Paddle Boarding in the Sea of Cortez: Trading my iPhone for the Sun, the Moon and the Surf.
It meant ditching my cell phone for a week. And learning a new sport. But fear was not going keep me from a once-in-a-lifetime SUP adventure in the Sea of Cortez, that alluring body of water between the Baja Peninsula and the Mexican mainland where Hemingway fished and Steinbeck explored. Just hearing those exotic words — Sea of Cortez — evoked images of warm, turquoise waters, whales and wild volcanic islands majestically rising from the waves below.
Nope. My novice SUP status was not going to stop me. I’m athletic. How hard could it be?
All summer I had been navel-gazing. Here I was, at a place in my life where I could do anything, and I had no idea what that was. My Los Angeles life, as fabulous as it looked on Facebook, had gotten too predictable for me. Yoga was how I kept in shape — both mentally and physically — but I hadn’t pushed myself athletically in awhile. Now I had the opportunity to paddle for hours a day if I wanted to. And to camp on the beach. I was ready for a challenge.
During the two months before I met up with the Sea Trek Kayaking and SUP crew — the Sausalito-based outfitter planning the trip for me and a dozen other women of whom I was almost the oldest — Mike Vaughan, Sr. a SUP racer and co-owner of ProSUPShop in Marina del Rey taught me the basics of paddle boarding. I was right about it not being too difficult; this isn’t windsurfing. After two lessons, I was confident enough to go out on my own and paddle around the protected Marina.
Paddling against the wind in open water down in Mexico, though, was something else.
Not only had I never paddled in open seas, I had never camped before. Sea Trek would provide the tent, air mattress, sleeping bag, wet suits and snorkeling gear, but my shopping list had to include more than cute board shorts. Headlamp. Carabineers. Saltwater shampoo. Paddling shoes. Check. Check. Check. Check.
Steve Hayward, who runs Sea Trek’s Baja operation, and Leigh Claxton, founder of OnBoard SUP in Sausalito, and the innovator of paddleboard yoga, were our guides and we could not have been in better hands on and off the water. The crew included a couple of cooks (who whipped up delicious meals in their open-air “kitchen” — everything from shrimp pasta to fresh-caught fish and sushi), a “sweeper” who followed our boards in a kayak with snacks and water, and two guys with outboard motorboats to ferry our equipment and sometimes us if we wanted a break between destinations.
From the town of Loreto — a non-stop Alaska Air flight from Los Angeles — we drove south to Puerto Escondido, where we packed our gear into waterproof bags and hopped on our boards. (From this point on there would be no cell service or power for the next six days. But I wanted a door-to-door detox and left my phone in Los Angeles.) The guides assessed our individual skills as we paddled around Punta Coyote, where I got my first taste of paddling in the sea. We followed the shoreline and an hour later arrived at a beach where we had our first swim in the Sea of Cortez. Then we boarded the motorboats and headed east into Loreto Bay Marine National Park, a World Heritage Site. The views crossing the channel to Isla del Carmen — the largest of the five uninhabited islands that make up the park and where we spent the first four nights — were breathtaking. The majestic Sierra de la Giganta mountain range on the Baja Peninsula took on a purple glow and rocky Isla Danzante, where we would camp the last night, rose like a humped-back aquatic beast from the sea.
Our crew had already set up the kitchen at the campsite on Playa Banca and turned a portion of the sandy beach into a shady, alfresco living room with camping chairs arranged under a tarp and around a couple of ice chests filled with beer, sodas and sparkling water. A “bathroom” was installed down the beach and behind some shrubbery. We pitched our tents along the beach. Though the women tended to cluster, I went for a more solitary experience and set up at the very end, just above the high tide line.
Being part of a group of strangers really forced me to stretch socially. There was no place to hide or be alone except in my tent, which, under the tropical sun, was extremely hot during the day. But one could always walk down the beach — and I often did — or get on a board and paddle.
One thing I didn’t do was spend long periods of time thinking about myself. What a relief.
After our first of many hearty lunches, we swam or paddled along the coast or snorkeled on a nearby reef. Later that afternoon, we hooked our paddleboard leashes to a line stretched between the boats and had our first on-board yoga session. The first day’s finale was nature at its grandest: the November super moon (or should I say SUPer moon?) rose dramatically over a mesa at the end of our private paradise.
We all gathered together in a circle for meals and, under the cover of darkness and a mind-blowing display of stars, we soon were sharing intimate details of our lives. Connecting through an intense experience, in the present with no distractions and so removed from our daily lives, made us all good listeners. Sweat pants and wild hair created a leveling look.
When you’re in bed by 8:30, you’re up for sunrise, and the one on our second morning was probably the most spectacular I have ever seen. The lapping of the waves against the shore had lulled me to sleep and probably done something beneficial to my brain — I was as chill as I had ever been. Why had camping never appealed to me before, I wondered? I loved everything about my little tent with its mesh panels through which I watched the moon travel across the sky. The rented equipment was top grade and spotless. Drinking my Peets Coffee with evaporated milk (perfect substitute for half and half) after morning meditation, I was ready for the day.
The two days and nights on Playa Blanca blended into each other seamlessly and were all about paddling, snorkeling, hiking, yoga, eating and exploring. All about stretching ourselves out of our comfort zones. I had my first real experience paddling against strong winds in open seas — the kind of paddling where you look at the shore and wonder if you are advancing. I also experienced my first downwind ride. At the end of every day, I felt the good kind of exhausted, stronger than I’ve felt in a long time. But as hard as some of the women exercised each day, others took it easy. If you didn’t feel like pushing it, you could hop in a kayak or hitch a ride on the skiff. When I lagged too far behind — I got a tow from Ruben, our sweeper.
On the third day, we packed up our camp and paddled around the tip of Carmen and up the eastern shore where we paddled and snorkeled through a series of rocky caves. We swam at a long, white beach, then devoured dozens of fresh-caught chocolate clams on the half shell. We walked up the beach to an abandoned salt mine and flat, then it was onto our next camp, a primitive, rocky beach strewn with star fish and perfect shells of every variety. In the late afternoon, we were summoned to the boats — the drivers had spotted a whale. We went in search of the giant mammal and just when we were about to give up — it was not whale season, after all — the whale rose to the surface and spouted a glorious stream of water.
On the fifth day we followed the coast back to the west side of Carmen, then most of the group set out across the channel to Isla Danzante, to the most stunning of the campsites: a crystal-clear horseshoe-shaped bay ringed by walls of rock soaring vertically from the beach to the skies. When I slipped from my board trying some buoy-turn tricks with Leigh, I realized it was the first time I had fallen in the water during the trip. The sun, the warmth of the water, the laughter of my new friends in the background, were an ideal way to end a spectacular week. As if it weren’t perfect enough, when we paddled back to shore there was sushi and a bottle of tequila awaiting.
I silently toasted myself, actually looking forward to my last night in that cozy, little tent. Tarantulas no longer had me terrified. Nor did the pitch black nights. I didn’t care if I ever washed my hair or looked in a mirror again. Tomorrow, back in Los Angeles, I would take my phone out of the safe and charge it. But, for now I just wanted to cherish the serenity and the silence.