A surf ski is a wild beast with bloodlines that point to South Africa and a heritage of lifesaving in the surf. The only thing it loves as much as speed is throwing off its rider. With a 60-degree feathered wing paddle, twitchy hips, and gas-pedal rudder controls to figure out, I paddle my new surf ski tentatively away from the boat yard for the first time in December. Friends gather to witness the carnage, but are disappointed.
It’s humbling to be a beginner again, which is good for the soul, but these are not waters in which I want to swim. Industry spew, seafood processing goo, and general town runoff all collect here, stirred lazily by the tides.
Otherwise, the scenery around Guaymas, Mexico, on the northeast shore of the Sea of Cortez, is charming. The location is ideal for preparing a sailboat for a lengthy voyage. That is why my sweetheart Henrick is here, and he is why I’m here.
My new water toy is a Custom Kayaks Mentor, a discontinued model of beginner’s surf ski, which I bought from a British sailor who only used it twice. After paddling it a few times, my comfort level increases. By February, I’ve begun to venture further.
One morning, I take the surf ski out past the naval base with its two solemn grey ships. Two armed guards watch from the bank.
Posture. Rotate. Balance. I focus on my path.
Suddenly trumpets and drums sound out over the still bay. Announcements garble through an amplifier. A deep chorus of men’s voices lifts in chanting song, and a breeze responds to unfurl the Mexican flag. Patriotic pride rises and lofts white gulls before a shadowed cliff. They wheel and dive and soar like brilliant notes on a darkened page. The electricity of the moment runs through the water and illuminates everything, like morning sun on the blue and yellow shrimper emptying its bilge on its slow crawl back to the dock. Its rigging splays open, hugging the sky.
Across the bay, the industrial dock tingles with patriotic light – towers rising tall, a single column of smoke. Two ships could fit here, but it is empty today except for a few fishermen in white boats and orange hip waders pulling nets from the channel by hand.
Even the island reflects the pride of the morning, with its green cardon cacti at attention. The red of the steep hillside and white seabird deposits complete the colors of the Mexican flag on the island’s rocky flanks.
A panga whizzes past – a 20’ open motor boat with one fisherman at the tiller. Another man stands in the bow and leans back against a line he holds with straight arms. The panga passes between a green buoy and a rocky point. Channel markers in Guaymas Bay are random, confusing, and generally ignored. The Panga’s wake gives the ski an excuse to try to unseat me.
I continue paddling away, and the drums snap again, sounding like rifle fire over the water. Red mountains surround the bay, pointy and haphazard. Wizards hats, towers, waves, fortress walls. They reflect the sound back into itself, and the air reverberates with a naval serenade. The morning glows with Mexican pride, and through it all slices my baby-blue South African surf ski, with me still victoriously on top.
I paddle back to the boat yard to help Henrick put some finishing touches on his sailboat, Misty, before we launch on our year’s adventure.