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It begged for a big dream. The sweaty Covid summer had me semi-quarantined in the Mexican town of Loreto after some devastating losses. A friend with a sailboat on the other side of the Gulf of California (Sea of Cortez) was willing to give me a ride home. That was all the excuse it took to come up with my big dream. I would kayak across the Gulf.
Between Santa Rosalia in Baja and San Carlos, Sonora, lay 72nm (84 mi, 135km) of notoriously unpredictable water and three islands, two of which were reported to be inaccessible for their steepness.
I dipped my paddle into the water at Santa Rosalia on October 15 and noticed that the water was cooler here. My compañeros, Baja guides Jorge and Ruben, agreed, and we welcomed it. They would accompany me as far as they could before returning to Santa Rosalia.
Isla San Marcos, nine nautical miles southeast of Santa Rosalia, was a bit out of the direct path, but it was our last sure landing. Other kayakers had turned back from Isla Tortuga, 15nm northeast of San Marcos, after finding it inaccessible. It was a fellow guide who also fished in the area who gave us the most hope. Just the day before we left he mentioned a place they sometimes unloaded freezers to store their catch. If they could unload freezers, we could land a kayak, right?
If we couldn’t land there, after circumnavigating it to search all possibilities, Jorge and Ruben were in for a round trip of 35nm back to Isla San Marcos and I was in for a 65nm open water crossing to the mainland side of the Gulf.
When we launched in the dark on the morning of October 17, we were prepared for the long haul. With no moon, the night was so dark it was hard to see the bow of our own kayaks, so we paddled in a triangle formation with me as the lead goose, checking in frequently with my wingmen. As I aimed between Venus and Polaris, I noticed two luminous areas on the horizon. Cities on the other side. Evidence that there was indeed an other side. I found this slightly reassuring and disappointing at the same time.
Sunrise on the sea is one of those magical moments. The lighting changes. Your paddling partners are sharp silhouettes on a fiery horizon, or their smiles have a warm glow depending which direction you’re looking at them. Our crossing was 15nm, almost 5 hours. After sunrise we had about 3 to go. I find myself keeping track of the hours by remembering what snacks I ate at each hourly break. Our egg break found us all lounging in a calm sea floating on our backs in the cool refreshing water.
By late morning we arrived to what had looked like a beach from a distance, but whose grains of sand measured a foot across or more. It took two people to land each kayak over the boulders in the surge. I inched my kayak up as high as the surge would push it then braced myself among the rocks to keep the retreating water from stealing it back. Jorge held Ruben’s kayak offshore while Ruben swam in to help secure my moderately loaded kayak. Then we wrestled Ruben’s kayak up, and finally the boys wrangled Jorge’s ride up to a perch on the rocks. Though our camp wasn’t one for the travel brochures, we expressed universal gratitude for its existence at all.
At midnight, Jorge helped me launch onto a glassy sea with a lazy swell from the south. For the first couple hours, the sea was so calm, and Orion was at just the right height above the horizon that I caught glimpses of the entire constellation reflected in the water beside my kayak, slightly warped by the swell and my wake. That also spoke to how dark the night was. The only competition for the starlight was the bioluminescence spinning off my paddle strokes and folding out from my bow.
At 3am I sent a satellite text message to the small team following me electronically. I’d planned to simply send a letter A, B, C with each 3-hour check-in but with so much time to think, creativity got the better of me. “Awesome” was the 3am message.
Shooting stars zipped the heavens open for a moment with their bright trails. The forecast promised wind through the little hours of morning, and it delivered. The star reflections started dancing, then diffused into the texture of the sea. Soon the kayak started dancing.
From Isla Tortuga to the other side of the Gulf was a journey of 55nm. There was a section in that expanse when I could see neither shore. It happened at night. By dawn I had paddled for 6 hours and completed a third of the crossing. The sun awoke to find a tiny turquoise arrow plowing a tiny furrow in the sea far above one of the world’s deepest ocean trenches.
The kayak cut through the waves, lively with texture and changing light. To my right grew the orange bud of day. To my left, a horizontal pastel rainbow slowly descended towards the sea. My 6am message said, “Beautiful”.
I could faintly make out Isla San Pedro Nolasco, about 27nm away. The coast, nine miles beyond that, was hidden by clouds for several more hours. The endorphins of the night gave way to the steady churning of paddle blades under a climbing sun and gradually building waves. The island didn’t want to get closer. I knew I had the stamina and the patience to outlast this crossing and that at some point the island would suddenly be close and I would learn whether it held a beach for me or perhaps a shady sea cave in which to rest.
From the time between sunrise and 9am, the next check-in, I have no distinct memories. I just paddled. I was breaking what I’d previously perceived as limits with every stroke. Though punctuated by hourly chimes and snacks, my sense of time became liquid. It compressed or expanded without reason. That little turquoise arrow scratched its way slowly across an expanse of water with its small circle of horizon and thoughts. It moved through time in a bubble of now and everything else melted away. I was content.
“Clearly closer,” was the 9am message. Isla San Pedro Nolasco had moved. Now that I could see peaks on the mainland, I was watching them slide behind the island with distressing velocity. A current threatened to push me north past the island. I could have dropped sail and paddled more directly into wind and current, but that would have put me on a treadmill making very little headway towards the island and using up daylight and energy.
For a few hours I contemplated what the noon message would be. “Done” I wanted to say, meaning I’d reached the island, but that was not going to happen in time. “Damn current” was a good candidate. In the end I simply sent the letter D. I didn’t want to lose any more ground to the damn current than I absolutely had to. And I didn’t want to let on that my sense of humor was beginning to fail me.
…And I say don’t stop now
‘Cause I can feel we’re gonna make it…
Strains of Jake Reese’s Make It played in my head. I’d listened to it repeatedly while packing this morning.
…Baby let your worries go
And live like the wind blows…
The upbeat carefree rhythm set a tempo for enthusiastic paddling. I’d pick a phrase like a mantra and paddle with it for a while, modifying it to amuse myself.
…I got everything I need
Open arms because I’m happy
road sea ahead of me…
Paddle strokes slapped lightly. Waves hissed and splashed. The hull of the kayak burbled through the water. The metronome of the song drove me on.
…Don’t wanna stop
I wanna go
Not gonna sleep ’til you’re taking me home…
I visualized my kayak strapped to the deck of the sailboat that would take me back to Loreto. The motor of my body chugged on. Eventually, I made it to the flanks of the steep grey island with its heartbreakingly blue skirt of sea patterned with yellow fish, blue fish, and khaki sea lions flowing in the vibrant dance of undulating waves. There was no landing. I turned around in my seat, donned the snorkeling gear that rode on my back deck, and lowered myself into the dance.
Beyond the fish, the feet of the island plunged down into dizzying fathoms of indigo. I swam towing the kayak. Hips loosened, legs stretched, raw skin burned in the salt. I snuck into a sea cave where a female sea lion snoozed on a shelf. Without waking her, I quietly stowed my gear, climbed back aboard, ate a snack, and glided away.
Moments after radioing Mike on sailboat Compass Rose and confirming our plan to meet up for the final mile or so, I encountered a tiny inlet on the island with small granite cobbles below a sheer cliff. Just because I could, I landed and stood up. Not knowing what to do next, I got back in the kayak and kept paddling.
Eventually I could see Mike’s sail in the distance. I got out of my seat and draped myself across the back deck, arms and legs in the water, to relax and wait. When we did meet we set a leisurely pace and chatted side by side, kayak and sailboat. We entered San Pedro Cove and he set about anchoring. I paddled to the beach just to complete the journey. I had energy to spare.
As I landed, a cruiser from the only other boat in the bay motored over in his dinghy. “I’ve never seen a sail on a kayak before,” he said. “Where did you come from?”
I smiled and let myself savor the significance when I replied, “Santa Rosalia.”
Many thanks to Captain Mike Mullins and Compass Rose for making this adventure possible!
For more photos, please see Gulf Crossing Gallery.