- Community Blog
- Tales of Adventure
Note: This story was written and published nearly two decades ago, and times obviously have changed. So have I, but I'll always like this story, as it is the first I ever wrote about sailing. Information in brackets is added for clarity. Okay, here we go...
The extremely sensitive, intelligent individual should not seek enlightenment in the metropolitan area. The mundane machinations of a materialistic society invariably will affront the refined intellectual's delicate sensibilities. In such a sentient being, large doses of urban life often result in physical and spiritual deterioration. Continuous exposure can be fatal.
I recently contracted that insidious malady known to most laymen as "cabin fever." My case was severe, and I nearly died of boredom. A timely self-diagnosis revealed my illness; on the threshold of death, I conceived a plan to regain my sanity and my health. The coincidental arrival of my tax refund enabled me to proceed with my plan.
I keep a 14' Laser sailboat on the beach below the Coronado Municipal Golf Course. On Wednesday morning, May 27 , I dragged my tired a$$ down to this beach and prepared for a voyage of epic proportion. I carefully rigged my boat and loaded the cockpit with gear and provisions.
Loading was a laborious process; ballast trim is critical in such a tender craft, and the Laser cockpit is little more than a footbath. Despite repeated attempts, I could not fit everything into the wretched cockpit, so I stowed the lightest gear in a waterproof bag which I subsequently lashed to the mast. Securing all to my satisfaction, I set sail at noon for the mouth of the harbor.
The sky was overcast and the air temperature was pleasantly cool. A slack tide created minimal surface chop, and my boat slipped quietly down the bay. The wind was south-southwesterly, gradually building to ten knots. This worried me slightly: if the wind held in this quarter I would be unable to reach my destination on schedule, thus I would be forced to abort my voyage. However, I expected the wind to veer, and presently it did, becoming west-southwesterly by the time I reached the tip of Point Loma.
Now came the moment of truth. Time:1400. Six hours of daylight left. West-southwesterly breeze blowing consistently at ten knots. Steeling myself for the grueling passage ahead, I set a compass course for "Islas Los Coronados" (or "Los Coronados Islands"), which lie fifteen miles south by south-southwest of San Diego. My two-day mission: to land upon South Island, establish base camp, explore the island, and burn a fat one on the summit.
Los Coronados can be seen from numerous vantage points along the San Diego County coastline. South Island is the southernmost and largest of the four islands in the group; two miles long and half a mile wide at its widest point, it rises 672' above sea level at its southern summit. Considerably smaller, North Island, Middle Island and Middle Rock compose the remainder of the group. From South Island to North Island, the group spans five miles in a southeast-to-northwest orientation.
Lying approximately seven miles offshore at the northwestern end of the Baja California Peninsula, Los Coronados are Mexican possessions, subject to Mexican government and law. Devoid of fresh water and thus undeveloped, the islands are designated wildlife sanctuaries. They offer refuge to a multitude of sea birds and marine mammals; eight collective miles of shoreline offer safe and diverse habitats for various common and endangered species.
Although I had dreamed for years of exploring Los Coronados, I had never made a serious attempt to land in the group. I had circumnavigated the islands several times in sportfishing craft, but I had never set foot on their wild and rocky shores. This voyage would be different; I was the master this time, and I was on a mission.
I was overcome by elation as I set the bearing on my compass. After years of fantasy and procrastination, I was outward bound for the islands! Liberated from all commitments to mainstream society, I was free to enjoy every second of this adventure. Armed to the teeth with gear and provisions, I was a self-sufficient unit, ready for anything.
Close-hauled on the starboard tack, I was just able to fetch South Island. Nihilistic punk trash blared through the headphones of my Walkman as I thrashed steadily to windward. Developing every ounce of speed, I cursed my heavily-laden boat in fine seafaring tradition.
"C'mon, you f#%&*g slut! Pick it up before I put a cap in your a$$!"
This was no idle threat, for a fully-loaded Colt Python lay near at hand in a large Zip-Loc freezer bag. My thoughts turned to the kraken lurking below.
"Bring it on, motherf&$%r! I have something for your ragged f#%&*g a$$!
And then, sotto voce:
"If I don't reach my weapon in time, I hope you choke as I'm going down..."
Hours passed, and San Diego fell farther astern as I sailed toward my mysterious destination. I had researched South Island with the aid of two thin library texts, but both texts were over twenty years old, and much can happen in twenty years. I didn't know who or what to expect. Both books said a landing could be made on the island's northeastern side, in a small bay known as Smugglers Cove: this was my immediate goal.
Ah, Smugglers Cove... the name smacked of romance and adventure! Indeed, I was a smuggler myself, carrying a loaded pistol and one marijuana cigarette across the international marine border into Mexican waters. Some would question the wisdom of this action, and to these skeptics I reveal the extent of my preparation: the weed was in a weighted waterproof canister, ready to be jettisoned at any moment, while the pistol could easily be thrust through an inspection hatch in the deck and be hidden well out of reach under blocks of internal foam.
I experienced a dramatic loss of boat speed at 1730, when I sailed into the lee of South Island; rising precipitously from the sea, the steep slopes of South Island create a large "wind shadow." I was less than a mile from my destination when I entered this shadow area. I could discern the entrance to the cove, and I could see two or three apparently deserted buildings on the crest of the small point which forms the cove's eastern side. I spent the next hour working my way toward the cove.
I was half a mile offshore when I saw a baby seal floating on the surface. The top of its head was bare, a circular patch of bone gleaming whitely through the fringing fur. It had been scalped by a propeller. It looked as if it had been dead for several days.
I entered the cove at 1830. Here I made an unpleasant discovery: there was no beach or dock on which to land. The cove was surrounded by inhospitable rocks, and these rocks were continually swept by a strong tidal surge. Though possible, a landing would have been difficult, and I didn't care to risk the damage to my boat.
As I pondered the situation, I took in the rugged beauty of my surroundings. Deep in the recesses of the cove, a fantastic rock spire rose from the water, an island within an island. At the base of a high cliff on the cove's western side, the mouth of a large cave yawned open in eerie silence. Across the inlet, on the eastern point, a well-worn trail led from the now invisible buildings on the crest to a cluster of shotgun shacks down by the water's edge. A battered skiff rode at a lonely mooring buoy a stone's throw from these makeshift wooden structures.
I heard a stone clatter on the trail above... looking up, I saw a solitary Mexican rambling down the trail toward the shotgun shacks. Stowing my weapon out of sight, I sailed across the cove to meet him. As I neared the shore, I perceived a rude cement stairway descending into the sea from the shack nearest to the water. This was the "landing" mentioned in the books, this miserable f#%&*g stairway.
Rounding to, I clambered over the side and stood on the lowest step, a narrow rectangle of cement submerged eighteen inches beneath the brine. This was my landfall. After six-and-one-half hours and nearly twenty miles of continuous sailing, I had arrived on South Island.
Standing in knee-deep water and fending my boat off the rocks to either side, I unbuckled my life vest as the Mexican approached. His expression was mellow; he seemed unperturbed by the sight of a solo Laser sailor quietly standing on the landing, a sailor wearing only shorts and vest under gray and forbidding skies.
"Hola! Esta una playa aqui?"
Nope, no f#%&*g beach.
Wait, what is he saying?
"En otra isla..."
There's a beach on one of the other islands... that's a comforting thought, with no wind and just over an hour of daylight left.
I changed tacks.
Yep, he lives here.
"Soy un marinero de San Diego. El viaje en barco uso todo el dia. Necesito dormir aqui por la noche."
My grammar may not have been perfect, but he seemed to understand my request, and he nodded his assent.
"Hay otras personas en esta isla?"
And with these words, he turned back up the trail and rambled out of sight. I waited, and presently he returned with two other Mexicans. I quickly rummaged through the cockpit of my boat , extracted a small waterproof bag, and turned to greet the newcomers.
"Hola! Tengo un regalo para Ustedes," I said, whipping out a bottle of rum which I had brought expressly for this purpose. They smiled at the welcome sight of this gift.
I reiterated my desire to spend the night on the island.
Great. I could stay on the island. Now I had to decide what to do with my boat. We four could easily lift it out of the water at the landing, but there wasn't any level ground nearby on which we could set the damned thing.
We discussed the relative merits of one or two suspect rock shelves across the cove. These were slippery with weed and obviously dangerous; as potential places to land, they left much to be desired. On the other hand, I was rapidly running out of options. If I didn't secure my boat within the next forty-five minutes, I would be standing on that miserable cement step all night.
My eyes fell upon the battered skiff riding just offshore. Could I possibly unload and derig my boat at the landing and then tie it to the stern of the skiff? With much discussion and gesticulation, the Mexicans agreed to this plan.
I asked one hand to hold the bow while I unloaded and derigged the boat. I did this in ten minutes, passing everything to the Mexicans on the stairway above. Water jugs, food parcels, cooler, clothing, tent, fartsack, sail gear... all were hoisted up onto the rocks and dumped in an untidy heap. I kept the canister of marijuana in my pocket, and the pistol remained in its hiding place.
A line stretched between the battered skiff and the nearest shack onshore. One Mexican hauled upon this line, bringing the skiff close inshore; another hand grabbed the bowline of my boat and secured it to the stern of the skiff. Once this was accomplished, the line to the shack was released. The skiff drifted lazily to its former position, dragging my boat with it. The task of mooring was complete. Now I could relax.
I dug through my belongings and pulled out an empty plastic canteen. Turning to the Mexican who held the bottle of rum, I motioned for him to pour some alcohol into the flask. "A las seis," I said, referring in gringo fashion to the graduated scale on the outside of the canteen. He poured six ounces of rum into the open container.
Setting the canteen aside momentarily, I opened the cooler and extracted an ice-cold fresh fruit smoothie (Naked Juice, bursting with enzymes, made early that morning). I promptly cracked this and added most of it to the rum. Capping the canteen, I vigorously shook it for several seconds. Then I unscrewed the cap and took a hefty swig of this concoction.
This exclamation was met with laughter from the Mexicans, who had been watching the entire process closely. I gestured to the cooler, which was jammed full of smoothies and fresh fruit, but my hosts politely declined to follow my example. I broke out two packs of Marlboro 100s [also brought specifically for this purpose], and the Mexicans gladly accepted these with murmurs of appreciation.
I glanced at my watch: twenty-five minutes of daylight remained. Plenty of time for my purposes. With a drink in one hand and a fresh cancer stick in the other, I calmly chatted with these three Mexicans in an effort to glean information.
This is what I learned.
The first Mexican I laid eyes on is one of two lighthouse keepers who live on the island the whole year round. They are civilians employed by the Mexican government, and they live in two of the buildings on the crest of the point. The battered skiff is theirs; they use it to routinely check the lights at each end of the island. Within the limits of their work, they are free to come and go as they please, and they alternately make excursions to the mainland whenever they feel the need.
The other Mexicans belong to a small detachment of military personnel stationed on the island. Six or seven in number, these are "los marineros y los marinos de la Armada de Mexico," the sailors and marines of the Mexican Navy. They spend one month in this remote place before being rotated back to the mainland. They wear uniforms and bear weapons while on duty; duty consists of guarding the island against tourists such as myself.
One Mexican interrupted the conversation with a gesture toward the settlement above; due at his barrack before nightfall, he indicated that we should retire there, and the other hands agreed. Hastily stowing my sail gear and a five-gallon jug of water (for bathing) in a bug-infested shack, I donned shoes and a shirt, grabbed the rest of my equipment, and followed them up the trail in the gloaming.
Arriving on the crest of the point, I caught my first glimpse of the barrack. It was a rude cement affair with an adjacent cement rampart. The words "Armada de Mexico" were painted in large block letters on the wall. A flagpole and a small water tower stood on opposite sides of the entrance.
We walked through the barrack's open door into a room which served as a communal meeting place and dining area. A low table stood in the center of the room. Several Mexicans were seated at this table. The hand who held the bottle of rum rattled off a lengthy burst of Spanish, of which I could not understand a single word.
I was introduced to Armando, the man in charge. He was a capable-looking fellow, in a class apart from the others, and he radiated maritime experience. He swooped on the bottle of rum, and I explained my mission over another drink.
"Todo la vida, quiero caminar a la cima de esa colina," I said, vaguely pointing toward the southern summit of the island.
I had his permission to explore the island on the morrow. Now I had nine hours to burn, so I sat down at the table to shoot the sh!t with these guys.
They were quite friendly. I told them I had been a soldier in the U.S. Infantry, and they asked myriad questions about military life across the border. I answered these as best I could, and in turn I was told of the rigors of life in the Mexican Navy.
These troops endure primitive living conditions in the island barrack. There is no running water and no refrigeration; barrels of tepid water rest on the rampart, and these are occasionally replenished with water brought from the mainland. "The Galloping Gourmet" would have a f#%&*g field day here: the troops live on fish, bird eggs (sea gulls, not chickens), and assorted canned, dried, and processed foods.
In the moments of twilight before nightfall, the Mexicans fire up a generator. This gives them electricity, which manifests itself in the forms of light, radio, and television. Yes, television. Island life isn't so bad after all...
Several smaller rooms provide quarters for the men. These quarters are furnished in the military style, with racks, wall lockers, and a few small tables. The crew's quarters house the one and only television in the barrack; leaning against the wall for comfort, viewers share a rack opposite the screen.
I spent an hour talking to the men at the table. At one point, a Mexican nodded toward a saucepan on the table and enquired if I was hungry. I had brought plenty of food, but I looked in the pan anyway; at the bottom was a congealed mess which I shall not labor to describe. I politely declined my host's generous offer, then I unwrapped and devoured a thick turkey, cheese and avo sandwich.
After my meal, I asked to visit the bathroom.
"Alla," said one Mexican, pointing toward the rampart outside.
Realization dawned upon me. There is no plumbing in the barrack; if one has to piss, he simply walks to the edge of the rampart and urinates into the darkness below. I don't know what one does if he has to sh!t; I didn't feel the need while I was there, and so I was spared the horrible truth.
An armed guard stood on the rampart and casually ignored me as I urinated. I promptly re-entered the barrack, and my hosts ushered me into the room with the TV. There we watched the last half of some cheesy B-grade flick, in which Jean-Claude Van Damme kicked the sh!t out of an inscrutable Oriental adversary and subsequently leapt from a burning ship mere seconds before it exploded... What the f#*k, it was entertainment. I can't remember whether the movie was in English or in Spanish, but Van Damme is Van Damme in any language.
At 2200 the generator died; darkness prevailed, and three or four Mexicans immediately crashed. I made my way outside, where I stood on the rampart for two hours and talked to several of my hosts, including the armed guard. Thinking of an early start in the morning, I retired at midnight.
Although I had brought my tent and fartsack, my hosts insisted that I sleep in the best rack in the crew's quarters. It was the only top rack, well out of reach of insects and other wandering varmints. I didn't bother to undress or to pull back the covers; I simply laid down on the bunk fully clothed, black high-top Nike Airs still on my feet.
During the night, I woke twice and urinated from the rampart. Once I walked partway to the cove to see whether my boat was still afloat. I was standing on the trail, peering into the darkness of the cove below, when I distinctly heard a stone clatter down by the shotgun shacks. I reckoned it was a ghost from the casino, which was built on the eastern side of the cove and enjoyed moderate success during the early 1930s; the casino is long gone, but the low cement foundation and the ghosts still linger. With one last look at my boat, I silently returned to my bunk.
In the interval before sleep, I laid in my bunk and listened to the various sounds which reached my ears: the sea on the rocks below, the guard pacing the rampart, the Mexican farting in the bunk beneath mine... Hey, "When in Rome..." Having consumed a vast quantity of fresh fruit throughout my voyage, I ripped a few nasty floaters myself. Fortunately, my bunk was next to the only window (no glass), and all unpleasant odors were wafted to the other end of the room.
I woke at 0500 the following morning, and I quietly gathered my gear and joined the guard on the rampart. I ate a breakfast of fruit with the guard, then I walked down to the cove to bathe. I stripped and showered by the landing; holding the five-gallon jug over my head and pouring at intervals, I washed the salt and funk from my body. It felt wonderful... the morning light was fantastic, and the sight of my boat riding high and dry cheered me immensely.
As I was towelling dry, I heard a clatter of hooves on the trail; a wild sheep was moving toward me with a purpose... the Mexicans had mentioned a flock of sheep and several burros which roam the island, but this was my first encounter with one of the beasts. I thought he was going to attack me, so I lifted my towel and snapped it once or twice in a threatening manner. The creature shied away, and then, seeing that I meant business, he turned and bolted up the trail.
I donned fresh clothing, and then I selected the necessary items for my hike: water, juice, Walkman, cassettes, camera, lighter, and nuclear weed were thrust into my backpack. I stashed the remainder of my gear and headed back up the trail toward the settlement.
There wasn't much activity in the barrack at that early hour, and the guard was busy polishing his boots on the rampart. I quietly passed without disturbing my hosts of the previous night. The guard didn't say a word.
Fifty meters south of the barrack, I stopped momentarily to examine a basket of sea gull eggs which stood by the door of one lighthouse keeper's squalid abode. These eggs were speckled green and black, and they were roughly the size of "Large Grade AA" chicken eggs. Their oval shape was slightly different, one end of each egg being more pointed than the average chicken egg.
Moving on, I was soon clear of the settlement. The rest of the island was mine to explore. I followed a well-worn trail which led around the rim of the cove to the light tower on the northern headland. From this vantage point I scanned the northern tip of the island. I also witnessed the first of many incredibly beautiful vistas of the islands to the northwest. Looking north and north by north-northeast, I could see Point Loma and San Diego on the horizon.
Although the sky was overcast, the morning was warm and pleasant. The lightest of sea breezes kept the ridge temperature at an ideal level. I was quite comfortable in shorts, and the atmospheric purity was a soothing treat for my lungs.
I looked at the light tower which stood before me. As far as I was concerned, this was the last outpost of civilization. The real adventure would commence now. Knowing one should never bring a foul city attitude into the wilderness, I ejected the punk tape from my Walkman and inserted "The Best of Mozart."
Turning southward, I began my memorable ridge traverse. Sweet strains of classical music caressed my ears as I wandered along the spine of the island, stopping occasionally to suss out flora and fauna, rock samples, and insane 360-degree views. The sides of the island dropped steeply away in places, and I could see a good deal of the shoreline below.
Presently I found myself above a small cove on the island's western side [Seal Cove]. This is the only other cove on South Island, and it is a haven for seals and sea lions. I watched several sea lions haul themselves out on the rocks hundreds of feet below; switching off my cassette player for a moment, I listened to their barking and bellowing as they thrashed about. The cliffs surrounding this cove form a natural amphitheater, and I dare say the acoustics are excellent.
I continued southward, and soon I dropped into the saddle between the central and southern peaks of the island. Wheeling round overhead, hundreds of sea birds followed me as I made my way along the crest. Their ground nests cover the southern half of the island, and whenever other creatures pass these nests the mature birds instinctively rise in an effort to distract predators from their progeny. My karma was good, and the birds didn't sh!t on me once as I carefully stepped around their nests.
I reached the summit of South Island at 0730 on Thursday, May 28. This was my ultimate destination, this remote, elevated platform. I stood alone in the morning light and basked in the precious solitude.
The nearest human being was over one mile away. Only the birds remained. I broke out the fat spleef and burned it as hundreds of sea birds circled above. Then I sat down and contemplated the magnificent scenery which surrounded me.
I thought of the countless persons who have visited Los Coronados since Cabrillo first sighted the islands in September, 1542. I thought of the early explorers, the seal hunters, the rum runners, the gamblers, the sightseers, the fishermen, and the naturalists... How many had stood on this summit? How many had admired this wonderful panoramic view? How many had listened to Mozart as they smoked the killer ganja?
Presently I stood and stretched, and then I sighted the flock of wild sheep foraging several hundred feet below on the western slope. There were ten or twelve sheep in the flock, all shaggy in appearance. I watched them for a moment, then I turned to the north.
I studied the island from this perspective as I pounded my last smoothie. The ridge wound northward in a sinuous curve like the back of some huge dinosaur. Gathering my gear and dropping into the saddle, I rode that bitch for all she was worth.
I returned to Smugglers Cove via a faint trail which skirted the eastern side of the central peak. Along this trail I found evidence of geologic activity; sharp folds and faults revealed various rock strata, and a bed of conglomerate yielded some fine samples. I threw a few select specimens into my bag and continued on my way.
The trail petered out before I reached the settlement, and I was forced to bushwhack some 400 meters through the scrub. I had covered half this distance when I detected motion on the slope above me. Looking up, I saw several burros awkwardly bounding away through the waist-high vegetation.
Emerging from the scrub onto the main trail above the cove, I passed through the settlement one last time. There were only two Mexicans present; the others had walked down to the cove to meet a small skiff which had come from the mainland. I thanked these two Mexicans for their hospitality and proceeded down the trail.
I arrived at the landing in time to see Armando and the others unloading the supply skiff. Several bags of groceries and a number of water jugs were hoisted out of the boat and distributed among the men, who promptly disappeared up the trail with their burdens. The unloading was finished, and the skiff pulled away from the landing.
Retrieving my boat from its mooring, I prepared to embark upon my return voyage. Armando helped me rig and load the boat; when all was ready, I thanked him for permitting me to explore the island, and I received a sincere handshake in return. I shoved off the landing at 0930, and I'll never forget my host's parting words:
"Next time, bring more rum!"
The wind was light in the cove, and I slowly worked my boat toward a cat's-paw half a mile away. As I cleared the cove, several sharp blasts sounded from the settlement; standing on the rampart above, a Mexican was wailing on a trumpet in a farewell salute. It was unreal. He drifted into a sad and lonely dirge, and then I was out of hearing range.
The wind filled my sail as I cleared the northern headland, and I was off on a moderately fast reach home. Three hours later, I entered San Diego Bay under ideal conditions: sunny skies, eleven or twelve knots of breeze, and a favorable tide. It was paradise.
I hit the beach below the Coronado Municipal Golf Course at 1400. I had accomplished my mission, and I felt like a new man. I was proud of my little boat; she had remained continuously afloat for twenty-six hours, and she had shipped only a pint of water during this time. Not bad for a twenty-year-old Laser.
Since my return, many persons have asked me why I made this pilgrimage to the summit of South Island. Why should I even bother to explain my reasons to these clueless @$$holes? If I had to give an answer, and I usually don't, I would keep it simple and straightforward.
"No wankers. No trash. No billboards. No traffic. No ignorant subhuman f#%ks killing each other. No trendy little kids spoiled rotten. No pretentious pseudointellectual yuppie [email protected] in cheesy German automobiles. No pinner kooks, no f#%&g whiners, and, thankfully, no stinking whores. Just Mozart and the elements... a rare treat for this lover of nature and classical music. Fresh air. Sanity. Solitude. Zen. Freedom. Absolute freedom, precious freedom, which no amount of money can buy in the City of San Diego."
Note: Those who wish to learn more about the islands should read LOS CORONADOS ISLANDS, by Helen Ellsberg [La Siesta Press, 1970]. This slim volume packed with information is the definitive work on the islands.
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- Catalina Excursion — June 21, 2013
- Illusion Dweller — Aug. 15, 2011
- Discovery of an Australian sailboat treasure in San Diego — Aug. 21, 1997
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