This article was first published in the Hobie Hotline in April 1991
Authors note: This trip took place many years ago, but to this day has had a lasting effect on my life. Like many of you, I fell in love with Baja California from my first trip there. If I were to write this story today, I would only change it to include more about the amazing people we met during our trip. When I think back, I remember how poignant each human interaction was . . .the adventure was fantastic, but it was the people we met that made it real. - g.j.
I can still remember the night we decided to create an adventure. My brother Brian was scrutinizing a map of Australia spread out on the floor while I explained the cardiovascular benefits of paddling long distances. Brian seemed lost in thought as I rambled on about all the great beaches to be found down under when, during a lull, he suggested sailing. To me, sailing seemed complicated and expensive. "Besides," I said, "we would have to learn how to sail first." That night, we agreed sailing would be the means for our adventure. The next decision was where? I suggested a circumnavigation of the Baja Peninsula as a test to determine if sailing around Australia was realistic. "Why not?" we thought.Two days later, Brian found a Hobie 14 for sale, which came complete with one free sailing lesson. The following weekend we had our lesson and became the proud owners of our first sailboat."Dreams are where adventures begin."
Soon after, we spent a painfully long weekend in Puerto Peñasco at a regatta, learning basic sailing skills in the great wind. We launched into the ocean for the first time and proceeded to pitch-pole the catamaran
. . .twice. In the second go-round, I flew into the wires and cracked a rib. And I thought when you crashed a sailboat you only got wet!
After receiving advice from the regatta winner, Brian and I spent the rest of the weekend practicing and watching some heavy-duty competition. We left Puerto Peñasco with more sailing skills and a tip on where to buy a Hobie 18, which we did. For our adventure we chose a course that would take us along 1100 miles of the Baja peninsula. Beginning at Puerto San Carlos in Bahia Magdalena on the Pacific, we would sail south to Cabo San Lucas, around the tip and back north to San Felipe in the Sea of Cortez. We planned to camp on the beach and obtain food and water from the villages along the way.
By the day we set sail from San Carlos, we had amassed nearly eight months of lake sailing experience, including three weekend trips to the Sea of Cortez. We had designed our adventure to be full of excitement and thrills; enough to test our skills and courage, yet undertaken with sufficient care to ensure our safety. One goal was very important:to complete this adventure on our own, with no ground support crew or reliance on a prearranged safety network other than scheduled phone calls.We intended to deal with any situation in which we landed. We packed Stohlquist dry suits, a hand-inflatable two-person raft, waterproof emergency flares, a strobe light and a class B emergency position indicating radio beacon (EPIRB). We also took along a small hand-operated desalinator water maker designed by Recovery Engineering, Inc.
We reinforced the bottom of the catamaran hulls with extra fiberglass just in case there were no sandy beaches in sight. We also added portholes behind the rear beam to provide access to the rudder area in case of severe damage. Here, we stored a small fiberglass kit. Thanks to the Sailboat Shop in Tempe, Arizona we were able to afford the supply of spare parts necessary for our adventure. We were also able to equip our boat with wings, increasing our comfort and stability.
We arrived in Puerto San Carlos after a three-day drive from Tucson. We camped on the beach and awoke to a cool and hazy day.
After saying goodbye to our parents and sailing off into the Pacific, we realized
our adventure had begun.
We were truly on our own. Our daily routine quickly became habit. Waking at sunrise, we would eat breakfast and then pack our gear on board. We usually launched by 7:30, never knowing how far the wind would take us. Our third day out brought several surprises. At noon, we spied a small pod of California Grey whales headed north. We came about and followed for a bit before they disappeared into the big blue. Later, we had a visit from three curious dolphins that surfed down the swells alongside us. Their knowing eyes and mellow smiles helped us feel at ease in the big ocean.
After sailing nearly 70 miles, the day was about over, but one more surprise awaited us as we headed for shore and our evening camp. The wind was dying; the sun neared the horizon. There were plenty of sandy beaches for miles up and down the coast. Any spot seemed fine. We caught a swell and began to surf in toward a beach as we had done so easily the night before. Suddenly, we realized the beach was a bit steeper and large swells were pounding down with a force much different from that on our smooth beaches the nights before.
Too late! The bows hit the beach and the Cat stopped dead. The steep beach, along with our 300 pounds of food and gear, made moving the boat out of the thundering breakers impossible. We had no choice but to scramble offshore before we lost our battle with the mammoth waves. The wind was almost gone and the sun was a red ball on the horizon. We had anchored ourselves to a nearby lobster trap buoy and sat in the silence listening to the large swells breaking on the beach. It would be dark soon.
We had a choice of spending the night on the ocean or going into shore next to four fishermen we saw down the beach, hoping they would lend us a hand getting the catamaran safely up the beach. It didn't take long to decide. We headed toward shore. As soon as we hit the sand, Brian and I jumped off and held on for all we were worth. We needed every bit of our strength to keep the boat from turning sideways and rolling in the surf. Observing our struggle, the fishermen ran to help us. As they held the catamaran, Brian and I quickly removed the gear and moved it to the top of the beach. Then, with six of us pulling, we managed to the move the sailboat up the beach and out of the breaking waves. Thanking the fishermen, Brian and I sat down in silence; our hearts still pounding and our minds not quite believing how close to disaster we had come. A broken rudder pin was our only damage. We had left on this adventure looking excitement. It hadn't taken long to find it: three days, to be exact.
To avoid a similar episode the next day we decided to sail the remaining 70 miles to Cabo San Lucas, even if it meant sailing into the night. By late evening we still had 20 miles to sail as we watched the sun set over the Pacific. As we were overtaken by the darkness, the fear that crept into me was incredible. What we lost in light we gained in wind and soon we were racing down the swells in a surreal nightmare of wind and waves. On our left, the swells crashed on an impossible beach. On our right, the ocean merged into the darkening sky. I skippered while Brian attached our life vests and survival packs. I kept asking him in a fear-choked voice to furl the jib, which he did upon finally realizing pitch poling had become a realistic possibility.
Trying to ease the tension, Brian jokingly suggested sailing on to Mazatlan. At last we spied the light beacon at Cabo Falso, and soon after, we spotted the welcome lights of Cabo San Lucas. What a day. What a ride! As we neared the bay in the moonless night, the wind died and the water calmed, giving us an anticlimactic paddle through the neon green bioluminescence to the shores of Cabo San Lucas. After two enjoyable days in Cabo San Lucas sharing sailing rides with newfound friends and relaxing on the beach, we packed our fresh supplies and sailed off toward La Paz and whatever adventures awaited us in-between.
Sailing by Punta Palmilla, we were treated to the sight of a Grey whale heading toward summer waters. Every few minutes it launched its body out of the water and came down with a huge splash. We gazed in awe at the antics of such a large mammal from such close quarters. This was one reason for our adventure to Baja.
The deeper we sailed into the Sea of Cortez, the smaller the refracting Pacific swells became. Near Cabo Los Frailes, the shores became catamaran-friendly. It seemed all we would need to worry about now was the wind. At Cabo Pulmo, we camped on a rancher's seaside pasture. In the morning, the rancher and his curious cows came to investigate our strange boat and find out if we were okay. He told us the wind didn't blow much at this time of the year (it was May) and then asked where our motor was.
The winds had been good to us on our journey south. Now, heading back north, we had to reach into the still prevailing and light northwest winds. Brian and I began to settle into small arguments about how long each tack should have been. It didn't really matter, but being at the mercy of the wind and waves began to cause tension between us.
After five sailing days from Cabo San Lucas, we reached a village named Los Barriles. Our water supply was low and we craved a hot shower. We landed near some vacation homes and asked an older gentleman where to find water and food. He smiled and pointed up the beach 200 yards. There we found another home away from home. Martin Verdugos R.V. Park it was called and there we found many friendly people, along with our long-awaited hot water shower.
It didn't take long for our story to travel around the camp. That night, we were guests of honor at a burger bash. We had discovered a little spot of heaven; the human contact we needed and it was a welcome respite from our self-inflicted watery woes. We stayed two days at Martin Verdugos, indulging in countless hot showers and reorganizing our equipment. The time to leave came much too soon. Our new friends posed for a group photo and then helped us launch into the light morning breeze. I felt a lump grow in my throat as our friends became dots on the beach.
Sailing slowly north, it seemed not a day went by without glimpses of dolphins and sea lions. Many times we startled a dozing sea lion and then became its object of curiosity for a few moments. In La Paz, we met two friends vacationing from Phoenix. In exchange for camping on their hotel room floor, Brian and I chauffeured them on a catamaran excursion to Bahia de La Paz, where we encountered some friendly dolphins. Our sea visitors remained long enough for Brian to don his mask and snorkel and join them for a photo session in their own domain. Leaving La Paz the next morning we saluted Cliff, a North American who owns an 18-year-old catamaran on which he has affixed his own style of wings using plywood and outdoor carpeting. We had raced him a few times in the bay, but I think all the duct tape holding his sailboat together slowed his soggy craft.(Ed. Cliff spent much of his time living on El Mogote, using his catamaran as transportation to La Paz and back. He died in about 1998.)
Taking a shortcut across Bahia de La Paz, we spent a night on Isla Espiritu Santo. The following morning, we were greeted by a howling wind blowing straight into our cove. We surveyed the wind and waves as we packed our gear. Thinking how scary it actually appeared, I commented, "It doesn't look too bad." "Yeah," Brian replied. "So why don't you skipper?" I asked him, holding my breath. "Okay." We had to wade 200 feet in low tide before Brian could climb on, and another 200 feet until he could lock a rudder down. As we maneuvered, the waves grew larger, making it difficult to hold the boat. By the time we finally began to move, I was up to my shoulders in the rolling surf. We picked up speed and prepared to come about, a tricky move amid five-foot waves. Just as we came around, a wave passed beneath us. We thought we were flying a hull, but we looked down to find we were sailing the length of the wave. Suddenly a gust hit. The leeward bow buried itself, submerging the gear bags and nearly tipping us over in exaggerated slow motion. With a turn of the tiller, Brian got us moving again, and soon we were smashing and bashing our way downwind past Isla La Partida and 25 miles of open water to a beautiful cove called San Evaristo.
North of San Evaristo, we sailed past half-mile-high cliffs of red, yellow and brown that reminded us of the desert southwest. It was a contrast seldom to behold: spectacular arid desert landscape combined with ocean wilderness. Near Tembabiche, we experienced the strange and frustrating winds that would follow us all the way to San Felipe. One moment the wind was blowing 20-25 miles per hour from the northeast. Then it calmed. Ten minutes later it began blowing from the opposite direction at the same velocity. Brian and I began to accept the fact we would travel only as far as the wind allowed. My brother conjured up a Wind God with light fluffy hair, rosy cheeks and big puckered lips blowing in any and all directions at will. We prayed often to this mystical being.
Near the small village of Agua Verde, we shared a beautiful cove with a 52-foot monohull. After spending an hour aboard talking with the crew and taking in all the amenities, we wondered if we had gone too far back to basics. We consoled ourselves with the knowledge we couldn't have fit an icemaker and microwave on our 18 feet of catamaran. The next day, as the monohull motored blithely in light winds all the way to Puerto Escondido, Brian and I were left to paddle, float and scratch out a mere eight miles overall. In times of frustration, we would strip down and dive into the cool blue sea for a refreshing attitude adjustment. We ran out of water the following afternoon as we struggled to make Puerto Escondido in the inconsistent wind. Brian broke out our desalinator and began to pump. We weren't in a desperate situation, but it was nice to know neither would we die of thirst under the hot desert sun.
In planning our trip, we had talked of leaving the noise of modern life behind. We saw fast food, television and commercialism as symptoms of a sick and selfish society fast on its way to its own undoing. We felt it was time to escape the incoherent demands of modern life and run away to a place where we could find simplicity, if only for a while. We discovered our peace on Baja for a spell
. . .until we examined our surroundings.
Tourism appeared to benefit only a select few. Irresponsible land development was destroying the precious wilderness. It seemed the only people who were benefiting were the North American turistas, many of whom seemed to lack respect for, or understanding of, local laws and the pristine ecology of the desert and Sea. Although we sailed through a wilderness, Brian and I were constantly reminded of the desperation of human pressures upon this beautiful earth. Nearly every beach was littered with some kind of plastic or Styrofoam. Fish camps were cluttered with broken conch shells and discarded shells of endangered sea turtles.
Near Punta Colorado, we stopped near a small fish camp, and, as was our habit, stripped down and went for a short snorkel. As we crawled out of the water, naked and shivering, we were greeted by two young local fishermen. Brian and I dressed as they asked us questions in limited English. We responded in our limited Espanol. They invited us to their camp and, as we sat around the fire eating grilled triggerfish, they told us how they fished, about their "ski boat" and their families.
Ever onward, with a day of great wind, we made it to Mulegé. Our plan was to sail up the estuary of the Rio Santa Rosalia and camp at an RV park near the town center. The wind was blowing directly inland as we entered the estuary. The tide was low and the rudders kicked up, so we went to shore to pull down the mainsail and pick a route inland. As we cruised inland, under jib alone, Brian noticed power lines crossing the river up ahead. We went ashore again and debated taking the mast down or going for it. Taking no chances, we stepped down the mast and laid it along a hull. The wind was strong enough to blow our derigged Cat to our campground up the river at a fair clip. Our strange storage bags, funny looking boat and seemingly broken mast made us the object of several strange stares.
Later, we spent a day in Bahia Concepcion sailing and fishing. Although we didn't catch any fish, Brian successfully anchored the boat to an unknown submerged object with 40-pound test fishing line. Like a pirate, he dove into the water, knife in hand, to cut away the tangled line.
Sailing on toward Santa Rosalia, Brian caught a seven-pound tuna. We took Charlie with us to Punta Chivato, laid claim to a spot on the camper-crowded beach and began to fix lunch. While Charlie was frying, my eyes wandered slowly over the seascape. I noticed what looked like two very large dolphins slowly cruising near the shore. I pointed this out to Brian who exclaimed, "Those aren't dolphins. They're killer whales!" We grabbed our cameras and ran to shore, our attention divided between the killer whales and the panic-stricken snorkelers scrambling for shore. The whales were heading north. So, too, were we. Brian reminded me about the couple who spent 66 days at sea after killer whales had sunk their sailboat. We kept our eyes peeled that afternoon as we sailed onward, staying close to shore.
We began to feel impatience, a disconcerting need to make miles. This obsession, heightened by unpredictable winds, resulted in an unhappy frustration on the water. There were times with no wind and lots of paddling. Other times, the wind was too strong and gusty to sail safely at all. We learned how vulnerable we were and also how well our skills had developed since beginning our adventure.
Nearing Cabo Virgenes we passed in the lee of Volcan Las Tres Virgenes, which stands at 6,547 feet. The wind was incredibly gusty and constantly shifting. The waves attacked from two directions. Skipper Brian was keeping us close to the wind to avoid capsizing, so our progress was slow. Times were getting rough when we spotted the two killer whales 200 yards off our stern. We immediately zipped our dry suits. As I reached for my camera, I slipped off the front of the catamaran between the two hulls. Only my arms hooked around the beam saved me from being pulled under the sailboat by the incredible water pressure. After Brian hauled me aboard, we decided to head ashore before the wind got worse or the whales came for a closer visit. Barely creeping along in the howling offshore wind, we made it to a boulder-strewn shore, only to have an unlocked rudder re-lock and come straight down on a rock. The result was a broken rudder casting. Thanks to Brian's foresight and The Sailboat Shop, we had a spare casting and were able to make repairs in a matter of minutes. That night, we camped on a steep rocky shore. Two lines tied to large boulders held the boat from blowing down the steep shore and back into sea.
The next morning dawned with the same howling wind. We elected to sail anyway, and set off under jib alone. After an hour of making great progress, the wind died. We began to pull up the mainsail. Suddenly, the wind came up again, and we were forced to sail with a "reefed" main until we felt it was safe enough to turn dead to wind and pull the main the rest of the way up. The wind died about five miles offshore of Punta Trinidad. I was sitting on the hull, paddle in hand and feet dangling in the deep blue water, when I saw a dark wind line approaching -- churning line with scattered whitecaps that was moving toward us fast. Hearing the wind cry out in warning as it approached, I jumped up to don my dry suit when I felt a sharp knock on the boat. Brian yelled, "S**t." We looked aft only to see a ten-foot shark swimming away from the rudder it had hit. We had only a few minutes to put on our dry suits before the wind hit. When it did, we realized our day had just begun. The wind grew continually stronger and the waves higher. It was all we could do to lunch on an apple and generous amounts of seawater as we slowly made progress north. We finally had had enough. Our nerves were shot, and we were tired and hungry. In a repeat of the night before, we found ourselves once again on a rocky shore.
We spent a day in Bahia San Francisquito unwinding and exploring inland, then headed toward Bahia de Los Angeles. On the way, we watched 15 finback whales slowly cruising the surface and spouting as they surfaced from a dive. It was a refreshing change from their killer cousins. We sailed on past the many islands that once were only dots on our maps, knowing our adventure was nearing its end. San Felipe was only 140 miles away.
Approaching Punta Final, we found ourselves in a school of over 200 dolphins. They swam between the hulls and right below us as we sat on the wings. We turned dead to wind and jumped in the water to swim with them and listen to their eerie calls. We spent the evening talking with a North American couple who live in a trailer next to the beautiful beaches of the still unspoiled but accessible Bahia San Luis Gonzaga.
Passing Islas Las Encantadas, Brian and I could see the dirt road we had driven on with our parents, packed like sardines in the cab of their air-conditioned truck, on our way to begin the adventure. I remembered looking past the ocotillos and dry desert plain to the deep blue of the Sea of Cortez and wondering what it would be like to be out there on our own.
Passing the area five weeks and much excitement later, we now knew what we could only before imagine. We experienced the strongest winds of our journey at Punta Santa Isabele. Morning dawned chilly with a large lenticular cloud hanging over the mountains to the south. An offshore wind whistled through the rigging with an intimidating scream. We felt the push to end the trip soon and decided to sail under jib alone in order to make miles. The wind seemed stronger on the water, and though we were under jib only, we both were very tense. During several gusts, the windward hull became light, causing us to wonder aloud about our sanity. We didn't even know if our Cat was designed to sail without the structural support of the mainsail and boom-mainsheet system -- was it designed to be used this way? After one hour, we had sailed 12 miles under jib alone!
Our dream of perfect wind came true on our last sailing day. We traveled the 50 miles from Puertecitos to San Felipe in seven hours, enjoying a wind that allowed us to parallel the beach. My brother and I stepped onto the sand as the catamaran came to a stop on the shores of San Felipe. We patted each other on the back and stood, immobile, gazing around us, not really believing it was over. We had survived our trip and all it entailed. We had left hoping to be dependent only on ourselves and to get away from people, but it was ironic how important the people we met became to us. Brian and I created an adventure for ourselves; for our own little world inside our heads. We found a way to live simply for a time. In retrospect, all the effort put into making our adventure come true seemed a pittance in comparison to the experiences we had, the people we met, and the memories that will last a lifetime.Greg Joder (Joder@colorado.edu)
(Written in 1991)