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Baja By Boat
A rag tag band of hired guns ventures into Baja in search of waves, fish, and fun.
Like a lot of great adventures, this one began on a barstool. I’d gotten word that an old friend, Cary Dodson of Success Sportfishing, was taking his 58-foot boat, the Success, from its mooring in San Diego to their winter fishing grounds near Magdalena Bay—a 600 mile journey south. Instantly I thought of the amazing surf and spearfishing you could discover along the way. I brought the idea of surf/dive trip up to Cary and he was pumped. “I’ve always wanted to do something like that,” he said over a happy hour beer. “The potential is limitless.” Over the course of a the next few months we’d meet at the same bar and check out nautical charts and plot a course that would, in theory, put us into some decent surf and really good spearfishing.
After months of planning, we were on our way, motoring out of San Diego on a glorious and sun-bathed fall day. On board was big-wave hellman and North Shore lifeguard Dave Wassel; Hank Gaskell from Hana, Maui; my dive partner in SoCal Cheyne Magnusson; TWS photographer Brian Bielmann; and surfer/skydiver/hellman Brandon Lillard. Our first stop was to be famed big wave spot Isla Todos Santos.
Baja in October is finicky. You can either have an early northwest swell, a late season New Zealander, or a chubasco (hurricane) to provide swell. Over the course of one week, we had all three. Chalk it up to dumb luck.
“Is Wassel gonna make me paddle out at 25-foot Todos?” asked Hank on our way out. I told him not to worry, and despite the fact that Mavericks was showing signs of life up north, we’d be lucky if Killers was overhead. I was pretty pickled and the sun was getting low by the time we got there, but nevertheless barked at Cheyne and Hank to suit up and “get to work.” To their credit, they were ready to go, but the waves looked all over the place and it was getting dark. Then the questions began, “Where we going next Justin?” “When are we gonna dive?” “Are you as clueless as you are drunk?” This reluctant co-captain had no idea what to do except head south to warmer water and bigger fish. “South we go you scalawags!”
With beers popping open at an alarming rate, we motored south. Hank was the exception—dude was all business, “I’m not drinking ’til I get a fish,” he claimed. Hank was also the guy who sat in silence making paper roses as we told jokes that would make George Carlin blush. The term, “nicest guy ever” is used loosely nowadays but applies to Gaskell perfectly.
We motored all night and woke up just offshore of San Martin Island. Thick fog and dozens of knotheads (fisherman slang for seals) made for ominous diving conditions but we swam out anyway for a quick look. Diving in a kelp forest for his first time, Hank shot the biggest sheepshead I’d ever seen and lugged it back to the boat with an even bigger grin. “Nice shithead,” was Captain Cary’s way of patting him on the back. The crew filleted the “shithead” and by lunch we were motoring to a nearby surf spot and grinding as-fresh-as-you-can-get ceviche.
Before you get all PETA on us, listen up; spearfishing is the most sustainable form of fishing there is—there’s no by catch. As well, under the power of your own breath and body, it’s a fantastic way to stay in shape for surfing. How do you think guys like Wassel and Mark Healey handle two-wave hold-downs and 20-foot plus outer reef bombs? Give it a shot—you’ll be more confident in big surf and have a chance to feed your family something healthy.
Our first surf was at a spot that’s compared to the Superbank on a good day. Unfortunately, there wasn’t enough swell to be making any kind of comparisons to the Gold Coast legend. That didn’t deter Hank and Cheyne though. The two spotted a section on the wave that they thought looked surfable and lo and behold, ripped it up. “Big deal,” you say. “They’re supposed to rip.” True. But, “supposed to” and actually doing so are completely different and only through the wizardry of Brian Bielmann and Cheyne Mags did we get a useable surf shot. Like any decent guest on a boat, those not surfing hammered away at the beer supply.
The next morning we awoke on the east side of Cedros Island, eager to shoot some yellowtail and praying for a surf on nearby Isla Natividad later in the day. Despite a boiling ball of bait, the dive was uneventful and nobody got a fish. As organizer of the trip, I could feel the pressure mounting. We had one surf shot and a shithead to show for all the money and time spent.
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