Boca from above.
About three-fourths of the way down the Baja California peninsula, some 750 miles south of San Diego, is a mammoth, largely deserted river estuary and bay. Although outer Bahia Magdalena has some of the world’s most dependable billfish action, just a handful of sportfishing yachts visit each month. Even those yachts transiting down to Cabo San Lucas, 270 miles farther to the south, avoid raw and uncivilized and largely uncharted “Mag Bay,” giving it nothing more than the literal pass in the night. The main reason is the bay’s northern entrance, Boca de Soledad, of which my tattered guidebook, Fishing Bahia Magdalena, has this to say:
“The Boca de Soledad… is the passageway that the Puerto Lopez Mateos panga fleet uses to get to its fishing grounds outside the bay. The entrance has very large breakers crashing along all the way across its mouth, and sometimes big swells build across the narrow open passageway. During new and full moons, the swift currents near Boca de Soledad muddy the waters, making it impossible to see the shoals and sand bars. At this time going aground here is almost certain.”
That’s why mostly it’s the migrating whales that winter here, frequenting Baja’s warm-water lagoons from December through March to mate and give birth. And that’s why three Southern California yachtsmen decided to see if they could run the Boca-precisely because Bahia Magdalena is raw, uncivilized and widely unvisited.
There are those yachtsmen who are always looking for that next challenge, the new adventure. Howard Elmore is a seasoned pilot who often flies low and goes slow over the Baja Peninsula, often with good friend Mark Hillgren, a Newport Beach boat owner. Once during one such low-and-slow, Elmore and Hillgren spotted large Mexican fishing seiners anchored off Puerto Lopez Mateos, an island village inside the Boca pass.
The two wondered if they, too, could get their boats through Boca de Soledad. As they shared their thoughts around the Newport Harbor Yacht Club, their talk caught the ears of James Watson, an international developer and my former USC frat brother. Watty and a number of other yachtsmen grabbed hold of the idea and the Boca de Soledad adventure was born. By July 2005, they’d recruited enough interested fellow boat owners to fill five private planes, and the group made a reconnaissance of the Baja Peninsula. They landed on the unpaved airstrip of Puerto Lopez Mateos, hired several loca panga fishermen and charted the Boca de Soledad. The Boca was doable, they all agreed.
November 2005: The trip becomes reality. Friday night, November 11, five yachts depart from the Newport Harbor Yacht Club: the 49-foot East Bay Wahoo, owned by Bill Peterson; the 55-foot Fleming Kialoa, owned by Henry Reiter; the 62-foot Ed Monk Loonacy, owned by Scott Looney; and a pair of 72-footers, Juno, a 1969 DeVries-Lynch owned by Mark Hillgren and the Dittmar Donaldson Sundance, co-owned by Watson, John Curci, Steve Layton and Ben Anderson. Sundance is a yacht with a pedigree worthy of our adventure, built for Howard Hughes, then owned by race-car driver Briggs Cunningham and, later, the Nordstrom family.
The next day, we enter Ensenada’s excellent Marina Coral with just two things in mind: fuel and football. Everyone on the boats has a PAC-10 college preference. Watty and mine are with the Trojans of USC, our alma mater, playing archrival Cal that afternoon. The bonding process begins in earnest on all of the boats, with 25 to 30 guys watching half a dozen raucous college football games and prompting more than a few spirited bets primed by free-flowing cervezas, shots of tequila and Cuban cigars. Afterward, we dine at a popular street-side mariscos restaurant, singing along with the mariachis, buying cowboy hats and dancing with ladies seated at nearby tables.
The following morning the Boca armada departs Ensenada on an overnighter to Bahia Tortugas-Turtle Bay to you gringos. Our classic yachts were made to go slow, and there’s no getting around it. Several weeks ago, I was flying around at nearly 40 mph on a 55-foot Viking off Cabo San Lucas during the 25th Annual Bisbee Black & Blue Jackpot Tournament, so this takes some getting used to. But we settle in, continue to get to know one another, enjoy the Baja scenery and catch up on our reading, napping, drinking and snacking. Arriving in Turtle Bay midafternoon, the boats quickly anchor, and the various toys come out. Our complement of kayaks, surfboards and tenders bring visitors aplenty to Sundance. A potluck feast takes place that night: several dozen local lobster, plus steak, shrimp, quail and salads.
A 23-hour, 200-mile leg follows. We’re now accustomed to our speed, or lack thereof, and settle in for a sedate day at sea. Cruising conditions are perfect; with a two-foot following sea and 70-degree weather, it’s easy to smile, relax, nap. Dolphins visit the boats, cavorting in our bow waves.
Heavy fog has been upon us each of the past three mornings, burning off about midmorning. Now, as we approach our target, Bahia Magdalena, we’re absolutely socked in. Only on our radars can we see the coast, Boca de Soledad, the other boats or the pilot pangas waiting to guide us in. As we sit offshore waiting for clearing, we hear the thump of thundering surf reverberating through the fog.
I recall those quotes from Fishing Bahia Magdalena, but keep my thoughts to myself. After all, the participating boat owners visited Puerto Lopez Mateos specifically to chart the channel and made numerous low flyovers to acertain the Boca’s navigability-several months ago. But sea conditions change, sandbars come and go….
Suddenly the fog lifts, revealing a stunning, massive, wide-open bay, decorated with breaking waves in many locations. Our fleet edges closer to the entrance as half a dozen pangas approach us. As we hang back, Mag Bay Outfitter owner Bob Hoyt, who’s in the lead guide boat, calmly assures us over the radio: “Don’t worry-you’ve got plenty of water, come on in. Just be sure to follow your guide panga-closely!”
Hoyt is a local, a resident of Lopez Mateos, and he knows that the channel is deep and safe. Understandably, though, the boats still sit back, until, contrary to original plans, Sundance takes the plunge and pulls in behind Hoyt’s guide boat. Juno quickly jumps in behind us and in less than half an hour all boats are through the Boca, into Mag Bay, and safely anchored in the tranquil waters off Puerto Lopez Mateos. A piece of cake.
A jovial, exuberant air runs through the boats and crews, celebratory chatter fills the radios. Now it’s really time to party-and play. We’ve planned a nonstop exploration of upper Mag Bay, partaking of most of the outings Mag Bay Outfitters offers. Groups of six hop on high-powered quad all-terrain-vehicles out on Magdalena Island and blast south for a 23-mile run along the deserted beaches. Local pangas are chartered for fishing inside as well as outside the Bay. The first day I jump aboard Ruben Duran’s panga with Bill Gaboury, a friend of Watty’s and one of 10 ten new arrivals who’ve just flown in by private plane.
Gaboury is a fly fisherman, and when we are joined by fishing guide Lance Peterson, we race 18 miles north through maze-like greenery in his speedy panga to a spot opposite the Boca de Santo Domingo entrance. Drifting past endless mangroves, the two flyfishermen catch some small garotas, or leopard grouper, and then Ruben gives us all a lesson in catching corbina.
The next morning I talk my way aboard Arizona pilot Bill Miller’s private plane. As we circle ever higher over the Boca, we’re stunned by the beauty of the unique mix of meandering mangrove forest and towering sand dunes, a landscape that gives the impression of Amazon-meets-Saudi Arabia.
As soon as I have my feet back on the ground, it is time to head over to Magdalena Island. Watty has reserved half a dozen quad-runners and a couple of jeeps. Our group of Scott Looney, Kenny Potts, Mike Hodges, Watty, Bill Gaboury and I zoom down the deserted beach on a high-speed run. Along the way we pass several shipwrecks and a whale skeleton. After forays into the white sand dunes on the leeward side of Isla Magdalena, we come across Lance and fellow fishing guide Josh Dickinson-waiting for us with a variety of liquid refreshments and tacos. Gracias!
They tell us to continue south along the coast where we’ll find even more: camps of local fishermen, a crescent-shaped cove that’s home to a large group of sea lions and more shipwrecks. Then our pit stop is done and we’re back in the saddle.
After two more days of fishing and exploring, our five yachts head south through Mag Bay’s “inland passageway,” a little wild intracoastal waterway known to the locals as La Curva del Diablo, or Devil’s Bend. About 20 miles of dangerously shallow, curved channels connecting northern Bahia Magdalena with the larger southern portion, Devil’s Bend calls for local knowledge, so through Mag Bay Outfitters we’ve hired Eligio, a local captain. He takes the helm of the Juno and expertly conns us through the five-hour navigation.
We spend our final night inside Mag Bay at Man of War Cove. We have lures out as soon as we clear Santa Maria Bay and it isn’t long before Lance and Josh have a striped marlin hooked up. Lance hands the rod to Watty, who fights the marlin using a fighting belt improvised out of a towel to the groin area. On the swim step Josh grasps the exhausted marlin’s bill and removes the hook. “You know,” he says to Watty, “where I fish in Costa Rica, the anglers swim with their billfish.”
Before we know it, Watty has his shirt off, dives into the water and swims over to the marlin. Gently encircling the fish with his arms, he floats with it, seemingly whispering. The marlin lingers for perhaps 30 seconds before diving for the deep blue.
We continue our lazy circles and zigs and zags off the tranquil Mag Bay coast, sharing the water with just one other sportfishing yacht during the entire day. As the sun nears the horizon, this modern sportfishing battlewagon pulls in its lines and blasts by us, heading due south towards Cabo San Lucas. At their rapid clip, they’ll arrive at the Cape hours and hours ahead of the Sundance. In fact, we still have one last overnighter, one last long, slow run in which to savor a perfect adventure.
And that’s more than fine. For the time being we don’t desire to be anywhere else but right here-going slow and dragging our lures off Mag Bay, while taking time out to admire the wide swath of Milky Way as it stretches across the Baja sky.
Do not attempt without local guides: Mag Bay Outfitters, (949) 795-0630; [email protected].