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The hazards – and perks – of canoeing the Sea of Cortez


The Sea of Cortez is one of the most schizophrenic bodies of water in the world. One minute it’s as smooth as silk, the next a screaming shit fight. The currents between islands run at eight knots during spring tides. El Norte winds come barrelling down the gulf without warning, whipping the sea into a maelstrom. And if you find yourself in trouble, you’re as good as sunk. The closest thing to a coastguard is in Honolulu, 2,400 miles away.

In spite of this (or, perhaps, because of it—we were all rather bored of biking and craved some excitement), our intention was to kayak 140 miles down the east coast from Bahia de los Angeles to a narrowing of the gulf at San Francisquito, then use the Midriff Islands to hop the sixty miles to Bahia Kino on the mainland side. In all it would take a couple of weeks, we reckoned. Three tops.

Naturally, there were a few minor details to straighten out before we could get underway. We didn’t have any kayaks. None of us knew how to use one properly even if we did. And a hefty question mark hung over the means by which our bikes would make it to the other side. But what we lacked in forethought, we made up for in blind presumptuousness. Furthermore, we had a secret weapon, one guaranteed to get things done in a predominantly male fishing community like Bahia de los Angeles.

Women.

The second book in the trilogyCarole, Jenny, and Theresa quickly mustered an enthusiastic task¬force of male admirers. An American white water canoe instructor holidaying with his father taught us safety drills in the shallows next to their beach camp. John Weed was in his early forties, bearded, with a sinewy frame and pronounced limp. Up for an adventure, he offered to accompany us as our guide and loaned me his spare kayak to complement the three sit-on-tops we’d managed to hire locally. It was through John—who, in all fairness, recognized a catastrophe waiting to happen—that we met Ed Gillette, another veteran kayaker famous for paddling from California to Hawaii in sixty days. Pulling up on the beach one evening with a commercial kayak party in tow, Ed offered his bible for the region, a nautical almanac crammed with enough information to keep us from drowning any sooner than we had to: tide tables, charts, current strengths and directions, seasonal wind patterns, and so forth.

The final piece of the puzzle was meeting Gil and Mario Romero, a father-son duo who volunteered to deliver our bikes and the balance of the provisions to San Francisquito in their fishing boat. A day spent re-tarring the roof of their bungalow seemed a more than reasonable trade.

Five days after rolling up with nothing but chapped arses and a woolly idea, we hit the water, paddling in formation across the mirrored Bay of Angels towards Horse Head Island five miles to the east. Olly and Carole manned a blue sit-on-top double, their sleeping bags and dry clothes wrapped in plastic rubbish sacks and secured with bun¬gee cords. Theresa and Jenny paddled a purple and yellow single respectively—Jenny looking as alarmed at the transition to waterborne travel as she had leaving Monterey on a bicycle all those weeks ago. The only one of us who looked right at home was John, scything effortlessly along in his rudderless white water canoe, a centaur-like hybrid of half-man, half-boat.

Behind us, the desiccated Baja hills rose above a muddle of white¬washed buildings marking the town. I stopped to snap a photo, then sat watching the others pull away like moths to the rising sun, silhouetted paddle blades rising and falling against the glare. Seeing Theresa’s out¬line off to the right I felt a pang. For the entire time in Bahia she’d kept her distance.

Looks like we’re back to being just friends, I thought ruefully.

Up close there was nothing remotely equine about Isla Cabeza de Caballo, just an array of decapitated sharks’ heads grinning ghoul-like from the beach, the unwanted remains tossed by fishermen. Random carcasses rotted in the shallows. Death festooned the rocky shore. And when I scrambled to higher ground to scope out our route down the coast, I came face to face with the recently severed head of a gull perched in a hollow in the cliff, its lifeless eyes staring stiffly out to sea.

Unnerved, but determined not to lose the euphoria of setting out, the group climbed back in the boats and immediately engaged in a furious water fight, flinging great paddlefuls and hooting with glee. I caught a crab and was upside down in a flash, floundering in the freezing water. The drill John had taught us for assisted recovery—banging on the underside of the hull—kicked in immediately, but no one could manoeuvre in time. Lungs close to bursting, I had to tear the Velcro seal from my cockpit and bail out.

The second book in the trilogyAfter three hours of paddling I was still shivering. The day, which had started out bright, was now overcast, the sun lurking behind an im¬penetrable curtain of cloud. The translucent water turned the colour of red wine, and a brisk breeze pawed at my shirt, sucking the remain¬ing heat from my skin.

“You okay?” said Theresa, rafting up alongside. “Oh my goodness, you’re white as a sheet.”

“Freezing,” I hissed.

The rest of the party was already out of sight around the next head¬land, El Pescador, aiming to make camp before nightfall.

Theresa reached for my wrist with her spare hand. “Heart rate’s a bit slow,” she said anxiously. “It’s probably hypothermia kicking in from that capsize. You better get to shore, Jase. Take off those wet clothes.”*

The sandy beaches around Bahia had petered out the farther south we’d gone, morphing into an uninviting jumble of fist-sized rocks bank¬ing sharply into the sea. Landing awkwardly, I hauled my yellow kayak up to the high tide mark, stripped off my clothes, and clawed naked into my sleeping bag.

A minute later I heard the clatter of rocks and watched as Theresa pulled her boat up beside mine. She then teetered barefoot over to where I was lying. Even with a frumpy kayak skirt bouncing around her waist like a thrift store ballerina, she looked lovely.

“Doing any better, Jase?”

My teeth were still chattering. Steve was right: I was worse than useless in the cold. Never mind the Bering Straits, I thought bitterly. I can’t even cross the Sea of fucking Cortez in springtime without freezing to death.

*

“Can’t … seem to … get warm,” I mumbled, blowing vigorously into the folds of my hood.

The zipper slid open. Cold air poured inside the bag.

“What the—?”

Theresa’s body felt warm and supple. She was naked, her skin smelling lightly of salt and lavender soap. I wrapped my arms around her waist, buried my face into the small of her neck, and spooned my body into hers.

God bless hypothermia, I thought, and smiled.

Extracted from Jason’s second book in the trilogy that describes his circumnavigation of the world – by human power alone – The Seed Buried Deep. Buy it here.

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