by Scott Sadil
To know a place is to build a boat for it.
To know a place, better still, is to build your second boat for it.
Rod Treece towed a small factory-built sailboat, one of those stock fiberglass models you can pick up used for a song, down to Baja California’s Magdalena Bay. Small enough, yes, but with a deep draft and a fixed keel – the kind of West Coast boat common to sailors who head out of the marina and directly into the deep blue Pacific.
The kind of sailboat, anyway, that lines the docks from Seattle to San Diego.
Rod thought he had lost his boat, Minnie, when he ran aground in Curva del Diablo, the tricky water that separates the northern and southern portions of Mag Bay. The tide dropped so quickly that there was no way he was getting that heavy keel free of the sand. Worse, in a short while Minnie was lying on her side, one gunwale above Rod’s head, the falling water rushing at four or five knots along her buried rail.
Rod tried his phone. He collected his essential papers. He readied his kayak. Darkness fell.
A long night, that one, for Rod – exactly what you’d expect when somebody heads out in a boat that’s all wrong.
The local fishermen, of course, all use pangas, the long, heavy, flat-keeled, shallow-draft open skiffs ubiquitous to all of Latin America. You can launch them anywhere, pull them on or off the beach, allow them to come to rest comfortably, mud or sand, on a falling tide.
Perfect – if you want to use a powerboat.
But what’s the local option for sailors?
Before outboard motors, there was so little boating done in and around the bay that no indigenous sailing craft was never developed. Mind you, there was also little available in the way of boatbuilding materials. Of course, there were boats you could row – an option that vanishes, among commercial fishermen, anyway, as quickly as hand saws and sextants once technology advances to the latest and greatest modern age.
Today, local pangeros think I’m either a sagacious old sailor, or muy loco, for spending weeks at a time under sail in and around the bay.
There’s virtually no history of it here. If I were in New England, of course, or anywhere, really, along either shore of the North Atlantic, I’d fit right in. The first Mag Bay boat I built, Madrina, an Iain Oughtred Sooty Tern, has roots deep in the beach yawls of the Shetland Islands, and if you were to look around most anywhere in New England, you’d find Sooty Terns, or her well-known big sister, the Caledonia Yawl, in practically any small boat regatta.
Same with other small wooden sailing craft, both new and old, many from designers and boatbuilders still working today. Up in Puget Sound and the Salish Sea, as well, where relatively protected waters allow for adventure in a row-and-sail open boat. But along the length of the West Coast, there’s little in the way of the sort of small-boat history and design that you find from Maine to the Florida Keys, in part because Pacific waters are so much different from those along the eastern seaboard.
But Mag Bay offers the inshore sailor and angler something all but unique along the northern shores of the eastern Pacific. John Muir, a more recent member of the famous family and small- boat curator at the San Francisco National Maritime Museum, brought an open wooden sailboat, one he had built, to Puerto López Mateos, sailed it throughout the bay for a couple of weeks, and decided to leave it behind for his next visit.
“No better place to sail on the West Coast,” he proclaimed.
Rod Treece might not agree. When the tide finally returned, Minnie rose slowly, stood upright, and eventually floated again. Rod dragged her back to the channel with the anchor and rope he had carried across the sand at low tide. He got her off – and thanked his lucky stars.
Next time, he says, while painting the name of the new boat I built for Mag Bay, Tamalita, Paul Gartside’s 6 Meter Lugger, design #166, Rod thinks he’s going to bring down a small power skiff, instead.
Gray’s Angling Editor Scott Sadil keeps imagining he’ll see another sailboat, besides his own, find its way through Mag Bay’s Curva del Diablo.