It had been low clouds/fog the past few days, so Preston and I changed out trip plan to the Coronodo islands rather than Catalina. It also was a day later than expected since I had a neuroendocrinology paper to finish Friday (3/10/94). Saturday morning was bright, sunny, and calm - perfert for island paddling. Estimating from maps it looked like the Coronodos were 8-10 miles off the Mexican coast (approximately 6 miles south of the border). There actually are four islands in the chain - the three largest ones named Coronodo Norte, Medio, and Sur. Our destination was Coronodo Sur, the largest and usually clearly visible from atop Mt. Soledad or driving down the cuota route to Ensenada. Neither of us had ever been there, but for me, they were very luring islands so near to San Diego - I had to kayak them someday. We both had heard that there was no landing permitted on the island, but maps and the AAA book didn't mention it. It would be a chance paddling there expecting to stay the night. We also had no idea what the shoreline would be like.

I gave Preston a call around 7 am - he wanted to study a little that morning, so we decided on departing around 11 am. By the time we were on the road, partly due to my procrastination genes, it was after noon. We still had some shopping to do. I bought the usual oranges and some trail mix - Preston had some heat-up noodle type deals and broccoli. We intended to get pan y pasteles in Tijuana. Driving around TJ was a pain, adding to it a policia stopped us and said I didn't stop on the ALTO line and hadn't put my turn signal on. He said to accompany him back to the office. I asked how much the fine would be and if I could just pay him there - he said, "$45, but I cannot give you a reciept." I said "porque necesito un receibo?" and managed to get him down to $35, probably a rip, but I wasn't sure. Driving down Playas de Tijuana we found a dirt area with a 30 ft. scramble down a cliff to the playa. By the time we were out and packed, it was 3 pm. We launched together through the breakers - the largest ones approximately 6-7 ft. high faces. Preston, in a fiberglass Phoenix (a hybrid sea/river kayak), had an easier time packing but a harder time getting out. My Perception Mirage (a whitewater boat) would fare better in the surf. Preston had said he wanted to sponge his boat out when he got past the breakers, since it leaked a little. I had made it out fine, so when I saw him getting out, I decided to ride a wave - very uncool of me. Well, I caught one OK, but then going out again I hit a large one that just had broken. I hadn't enough momentum to make it over - sucking me back, I did some back-enders and rolled. Trying to make it out again, I had another large one break right on me. It was a bad situation, my skirt popped, boat full of water, sunglasses, hat, and H2O bottle lost, and Preston waiting. I rolled up with dirty TJ seawater in my sinuses and paddled my water-filled boat in to empty it. I found the water bottle, but the hat and $5 shades were a loss - especially since I'd be paddling into the sun. I emptied my boat and paddled out again as quick as I could. Needless to say, Preston wasn't happy with the 15 min delay and was quite far away when I started frantically paddling to catch up. By the time I caught up my paddling muscles were aching from no warm-up. There were other problems - the island was not very clear, it was getting dark in a few hours, Preston remembered he had a dinner plan with his professor, and I started feeling quesy. After paddling ahead of me in the faster Phoenix a while, he let me lead. About half an hour later we saw ahead of us, slightly off our course, several dozen loud gulls. We approached to investigate. "Would you happen to have any Grey Poupon?" we joked picking up a half-full jar of the stuff amid other food - several pecked-at full flour tortilla bags, spilt milk, onions, mayo. What happened here? Preston was upset finding dumped plastic (which is illegal for all US boats anywhere). He managed to find an envelope with what we thought might be the boat's name and trip #. We continued. I was feeling better - my quesiness gone and paddling muscles warmed up - now Preston would have to keep up with me.

We paddled and paddled - I had estimated it would take two hours - but with our start at 3:15 and stops, we weren't there until sunset: 5:45. We headed to the south of some white buildings we saw on the island. The shore was horrendous - either sheer cliffs dropping straight into the water or large rocks to land on similar to the Mission Bay jetty. The swells made some nice rock gardens, even on this leeward side. We saw a small cave up on the hillside that might be nice to camp at, but being so close to those building didn't add. We thought about going around the island to try and find some nice place to land - beaches for instance. But it was getting dark, and the breakers on the windward side of the island might be nasty. Instead we paddled south to where half a dozen sailboats were anchored. We chatted with one couple - the guy said that on one of the smaller islands there was a nice cove that he swam into once. He also had heard there's no landing allowed, but said those buildings used to be a hotel and doubted anyone was there now. Preston commented that they appeared abandoned and would be interested in exploring. So we paddled back north - we reasoned there must be some place to land if there was a hotel there. Indeed, there was a cove with two small rocky beaches about 20 ft. long each. Two small pangas were on a line in the cove. A light was on in one of the buildings, so we decided to stay away and take the right beach. I landed and checked it out - the only semi-OK place to sleep was up the cliff 50 yds. It was a scramble getting up there. Preston landed. We could barely see in the twilight - a new moon kept it even darker. As we unloaded and changed into dry clothes, we were frightened by rocks dropping down about once a minute from the overhanging cliff 50 ft above us. One actually hit my boat.

We scurried up the cliff with our flashlights and put our sleeping bags down on some soft damp dirt. We heard someone from the buildings yell apparently at us. Preston lighted his stove and started heating his dinner while I ate some of the TJ pastries. We saw several people come out of the building with flashlights - apparently on their way around the hill to get to us. We kept the light down and waited. Several minutes later they arrived. "Hola," we said, and got up to greet our visitors. They were saying some things in Spanish to us. One guy mentioned "es la invasion," while another said "no se permite desembarcarse aqui." There were other things of that nature we could decipher. A few minutes after they arrived, I noticed each of the young men held some type of gun - most looked like semiautomatic or machine guns. It was intimidating - in a foreign country at nighttime with four armed men surrounding us. None spoke english. I explained to the leader that we paddled over here and didn't know we couldn't land. I showed him our kayaks - he was nice about it and asked that I and my companion accompany them back to the shack to talk to the jefe to see if it might be possible for us to camp there. He said leaving now might be peligroso. So we walked/climbed over to the small edificios. We were told to sit on this bench with lots of lights shining on us - kind of like an FBI questioning session in the movies. The jefe was an older, heavier man with a stern look about him. He talked very quickly and was hard to understand. When their perro would come over to us for some attention he would kick it or yell at it to send it off, tail between its legs. Thoughts of questioning/beating/torture raced through my head. I stayed calm - thinking the dog treatment was just their culture and assuring myself that we were Americans and harming us wouldn't be good for relations. We explained "Lo sentimos. No supimos que se prohibe desembarcarse en la isla. No es en las mapas o en el libro. Hemos visitado otras islas como Todos Santos y Isla San Martin. Salirimos en la manana." He went into the office with the younger guy I had talked to earlier, then we were asked to come in. He wrote down our names and some other things - where we launched from, our citizenship, if we had armas, etc. They had decided we could stay the night but would have to leave temprano manana. The younger guy offered that we sleep there - pointing out that reptiles could bite us at night. We agreed, wondering if it was just to keep an eye on us or if it was actually the jefe's order. Two of them accompanied us back to the other side of the cove where we got our sleeping bags and some food. We went back and they showed us into their small food shack - concrete floor, box of tomatoes, other boxes. That was where we could sleep. We set up. The younger leader asked if we wanted some cafe o cena. He returned several minutes later with some sweet coffee-type drink and powdered creme. We talked with Jesus about an hour - slowly and repeating a lot. He was 24, born in TJ, and lived in Ensenada. They were on the island 30 days - two more days then back to Ensenada. They were in the Mexican equivalent of the navy - the islands had to be occupied so other countries wouldn't (i.e. the US). He had some family (tio y primos) in San Diego. Getting a passport is tough, though. We said we had been to several islands off the Baja coast - San Martin off San Quitin, Todos Santos off Ensenada, Bahia de Los Angeles. He was in Bahia de LA for a few months and had a girlfriend there. It was pretty interesting and fun talking to him.

I had a nicer night than Preston - he didn't bring his pad over (I had none to bring). In the morning we got up and left at 6:30 am saying "decirimos a nuestros amigos que se prohibe desembarcarse aqui." We packed and launched by 7 am, took a few pictures, and started back. About halfway back several dolphins swam around us, gulls following them around. The Santa Ana winds kicked up making the rest of the paddle less pleasant with higher seas and strong headwinds (though warm, dry, and clear air). I tried using my new compass and decided a boat that tracked well (say with a rudder) would make it much easier. We were back on shore by 10:15 am and back in La Jolla by 12:30 pm. It wasn't that bad a trip, be be forewarned not to land on the Coronodos, or at least nowhere in plain view of the federales - you may be a casualty of target practice.

by Rocky Contos

Rocky Contos
Neuroscience PhD program

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