By Graham Mackintosh
During October and November last year I spent three weeks paddling a somewhat overloaded sit-on-top kayak from Bahía Gonzaga to Bahía de los Ángeles. By the time you read this I hope I’ll be safely paddling my way south from LA Bay. I’ll have no particular goal or deadline in mind… except to relax, explore, and enjoy the ride.
It’s easy to imagine drifting along a remote section of the Sea of Cortez on a warm, calm day, wind and current gently moving you south; colorful cliffs, hidden coves, surprise beaches, wondrous bird and sea life, amazing beachcombing – all yours to enjoy in peace and freedom.
It would be terrific if every day were like that, but as I discovered last year there are no guarantees. I’ll be largely at the mercy of Mother Nature. I may cover the distance with ease or struggle to get on the water at all. Most days will bring challenges and anxieties. I will start with plenty of food and water and even a few beers and I will just keep going till I run out of something… hopefully it won’t be luck!
Kayaking has enabled me to relatively painlessly re-visit some remote and memorable sections of my solo walk around the coast of Baja in the 1980s… as told in my first book: Into a Desert Place. Back then I often fantasized about having a means of floating my gear past difficult cliffs and headlands. Now I can fulfill that fantasy and have access to all kinds of gear and supplies that I could only dream about back then.
My number one consideration is, as it was on my coast walk – water, water, and water! I’ll carry as much as I can, pick it up when I can, and during periods of shore time, pump seawater through my Katadyn handheld reverse-osmosis desalinator which, under ideal conditions, is capable of producing about a gallon of drinking water an hour.
If that fails, I’ll go through the familiar but laborious process of boiling seawater and condensing the steam. I’ll have a kettle and a length of copper tubing for the purpose, and there’s usually no shortage of driftwood fuel on the shore. It takes a little tending and work but you can make about a gallon of water a day with that still.
I have a Spot GPS device, a little bigger than a cigarette packet, which can relay my position and enable me to send one of four messages instantaneously to up to ten email addresses by satellite. I trust the only message I’ll send will be: “All’s Well. No problems!” Otherwise, my options are SOS, Trip over, and Require Assistance. Carrying a Spot is a great comfort, both to me and to friends and family, and a huge advance over the reality of my Into a Desert Place walk when I was sometimes out of touch for weeks at a time.
I’ll also be carrying a handheld marine VHF radio and a small Walkman FM/AM radio for both news and entertainment during long nights in the tent, and also for clues about the weather.
As I may be weeks in the wilds, just about everything I’m carrying – flashlights, cameras, radio, digital tape recorder, etc. is powered by AA or AAA batteries, which I can recharge with three small solar chargers.
Given my fair skin, I’ll be taking an abundance of sunscreen and keeping myself as covered as possible.
I like to keep a low profile when ashore so I’ll have some camouflaged tarps to conceal my kayak and gear when I’m away from camp.
And I wouldn’t contemplate such a trip without a tent to help keep coyotes, rattlesnakes and bugs at bay.
Carrying so much gear on top of the kayak I’ll have little ability to battle contrary winds. I need to be patient and pick my days and times to move, and seek to ride wind and current as much as possible.
As I did coming down from Gonzaga I’ll possibly paddle at night to take advantage of draining tides – a most exhilarating and nerve-wracking experience. The nighttime phosphorescence can be spectacular especially when seated only inches above the water with paddle strokes sending back glowing whirlpools into the night and sudden eruptions and flashes as unknown creatures dash beside and under the kayak.
Currents will be wild at times as the extreme tides of the Northern Sea of Cortez flow past the choke point of the Midriff Islands. The Salsipuedes Islands, which translates as, “Get-out-if-you-can,” are well named. Historically, navigation in these waters was hazardous and frustrating. Jesuit padre Ugarte tells how in the early 1700s his ship spent eight days battling up the Gulf past the Salsipuedes only to be suddenly swept back that distance in six hours.
Ugarte wrote: “These are not currents like one sees elsewhere in the Gulf, where one scarcely notices a choppiness or a little noise like that produced by a school of fish. These currents create foaming breakers and the noise is like a river that runs through a boulder field.”
Currents are at least predictable, and at their most extreme around the time of the Full and New Moon. The winds however are the big unknown.
Conditions can change dramatically, especially with sudden, dangerous offshore west winds. I’ll need to hug the shore closely, stay in the shelter of the cliffs, and be always ready to land even if it means an uncomfortable night on rocks or boulders, and possibly even the end of my trip if the kayak is damaged.
My kayak is a well-used, blue Cobra Tandem “sit-on-top.” It has lots of room to carry supplies and camping gear on and under the deck, and is rated to carry as much as 600 lbs. It’s broad and remarkably stable. The downside is it’s not the fastest, and except on the calmest days I’m going to get wet. I chose a sit-on-top because if I flip or end up in the sea I can climb right back on without protracted fiddling, pumping or the need for assistance.
If you cross paths with me between LA Bay and Santa Rosalia, say hi if you can. I’ll always appreciate the latest weather forecast. And I wouldn’t say no to an extra gallon of water or, here I go fantasizing again, a nice cold beer.