Finding The Glide
Searching for Wind In Remote Baja
Words: Will Taylor Photos: Chris Bishow
The butterflies flutter inside of his stomach and his brain works faster than it should. It’s written on his face, red with sunburn and bellowed in deep breaths across his chapped lips. He wants to do this but doesn’t want to relive yesterday’s experience.
Who can blame him? Paddling out through girthy, overhead waves in the wind on a 16-foot downwind board over shallow, barnacle-strewn basalt boulders is an intimidating proposition. Especially if you paddled out in the same place yesterday, took three waves on the head, broke the steering system of your board and had to be picked up by a fishing boat on your first downwind paddle in a remote region of the Baja Peninsula.
This fall Brandon Heiser won SUP magazine’s “Find the Glide” contest where downwind paddlers from all over the world posted their favorite downwind runs to the guidebook at SUPthemag.com (It’s now one of the world’s most complete downwind reference guides and still building. We’re just a little proud of ourselves). Brandon’s Mercer Island, Wash. glide on the Puget Sound was chosen as the winner by SIC Maui, the program’s sponsor, because of its solid information and unique location.
But perhaps, at this moment, Brandon is regretting the fact that he’d found the glide and been sent by us to this dusty point of land to explore a virgin run. This experience is what he got for his effort. He and Joshua Thompson—his buddy chosen to come along to join the “fun.” Other than downwind bump, they rarely see waves or shore pound in their home waters.
Waves introduce a learning curve all their own and we’d faced that the day before. Timing is everything in a paddle out through the surf and as anyone who has spent time in the surf can tell you, it’s less than an exact science, something that no one every totally masters, regardless of experience. The ocean’s the boss.
But here we are, the only put-in within a 45-minute drive along Baja dirt roads—rutted, washed-out, pot-holed tracks capable of demolishing the suspension of any vehicle. If we want to paddle downwind, this is the place to do it. And now is the time.
Mexican adventures often start before you even arrive in country. In this case, we stood on the tarmac of Brown Field, a dilapidated San Diego airport less than two miles from the border. Jose says hello in slightly broken English. He smiles using his two fake front teeth and nods his head heartily, like working his neck will help us communicate more clearly. Whatever he keeps in his fanny pack rustles at the motion. He waves for us to get in the single prop Cessna, a four-seater painted in a scale of browns, complete with rich, soil-colored carpet straight out of that greatest of interior design decades, the 1970s.
Once in the plane, he says nothing. No warnings, no precautions, not even, “Put your seatbelt on.” He moves the myriad of nobs in the machine quickly. That must mean he knows what he’s doing. Right? We rattle down the runway and magically lift into the air and angle south. In less than a minute we’re over the Great Fence of America and into Mexican airspace.
We’re headed 50 miles southeast of El Rosario, Mexico to Punta San Carlos, where a looming mesa towers above the landscape and hems in the scattered houses of a small fishing village at the water’s edge. There are the waves below the cliffs, over the kelp, above the rock-shelf reef. They disappear with the tide, but always reappear, sometimes out front, sometimes down the point, sometimes off the reefs that protect an island covered in hundreds of pelicans. Trails head back into the arroyos, sinuous and dusty and in the morning and evening, they’re inviting. But in the heat of the bare-desert day with the sun beating down, they’re a water-less furnace.
And then there is the wind. You could almost—almost—tell the time by its consistency. It blows the same way 80 percent of the year they say, exhaling down the coast from the west and dancing in a line followed by whitecaps.
Which is exactly what we find as we fly down the coast, turn up into the 25-knot breeze and land on the gravel runway, rocks pinging off the bottom of the plane.
On Day Two, though, the wind is blowing the wrong way. Which is odd, the locals say. With the steady west winds that make the place so famous for wind- and kitesurfing, we would know exactly what we needed to do. But it isn’t and so we don’t. We’re itching to explore the coast and the heaving bump run that it frames. The thought of linking epic glides has us all feeling antsy.
We’re not alone in our wait. Others—20 or so men (and a couple hardened women) that range from real estate developers to engineers to van-inhabiting vagabonds—are here for the same wind. They have their windsurf setups or their kites and when the wind comes up, they’re ready to harness it, just like us.
Luckily, we’re waiting in the hospitality of San Carlos with Solosports Adventure Holidays. Kevin Trejo, the owner, has been bringing people here for 26 years, and his business is fully set up to do the only three things that there are to do here: recreate, eat and drink.
“It’s like summer camp for adults,” I hear someone say as I head for another beer.
A nearly perfect description. “Summer camp for endorphin junkies,” may be more accurate. Trejo, a junky himself, knows how to cater to these types: all the gear you need to take advantage of the landscape—paddles, sails, kites, SUPs, surfboards, kiteboards and mountain bikes—is stored and maintained for the guests.
As the conditions change there are decisions to be made—should we go mountain biking with the French-Canadian Quebecois or go out for a SUP surf over the reef? But there’s also a wave showing during the bigger sets on an outer reef that looks good for a shortboard. Is it too early for a beer? Or should we just read a book until we fall asleep in our tents overlooking the waves? Big decisions. For Brandon and Josh, the decision is easy. They spend most of their days paddle surfing on the reef out front or around the corner of the bay at a fast, running right called the Chili Bowl. They’re really taking to this lifestyle and starting to dial in their boards.
As the sun slips behind the curtain of the Pacific the wind jockeys congregate at the open-air bar, to watch the last waves of the evening be ridden and toast to another unreal day of play, far, far away from whatever lives we have back home.
We sip an unlimited supply of Baja Fogs, a diabolically delicious beverage consisting of a Corona or Pacifico with its empty neck space filled with tequila and topped off with lime. Deciding how many Baja Fogs to drink per evening balanced against how you would feel in the morning is one of the biggest challenges of the day. The wind’s variability makes that an easy decision. Another round of Fogs it is.
To get good at anything you have to push your body and mind, to try things you’ve never tried before. This is especially important in the ocean, where the list of variables that affect you are greater than just about any other sport.
About a month into my standup surfing career, I decided it would be a good idea to paddle out to a wave breaking off a river mouth—a left—that was well overhead and featured a massive current streaming out of the drainage due to fall rains. Side-offshore winds were blowing and I had a board I’d never ridden before. In hindsight it seems like a bad idea— it was—but at the time I wanted to test my new standup skills.
So out I paddled. I was wobbly on the narrow board, getting bumped by the side chop from the wind and the rebound from the waves bouncing off the nearby jetty. I fell into the brown runoff a handful of times before I even got to the lineup. Once there I sat on my board, already tired. Then a set came. I took off paddling on my chest with my blade underneath me and clawed over the first two waves but wasn’t so lucky on the next two, feeling my leash stretch close to its breaking point as I got tossed around in the murky water. When my beating ceased I was so frazzled that the current pulled me around the outside of the river jetty and into the open ocean where the waves were double overhead. I drifted far down the beach, dodging sets and trying to get one to the beach. I finally caught a monster and straight-lined down the choppy face in to the sand.
I was humbled and had caught one wave for my efforts. But I’d learned that I could survive that kind of ocean on a standup and I saw the possibilities if I kept at it. Stoked, that session pushed me to prepare for the next time I encountered similar conditions.
I see that same determined look in Brandon’s eyes as he stares out at the ocean and prepares to face the daunting paddle out for the second time. When we tell him when to start paddling in a lull between sets, he turns off his mind, hits the water fast, paddles hard and makes it to the outside with dry hair. No broken rudders today.
We cruise in a light downwind breeze, the whitecaps pushing us along in infrequent glides. Even though it isn’t smoking like the day before, the sea cliffs, the open ocean swell, the sea lions coming to inspect us and the fact that we are the only ones to have downwind paddled here make for a unique and peaceful run.
But the ocean isn’t quite done with us yet. As we near the end of the paddle we must cross numerous reefs and draw closer to the cliffs to come into camp. A rogue set stands up on the outside and catches us unaware. Someone yells and we’re all scrambling to beat the dark wall of green water that closes in on us. We all barely scratch over it and Brandon gets dumped out the back. He comes up unfazed with a big, white grin on his face. He’s learning to go with the flow of the ocean and loving it.
We swing in through a slot between two reefs off the north side of the camp and shoot for a keyhole on the inside. On the way, we pass the Mummy, a large rock covered in the delectable combination of mussels and bird shit. We slip past the Mummy’s sharp grasp and onto the beach. Brandon names the bump run in its honor: the Mummy’s Knuckle.
Time disappears and what concurrently feels like a brief stay and a long rest is soon past. We all agree: Punta San Carlos is a downwind dream. When there’s wind. In four days we only complete two runs. We’re assured this is a rare phenomenon but honestly, we don’t care too much. We’ve eaten fresh Mexican food prepared by the local staff and worked it all off in the surf. When the waves and wind didn’t cooperate we biked and when it was too hot we napped. Brandon and Josh got fully hooked on SUP surfing. And when the wind was up, we pioneered a new run in a new place. Everybody talks about coming back to explore the myriad of runs possible along this empty stretch of coast.
As the planes show up to shuttle us back to the States so does the breeze. The Mummy’s Knuckle looks perfect with steady 25-knot winds and miles of bumps. But Jose is here with his fanny pack and fake teeth and ‘70s-era plane. We rattle down the runway and take off into the wind.