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.
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.
We now have a routine. We wake up at first light and stay in bed to admire the spectacle of the sunrise and wait for the air to warm up to a comfortable level. When the sun finally breaks the horizon line, a beam of orange glow lights our spot on the shore--the signal to get up. Luke fires up the camp stove and boils water for his coffee and my tea. We eat a breakfast of oatmeal and start packing.
It's always tough to start paddling. Our muscles are usually sore and feel very heavy, and Luke usually starts a little faster than I like. It takes me half an hour to warm up my back but once I do, I take the lead. Lower back pain is a constant problem, so when the pain becomes unbearable, I usually accelerate and try to get my endorphins pumping. I can’t stop for more than a couple of minutes or the pain returns. Luke rarely comments, but I know that he would prefer a slower pace.
We never seem content with the paddling conditions. On rough days we hope for calm water. On glassy flat water we feel like we're not moving and wish for waves to make it interesting. I guess it’s just human nature; we’re never satisfied with what we have. Although paddling is very meditative, it’s difficult to stay focused for the entire five hours.
Usually while I paddle, ideas flash like high speed images and I forget them right away as my mind is drawn to the next one. Sometimes I settle on a thought and go deeper. I contemplate what it really means to be alive. I imagine that I'm 90 years old, lying on my deathbed, reviewing my life and trying to appreciate my accomplishments.
I'm still not sure what I will need to accomplish during the next few decades to feel satisfied, but I know what will not satisfy me. Something I read recently by Joseph Campbell appeals to me. He says that immortality comes from what we bring to life, our contribution in our own time and how it remains and influences others after our death. We know what Mozart and Bach gave us. Some people raise children who will leave their mark. Some like Gandhi will be remembered as great spiritual leaders, while others like Hitler will be remembered for atrocities they committed and pain left behind. Many people keep low profiles, but their contributions are no less important. What they do everyday and how they do it will still influence the world around them.
Most of us just follow patterns and systems that have been provided to us. I don't believe we contribute much to life by allowing dictators, politicians and CEOs to set rules and direct our lives. I choose not to live within those systems because I don't belong there. That is one of the reasons why I'm here. We can't choose the assets or genes we are born with and we have limited control over our childhood learning. Education, upbringing and society influence us deeply and shape us as adults, but I don’t believe that those should be the only factors that make us who we are. As individuals we should have more choices; only computers are programmed to always behave in the same way in a specific situation. We have the ability to think and sort through the data we receive and. questioning things ought to be a part of learning. There is no truth other than the one found in oneself after a full life. If in fifty years I feel satisfied with my contribution to life, I will have found my truth. We are all capable of becoming the people we aspire to be.
Although I’m far from sure, I feel that I'm moving in the right direction. I believe in this cause and all the effort it requires. Paddling time becomes personal philosophy time for me. Even if I can't pinpoint now what I'll do after this voyage, I still feel it is an important step in my life. People have often asked me questions that made me wonder what I am doing with my life. I have decided that my wanderings raise questions about cultures and lifestyles. That is important—it’s my role and I embrace it.
Bob and Eric, aged 24 and 25, are on their first long expedition in a foreign country. I asked them, "What do you really want to do in the next few years?"
Bob answered, "I want to do something like this with my parents and my brother."
It was a beautiful answer, prompting us to speak about relationships. Traveling in foreign countries for an extended period of time gives a new outlook on life back at home. A new culture and language help us see things in a different light; it is an interesting exercise to note cultural similarities and differences and then accept them. In this day and age, our reasoning should not be influenced by an insular monoculture, but rather by a much grander mélange of complexities and contradictions. It makes us more tolerant. After many years of traveling or living abroad, ways of thinking change, sometimes making it more difficult for people we used to know to relate to us. People who remain behind often maintain the same lifestyles and the scope of their thinking expands little more than their circle of relationships allows. A person returning bubbles with new ideas and ways of seeing life. Some can't identify with these new thoughts and communication declines. It is always sad to see it happen between close friends but, with effort, the process can be reversed and a new level of communication can enhance understanding.
For the long-term traveler, even the notion of "home" is difficult to define. For many, home is where they were born, where they grew up or where they still have family. For others it is where they settle for life. For real travelers such "homes" don't exist. Home is where ever we are, especially if we feel comfortable there. Home is where there is an interest in and relationship with the local culture. Home is where it feels good to interact with the locals. Right now, my home is where my kayak takes me. It seems difficult for people to understand my answer when they ask: "Where are you from? Where is home?" They always expect a specific location and don’t seem satisfied with my response.
Human beings come from nomadic origins. As they began to settle, they also began to fight for their land, drawing imaginary boundaries called borders. Very few nomadic tribes remain today because these restrictions prevent their traditional lifestyles. In the same way, I am pressured to stop traveling. People have often asked, "When are you going to settle down?" And lately, they say, "Do you think you’ll ever settle down?" It seems ironic that people don’t understand that my lifestyle is merely a return to the original state of man.
Fear of the unknown, or perceived danger, is a powerful deterrent. It is interesting to hear people speculate about the dangers that we will face during an expedition like CASKE; they perceive it as just too risky. Yet these same people, exposed to comparable dangers in their daily lives, are either unaware or have accepted them as normal risks. The media often promotes this distorted notion of danger. A classic example is the question of shark encounters. People I meet always ask, "What about sharks?" My answer, "They're beautiful, aren't they?" throws them off. In reality, they are a miniscule threat--people at home have a far greater chance of being hit by a car than we do of being attacked by sharks. I'm much more concerned about stormy weather, malaria and insects.
I think about Eric and Bob as we paddle our “safe” route today. I understand why they made the crossing to Tiburon. I find their skill and courage inspiring. I’m glad they shared their stories with me. These are among the reasons that I feel so strongly about sharing our adventures online and making www.caske2000.org the best adventure site on the web. I want to broaden people’s understanding of what it is like to lead an adventurous life and perhaps even inspire them to try it themselves!
The only caveat is the commitment to train and prepare. Deciding to venture out into the wild world is only half of the equation. The follow through to make it happen safely and responsibly is the other half. What we did to get here required a monumental investment of time and energy. And now, having run through the entire philosophy of why I do what I do in a general sense, I find myself at peace with the specific reality of this expedition. The little things that bothered me when we started—the doubts about our physical condition and skills have been resolved. We are stronger every day. Our skills are better every day. Our investments are paying off. We are on the right path.
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.
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.
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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