Paddling with porpoise
“Ugh, a headwind.” I murmured to myself. “Of course it’s a head wind.” I’m at mile 200, 16 days into the trip without a day of tailwind. The forecast for the day was for the first “El Norte,” wind event. A powerful northern wind that howls down the Sea of Cortez from late fall to spring. But essentially, the strong tailwind I was prepared for, was halted by an unforecasted south wind. And for the first time on the trip, my frustration got the best of me.
The expletives came first, then the questions. “Why?” “What did I do to deserve this?” “What are you trying to tell me?” I screamed into the wind!
I am paddling the length of the Baja peninsula to raise awareness for the critically endangered Vaquita porpoise. With arguably only ten left, the time is now or never for their conservation. Only living in Baja’s Sea of Cortez, paddling the length of its coastline via my SUP, strapped down with dry bags full of camping gear seemed like the best and only way I could personally give back with the skills I have. But with me standing upright at 6’0”, fully loaded with two dry bags and five gallons of water, the headwind is turning my body into a sail that doesn’t want to push me southward.
I made it to a headland to help me block out the wind. A sigh of relief came over me then allowed me to visually see my next goal. If can get around this point that is sticking out to sea abruptly eastward, I should be able to ride the tailwind to town and a mouthful of much deserved town food and tacos that I’ve been salivating over for two weeks. But I had a lot of open water to paddle before the point was even within my crosshairs. I took a deep breath and began paddling to the point.
20 minutes in, all was going fine. The headwind from the south turned to a crosswind and slowly began helping me as I angled toward the point. I got half way into the bay when I instinctively looked back to marvel at my progress, when I saw it. A wall of white. A literal sea of whitecaps marching at me like Orcs marching on Helms Deep from Lord of the Rings. Until this moment, I had never seen anything like it. El Norte not just came early, but swift, and slammed me almost against the rocks of the point making me paddle as hard as I could.
I was losing. I was felled to me knees and dug as hard as I could to not wash up against the urchin and barnacle ridden boulders. More expletives came. Somehow, I was able to round the point, and for the first time in over two weeks, a tailwind pushed me southward.
I began laughing and looked far to the horizon to see the final point, ten miles down the coast, where town could be wafting the smell of al pastor and carne asada should the winds be that direction. But in the meantime, I gave standing up a go again and used my body as a sail to take me to town in the fastest speed of the trip. Again, all was going well, but I noticed over the next hour, the sea state began to deteriorate. Swells rose and the wind intensified.
Doubt slowly crept into my mind like it has each day of the trip, but fear also took hold. With each swell seeming to rise in height, I decided once again to fall to me knees for safety. If I were to capsize, I thought, if I were to lose my gear, the trip isn’t just over, but I could be in a survival situation. As I crumbled to me knees, in 3-4 foot wind waves and 20 plus knots of wind, it happened.
I caught an edge and flipped in a split second. Underwater, with my paddle in hand, I screamed, “No!” When I surfaced the bottom of the board lay skyward, with pressure dings and bumps and bruises, but no breaks or lacerations. The board is a tank. Somehow I quickly flipped the board over to see what I lost, and miraculously, nothing was gone and the strapping system Pau Hana designed isn’t just epic but trustworthy, and worked like a champion. I had enough and turned my board towards shore to beach and reassess. Throwing my gear onto shore with 3-4 foot waves breaking isn’t just hard but close to impossible. But I was able to unload and sat on the shore with expletives yet again.
Less than two hours of paddling away from town food, cold drinks, and comfort, Baja said no. There was a saying I learned up the coast 100 miles or so at the last town. “Baja is a four letter word, like Love, but also like Hell.” Doing research and daydreaming of a trip down the near thousand-mile peninsula, with over 15 years of traveling in Baja, Love was really all I knew of the place. Now on this beach, soaking wet and shivering, I am discovering the Hell that Baja can also be.
My trip had bundles of mishaps all twisted into it for the first 400 miles, but just like the tides of the Sea of Cortez, it always showed up for me to figure out how to deal with, then washed it all away to start over. I’m not sure what to honestly call my trip down the Baja peninsula on my SUP, but ultimately what it has been is life changing. It was a question mark the led me to it. Led me to obsess about it, and ultimately led me to start it.
This trip scared me. But that’s also why I was and still am attracted to it. Mexico is scary, Baja is scary, the sea is scary. I was pushed so far outside of my comfort zone that discomfort swallowed my comfortable self, digested it, then pointed and laughed at what I was before.
I could have opened with the story about how my portable desalination device stopped working and was worried about running out of water. I could’ve told you about the drug runners I had to hide from at 4am. The six days of dengue fever that stripped me bare of energy and body fat, or the 6.2 magnitude earthquake that shook me awake having me scramble in the dark to find higher ground for tsunami safety. And I could’ve also opened with how I had to hike 7 miles to get food because I had run out after already rationing for ten days, eating 1000 calories a day while burning 4000, and another severe El Norte wind event prevented and scared me from paddling to get help.
But on the other end of that spectrum, I could have opened with the blissful 24-mile day of paddling without a breath of wind and water so clear even Jacques Cousteau would have had to rethink a better quote than his aquarium statement. I could mention the coves that forced me to stop and enjoy butt naked without a soul in sight, and need to mention the quality of fishing without any competition other than the sea birds. The starry skies that captured my imagination, the pastel sunsets, and cool sunrises. The dolphins swimming up to say hello, the sea turtles that popped their heads up, or the curious coyotes surveying the scene.
It was everything I thought it would be and everything I didn’t want it to be wrapped up in a burrito no local Mexican vendor could replicate. It came with spicy, flavorful, bland, scary, and questionable stomach sounds and issues that somehow, despite all that, still makes me want to come back for more.
My stomach wasn’t the only thing with questionable activity, my mind played tug of war on a daily basis. A part wanted to achieve the maximum amount of miles in the given daylight while the other half wanted to take a zero day and just feel the sand melt in between my toes.
I am half way and winter decided to show up. Winter in the Sea of Cortez means El Norte every day and nighttime dominating the hours of the day. I hit the pause button and came home. I am returning in October to continue the drumbeat of solo paddling down the Baja peninsula. It’s been 36 days and 397 miles of paddling, with confidence to finish strong and with a board that will have no problem with what is down the coast. And because of that, I can rest at night despite my obsession waiting for October to arrive, salivating for part 2.