Go south of the border

By David Diefenderfer

It was November and my bones said, "Let's go south - far south." Only the warm waters of the Sea of Cortez near Mazatlan or San Blas could beckon at that time of year and so, with my friend, Lloyd Marsh, who had come from lowa to escape the cold winter, we started packing. Sleeping bags, cameras, plastic one-gallon water bottles, alcohol stove, dried foods and canned foods were all stowed snugly in the cabin.

My Pelicana, like her namesake, is a sort of ugly duckling. She lacks the grace of the gregarious gull and the majestic soaring sweep of the frigate bird. For the smalltime sailor, however, who tires of seeing the object of his affections collecting barnacles at the dock and longs to explore distant bays or fresh-water lakes, the little 14-foot West Wight Potter is always ready on her trailer to go where he wants to go; to sail where he wants to sail; to be his home away from home. She is never too proud to be his fishing boat, or a place to cook his meals. This is the story of her trip to Guaymas on the west coast of Mexico.

We left Los Angeles on a warm sunny day. Like an eager dog, Pelicana practically pushed us along on the highway. We averaged better than 20 miles to the gallon while heading to the border, yet on the return trip we did less than 15 so, of course, she must have been dragging her feet. We breezed along the new highway from Mexicali to Santa Ana where Highway 2 joins Number 15 that runs from Nogales to Guaymas. It was an easy two-day trip.

Our destination was San Carlos, a modern beach resort just north of Guaymas. We launched there early on the third day in a small pear-shaped harbor from which one can sail out into the much larger "Bahia" and spend a week just cruising in its sheltered waters. This was very much to our liking, but we wanted larger worlds to conquer. The open Sea of Cortez looked more inviting. Pelicana "shook her feathers" and sailed happily out. While not a racer, she has no fear of rough weather and tacks steadily into the wind without taking on water. She had served well as a mobile home on shore and was equally willing on the water.

Pelicana is unloaded at the San Carlos ramp.

We had planned to camp ashore at night as much as possible, so kept our eyes open for good coves and sheltered bays. On the open sea we followed for several hours in the wake of some shrimp boats. Among the trash that one of them had thrown out were shiny white balls. We picked some up and found they were nice medium-sized onions. We had forgotten to include this item, so added a few to our stores.

Progress was good, but sailing in a large semi-circle into the wind, it took us about four hours to reach the large bay to the north of San Carlos, and we began to hunt for a good spot for the night. There was a long sandy beach now to the south, lapped by gentle waves, but it was still too exposed in case of storm. We anchored there, however, in about a foot of water and Lloyd cooked supper while I explored the entrance to a large lagoon nearby. This would have been fine had not the rocky entrance made it impracticable.

Pelicana lies at anchor north of San Carlos.

Further to the west was a small cove with a fisherman's boat pulled up on the rocks. A campfire back in the brush indicated company, so I hiked over there and talked with them. They warned me the beach would not be safe and suggested we come into their cove. We enjoyed the evening talking with them and listening to songs and their guitar They said they would be out early at the nets and invited us to come and watch.

It was a beautiful night. The small waves lapped gently against the bottom of the boat and lulled us to sleep. It was still dark when we heard the fishermen trying to start their reluctant motor. Then we heard the sounds of muffled oars. We waited until the sun came up. Then, with hot oatmeal and coffee to warm our insides, we motored up the rocky shore to where they were working.

They had already pulled in some large sea bass ranging from 40 to 50 pounds and some big sharks four to five feet long. The sharks are probably more of a nuisance than they are worth, though they are kept for the market. They twist themselves up in the nets and tear large holes trying to get out. The nets are several hundred feet long and weighted to make them sink deep, near the bottom, so offer no hazard to other boats. One man pulls the loaded net in over the starboard side, another helps him to free the fish, while the third mends the holes and drops it out again over the port side. It is a long, tedious job that takes most of the morning. The men are wet and cold but usually finish about noon. They must then go back to camp, get lunch and clean the fish. About midnight a truck comes out from Guaymas to pick up the catch. For four men, the return in money seems hardly worth the effort, but they keep at it day after day.

The sight of these monsters perked up our interest in fishing. So we hoisted sail and went out towards the islands. The light wind made our speed ideal for trolling and before long Lloyd had a line out with an old white feathered lure about 100 feet astern. There was no action until we got near the passage between the islands. Then suddenly, wham! Something hit like a submarine and almost pulled the rod from his hands. The line went slack and when he pulled it in, he found that the lure, a foot-long steel leader, and several feet of line had been snapped off in one gulp.

The water was teeming with fish of all sizes. He hastily rigged another lure with a longer leader, and lost that one almost as quickly. After that he trailed it out only a short distance where he could watch the action.

A large school of trigger fish were boldly attacking, most of them about 16-inch size. They have beautiful pearly-white teeth shaped very much like human teeth, but so hard they can bite an ordinary hook in half as if it were made of putty. Damaged teeth are no problem to them as they have several sets in series, each growing behind the other and quickly replacing any that might be lost. Their name derives from a sharp rigid spine on the dorsal fin that is somehow braced upright by a secondary spine. Only by pulling down this secondary spine can the main one be deflected. The main spine cuts like a razor and is usually poisonous, so they are dangerous to handle.

It was fascinating to watch these demons strike the lure, scarring and ripping it without getting caught. Their bony, hard mouths protected them from the hooks. One extra large one did finally get caught and we hauled him aboard. I had to use pliers to get the hook out of his throat while trying to avoid contact with the teeth and the poisonous spine. Then, all of the schools of fish vanished like magic. Lloyd let the lure back some distance and to a lower depth. Suddenly there was another heavy strike. He pulled in rapidly, about ten feet astern. the water boiled and a big shark shot up after it, then swam away. With him around there was no more fishing.

Our maps gave no indication of any villages nearby. However. over on the shore to the east there was a strange looking sort of tower, or possibly a lighthouse, being constructed and, in the distance, what looked like a village. Investigation was in order so we sailed over and ran up on the sandy beach and tied up to a partly sunken log. Questioning the workmen,. we found that it was a movie set for a Paramount picture named Catch 22, The windmill tower and the whole village were just frame and plaster to imitate an Italian farming area of World War II.

Pelicana remained tied to her log like an obedient puppy while we got out some lunch and walked along the sand dunes to a grove of palms to eat. We had barely finished when an old truck arrived with a group of young Mexicans who had driven out from Guaymas to watch the operations. The steep, sandy slopes of the dunes tempted them and, with Lloyd joining in, they were soon stripped to their shorts, running, jumping and turning somersaults down the hill. It was more fun than a circus and we were all good friends by the time they headed back for home.

We had left Pelicana with her sails set, and by this time the tide had again started to come up, so we found her tugging at her line as though she were anxious to go. Perhaps we should sail back to the islands and try again for fish. We paid little attention to the rising wind but, as we passed again through the channel, we could no longer ignore it nor the long swells now coming down from the north. There was also an unexpected chill to the wind. We had hoped to sail about ten miles further up the long bay and find a small harbor indicated on our maps, but the ominous change in the weather made us reconsider. Storms can come up fast in the Gulf, and it is best to play safe. We again tried the fishing, with no luck. Then, as the sea was getting more choppy, we turned towards the shore and into "Calamity Cove," where our episode took place.

While Lloyd prepared a camp in the lee of the large rock and gathered firewood, I arranged our emergency shelter and cleaned the fish. It had a hide as tough as pigskin, so I just peeled it off; then, with a sharp knife I filleted the flesh off the bone in two thick steaks. I had heard that some varieties of trigger fish were poisonous. but our trusty guide book showed a picture of this kind and said they were delicious. Cooked over the hot coals. the meat was white and firm, almost like lobster. We supplemented it with beans, fresh fruit and cocoa. We thoroughly agreed with our book.

By sunset there were long "horse-tails" of clouds in the western sky, and the wind was whipping the hot coals out of our fireplace. We gave up all plans to sleep ashore. We set out both a stern and bow anchor and ran a line over to the starboard and up on a sandy beach, with a big rock on top to hold it in place. By dark, our snug shelter in the cockpit seemed quite secure. But you know what can happen!

It was a wild, blustery night. Huddled in our 6x4-foot cockpit trying to sleep, our canvas shelter was only scant protection from the driving rain.

Our cabin would have been fine, but it was filled with gear and provisions, hastily thrown in to keep them dry. Dozing uneasily in the early morning, I was awakened by a gentle bumping on the bottom of the boat. At first I thought it was just the sandy bottom, that we had misjudged how low the tide would get. Then, wide awake, I realized it was a rock. I peered out from under the canvas and saw we were right alongside the boulder-strewn shore at the base of our protecting hill. These rocks had been at least twenty feet away when we had anchored the night before.

I jabbed my companion with my elbow and yelled, "Hey, Lloyd! We are on the rocks!" Without waiting for a light. I untied the cords that held down the sides of our shelter, scrambled out on a projecting rock, and held off the boat as far as I could. Meanwhile, Lloyd had crawled up forward to shallow water and gone overboard, holding on to the slack anchor line. On the partly flooded beach, he braced himself and gave a mighty pull, just in time to catch me off guard and, as the boat moved away without a sound, I lost my balance and went headfirst into the icy water.

Time seemed suddenly to stand still. I could hardly have been submerged more than a few seconds, yet it :seemed like hours. I came up sputtering recriminations through my chattering teeth, and time again resumed its course .

The boat was not damaged, and I had only a few bad scratches on my legs from the rocks and barnacles. Our starboard anchor had simply been loosened by the rising tide. This time we set it well up in the grassy shore and all was safe.

We rekindled our campfire from the still-glowing coals, changed to dry clothes, and brought out a bottle of wine.

The wine helped, but the cold wind kept me chilled so I crawled back into my sleeping bag.

Dawn brought little relief. The wind still blasted us in williwaws, coming first from the bow and then from the stern, surging the boat back and forth against her lines. The shrouds hummed like guitar strings, and the halyards beat a rattling accompaniment on the top of the cabin. Lloyd had stayed up and found a sheltered spot in the brush about a hundred yards away. He had started a fire and was cooking some hot breakfast when I ventured forth. The sun tried to come out and the wind eased a bit. I finally thawed out, but the respite was short-lived. More clouds and a few drops of rain sent us again scurrying for shelter.

We resigned ourselves to wait it out. We rechecked our anchor lines, raised the boom a little to give us more headroom, inflated our spare air mattress, and tucked it under the tent over the rear part of the cabin to make it drain well and take out some of the slack; then, as the storm front hit us full blast, the rain came in torrents, followed by gusts of hail that sounded like buckshot. We almost wished we had invested in that larger boat with the roomy cabin that we had inspected just before leaving. On the other hand, would we have dared to stop in this tiny cove if we did have it?

Our little West Wight Potter Pelicana, was safe enough here in the snug harbor. We were well protected from the northwesterly gales by a large rocky point about 30 feet high and over 200 feet long. Three large islands to the west and a rocky reef and sand bar to the south gave good protection even if the winds shifted. The heavy surf rolling across the entrance some hundred feet astern kept us prisoners, but that would surely die down as soon as the wind stopped. This was the first handicap we had encountered on an otherwise pleasant trip, so we resigned ourselves to fate. After all, nothing is perfect.

After the storm Pelicana is anxious to be on her way.

After spending two nights and a full day cooped up in our compact space, we could easily understand why prisoners get "stir-crazy." The wind and waves had eased but there was still a heavy surf running across the opening of our refuge. At least we could relax. Lloyd decided to take a hike over to the "village" and get some pictures. He was about halfway there when he met some belligerent cattle obstructing the path, and returned in about an hour with no photos. Meantime, I had collected some "buffalo chips," or dried cow dung, and had a good fire going with plenty of hot coals. He then cooked up an excellent lunch of fried eggs, bacon and pancakes, which soon made us forget our trials and tribulations.

While Lloyd was preparing our lunch I had been busy repacking our gear, had checked out the motor and taken a reef in the sail just to be sure we would have good control while passing through the still-heavy surf running across the entrance of our cove. We had no desire to end up on the submerged reef just below us.

But there was really nothing to worry about. The wind caught her just as we entered the surf and she plunged forward through the mangled waves with obvious pleasure. Once in the clear, we let out the reef in the sail and raised the motor, then tacked close to the wind. That was fun!

Time was running out, but we sailed north for several hours hoping to see some sign of that cove indicated on our map. By mid-afternoon we decided it must still be too far away, or too well-hidden, and the wind threatened the possibility of another rough night so we turned back towards San Carlos. We had seen enough of the area to be sure that, with warm water and better weather, it would be good for a return trip. Bahia San Pedro, and the sheltered lagoons all the way to Bahia Kino, could easily take a whole week of exploring.

Coming around with the wind on the stern quarter, we loped along over the broad swells and made good time. We were several miles out at sea on this course when Punta Doble and the entrance to Bahia San Carlos came in view. A jibe would have been practical but, to play safe, we tacked around almost 180* to get the right heading. As we came in the lee of the mountainous point the wind eased gradually then quit completely, leaving us about a half mile out. We had carefully conserved our two gallons of gas so now had no compunctions about using it.

Our little Evinrude Mate took over willingly, so, sure of a good anchorage ahead and with plenty of time, we spent the rest of the day exploring the hidden coves we had passed up on the trip out. One was particularly enticing. It consisted of a large semi-circular bay with a big island in the center giving it a crescent shape, and with a narrow entrance at each tip of the crescent. The cove behind the island was deep blue water and swarming with schools of fish of all sizes. One could camp on the beach, or at anchor, here and fish to his heart's content. But time was again limiting us so we pushed on out the other entrance and to the east end of the bay. There the water was shallow and, hopefully, there might be clams to supplement our larder. Our centerboard and rudder came up while still about 100 feet from shore, so we dropped anchor, ate our supper, and settled down for a quiet night.

The next day was Thanksgiving, and it dawned bright and warm with a light breeze. We looked forward to a good turkey dinner that evening but were in no hurry so planned to just play around that morning. Lloyd needed some exercise and, after cooking an early breakfast ashore, he left with a light pack and headed for the mountain, Tetas de Cabra. He expected to be back about noon and indicated a spot on the north shore where I should meet him. It seemed to be quite close, but actually was farther away than it looked so, although he whistled and called down at me on the way up, I could not see where he was.

The mountain, Tetas de Cabra, a spot for exercising

Meanwhile, I sailed around in the bay and hunted for clams. A young lad whose home was nearby came over to watch and inform me that it was still too early and that the tide would not be out far enough until about three in the afternoon, so I invited him to go sailing with me. He had never sailed a boat and was really thrilled and mystified when I let him handle the rudder and sails and he found he could actually sail almost into the wind and go where he wished.

I sent him home again about noon and sailed up the shore looking for Lloyd. He followed a small arroyo on the way down and I could not see him. As a result, I sailed right past the spot and he had to get some unwanted jogging, following me down the shoreline to catch up.

We sailed into the harbor where we tied up to a floating dock, patted Pelicana for her good behavior and went ashore, smacking our lips at the thought of turkey dinner.

First order of business ashore, however, was to check on the freighter. We had heard that this ship sailed from Guaymas to Santa Rosalia in Baja California about three times a week and that there was a chance we could get them to take our boat on deck as freight and put it in the water there. We might thus have extended our cruise for another week. This could have worked, except that government regulations prohibited carrying passengers because the ship was loaded with barrels of gasoline. The following day we were not so disappointed, however, when we found that the ship had been lying at the harbor entrance all night, waiting for bad winds and waves to subside.

We enjoyed our good turkey dinner at the Guaymas Inn and, after spending a windy night banging against the dock in San Carlos harbor, we pulled Pelicana back up on her trailer to serve once more as a mobile home on the highway.