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.
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.
"Dreams are where adventures begin."
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.
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
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
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
(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
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
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
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
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
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.
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)