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~ Chapter Nine ~
Bahia Magdalena to Fish Camp
I woke up at dawn to the sound of pangas (real Mexican pangas...not Fijian pangas!) heading south towards the main entrance to the bay. For these fishermen it was just another day on the water. The wake from these boats caused the Vaka V. to rock and roll, a hint that it was time for me to get up and enjoy yet another exciting day of cruising the Mexican coastline. Today was different than most mornings in the respect that I did not have a predetermined destination. The 150 mile leg to Cabo San Lucas had no set gasoline stops, although I had a few options up my sleeve. Both Punta Conejo and Todos Santos would have gas, but landing in both locations would involve going to shore through heavy surf. Having had the luxury of tucking into calm ports all the way down the coast, the idea of running through surf to get gas was something I was not excited about. As a worst case scenario I thought I might be able to make it all the way to Cabo, if I didn't run out of gasoline or daylight along the way.
Motoring south I left the calm waters of Mag Bay and gradually entered the open ocean. I expected some type of ocean swell, but was surprised at having two different swell directions to contend with. In addition to the prevailing north west swell, a southern bump was in the cards this morning as well. This combo swell made for less than smooth cruising but was in no way a hardship. Indeed as I looked back on my days at sea it would have been nothing short of greedy to have asked for better swell and weather conditions. Ironically I had experienced the best seas on this trip on the Pacific side of Baja, and some of the roughest seas I have ever encountered later on as I trudged my way up the Sea of Cortez side in the weeks to come.
I headed south at my typical 18 miles per hour pace, hitting 20 m.p.h. when a large following swell gave me the push. The coastline evolved from low-lying bluffs to spectacular sand dunes, reaching all the way down to the breaking waves. On the south end of the island that separates Mag Bay from the Pacific Ocean I noted another large "blow hole" that spouted white foam high into the air with every incoming swell. Nature seemed to be very much alive and putting on regular shows, with or without an audience. I was glad I was there to appreciate it.
Continuing south within 500 feet of the coast I looked on the Auto Club map and noticed that the next 40 miles to Punta Conejo had no coastal dirt roads, leaving me in a bad way if I should have any problems. All along the coast I had made mental notes as to the locations of the various fish camps in case I needed to go to shore for any type of help. Most of these fish camps were close to dirt roads which usually led to the blacktop of Baja Highway One. Although most of the main highway was desolate, it was at least a potential connection to civilization if I really needed it.
Two more hours passed and then I once again looked at the map and determined that I was about 50 miles from Todos Santos and about 100 miles from Cabo San Lucas. I still had sufficient gasoline to reach Cabo and the sun was still high enough that I might be able to get there before dark. I was getting very excited about the possibility of making landfall in Cabo when without warning my motor stopped running. My heart raced as I realized I still had plenty of gas in the fuel tanks and there was no kelp or lobster traps nearby that might have caused the motor to stop. This was the last place I wanted to experience a motor problem.
I tried repeatedly to start the motor to no avail. Giving the starter rope one final mad pull I yanked it so hard that my elbow crashed through the windshield on the center console sending pieces of plastic, flesh and blood in all directions. Immensely frustrated, I tried to calm down while picking up the pieces of the windshield scattered throughout the interior of the boat. I spent the next 2 hours trying to trouble shoot the motor, removing and checking each of the fuel lines, taking apart and rebuilding the motor's kill switch, even changing the spark plugs. Nothing seemed to make a difference...the motor seemed dead.
It was a hard decision to make but I was up against a wall. I needed help. Looking on the map again it looked like there might be a fish camp next to a river wash about 5 or 6 miles further south. If I was going to go for help that looked like a good place to anchor the boat. I had brought along a small electric motor to help me in just such an emergency, and I firmly attached it to the transom. As I rotated the throttle with my wrist I pushed for full power. It was then that I realized that this motor was way too small for the weight of this fully loaded boat. It was going to be a long day as the boat slid through the water at 2 to 3 miles per hour! I watched the coastline pass by at a rate I was sure I could beat if I was walking, but at least I was making some progress to the south. After almost 2 hours I noticed a point along the coast about 3 miles ahead that looked like it might be a fish camp. But my battery was draining hour by hour and I did not think it would last much longer. I throttled the motor back to half speed to conserve battery power, now crawling along at less than 2 miles per hour. I thought it was quite interesting that at my turtle-rate speed the coastline moved by me at a pace faster than the coastline view from the Space Shuttle, which cruises at 17,500 miles per hour. In the 3 hours that I covered approximately 6 miles the Space Shuttle could have circumnavigated the planet Earth twice, watching the sun rise and set on 2 different occasions.
Just before the point, next to a dry river wash, was the mirage I was hoping for. A fish camp sat just above the low bluffs with several pangas laying haphazardly above the high tide line. It wasn't much of a place to land in other circumstances but I felt extremely fortunate to have found it today. As the late afternoon winds picked up I dropped and set the anchor, hoping it would hold after I abandoned the boat and went to shore. Now it was time to set up the life raft, which I had affectionately named "Plan B".
I had kept the yellow raft inflated and strapped to the bimini top, hoping I would never need to use it. I unhooked the bungee cords, and brought Plan B on deck to make sure all of the air chambers were completely full. I hooked on the oars and placed her in the water next to the boat. Not knowing for sure if the Vaca V. would be here when I got back, I tried to decide what was important to bring along and what I could live without if the Vaka's anchor let loose and the hull was shattered on the reef just 200 feet away. I decided to bring my backpack, my jacket, my sleeping bag and a cooler of tee-shirts and shorts. I had a lot of other things on board that I would miss, but that I knew I could do without. Elvira, you are on your own. Just like in life, we usually carry along much more baggage than we actually need. At the last minute I grabbed the cards and cassette tape that my wife and daughter had given me. And then I carefully placed everything in the raft, deciding to wear the big jacket to save space, and leaving an area in the back of the raft for me to sit. Taking one last look around the panga I noticed that the sun had slid below the horizon and that it would be completely dark within the hour. I had to get going...now.
Lifting my legs over the side of the Vaka V. I tried to drop myself gently into the rear of the life raft. The rear of the raft immediately sank with my weight, allowing water to drain in. It was obvious that the raft was not going to accommodate all of my belongings and me as well, so I resolved to slide my body into the ocean behind the raft and to push it to shore through the waves. It was then that I realized how much a down jacket weighs when it becomes saturated with salt water. I immediately began to sink as the jacket became heavier with each second it absorbed water. It was now too heavy to take off and still hang on to the life raft, so I let go of the raft and dipped my head under water in an frenzied effort to pull my arms out of the jacket to take it off. I struggled under water for what seemed like forever and was finally able to get both arms out and get my head back above the surface. I tried to throw the jacket into the raft but it was so heavy I could only push it over the plastic rail. I felt like crying but I was too scared and had too much on my plate to splash around in self-pity. I began wading to shore, trying to time myself between the large waves that raced towards shore. I was doing a pretty good job of keeping the raft afloat as the waves hit me until one particularly large wave swamped me and the raft, sending all of my belongings into the water. I hate it when that happens.
I could now touch the sandy bottom and tried to collect the floating debris while still being pounded by the waves. Out of nowhere I spotted a Mexican man wading towards my still-floating sleeping bag, grabbing it along with my cooler full of clothes. I knew this was a grand effort on his part as Mexican pangeros don't usually like to go swimming, especially when it is getting dark. I grabbed my jacket and backpack and threw them both back into the life raft. We both made it to shore tired and sopping wet. I took a breath and said "muchas gracias" and he just smiled and started hauling my wet belongings up towards the fish camp. It was completely dark as I hiked up the small hill to a shabby wood shack that was his home. I introduced myself as Carlos and he said his name was Jesus. It seemed rather appropriate that I would be saved by a man named Jesus, even if he was Mexican. Lord knows his namesake had no success saving me when I was north of the border!
Jesus built a fire to warm us both up, gave me a dry pair of pants and shirt, and then handed me a dry pair of shoes that I could tell were too small. I thanked him for everything as he pulled up a makeshift wooden stool for me to sit on by the fire. Neither one of us spoke the other's language very well, but somehow we talked for over an hour. He was proud to show me a gun he had made out of an old Winchester barrel wired to a couple of pieces of wood. He was also happy to show me his stash of locally grown pot, which he carefully rolled up in the thin white backing paper of a chewing gum wrapper. So here I was, having abandoned my boat at anchor it the chop, sitting in a fish camp in the middle of nowhere by a fire with a Mexican holding a rifle in one hand and smoking a joint. Wouldn't my wife be proud.
As the fire slowely burned itself out I could tell my new friend was getting very tired (or stoned) and that he was ready to go to bed in the corner of his litle shack. He walked me to another clapboard hut about a hundred yards away which was partially roofed and offered something inside that almost resembled a bed. It was a piece of flymsy plywood held a foot off the ground by a gas can at one corner and a lobster crate at the other. I couldn't see what held it up at the other two corners but I knew that I had to be careful laying down to avoid having the plywood come off of it's shakey foundation. He motioned that I could sleep here tonight and that he would track down a 'mechanico' to help me fix my boat in the morning. I thanked him again, dusted off an old blanket hanging on the wall to shake off any scorpions, and puffed up my backpack for a makeshift pillow. I layed motionless staring at the stars that snuck through the cratered roof of the hut, thinking about the day's events. It was a bit more of an adventure than I had wanted, and I wondered what would happen with the boat. I reminded myslef that the sun always rises, no matter how dark the night. I would somehow get through this and get back on the ocean.