Paddling with Porpoise: 400 miles across Baja's Sea of Cortez

Paddling with Porpoise: 400 miles across Baja's Sea of Cortez

Paddling with Porpoise

A Memoir by Sean Jansen

“Ugh, a headwind.” I murmured to myself. “Of course it’s a head wind.” I’m at mile 200, 16 days into the trip without a day of tailwind. The forecast for the day was for the first “El Norte,” wind event, a powerful northern wind that screams down the Sea of Cortez. But essentially, the strong tailwind I was prepared for had been halted by an unforeseen south wind. And for the first time on the trip, my frustration got the best of me.


The expletives came first, then the questions. “Why?” I screamed! “What did I do to deserve this?” “What are you trying to tell me?” Here I am, paddling the length of the Baja peninsula to raise awareness for the critically endangered Vaquita Porpoise. Living in Baja’s Sea of Cortez, paddling the length of its coastline via standup paddleboard, strapped down with dry bags full of camping gear, seemed like the only and best way I could give back to the cause. But with me standing upright at 6’0”, fully loaded with two dry bags and five gallons of water, the headwind turns my body into a sail that doesn’t want to push me toward my goal, southward.


I made it to a headland to help me block out the wind. A sigh of relief came over me and allowed me to visualize my next goal. “If I can get around this point that is sticking out to sea abruptly eastward, I should be able to ride the tailwind to town where I can get a mouthful of much deserved town food and tacos that I’ve been salivating over for two weeks,” I thought to myself. Dishearteningly, I had a lot of open water to paddle before the point was even within my crosshairs. I took a deep breath and set out anyway, as I began paddling to the point.


20 minutes in, all was going fine, to my surprise. The headwind from the south turned to a crosswind and slowly began helping me as I angled toward the point. When I got halfway into the bay, I instinctively looked back to marvel at my progress. Then I saw it: a wall of white. An entire sea of whitecaps marching at me, like Orcs marching on Helms Deep from Lord of the Rings. El Norte came not only early, but swiftly, and slammed me almost against the rocks of the point, forcing me to paddle as hard as I could to try and get around.


I was losing. I had fallen to my knees, digging as hard as I could to not wash up against the urchin and barnacle ridden boulders. More expletives spewed out of me. Somehow, I was able to round the point, and for the first time in over two weeks, a tailwind pushed me southward.


I began laughing with relief as I looked far to the horizon. I could see the final point, ten miles down the coast, where the town could waft the smell of al pastor and carne asada, should the winds be that direction. In the meantime, I gave standing up another go and used my body as a sail to take me to town in the fastest speed of the trip. Again, all was going well, but over the next hour I noticed the sea conditions began to deteriorate. Swells rose and the wind intensified. Doubt slowly crept into my mind like it had each day of the trip. This time fear also took hold. With each swell seeming to rise in height, I decided once again to fall to me knees for safety. If I were to capsize, I thought, if I were to lose my gear, the trip wouldn’t just be over; it could turn into a survival situation. As I crumbled to my knees, in 3-4 foot wind waves and 20 plus knots of wind, my worst fear came to fruition.


I caught an edge and flipped in a split second. Underwater, with my paddle in hand, I screamed, “No!” When I surfaced the bottom of the board lay skyward, covered in pressure dings on the bottom from the past two weeks of paddling. Somehow, I quickly flipped the board over to see what I lost, and miraculously, nothing was gone. The strapping system I used to keep things tied down worked perfectly. Wearily, I decided I had had enough and turned my board towards shore to beach and reassess. Throwing my gear onto shore with 3-4 foot waves breaking wasn’t just hard, but close to impossible. Somehow, I was able to unload and washed up on the shore, spewing expletives yet again.


Less than two hours of paddling away from town food, cold drinks, and comfort, Baja said no. There was a saying I learned up the coast 100 miles or so at the last town: “Baja is a four letter word, like Love, but also like Hell.” Doing research and daydreaming of a trip down the near thousand-mile peninsula, with over 15 years of traveling in Baja, Love was really all I knew of the place. Now on this beach, soaking wet, shivering, and relieved of my knowledge of the ocean and perseverance to get to this point, I am discovered the hell that Baja can also be.


Look up the word “adventure” in the dictionary, then scroll through Instagram using the hashtag. What do you see? Probably nothing along the terms that Yvon Choinard calls adventure: “Adventure is when everything goes wrong, that’s when the adventure starts.” 


My trip had plenty of adventure twisted into it, but just like the tides of the Sea of Cortez, adventure always showed up for me in a way I was able to handle, then washed it all away to start over. I’m not sure what to honestly call my trip down the Baja peninsula on my SUP, but ultimately, I can say with confidence that it has been life changing. It was a question mark. And that is what led me to it. Led me to obsess about it, and ultimately led me to start it.


This trip scared me. But that’s also why I was and still am attracted to it. Mexico is scary, Baja is scary, the sea is scary. I was pushed so far outside of my comfort zone that discomfort swallowed my comfortable self, digested it, then pointed and laughed at what I was before this trip.


I could have opened with the story about how my portable desalination device stopped working and threatened me with running out of water. I could’ve told you about the drug runners I had to hide from at 4am. I could’ve also opened with how I had to hike 7 miles to get food because I had run out after already rationing for ten days, eating 1000 calories a day while burning 4000, all while another severe El Norte wind event prevented and scared me from paddling to get help.


But on the other end of that spectrum, I could have opened with the blissful 24-mile day of paddling without a breath of wind and water so clear even Jacques Cousteau would try and think up a better quote than his aquarium statement. I could mention the coves that forced me to stop and enjoy butt naked without a soul in sight - need to mention the quality of fishing without any competition other than that of the sea birds. The starry skies that captured my imagination, the pastel sunsets, and cool sunrises. The dolphins swimming up to say hello, the sea turtles that popped their heads up, or the curious coyotes surveying the scene. I could have opened with all of these miraculous moments.


This trip was everything I thought it would be, and everything I didn’t want it to be wrapped up in a burrito no local Mexican vendor could ever replicate. It tasted spicy, flavorful, bland, scary all at the same time – the kind of burrito that causes questionable stomach sounds and issues that somehow, despite all that, still makes me want to come back for more. 


My stomach wasn’t the only thing acting questionably - my mind played tug of war with me on a daily basis. Part of my mind wanted to achieve the maximum amount of miles in the given daylight, while the other half wanted to take a zero day and just feel the sand melt in between my toes.


Half way through my journey, winter decided to show up. Winter in the Sea of Cortez means El Norte blazing its path nearly daily, and nighttime dominating the hours of the day. So, I hit the pause button and came home for the holidays. I will be returning in the spring to continue the drumbeat of solo paddling down the Baja peninsula. It’s been 36 days and 397 miles of paddling, with no harm to my skin, and most importantly, none to nature with which I am paddling for – thanks to Avasol. And because of that, I can rest at night, despite my obsession waiting for spring to arrive, salivating for part two.

-Sean Jansen


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