Wind, Waves and Worry

Crossing the Canal de San Lorenzo was not easy.  Espirtu Santo island is 5 mils offshore

Crossing the Canal de San Lorenzo was not easy. Espirtu Santo island is 5 miles offshore.  These were not ideal conditions for a kayak.


                                                           WIND, WAVES AND WORRY                                                            Steve Dresselhaus

The 25-knot winds were not the predicted 14-knot winds.  My plans to cross the Canal de San Lorenzo in the Sea of Cortez near Baja’s capital city of La Paz where I live had been based on the smaller number from the current weather forecast.  At sea,  a wind speed difference of 11 knots can be huge.   The five-mile crossing I was making is normally  quite calm and benign and I have done it many times   in my kayak with never any trouble.  This time it was different, very different.

I was on a solo multi-day kayak trip, something I have been doing for many years. These solo trips, normally done in the Sea of Cortez, are part of my spiritual discipline.  They are times  of solitude, reflection, prayer, meditation and worship.  These times at sea,  alone with God,  have always, yes always, proven to be influential in my spiritual journey.  New ideas, fresh understanding, enhanced vision for the future, corrections to my  theology,  and innovative direction for ministry are generally the outcomes of these voyages.  On this particular voyage I had to do some serious thinking about my career path and some potential changes looming in the near future.

As I made this particular crossing I felt very close to God, extremely close.  In fact,  I was wondering if I was not about to meet him at any moment.  The winds were fierce, relentless, unforgiving and cold, not temperature cold but the cold that comes from  merely being an emotionless, non-caring,  pitiless  force.    When I started  the  return crossing to the Baja mainland from Espíritu Santo Island, the winds were fresh and blowing out of the northwest at the predicted speeds.  Doable.  Not particularly  difficult.  Intermediate skill level was all that was required.  Shortly into the paddle, the winds shifted to  the northeast and  exploded in their intensity.  The winds grew and so did the waves–large waves, many of them breaking whitecaps surrounded me,  making  the surface of the sea look like a cavorting flock  of rambunctious sheep.  Because of the island immediately to my north, the waves curled around the island, attacking me from both right and left as well as from dead astern.  Whitecaps, steep wave faces, from the right, from the left, howling wind – next possible landing – five miles away – five  long miles away – five neverending miles away – this was not a good place to be.

I looked to the bow of my kayak, hoping to find Jesus asleep, like in the  storm story from the Gospels.  A scolding from him for my lack of faith would have been welcome about now.  It was rough slogging.  Stroke after stroke–countless strokes – unending repetition – unable to  pause  to rest for even a second.  Brace against the wave.  Wide paddle sweep to keep my boat’s stern to the waves as much as possible.   Brace again.  White foam pouring across my boat. Water up to my chest as  breaking waves rolled  across my boat.  “Dear Jesus, if you get me out of this predicament, I promise I’ll become a missionary.”  Wait. I already am a missionary in Mexico.  That bullet had long since been fired.  Quick, what else can I promise in exchange for a safe crossing?

Stroke, brace, stroke, brace, sweep left, sweep right. Keep stern to the waves.  Whoa! Almost went over that time, and that time and that time.  Boat filling with water as the spray skirt around my waist can’t keep up with the constant pounding of the breaking whitecaps.   There was only one other boat, much bigger than mine and with a big engine,  at sea the entire crossing.  I didn’t know the port had been closed and that the port captain had issued a small craft advisory.  I was in the smallest of small craft – a human-powered craft – a sea touring kayak. The smaller the boat, the bigger the adventure.   What had gone wrong with the forecast?  I have always trusted  the forecast in the past without any problems.  This time it was different, very different.

Is the distant shore, my destination, any  closer?  Yes, I can distinguish individual features, a silhouetted cactus atop a hill, a bus, a beach-side restaurant.  I am getting closer.  I am still far off shore but not as far.  The waves are still huge, still breaking, and I still cannot pause for even a second to rest; but I am getting closer.  Do I dare to think I might win this battle?  At what point in this crossing will  I start to feel safe and in control?  I still have to paddle along a half-mile cliff downwind and down-wave from me, but I can at least now see the tip of Punta Tecolote , my immediate destination. Once I get around that point I’ll be safe.  But for now the shore to my left is nothing but  one big continuous cliff with waves crashing into its base.  If I go over now it is likely that my boat will be smashed to bits.  I can swim the remaining distance but I would have to stay far from the surf smashing into the rocks.  It would take an hour to swim to safety in these rough conditions but the water is not cold, so no big deal.  Feelings that I just might make it, boat and body intact,  begin to surface.  Like a playground teeter-totter my feelings of  fear and victory take their turns going up and going down.

I drew closer and closer to Punta Tecolote and the known safety to be found by  tucking in behind the steep cliffs that  mark the entrance to the bay and would shield me from the wind.  If I capsize now I’ll simply grab the swim fins tucked under the deck bungee and swim the rest of the way.  Sure my boat will be dashed to bits on the rocks and I’ll lose my camping gear but I’ll be safe.  One hundred yards to go, then fifty.    I have to stay far enough off the rocks so that that the rebound waves won’t catch me in their collision with the incoming waves.  I made it past the rocky point.  Now I have to  nearly reverse my course  and turn the boat almost 170 degrees to be able to get behind the sheltering rocks.  When  the rocky cliffs  were south of me they were my enemy.  When the very same rocks are to my north they will be my salvation. Sermon illustration somewhere in that idea.  As I make the turn, for a few seconds  I’ll be broadside to the steep, now collapsing waves–waves collapsing  not because of the wind but because their underwater base is hitting the bottom,  shifting the energy upwards into steep collapsing wave faces.  But who cares?  I’m only a few yards from calm water now, so capsizing would be nothing but an inconvenience, a minor embarrassment in front of all the other boaters seeking shelter in the  same bay.

I’m behind the wall of rock – the wind is gone.  The water is calm.  For the first time in several hours I simply sit still,  floating.  Prayer after prayer of gratitude drift from my heart to God’s ears.  The bow of my boat slides  up onto the soft white  sand beach being caressed by gentle wavelets.  I was safe but I did not feel like celebrating.  My elation at what I had just accomplished  was tempered by my humble gratitude to God for having given me the courage to not give up and the energy to keep paddling.  Any festivity I may have contemplated was nipped in the bud by the thought of how many times I had narrowly escaped a  very serious problem at sea.  God had answered my prayers either by his direct intervention or by giving me the courage to not give up and the strength to keep going.  I’ll let theologians argue the efficacy of prayer  and who does what for whom,  but  I will not let the mysteries  of prayer rob me of gratitude.

This is my kayak in the shelter of Punta Tecolote.  Never before had a calm beach been so welcoming.

This is my kayak in the shelter of Punta Tecolote.   Never before had a calm beach been so welcoming.

Embarking on solo kayak trips is something  I will continue doing, just as I have for the past two decades.  These trips are a very important part of my life.  I suspect we guys are genetically programmed to need healthy tests and reasonably risky adventures.  We were not designed by the Almighty to sit behind a desk or in front of a screen or spend our lives  merely reading books about other guys’ adventures or other guys’ ideas. Each of us  must have his own adventures,  his own tests, his own reaffirmations of manhood.   We need those times when we find  our fears taking  us to the portal of panic when we have to beat them  back through self-control and calling on God.

In addition to adventure, I need the freedom of periodic  solitude  in order to find and enjoy  new ideas, to be creative,  to find escape from the constant input of others wanting to hijack my thoughts and ideas and implant their own.  I long for those times of solitude in which I am  no longer merely reacting to the pressures imposed on me by others and no longer subject to  the approbation of group-think. God’s creation inspires creativity.   When I have no books, no internet, and no  electronic entertainment programmed by others for my purchase,  I can invest a couple of hours  watching  a billion stars drift by.   I can lie in my sleeping bag and watch shooting stars race across the sky, leaving a trail of sparkles as they disintegrate. I can listen to the lapping wavelets on the beach and let them be the white noise that lulls me to sleep.  I can without feeling guilty of wasting time lie on my belly in the sand and watch a hermit crab gnaw on a piece of seaweed.   Alone, I can sit in the sand with my back against a boulder and watch God say “good morning” with a spectacular, slow motion sunrise while sipping hot coffee from my beaten and battered metal travel mug.   When I’m totally alone at sea, God is the only person available with whom to speak,  so it is with him I converse.  My worship of him becomes personal, private, intimate and not borrowed from a popular Christian performer du jour nor molded by the influence of the latest market driven  best-selling book.

Each trip I take sharpens my skills and  makes me a better mariner.  Each solo trip I make lets me read new chapters in the book of the sea, thus enhancing my knowledge of the oceans; and each trip self-writes new chapters in my  life story.   Each solo trip creates creativity.  Each solo trip is gift from God, both physically and spiritually.   Can’t wait till the next one.  I’d invite you to join me but….three’s a crowd.


The Father and Son Holy Spirit Island Trip

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My son Joel on a kayaking expedition in Baja

                                  The Father and  Son Holy Spirit Island Trip                                                                                           Steve Dresselhaus               

“Girls are like potato chips. Once you get started it is really, really hard to stop.” This may not be the best way to start out a father/son talk about boy-girl relationships; but for a shy dad and a not-always-communicative 14-year-old son, it did get the ball rolling.

While the discussion topic was not always easy,  the setting was unequaled. My son Joel and I were on a three-day circumnavigation by sea kayak  of Espiritu Santo (Holy Spirit) island off the coast of Baja California Sur in the southern reaches of Mexico’s Sea of Cortez. The purpose of the trip? Adventure and a chance to get away from it all and talk about all the things that a dad should talk about with  his son.

Espiritu Santo Island- West side

Espiritu Santo Island- West side

The island, sometimes called the Pearl of the Sea of Cortez, is a 12-mile-long, three-mile-wide desert island shaped much like a huge,  thick-bodied comb. One side of the island is a series of deeply indented, cliff-lined bays, each of which terminates in a perfect white sand beach. The other side, the eastern side of the island, is like the back of a comb, relatively straight, with no coves, bays or other protected inlets.  For a mariner, a windy day on the eastern side ranges from challenging to downright dangerous as it becomes a lee shore with  pounding waves relentlessly beating on mile after mile of unyielding rocks, cliffs and reefs. Woe to the sailor who finds himself in distress on that shore.

Our first day out was like a photo postcard. A gentle breeze cooled us as we paddled the 4.5 miles from the Baja mainland out to the southern tip of Espiritu Santo. The transparent blue water parted gently as our two fiberglass sea touring kayaks created V-shaped mini-wakes in the silky smooth water. The upturned bows of the kayaks nosed into the barely perceptible head wind. The occasional flying fish or diving sea bird let us know that we were not the last life forms on earth. Every so often a sports fishing boat would race past us on the near horizon in pursuit of dorado, marlin or tuna – but then silence again. The solitude and silence discovered while in  human-powered craft far from shore is a delight that needs to be experienced at least once in a lifetime.

Playa Despensa near the southern tip of Espiritu Santo Island.

Playa Despensa near the southern tip of Espiritu Santo Island.

Our crossing lasted a little under two hours. It was Joel’s first crossing of a deepwater channel and the farthest he had ever paddled off shore. In typical adolescent fashion, any emotional display for a job well done was masked with a feigned “Ho Hum.” We ducked into Playa Despensa, a horseshoe-shaped bay that is often used as the staging area for kayaking groups embarking on multi-day adventures. For us it was a time to open up the can of Pringles stuck in the bungee chords of Joel’s waterproof deck bag, get a drink, and stretch our legs. It was also a time to gaze at the  water, a multi-hued blue and green masterpiece highlighted by a white sand beach and a stratified red and pink layer-cake cliff opposite our landing site.

Isla Gallina

Isla Gallina

After a brief stop, we climbed back into the boats to begin the next leg, three hours of exploring coves, small islands and white sand beaches. Our next stop was Isla Gallina, or Chicken Island. Isla Gallina is a tiny red rock island with sheer cliffs running nearly all around it, denying even  the remotest  hope of a beach.  At its base, on the southern side of the 200-yard-long island, there is a small rock shelf about a foot above the water line at high tide. We put our boats up on the shelf, dug out our snorkeling gear, and jumped into the clear blue water. The island is a starfish paradise. Blue, purple, and red starfish were everywhere. Other starfish, including the chocolate chip star, (yes, it looks like it is covered with chocolate chips) were also abundant. Trumpet fish, trigger fish, parrot fish, sergeant majors and Cortez Angels filled the water like a two-page spread in National Geographic. A variety of brown, stringy,  twisted corals blanketed many of the white rocks, transforming them into the envy of any dredlocked Rastafarian.

Chilled, we exited the water. Joel climbed up a short cliff to the top of the island. He discovered the island to be one of those guano-frosted islands often seen on Animal Planet. It was a madhouse of angry birds threatening to run us off their island and away from their eggs, which were lying around the ground in hastily assembled nests of twigs and dried seaweed. The haphazard, unplanned nature of the nests evinced little pride in homemaking. As the angry birds shrieked and flapped overhead, I couldn’t help but think of some of the horror movies of yesteryear such as Alfred Hitchcock’s “The Birds.” I was glad to be wearing sunglasses, just in case.

View from our camp at Playa Mesteno

View from our camp at Playa Mesteno

Late in the afternoon we slowly paddled into Playa Mesteño, one of those long, narrow indentations that cuts deep into the island. The water in the bay was flat calm, the sand white and perfect, the beach deserted, clean and unspoiled. Our most visible companion was a large blue heron who stood on the shore waiting for…. whatever herons wait for on the beach. We set up camp, which consisted of breaking out the stove and throwing our sleeping bags onto the sand. The temperature was ideal and there were no bugs; a tent would have been superfluous and a waste of energy to set up.

I don’t believe in retributive karma, nor do I believe that good and evil are doled out in precise,  predestined allotments  to each person. However, the trip which up to now had been perfect took a turn for the worse, almost making me doubt my unbelief.   Our first cooked camp meal  became a cook’s nightmare. Though difficult to believe, I did the impossible:  I ruined a meal of “Hamburger Helper,”  although it wasn’t exactly my fault. Just after browning the ground beef, the stove started to act up and the heat it produced dwindled till it was barely enough to warm the water, much less boil the noodles to softness. The water refused to boil, the ground beef began to turn into a liverwurst-like pate, and the noodles remained  al dente  al maximus.  “Good job, Dad,” was the less-than-sincere praise heaped upon my culinary efforts. It did keep us alive.

The stove issue was one that had to be resolved, since Espiritu Santo has a strictly enforced no open fire rule owing to its status as a United Nations World Heritage area. I suspected that the white gasoline, purchased in a local hardware store, might be the culprit. The troubleshooters’ guide that came with the tiny camp stove seemed to corroborate my suspicions. I dismantled the stove and replaced the white gasoline jet with the one for kerosene, assuming that the finer orifice used by the white gasoline was clogged with gunk. That more than did the trick. The stove became a raging blowtorch, a welder’s fantasy, a micro Hell.  The stove became all or nothing.   For the rest of our three-day camping/kayaking trip, every cooked meal was  like an Oreo cookie: the outside hard, black and burned, with the inside raw and gooey. The fact that I am now writing this 24 hours after completing the trip indicates that my cooking, while a failure on nearly all counts, was not immediately fatal.

During the first night on the island, the wind picked up. The problem with wind on this island is that it makes the eastern side of the island a boiling cauldron of tumbled and confused water. After a burned but raw breakfast we began paddling, unsure of whether or not we could continue with our circumnavigation or if we would  be strong-armed by a power bigger than us and forced to retrace the previous day’s journey in the shelter of the island. We rounded the northern tip of the island and headed out into the exposed Sea of Cortez. The wind was strong, the waves high, around six feet, but there were no whitecaps. I assumed that the absence of whitecaps indicated that the waves were residual waves, having blown in from the north during the night–and that as the day progressed and warmed they would slowly die away. Wrong. All day long the waves followed us, causing the kayaks to pitch and yaw.  Like an unruly herd of sheep, whitecaps, called borreguitos (“little lambs”), began to appear and frolic around us. Sometimes the following seas would push us to the right, sometimes to the left. At times when a boat was on the crest of a wave, a gust of wind would spin the boat around nearly perpendicular to the wind. We were condemned to five hours of relentless, grueling, intense paddling. The wind never got any stronger, nor did it let up. It remained strong enough to keep the waves big and steep. The earlier lack of whitecaps had deceived me into thinking that the rough conditions were about to end.

I nervously watched Joel. This was his first ever big water paddling experience. I don’t think I have ever been prouder of him. He handled his boat well, stroking, counter stroking, high bracing, low bracing and braking against the waves for hours on end. Not once did he complain. His face showed quiet determination and resolve. No fear. We had two options: turn around and battle headwinds and advancing waves and then retreat back down the western side of the island, or keep going. A third option would have been to give up and let ourselves be dashed to bits against rocky cliffs; but since this trip was billed as a father/son outing to build our relationship and talk about things that dads are supposed to talk to their sons about, being dashed against the rocks didn’t seem an appropriate finale to the trip.

Every so often on the eastern side of the island, rocky headlands protrude.  At each rocky headland, none of which was large enough to offer protection from the wind and waves, the seas grew even more confused. Some waves would refract around the headland, coming at us from other directions. Other waves would reflect off the cliffs, hitting us from the opposite direction of the prevailing waves. Other waves would strike submerged rocky reefs and seem to leap up out of nowhere. Still other waves formed klapotis or jump waves caused by the face-to-face collision  of two waves traveling in opposite directions. Waves could and did come at us from all points of the compass. It was five hours of intense concentration without a pause for rest.

Playa Bonanza at dawn

Playa Bonanza at dawn

After a long, hard, and relentless paddle, we rounded the last rocky headland and entered the shelter of Playa Bonanza, a two-mile-long stretch of picture-perfect beach. Protected by a large headland at the northern end, the water inside the bay was calm, with only gentle wavelets lapping at the shore. Rest, peace, food: a great way to end a long struggle. The tension of the previous five hours melted into oblivion, leaving nothing but a wild memory, a healthy boost of self confidence for Joel, and a feeling of accomplishment for both of us. We made camp, once again  by simply throwing our sleeping bags onto the sand. Dinner was boxed macaroni and cheese. My blow torch stove,  my Hell in a handbag, did a remarkable job of boiling the water for the noodles.

After darkness had fallen, Joel and I lay on our sleeping bags gazing up at a moonless but incredibly star-crowded night sky. Only those who have been far from civilization in a desert or out at sea can truly appreciate the majestic beauty of the horizon to horizon clutter of uncountable stars.  There were so many stars it got me wondering if God is not some kind of hoarder.

Staring upward, we talked about a lot of things.  We talked about what it means to be a good man, based on the New Testament book of Titus, written by the Apostle Paul. Words of wisdom 2,000 years old still packing  a punch of truth, giving guidance for today, which if followed will help in marriage, work, relationships, enabling  the simple joy of good living.   My hope and prayer for Joel is that these words will guide his life, as in just a few short years he will be entering his own manhood. The words of the  Apostle Paul and my example: will they be enough?

Gazing up at the sky, I told Joel that I would not go to sleep until I had seen a shooting star and a satellite making its way across the night sky. Within two minutes I was free to go to sleep and within three, I was.

Dawn came with a beautiful sunrise over the Sea of Cortez.  I enjoyed  a pot of fresh coffee, brewed on Brimstone Bonnie, the stove from Hell.   My 14-year-old son  lay a few feet away still tucked inside his sleeping bag, his long uncombed hair a tangled, windblown, sea-salt-snarled mess above a still innocent face. Watching him sleep, I could see remnants of  a young child, a little boy, not yet needing to shave or behave like an adult, but no longer addicted to Legos or Pokemon. Wasn’t it just yesterday that we took him out of the hospital wrapped in a tiny blue bunny suit with ears? Fifteen hours earlier, battling the wind and waves, I had seen in his face the early evidence of manhood: determination, vision, survival, goals. Boy or man? He is in that intermediate stage right now, no longer a little boy, not yet a man. It is my job as his dad to help him make that transition successfully. God help me.

After an Oreo cookie-style  breakfast of scrambled eggs and a quick loading of the kayaks, we were on our way back home. A calm, four-hour paddle across the Canal San Lorenzo lay before us, with a gentle breeze to cool our way and only tiny waves. In only five hours we would be home in La Paz, and we would have a shower and a meal cooked slowly and properly on a stove, not blowtorched into charcoal by the rebellious camp stove from the underworld. And there would be a strengthened friendship between a dad and his son after an adventure well done.

Waiting for my wife to come and retrieve us and our kayaks, I noticed four young teenage girls walking past us, not once, not  twice, but at least eight times. It wasn’t me or the kayaks that had caught their eye. “Joel, did I ever tell you that girls are like potato chips?”