09/19/2012 06:59 am ET Updated Nov 19, 2012

The Voyage Of The Cormorant: Sailing And Surfing Baja California

Excerpted from The Voyage of the Cormorant by Christian Beamish. Patagonia Books™ ©2012. Used by permission of Patagonia Books ™.

Rudy and Aurelio offered to give me a shove off. Standing knee-deep in the washing surf, each man grasped Cormorant's rail on opposite sides by the stern. With the next tumbling whitewater they pushed, and I leaned back into my oars, pulling deeply. Cormorant rose steeply up one swell then crashed down the backside almost exuberantly, as if happy to be on the water again, and I felt something of the old sea thrill I was seeking in this adventure.

The ragged swell had calmed, but there were still good, three- to five-foot waves spinning along the cliff line at the point in the blue light of dawn. I pulled farther outside to get well clear of the surf, and Rudy and Aurelio buzzed past in their pangas with the other men, and we waved farewell to one another. I watched them until they disappeared seaward, the drone of the outboards getting fainter and fainter. I zipped my jacket up and settled back to pulling on the oars over the silky water, away from the last outpost of shelter and people. The first rays of sun poured down, and the exhilaration of the open miles ahead came with the same heady sense of freedom I got walking off the Navy base for the last time, many years before.

I sailed for hours and hours, the coast trending away to the southeast until it became a blur of shapes with the desert stretching off far behind. Whitecaps appeared around mid-day, and Cormorant rushed along in the heave and roll -- waves now higher than her rail, now well below again. The movement was mesmerizing, and I drew farther and farther from shore until the water held the deep blue of the truly open
sea, the coast like a fading memory. But a whitecap rolled alongside the boat and sloshed in over the rail, soaking my trouser leg from hip to calf in shocking-cold seawater.

That snapped me into focus, and I dropped the main sail and lashed the tiller down with the rudder hard over so that Cormorant would turn up into the wind, driven by her mizzen alone. The swells had gotten steeper in the strengthening blow, and Cormorant bucked against them like a horse tied off short. Sitting on the aft-most thwart, I unfolded the waterproof chart with my free hand while holding the gunwale with the other. No single mesa or ancient volcano across the desert stood out distinctly enough to determine with any certainty where I was on the coast, and the headlands to the north all faded together in a hazy glare. A run of high cliffs lay before me in the distance. There might be a corner where they turned in and formed a cove, so I prepared to head in and see.

Kneeling on my tightly packed dry bags, I began to shorten sail, rolling up the bottom edge, with Cormorant rocking heavily in the swell. Each time I do this I think that the term "reefer" must have come from marijuana-smoking sailors on the East India Company trade routes, or perhaps down in the Caribbean. Whatever the etymology, I rolled the sail up and tied it off in square, or "reef," knots.

Another whitecap sloshed into the boat, throwing spray in my face.

When I was ready to raise sail again, my heart pounded and hands shook with all this dangerous wallowing. Cormorant made a sickeningly steep lurch when I sheeted in the main, and the boat shipped more gallons over the starboard rail before she settled in to a hard heel. Bracing with my foot against the daggerboard case, I leaned forward along the port rail with all my weight on the driving reach to shore. Cormorant accelerated like a surfboard when the swells lifted the hull, and I strained at the tiller to drive her straight across the faces, as she would easily flip if I allowed her to swing too wildly.

The cliffs came into relief as I approached -- a vertical carapace of tannish-yellow sandstone spires, corrugated with deeply eroded chutes. There was indeed a cove in the lee of the cliff line. An old panga had been nudged to the edge of the precipice overhead, its prow hovering over the wide, desolate Pacific like a totem or a funeral pyre made ready like something intended to channel spirits or to usher the dead to their final resting places. I dropped all sail, pulled the daggerboard from its case, and then lay on my belly to bring the rudder on board. All that done, I placed the oars in the locks and began working my way in.

As ragged as it had been outside, the water under the escarpments was merely textured by the wind, and a clean wave rose up and broke on a sandbar inside the cove. The next one caught me up as I nosed in and sent Cormorant tumbling towards the rocks in whitewater, sluicing sideways in the jumbling foam like a kayak in a rapid. I leapt overboard, clinging to the rail and dragging my heels to steer to the hard packed sand of the beach.

Any landing you can walk away from is a good landing, the saying goes, and it applies equally to airplanes and beach boats. But I now stood shivering on the wet sand in my sopping jacket and trousers, very far from any help, and the seriousness of my undertaking -- the potential for real trouble -- stood out more clearly than it had before. My good little ship Cormorant was not damaged on the landing, nor was I injured, but I still needed a moment to gather my thoughts before working my boat, bow-then-stern, up the beach. The surf was good though, and shedding my wet clothes, I changed into my wetsuit and paddled out once I had the boat secured.

Headlands with sandy coves that swept into crescent beaches formed the general character of this stretch of coast, where the waves hugged the curve of the shore in long, spiraling walls. The waves here were not monsters, but desert beauties; the joy in riding them came as much from their spangled plunging and sculpted curves, as from the sense of levitation and streaking speed.

I had brought only a 9'6" longboard with a slightly pulled-in outline, a "California gun" shaped with just these kinds of waves in mind. The board evoked freedom from the extraneous, which also resonated with Cormorant's clean lines. Each paddle stroke added to a reserve of forward motion so that I could pick up the wave early, while it was still an ocean swell, and then glide into a steadily steepening face.

Leaning into the initial turn, I felt like an albatross in flight as I cut a great, soaring arc over the vast and moving sea.