. Their feathers once wet don't allow them to fly. They can't fly off from a flat surface either. Their wings and tails are just too long and get in their way on the ground. They often sleep on branches and even sometimes in the air while rising up into a thermal. They are beautiful and use their speed to feed by harassing other birds.
In the ocean similar things happen. Large predatory fish eat small ones and sharks, sea lions, and dolphins feed on them. We too try to feed on big fish. So far, we have lost most of our lures to big fish and rocks, so in the last few weeks we have relied more on freediving. We usually spear enough fish to eat everyday. Sometimes we stay in the water and don't spear anything for the first hour hoping to find a nice grouper. After an hour we settle for smaller fish, mullets, grunts, pargot, and parrot fish are a good compromise. Wrasse and porgy fish are the bottom line and in a crunch we spear anything edible. Some other times we are lucky to dive in the middle of a yellowtail school and aim right on the first try, or a nice sea bass lets us come close enough on a silent one-breath dive. We also feed on sea urchins, oysters, muscles, shellfish, scallops, crabs, and lobsters. Today Luke discovered hundreds of scallops in ten feet of water. He dove for them and brought us back a pot full of large ones.
I'm usually the spearfisherman, so today armed with my JBL 38 Special, it was my intent to bring back dinner for four people (we shared the beach with Paul and Sarah, a young couple from Canada). After fifteen minutes, I had speared a wrasse. I put it on my rope stringer and dragged it twelve feet behind me while looking for more. I missed a grouper and after an hour in the water started to think I would have to downgrade my selection. At that time, a school of large striped mullets swam by. I chose the largest one, took a big breath, and dove in on the fish that suddenly scattered in all directions. I shot the one I was aiming for and quickly swam to it to subdue it. I broke the surface of the water and added it to my rope stringer. I swam back toward Luke who was still opening large scallops when suddenly a strong pull on the stringer took me underwater. Scared and after swallowing sea water, I quickly looked down and noticed that my rope was bending below a rock. At the end my wrasse was still tied to the line higher up, but the bottom two feet with the striped mullet had disappeared into a hole under a rock. I pulled strongly to break free and regain the surface. I understood it was probably a large moray eel and that by pulling hard it would cut the rope. It didn't on the first try.
I was already out of breath and had drunk too much seawater. I was in a hurry to regain the surface that was only a foot above my head. Before I could break loose, another large moray eel swam right at me. Frightened, I gave a strong jerk, broke free and coughed and breathed all I could. Already the large moray eel was biting the tip of my fins. I fended it off with the tip of my spear, but it kept coming back at me. I swam away on my back keeping the eel in sight. The moray kept biting my fins. I saw my rope and my mullet was gone. The other eel had swallowed it and cut half of the length of my string. The sharp teeth kept coming toward me and I did my best to swim on my back while fending off my aggressor with my spear. Thirty yards farther, the eel was still swimming three feet away from me. I had drunk much salt-water swimming backward with the waves entering through my snorkel. I was so distressed I even considered spearing the eel. It was six feet long and as thick as my calves so I quickly gave up on the idea. I rotated back on my stomach and swam away as fast as I could. After fifty yards I turned back and noticed I had finally dropped my harasser. At last I understood how birds feel when frigates harass them and steal their food. Once the adrenaline rush was over, I was first upset about my lost fish, but then amused about the whole experience. I swam back to shore to save my wrasse, warmed up and went back in to add to our dinner. Twenty minutes later I came out of the water with a nice pargo fish. Luke had already started to cook. We ate a late lunch of scallops and rice prepared with skill by Luke.
Today the moray eels taught me a lesson. When we get in the water to feed, we aren't just predators, we can also become prey. When sharks aren't around, moray eels are the frigate birds of the sea.
Read Luke’s Story:
From San Juanico Bay, we paddled into the tourist town of Loreto where we filled up on food and gossip before escaping to quieter grounds. On December 1st, we woke up at 4:30 AM and had a quick breakfast before finishing loading our kayaks. We were counting on a nearly full moon to ease the packing of our gear and paddling, but residual clouds from a storm that originated on the North Pacific coast obscured the sky. We started paddling at 5:30 AM in total darkness. Each paddle stroke stirred up an incredible amount of bioluminescence in the water. After passing the southern tip of Danzante Island, we paddled toward a few islets. The overcast sky was composed from a full array of colors, typical of the pre-sunrise glory in Baja. For a few minutes we saw the sun as it rose above the horizon line until it disappeared in the layers of clouds. We had made such an early departure to avoid the heat and paddle twenty-three miles to the village of Agua Verde. The rugged mountains along the shoreline reminded me of the beautiful peaks in the Grand Canyon area. And on the water we saw giant manta rays and a few large bat rays flipping in the air and falling flat on their stomachs with great splashes.
After an easy paddle we entered the protected bay at 1 PM. We landed next to a few panga boats and inquired about a place to get a meal. While we unloaded and pulled our kayaks up the beach, a man came to lead us to his sister's place for a meal. We crossed the village and weaved our way through goats and pigs and playing children. Each house was equipped with a solar panel. Agua Verde was immaculate and its inhabitants very friendly. We wondered why this village contrasted so much with the fishing camps we had seen. We later learned that locals were actually an indigenous group that had been assimilated into Mexican society and had recently received support from non-profit organizations for their schools, and solar plants.
A young woman named Veronica received us with a big smile. She had already started to cook us some tasty tortillas, filled with beans and White Sea bass. Her husband grabbed two limes from a tree that we squeezed over the grilled fish. Our host sat next to us and asked us many questions about the “where from” and “where to” of our kayak trip. Their little boy ran back from the tienda with two cold sodas. Our hosts were so talkative that with our limited Spanish we had a hard time understanding everything they said. We clearly felt like we had neglected our studies for too long. After our meal we paddled out to the next beach where we settled for the evening. As we set up camp, I was still thinking about the great advantages of the solar plants installed in this village. It is so much cleaner, cheaper, easier to maintain and quieter than a gasoline generator. I wondered why nobody else in northern Baja uses them.
In Agua Verde, we camped on a small isolated beach. We shared the poorly protected bay with a 30 foot aluminum yacht that was rocking with the swell. When the crew landed on the beach we introduced ourselves and asked if they could provide us a few gallons of fresh water. Yachts usually carry large supplies or use electric desalinators. We were invited aboard but in the chill of the evening, Luke preferred the warmth of his sleeping bag and chose not to go so I paddled alone to the yacht to meet Marco and his family—his elder daughter, his wife, their two children and their friend Pablo—for dinner. Born in Canada, Marco had spent all his life traveling. While making a movie in Fiji, he met his Indian wife. They got married and had two children. For a year and half they lived on their boat in Canada to prepare for their great sailing trip, which they had just started a few months ago. As the night fell, the strong wind produced more swell and the boat was rocking severely. Marco's wife and elder daughter were seasick. The rest of us dined on a huge lobster and exchanged diving and traveling stories. The family was soon going to make their way back to Fiji where they would live a more sedentary life. His little girl loved sailing, but his wife and little boy wanted a house with goats. So they decided to do both, have a house in Fiji for the mother and son to retreat to when they get sick of sailing, and use the boat to charter people and live a few weeks at a time on the isolated islands of the archipelago. After a fantastic evening I paddled back in the night with the small surf pushing me toward the beach.
Going to bed, I thought about our dinner conversation. Over the last few years I have met a few sailors like Marco and his family and I have thought a lot about their lifestyles. It seems wonderful to travel the world discovering the most beautiful hidden paradises and waiting for the end of a storm season hopping from one sheltered cove to another. Everyday you eat the fresh fish you catch. In the tropics you feed on various exotic fruits. You sometimes exchange services or goods like people used to do before using money. You discover new cultures and make new friends everywhere. Of course these are well known things to all world sailors but things often change with children. Children need special medical attention. They need to follow some sort of educational program. They need to interact with other children and they need to run around. Many people think that all these reasons don't allow them to set off on a sailboat for a few years around the world with their children. And if they were to do it, they would probably be much criticized. The few people who actually do it usually say it is fantastic and all these difficulties are easily offset by the great lifestyle and learning experiences they get with their families.
When I meet these ocean runners, I like to talk to their children and find out what their experiences are. Some love it, but the few who easily get seasick don't enjoy the sailing part. All seem to love the beach, swimming with dolphins, sea turtles and sea lions, snorkeling among colorful fish, collecting shells, and making friends everywhere. Correspondence classes have long been a substitute to school, but required a lot of dedication from the parents. The computer age has come and with Internet and new software, it is now easy to bring a full classroom on board, and soon it might even be possible to do live video conferencing with better satellite phones! In addition kids interact with children from various countries and are exposed to new cultures and languages. They instinctively learn what takes us years to comprehend or memorize. They see and feel the best of all. They replace TV and electronic games with the natural joys found in nature. Wildlife becomes their pets, the ocean their garden, and new countries their geography books. You don't send them to get milk in a store. They dive from the boat and spearfish, catch lobsters, collect conch and many other seafood delicacies. Beaches are their playgrounds where they play with hermit crabs, run after seagulls, and build the castles of their fantasies. I like seeing children on tropical shores; they all have something in common, a smile and joie de vivre I rarely notice in the city. Is this because they lead a simple life in nature or the fact that their parents are always there to be parents and teachers and babysitters don’t take their place? I'm not sure but it certainly seems like a beautiful way to bring up kids. I wonder why so few people who could, actually try to do it and why so many still criticize it. Maybe they have forgotten the joy they experienced as a small child catching their first fish. Maybe they just forgot to live themselves, prisoners of a society or modern comforts that become so difficult to escape.
I set my watch to ring at 4 AM. The wind was blowing hard and it was cold so Luke re-set it for 5:30 AM. We got up, packed the kayaks and ate tortillas with our last piece of cheese before starting paddling. We waved goodbye to Marco and his family and disappeared behind the point. Something was wrong with my seat. I was offset on one side and in less than fifteen minutes I started to develop lower back pain. I signaled Luke I was going to try to land on the small gravel pit we saw between the cliffs on which the surf was exploding with high splashes. The gravel beach was so steep the waves were not breaking on it, they were just moving up and down the shore. I surfed straight onto the beach, jumped out of the kayak and pulled it up a foot or two. Luke followed while I was fixing my problem. We launched back in the opposite manner. We sat in our kayak resting on the very steep beach with our back facing the ocean. After putting on our spray skirts, we let a large wave take us away. It was the first time we had to do a reverse launch and we were not sure we could maintain our balance into the wave while going backward, but we had no other choice. We couldn’t possibly turn the kayaks around on this steep beach without unloading half of the gear. This was a clear disadvantage of the folding skin kayaks. We had planned to do a twenty-mile crossing to Isla Santa Cruz, but Luke worried about the sea conditions. The duct tape we set to fix our spray skirts didn't hold and they were leaking a lot. Our sea socks also took some abuse. Going to Santa Cruz meant facing crosswind with waves hitting our port side for twenty miles. We could give to the wind and surf a little, but we were going to be soaked and our boats would be full of water. We would have to pump the water out every fifteen minutes and waste a lot of time and energy doing so. We decided to change our plans and make a straight line to a point thirteen miles South called Punta Botella. We still had to pump the water out of our kayaks every few minutes and knew we would have to find a way to fix our sprayskirts before doing anymore paddling toward La Paz. Luckily that day the swells were only three to four feet high. If it had been bigger we would have spent more time pumping than paddling. A beautiful red mountain of sandstone marked Punta Botella. The small bay was well protected, but this jewel of the Sea of Cortez wasn't entirely secret. We saw a large Palapa (thatch roof) with four tents and kayaks. The four middle-aged men, expat residents of Baja, chose a new spot to paddle and fish for a week every year. We joined them for their last night and exchanged good stories.
While a motor boat they had arranged for picked up our new friends we decided to stay an extra day. We liked our red sandstone mountain enough that we decided it was the perfect place to catch up on some reading and writing. In the late morning, three fisherman set up camp a hundred yards from us on the other side of a sandstone wall. We introduced ourselves and I asked them what they were fishing. They were waiting for nightfall to catch sea cucumbers, lobsters, and fish. When I explained that in two months we had only been able to catch one small lobster. They laughed saying they could get twenty-five kilos in one night. I asked if I could come along. They accepted but the equipment they used was more appropriate than the one I had. They had thick three-piece wetsuits and very powerful lights. I only had a two-millimeter suit and a shorty to wear on top and no real diving light, but they assured me I would be fine as long as I didn’t dive too long.
In the afternoon, while Luke was off with his kayak to try the new rod we got on loan from the four expatriates, a large, abrasive Mexican man landed on our beach. He walked toward me like a movie caricature of a bad guy. In a very imposing fashion he introduced himself as Manuel. I instantly knew he was the notorious thief we had been warned of by numerous sailors. Fishermen also disliked him. They call him "loco cabron" which we later learned was a bad insult. Not receiving much attention from me, he left after asking too many questions. Luke returned after meeting him on the water and having a similar experience. Later he came back and our fisherman friends quickly hid their valuable equipment, especially their spearguns. If you ever visit the area, stay away from Manuel. He is a notorious bandito. After he left we coated the inside of our spray skirts with some silicon glue which we spread using a flat shell. We hoped it would patch all the leaks and allow us to paddle safely to La Paz where we would have to get new equipment.
In the end of afternoon just when the clouds traded their white colors for hues of pink, our fisherman neighbors Moniko, David, and Pedro came to pick me up for the evening fishing. I loaded all my freediving gear and a dry bag with a change of clothes in their boat. Luke stayed at the camp to keep an eye on all our belongings. We knew Manuel was around. We rode the panga for eighteen miles. From the water the landscape was spectacular. The half-overcast sky provided one of the most magnificent sunsets. The sharp mountain shadows in the background were giving the last touch. It was almost too perfect to look natural. It could have been a closing scene from a Hollywood movie. The seventy-five horse power engine was roaring and although the sea was calm, small waves slammed the panga hard enough to shake the entire fiberglass bottom which I worried would disintegrate. The engine was too noisy to have a conversation. When we arrived at the foot of a cliff, David killed the engine while Pedro and Moniko put on their layers of wetsuits. They carried a secondary motor. It looked old and rusty and I had not realized it was a diving air compressor. From it they fixed two fifty-yard long plastic tubes and attached at the end a couple of scuba diving second-stage regulators. It would worry me to dive on such an old machine, but that's all they knew. They threw all the hoses overboard and spent the next ten minutes undoing all the knots. When their breathing apparatus was finally ready, they donned the rest of their gear. We would all dive solo while David would stay in the boat to prevent the floating hoses from tangling and to check on the compressor. It was a demanding job, as he had to restart the engine every three minutes for thirty seconds to move the panga from one diver to the other.
Moniko had briefed me on their light signals. When we wanted to approach the boat, we surfaced and flashed twice so David could position the boat and unload us. David saw that I was ready, he laughed at my small headlight and handed me his big dive light, then gave me the signal to dive. I rolled back in the water and started my solo freedive in the night. Moniko and Pedro both took their spearguns although their main focus was the large sea cucumbers resting on the bottom of the ocean. Once prepared, they can sell these strange sea creatures for eight times more money than any fish. They dropped down to sixty feet and started their collection. I freedove by them a few times to check them out, but couldn't stay more than a few seconds, so I swam to a shallower area where rocks were covering the bottom fifteen feet under me. All I could see was where the beam of my light was aiming. I was looking for lobsters exclusively; I didn’t want to waste my time with fish in waters I was told were full of crustaceans. I had never dived for lobsters before so Moniko told me three techniques. One is to catch both antennas at the base with one hand (the other hand holds the light and the gun). If you miss the base, the antennas will break, he said. The lobster will grow them back but your plate will be empty. An easier way is to spear them with either only one band, or just to stab them with the full gun used as a pole spear.
Too happy to see my first one after fifteen minutes, I speared it and struggled to put it in my homemade goodie bag. The bug was gripping the mesh with all its legs, not allowing me to stuff it in. For the second one I used the hand technique. It worked but as it snapped its tail, one of the crustacean spines pierced through my glove and skin. I didn’t have enough hands. In one I gripped the light and my speargun, and tried to hold the goodie bag open with a lobster already inside. With my other hand I held the new lobster and tried to pull the goodie bag open with little success. I sent a light signal to David and swam to the boat. He grabbed my bugs (lobsters' nickname) and I returned to my night hunt. It was amazing, at night in the beam of the light, the lobsters eyes flashed like yellow gemstones. I first didn't notice them unless their antennas were out, but then I started to see them better and understand their favorite hiding spots. I stayed in the water for nearly two hours and only stopped when I was freezing. The wetsuit thickness I was wearing was clearly insufficient for night dives at this time of the year. I returned to the panga after catching seven lobsters.
I quickly changed in the dark and grabbed my flashlight. One section of the boat was full of sea cucumbers. There were about thirty kilos of those invertebrates. In the front of the boat were fifteen large parrotfish, a couple of giant pargo fish, a few sea bass, and various other fish. Monico and Pedro had not wasted their time underwater. They returned ten minutes later with their last load and also had over a dozen of lobsters. We returned back to our beach, trying to protect ourselves from the wind of the panga motoring under full power. Luke was sleeping when we got there, but he woke up for a lobster feast. Our friends fried most of the lobsters. It was our first all you can eat lobster dinner. Luke pulled out the tequila bottle he had saved and squeezed a few limes to make a margarita everybody praised. We finished the evening around the fire boiling the sea cucumbers to prepare them to be sold. The day had been great, the night dive a success, the dinner divine, the margarita deadly, and the companionship excellent. I went to bed with dreams of freediving and lobsters with the taste still in my mouth.
The next morning, I went with the fisherman to pull the nets out of the water. The placement had not been good and the only fish caught was a dangerous stonefish. We returned to camp and had a breakfast of the remaining lobsters. In just a few hours I had learned a lot from our new friends. Maybe the most important, was the technique to easily pack lobsters underwater. Instead of fighting with the legs of the bug gripping the mesh bag, a half twist of the tail around the head kills the animal instantly and leaves us with the tail only which is easy to store. I also learned a more efficient technique to gut large size fish, and that to improve our yields, we needed a more powerful dive light. Our friends stayed another day, while we resumed paddling south.
In the morning, the wind maintained its power, but because it came in gusts, the swell wasn't very big. The sea looked white with breakers but manageable. We paddled out of the protected bay and were hit by the gusts. We decided to ferry angle aiming east in order to end up in our southeast destination. In the last few weeks I took it as a challenge to use the waves to my advantage no matter which direction they were rolling. I've started to understand how to surf the side swell with crosswinds. I even learned how to surf down the backside of swells when they don't break. More and more I preferred rough conditions to calm water. Most of my apprehension about capsizing disappeared, even with an overloaded kayak. The Sea of Cortez served us well as a training ground and we felt ready to paddle the rougher Atlantic coast of Honduras and Nicaragua.
We surfed more and soon had the lighthouse on sight with a small, inhabited island in the background. It was Isla Coyote. We paddled directly to it. The little islet wasn't longer than hundred and fifty yards and no wider than seventy-five. It was a rocky hill that hosted a dozen houses. We landed on it and were greeted by fishermen Jose and his son Umberto. We talked for a couple of hours as we learned that Jose was a friend of Jacques Cousteau. The famous French Marine Scientist had often visited him on Coyote when he was in the Sea of Cortez. The interesting thing is that Cousteau had significantly influenced me when I was a child. I saw his documentary on the Amazon when I was eleven or twelve. After watching that movie numerous times, I knew I would spend time in the rainforests as an adult. Realizing we had a common bond, Juan and I immediately hit it off.
Six families totaling twenty-seven people lived there. All the residents were very friendly. The island was equipped with solar panels and a desalination plant that looked like a big pyramid-shaped green house. There was a small school with orcas and whales painted on its blue walls. When we left the island Jose offered us some filets of Pargo fish. We paddled to the South West point of isla San Francisquito where we set up camp. The place was charming and peaceful. Paul, a kayaking guide on a solo trip had joined us the day before and took Luke’s turn as the kitchen chef. He grilled the filets in aluminum foils with fresh garlic and onions over the red coals, and we feasted as the sun set projecting another magical array of colors in the clouds.
On December 9, we took a rest day on the island of San Francisquito. In the morning the wind died. We took a long breakfast and decided to chill out for the day. It was our first non-windy day since Loreto. We planned to have our kayaks ready by nightfall in order to get up very early the next morning for our longest open-water crossing in Baja. We could barely see the shape of Isla Partida twenty nautical miles away. It was almost the last island before reaching the mainland beach of Tecolote. This meant that we would very soon be in La Paz and once again I had mixed feelings about that. The adventure wasn't over, only the first leg of our expedition. In fact the adventure was soon going to reach a higher level. The tropics were certainly going to be more challenging in every way. The seas would get bigger. Tropical diseases would become a concern and so would people. Insects would probably start pestering us, but landscape, wildlife and cultures would also be more diversified. So it wasn't the feeling of the end of the journey that was disturbing me, it was the idea of being in a large city with traffic noise and pollution. Reaching the first city with a population of 200.000 since we left San Diego didn’t appeal much to me, but the idea of a hot shower, an ice cream, and nice bed compensated.
The alarm rang a first time but nobody moved. Two minutes later it rang again but still nobody moved. The wind was blowing hard and there were a few clouds obstructing our view of the stars and the half moon. It was cold and after the third alarm bell, we reluctantly resolved to get out of our warm sleeping bags. It took us an hour to eat some breakfast and finish loading our kayaks. At 4 AM we were on the water ready to paddle out of the protected bay. We knew a lighthouse marked the north end of the Partida Island twenty nautical miles away, but as a backup I had entered the GPS coordinates of our destination. The mainland was 30 miles away and not even visible during daytime. In the dark we paddled along the west shore of San Francisco Island. Our party of three was composed of Luke and I, the two members of the CASKE 2000 expedition, and the third member was Paul, a kayaking guide in Alaska who was doing a solo crossing of the Sea of Cortez. We had met Paul a few days ago, and he asked to join us for this crossing as he didn’t feel he could attempt it by himself, but thought that island hoping would be more interesting than paddling along the coast.
The swell was big. It's difficult to say how big it really was in the pitch dark. We felt it pushing us up and down, usually from the back; sometimes from the side, but in the night we couldn't really see. When we reached the south end of our island, we couldn’t see the lighthouse that was supposed to guide us to our destination. The sea was too rough. All we could see was the black ocean disappearing in the obscurity of the night sky. I tried to check my GPS, but the rechargeable batteries died. Luckily I had another set at hand and once set, I took a compass bearing. We had to paddle at 126 degrees. With my headlamp on I checked the compass and aimed at the stars in that direction. Luckily the wind and waves were in our back. We surfed the high swell in the dark. Luke found the darkness too intimidating and expressed his worries. Paul seemed to feel comfortable with the conditions, and I loved it. The motion of the waves in the dark was awakening a new sense in me. I let the swell push me and focused on the stars. Sometimes they disappeared behind clouds. I checked the compass a few times and readjusted our course to compensate for the earth's rotation and slight displacement it produced on my reference stars. After an hour the wind worsened. The swell grew bigger. The stars disappeared long before daybreak leaving me without any reference to look at and it was still too dark for me to be able to continuously stare at the compass. Holding the flashlight while paddling was impossible and leaving it on my forehead was uncomfortable, so I tried to keep the best bearing possible using nothing more than feelings.
When the sun rose, we had no land in sight. No islands south, no more islands north, and no mainland to the west. We were just the three of us in our small kayaks in the middle of the ocean with large swells pushing us harder and harder. I took another GPS reading instructing me that we had to follow a new bearing of 135 degrees. This meant that we drifted slightly or maybe paddled slightly off course, but considering the conditions, I was pleased about our position. The waves became visible and we estimated they were constant eight-foot rollers with occasional ten footers breaking into foam. We surfed for a while and when I sighted the island 6 miles away, I adjusted our course again.
As I was a surfing down a nice curling wave, I heard Luke's voice in my back: "Man overboard, man overboard!" I turned back and saw Paul upside down in the water. He tried to roll but was unsuccessful, by the time we reached him he was out in the water. After flipping his kayak back up, he raised his stomach over his cockpit and waited for me to hold his kayak to get back in. Luke pulled up to the other side and helped keep Paul’s kayak steady. Once full of water, a kayak is extremely unstable, and it is much easier to capsize again than it is to stay up, especially in the heavy sea conditions we were paddling. To make things more challenging, Paul's kayak was a narrow performance craft and what it provided in speed, it lacked in stability. After putting his spray skirt on, I pumped the water out of his cockpit with the bilge-pump inserted from the top of his skirt. To quickly remove the water from his kayak, there was no other way but to pump all the water toward me. In less than a minute I too was soaked and cold so we quickly resumed paddling.
The waves were excellent for surfing. Once, I caught a big one and rocketed down, jumping over a smaller cross-wave. Except for the tip of my stern, my boat caught some air. I really had a great time, it was my best kayaking day and I loved every wave as they grew bigger and bigger. After dawn Luke started to enjoy the surfing conditions as well. We later learned that in the night, with no visible land references, Luke suffers from slight motion sickness, which doesn’t usually affect him during daytime unless the conditions are very rough. Paul had regained confidence after his capsize and we were making good progress toward our destination. Four miles before reaching the island I heard again: "Man overboard, man overboard!" When I turned back Paul was rolling back up. He was all right but shaken by his last capsize. He had not seen it come. Our friend was shell-shocked and not responding well anymore, I could see that fear had inhibited his paddling. When we saw Paul losing it, we feared for the worst and tried to offer him all the moral support we could. It was impossible to tow someone with these waves. We paddled the rest of the day keeping Paul between us to reassure him that we could assist him in a couple of seconds if he capsized again. Our Feathercrafts, if not the best surfing boats, were quite stable. At 10:30 AM we landed on Partida Island. We were cold and tired, but happy about our crossing. We were just one island away from the end of our full Baja crossing. We enjoyed the rest of the day on this beautiful beach, which we knew might be our last unspoiled camp.
We paddled to the famous island of Espiritu Santo. Closest to La Paz with Partida, those two islands are famous kayaking grounds but the wind was very strong and gusty and the sea was rough. We didn't see any other kayakers and had the island to ourselves. Only large fishing boats and a couple of yachts were sheltered in the numerous bays. The sharply cut island had many bays protecting beautiful sand beaches and turquoise blue water. We set up camp in the bay North of Punta Prieta. The wind refracted on mountains and kept coming at us from different directions. As we were eating dinner, the gusts were so strong we were sand blasted with tiny shell particles and ate a very crunchy meal. We went to sleep completely enclosed in our bivouac shells to shelter ourselves from the flying sand.
We woke up with the same sand blasting we had experienced the night before. We read in bed until the sun rose over the mountain that was keeping us in the shade. In the last two weeks, the night temperatures had dropped significantly and we appreciated the warmth of our sleeping bags and bivi-sacs. We started our last crossing of the Sea of Cortez later than usual. We only had seven miles to paddle to reach Tecolote beach, a tourist destination eleven miles from La Paz. The sea was covered with white caps, but because the wind was so gusty, the swell wasn't very big when we started paddling. The kayak surfing conditions were good and occasional series of much larger waves provided excellent rides.
I felt so much more confident than a few weeks before that I always paddled aggressively to ride every wave I could. A few times large surf took me by surprise. On one wave when I felt the stern of my kayak rising, I put all my power into my strokes until my bow pitched down so much it went underwater for a few seconds. Before I knew it, I was looking straight down and gained tremendous speed. I steered to the right and looked up, a wall was curling over me. The top of the wave was well above my head. I was in a tube. I instantly understood it was going to smash me down and roll me over and I was already trapped under. Still at high speed, I went into a brace and leaned my full body into the wave that broke over me with impressive power. The next thing I remember is that my head was underwater but I was still bracing as hard as I could, fighting to stay up. After five very long seconds I surfaced and the rest of the wave passed below me. I was still right side up in my kayak, surprised but enthralled, I resumed paddling frantically. I had just paddled through a full tube for the first time and this in open ocean with a fully loaded deck. I'm not sure how or why I didn't capsize, but I felt proud and was all pumped up after that wave. I waited for Paul and Luke and caught a few more nice surfs, but nothing came close to what I had experienced there.
As we approached the mainland, we noticed two beaches, a long one with palapas that had to be Tecolote, and a small deserted one enclosed in a small bay to the west. We first had planned to land on Tecolote to eat in a restaurant, but the waves looked very big and were crashing on the beach. We decided to try the small bay. The waves were the same size but seemed to break farther offshore. We landed without any problems and after lifting our kayaks up, we walked over the hill to Tecolote for a well-deserved meal. After lunch we returned to our small beach and enjoyed our last evening under the stars before reaching La Paz, our final Baja destination.
Paddling the 11miles to La Paz was the most boring paddle of the full trip. The sea was too calm, there wasn't much scenery other than signs of industrialization and the weather was overcast. When we reached the Marina de La Paz we pulled our kayaks out of the water with the intent to store them for a few weeks. We finished our Baja paddle after nine weeks and 570 nautical miles (656 statute miles).
We enjoyed Baja for its remoteness, wilderness and people. We saw many marine animals like dolphins, whales, killer whales, sea lions, Manta rays, Bat rays and Sting rays, sharks, moray eels, sea turtles, and incredible fish such as large schools of yellowtails, predatory roosterfish, bonito and others. The Birds were also an integral part of the environment. Pelicans and seagulls were everywhere and we often sighted Turkey vultures, frigates and black and blue-footed boobies. We also occasionally saw other birds such as herons, white and black egrets, ospreys, loons, grebes, cormorants, oystercatchers and sanderlings. In addition to delicious fish we ate crabs, sea urchins, scallops, clams, oysters, tegulas (a shellfish), and lobsters that we gathered. On land we received nocturnal visits from numerous coyotes, a few ring-tailed cats and occasional kangaroo rats. The elusive animals we were hoping and expecting to see but never got the chance were scorpions, whale sharks and hammerhead sharks. Every morning we did our scorpion check by shaking our kayak shoes. I was always hoping to see a scorpion crawl out, like we often see in the movies, but it never happened. I guess the adventure isn’t always like in the movies. We lived it and we can say without hesitation that the Sea of Cortez was a special place that will remain etched in our memories.
1 km = 0.62 statute miles
1 Nautical Mile = 1.85 km
1 Nautical Mile = 1.15 miles
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