North of La Paz there’s a 60-mile stretch of coastline that’s as treacherous as it is stunning. An all-star group of kayakers decided to tackle it before developers do.
North of La Paz there’s a 60-mile stretch of coastline that’s as treacherous as it is stunning. An all-star group of kayakers decided to tackle it before developers do. Daniel Duane tries to keep up.
by Daniel Duane
photograph by Chris Sanders
Clinging to my capsized kayak in wind-whipped waves, surging and falling in the deep blue water half a mile off the Baja coast, I screamed for help like a lost baby.
Somewhere in the spray and glare ahead, disappearing at a pace I’d failed to match, was the all-star crew I shouldn’t have joined: Murray Hamilton, Spike Gladwin, Rob Dorcas — with numerous surf-kayak trophies, epic solo paddles, and high-Arctic traverses among them. Even the crew’s relative slouch, Nando Zucchi, the man who’d organized this once-in-a-lifetime, five-day expedition down a rarely seen stretch of the Sea of Cortez, had told me cheerfully that he’d once paddled 50 miles on a Saturday “for laughs.”
On day one, without wind or wave, I’d done okay, just paddling hard and sucking it up, and rolling into camp late. But now it was day two, a hard northeasterly was driving this raw surf, and it turned out that these guys, like few kayakers anywhere, could grab free energy from every little scrap of misshapen wave on the ocean surface, zipping along for a yard or five and then paddling and then surfing again. Hour after hour they’d doubled their speed in a mesmerizing demonstration of human adaptability.
“Paddle hard, mate! Paddle! Paddle!” That’s what Gladwin had screamed every time I tried to copy him and pull myself into a wave. But it wasn’t working, and eventually he paddled ahead with the others. Then it happened: A bigger wave caught up with me from behind and lifted my 17-foot kayak’s tail so the nose pointed into the wave’s trough. I leaned way forward to get my weight going downhill, dug in with my paddle, and boom, just like that I was shooting down the wave’s face and freaking out and stomping the rudder pedal to angle sideways, bringing the skinny boat through a knifing turn and ignoring Gladwin’s other advice, which had been, “No, mate! No! No! Don’t ever stop paddling!”
My face hit first in a high-speed rollover that ripped off my sunglasses and hat and pulled the whole kayak upside down in water hundreds of feet deep, so that I had a straight-down view into the world of hammerhead sharks and bluefin tuna. Which would’ve been bad enough if I’d had a clue how to roll back up, but I didn’t. Nor did I remember the trick for releasing the spray skirt that kept me in the kayak. So now my eyes were wide in the dark water, and I was running out of air and rising and falling with the sea, thrashing and jerking at the spray skirt. Then my fingers found a loop of nylon, and I hauled hard and fell downward and swam with the fishes.
I burst into sunshine and gulped air, yelling for help across the waves. “Jesus, Duane, we should give you a goddamn speargun,” yelled Hamilton, after he realized I was gone and came searching for me. “At least you can make yourself useful and spear us dinner next time.”
Hauling alongside my boat, he talked me through flipping it over, then how I should stick my feet up out of the water and thrust them over the boat’s deck and back into the cockpit. Once I’d managed this improbable trick, he shoved a bilge pump into my hands and, as our boats kept surging and swinging in a way that made me want to puke, told me to pump. Which I did, hard, clearing the gallons of water out of my kayak.
“Hey, but Murray,” I said, “is it okay I’m pumping my bilge onto your spray skirt?”
“How scared were you?”
“What do you mean?”
“When you face-planted, you moron. Did you piss yourself or not?”
The mission had a simple elegance: paddling one of the last great desert wildernesses in North America, a 60-mile stretch between the Baja beach towns of Loreto and La Paz, along the Sea of Cortez. Sleepy Loreto looks to be the next Cancún, with timeshares springing up, so realtors are drooling over the virgin white beaches in between. But the Sierra de la Giganta, the mountain range that hugs this coastline, still forces Baja’s only highway 20 miles inland here, making overland access to the beach almost impossible.
So for now, at least, those 60 miles remain an absolute wilderness of humpback whales, mountain lions, wrecked sailboats, no drinking water, and, for kayakers, no hope of overland escape. Northeasterly winds come up so fast that in the late ’70s an Outward Bound group was driven into the cliffs not far from here and three were killed. In 2005 three female paddlers from British Columbia got flipped so repeatedly in 30-mph winds that two of them lashed their kayaks together while the other drifted away. When a launch finally went looking, they found the first two women alive and the third dead.
I only considered going because an old friend of mine, Steve Hayward, is one of the most experienced kayak guides in Baja — not to mention in Patagonia, Guatemala, Belize, and Ireland. Hayward helps run Sea Trek, the first kayak outfitter to do business in Baja, and he’d called out of the blue saying he’d just hooked up supplies from Necky, the kayak manufacturer, for a small crew. Hayward was going to pilot their supply boat, and if I was up to the paddle I could tag along.
I met Hayward in the dusty lobby of an old desert hotel near Loreto’s crumbling 300-year-old church. I hardly recognized the guy; he’d quit drinking beer, taken up running, and shed 40 pounds. He introduced me to the Necky crew: the resolutely chipper Nando, everybody’s boss; Dorcas, director of sales and a Canuck who spent 12 years guiding expeditions in the high Arctic; Gladwin, a white-haired Englishman, former coach of the Canadian Olympic kayak team, and Necky’s chief designer; and Hamilton, a product developer and a self-described redneck who’d once paddled alone from Seattle to Alaska, logging 16-hour days because, as he put it, he found himself to be lousy fireside company. He confessed that his oldest friend calls him “the Troll,” a commentary on his surliness as much as his squatness.
“That’s hurtful, Duane,” Hamilton dead-panned when I started to call him the Troll myself. “Really hurtful.”
Our first morning, Hayward drove us out to a pretty little cove called Ensenada Blanca, south of Loreto: pale desert bluffs surrounding a bay of turquoise sea, and not a soul around. We unloaded the boats there, then paddled about 10 miles before camping — not quite far enough, given that we’d allotted only five days for 60 miles. Before the sun went down I grabbed a diving mask, flippers, and a mesh net and swam off through schools of electric blue angelfish and over lethal rockfish lurking camouflaged on the bottom (step on one and you could die). Porcupinelike sea urchins sat on every underwater boulder in sight, so I collected a half-dozen and sat wet in the white sand as the sun dropped toward the western mountains and the other guys built a fire. Busting the urchins open with a big knife, I scooped out the bright orange egg sacs and ate them raw, like in a sushi restaurant, except my uni was alive and I washed it down with tequila.
It was on the second day that I lost control in the waves and had to be rescued by Hamilton, slowing the team’s progress even more. We pitched tents that evening on yet another achingly beautiful beach, surrounded by tall saguaros and thistly wildflowers and the vast emptiness of the Sierra de la Giganta, with rattlesnakes and coyotes running off into the parched distance, the way Spanish missionaries would’ve seen them when they came to settle Loreto in 1697.
We had a strange and tense encounter that evening when a crusty old gringo wandered barefoot out of the bushes. His wrinkly tan hide hung loose off his knees, and his long white beard made him look like an ancient religious hermit.
“Who are you people?” he asked, suspicious as hell.
Hayward has a buttery Texas accent, a perfect blend of politeness and authority, and he said, “We’re kayakers, sir. We’re just passing through.”
“You’re not real estate agents?”
“No, we’re not.”
“You sure about that?”
The man frowned and wandered back into the cacti, and Hayward told us the poor guy had bought this entire beach 25 years earlier to retire on and had someone haul a camp trailer over the mountains on some ghastly 4WD jeep track. But property laws are fuzzy in Mexico, and now locals claimed he didn’t own the place after all.
“Every one of these beaches, there’s a realtor in Loreto trying to sell it,” Hayward said. “You can walk down the street and look in windows and see pictures of all of them, with a price tag.”
But the big thing on my mind, as I strolled alone on the dark beach that night, was learning to milk the ocean of free speed, the way the others did, so I didn’t become a ball and chain. As I looked across the sea I realized that surfers like me don’t learn to read chaotic open-water swell; we learn to read organized walls peeling over sandbars and reefs.
I stood at the water’s edge thinking about this when I realized I could see stars reflected in the shallows: bright white dots on the black surface. Then one washed ashore on a tiny little wave and sat there twinkling in the sand. Then another star washed up beside it. They weren’t stars at all but tiny bioluminescent diatoms, living beings adrift on the sea.
We set off paddling at dawn the next morning, hoping to go 30 miles before dark. Hayward boated ahead, searching for the right camp, while Nando, because he was the leader back home, pocketed the radio and the GPS unit and told us all to keep our noses pointed at a distant cape, so far away it was hazy blue. For several hours, with no wind and therefore no surf opportunities, we slogged in the 100-degree sun. My back and shoulders ached like hell, my ass fell numb, and my legs got so tight I had to stop every 20 minutes, grab the deck lines, and bend myself forward to stretch. Salt began to cake my face and the glare was so fierce I kept my eyes half-closed behind my polarized sunglasses.
Gladwin stayed close to coach me on my stroke, a pair of humpback whales paid us a brief visit, and Hamilton leavened my suffering with a story about Tao Berman, the biggest big-drop waterfall kayaker on Earth, telling a young kayaker on a tropical expedition that he’d definitely get “ball rot” if he didn’t apply Bengay twice daily, in all moist regions. (“You got your O-ring, too, didn’t you?”)
By three o’clock, with that headland still hazy blue at the outside edge of visibility and Nando cheerfully bombing ahead alongside Hamilton and Dorcas, I began to crack, knowing I couldn’t do this forever. Sometime around five, with a splitting headache and every muscle quavering and the GPS saying we’d already paddled 27 miles across this flat water, the wind picked up and the sea rolled and I noticed we were offshore from a protected beach, a mile away. But just ahead a dead volcano rose in a duff-colored cone, turning the next five or six miles of coastline into sheer, impenetrable cliffs.
Then I heard Hayward’s voice crackle on Nando’s radio. He was apparently at camp already and could somehow see us, though we couldn’t see him. “Hey, why are you guys so far offshore?” he asked.
“We’re headed for that cape,” Nando replied, then turned to the rest of us. “Keep going, guys.”
Steve again: “What cape?”
“We’re fine, Steve. We’ll see you soon.”
“But you’re headed to shore, right? Toward that pointy, pyramid-shaped mountain?”
“That’s what I’m calling a cape.” Out.
Yours truly: “Call him back, Nando.”
“We’re fine. Just keep paddling.”
I wondered if Nando was willing to risk a 10-mile mistake rather than ask for clarification. I wasn’t strong enough for that, so I barked it this time: “Nando, call him back.”
The wind blew hard by the time we got Steve’s reply. I was right, of course, and Steve’s pyramid was indeed my volcano, meaning camp was the beach we could see, a mile off, and not around that goddamn cape. But there was an upside: Knowing my pain might end, when combined with my resentment of poor Nando, drove me in such a wild assault on the building waves that before I knew it I was surfing the open ocean and roaring toward shore. Arcing and soaring, paddling and cruising and paddling some more, I found myself exploding with energy, moving so fast that I soon heard a laugh break out behind me. It was Gladwin, working to keep up.
“Look behind you, mate!”
So I did, and for the only time on that trip I was way the hell out in front.
This article originally appeared in the August 2008 issue of Men’s Journal.