Reading the Water

Can technology do this for you?

by Scott Sadil

I missed the mouth of the estero, one of my favorites, as I headed north of the ocean boca at Santo Domingo, in the upper reaches of Magdalena Bay.  Must have been the morning fog, flattening the profile of the endless hedge of mangrove running along the eastern shore—plus, perhaps, my newfound racy clip, a steady two or three knots per hour, thanks to Tamalita’s sporty 5 HP propane motor, a remarkable leap into the modern age after years in the bay spent tootling about under the timeless power of wind and a pair of oars.

Seemed as if I passed the mouth in the blink of an eye.

But help was at hand, another case of modern technology coming to my rescue as though from a genie just freed from a bottle.  My new Navionics app, complete with the latest Garmin charts for Baja waters, had already helped me navigate my way through Curva del Diablo, the bay’s notoriously knotty channel, which up to now I had always negotiated more or less by feel.  Not only was the app loaded on my iPhone, but just this morning, during the pre-dawn hours of darkness during which I rarely sleep while aboard a boat, I had charged the phone on the 120V inverter connected at the end of the line in Tamalita’s electrical system, one that begins with a flexible solar panel affixed to the curved roof of her tiny cuddy cabin.

Tamalita and tender

Sheesh: Will technological wonders never cease?

My phone directed me to turn around, pass a couple of fog-shrouded islands, then swing into the mouth of the estero, which I immediately recognized, having come here so often to fish one particular stretch of mangrove filthy with grouper, corvina, cabrilla, snapper, and the odd surprise, often taken on floating line and surface patterns, the ambush strikes as startling and explosive as anything the sport has to offer.

The tide was just right; things worked out once more.

The next morning, on a slack high tide, there was more of the same.  But despite being a little greedy, at times, when it comes to this kind of sport, I decided to pull anchor and, thanks to my new suite of sophisticated technologies, head to the next estero to the south, where I happened to know of another productive trough up tight to a reach of mangrove.

Modern technology . . . .sort of.

Again, the fog was dense.  Yet, engine running, all I had to do was follow the icon on the little iPhone screen and, what do you know, bing baaddaa bing, before you know it I was dropping the anchor, licking my chops in front of a familiar, gnarly tangle of mangrove once more.

Then, bent over fiddling with the anchor rode, I heard a quiet splash—and there went my new invaluable best friend, my iPhone disappearing into the estero’s murky green waters, headed for the bottom of the bay.

Oh no.  What do I do now?

Old School

The sudden, fleeting sensations of panic were fairly unsettling.  Heck, I’d been up and down the vast, 150-mile-long bay for the past dozen or more years, with nothing more to guide me than my paper charts, a compass, and my wits, however unsteady, and a pair of good eyes. 

And powered by nothing more than the tides, the wind, and a pair of lovingly-shaped spruce oars, leathered and stitched by the owner of the same two hands, a.k.a., yours truly.

Whatever you do, don’t panic.

Still, I had somewhere soon I had to be—always a problem for any true adventure.  “Sailors with schedules end up at the bottom of the sea.”  Or some such notion.  And, though I had sailed any number of times through the long stretch of the bay ahead, I often wasn’t exactly sure which bend of water I was in, which point of land I was looking at, where I anchored the last time—where, in fact, I was exactly at any moment in time.

The moon rises where?

No big deal.  Compass, food, water.  Tide chart.  Coffee.  What else do you need?

When I finished fishing and ventured out of the estero, the fog suddenly began rolling in again, pouring in off the Pacific through the Santo Domingo boca. The wind and currents got squirrely, the way they do with tide funneling into the boca from opposite directions.  The deep resonating sound of whales expelling air added to the eerie feel of the moment.  Just before the fog washed over me I took a quick bearing on the tip of the island to the south, near where I often anchor so I can hike to surf-fishing spots outside the bay.  I headed slowly into a wall of grey, hand on the tiller, peering ahead in hopes of sighting the big flock of pelicans usually stationed on the sand somewhere ahead.

Same way it’s been done for centuries.

Gray’s angling editor Scott Sadil learned to sail after he started building his first boat, Tía, a Chesapeake Light Craft Northeaster Dory, that he rowed and sailed from Astoria, Oregon, to Lewiston, Idaho.