A Raft of Problems

San Felipe, Baja, Mexico

Poppa Neutrino (aka David Perlman) is now in New Orleans. His Pacific adventure raft, the Island Rooster, is at anchor in the bay of Puertecitos, about 50 miles south of San Felipe, Baja. A few days ago his first mate Joel packed and left Mexico when he heard Poppa Neutrino did not intend to return. A short time ago, an urgent request came by email from New Orleans, addressed to Catalina and Ed Meders of the San Felipe Title Company bookstore. It asked that Poppa's two suitcases be retrieved from the raft. It also said everything else was expendable.

The raft in the bay.Yesterday Ed 'Che' Meders, Mike Halpren and myself made the trip to Puertecitos in Ed's air conditioned Subaru. Mike had never seen the Island Rooster. For him it was a slice of Baja trivia too irresistible to resist. Ed and I went to retrieve our advertising signs, which were screwed to the sides of the raft for the sole purpose of spreading the fame of the bookstore and Blueroadrunner.com to the ill-informed denizens of Baja's west coast, and eventually China. An added agenda were the two suitcases.

Like most Baja trips, this one made its hat-tip to the science of logistics. We brought along a screw driver. The fact the raft might be floating in the middle of the bay was the furthest thing from our minds.

The road to Puertecitos is quite Zen-like. It is a wonderful example of the yin and yang of local road construction. Now a road - now there isn't. The yin and yang become a little gray in the areas where there is neither, only a very bad complexion of scarred and reticulated asphalt that forces the car into a series of circus bumper car maneuvers to avoid the especially deep hazards. But where the road top disappears completely, it's a comparative godsend.

Patient VulturesPuertecitos is not what you might call a boom town. In fact it resembles nothing so much as a ghost town. It offers two abandoned Pemex gas stations, one of which was pre-emptively abandoned by never having been manned in the first place. There's a Berlin wall that effectively separates the Mexican quarters from the gringo residents. And empty homes stretch in every direction. There's almost zero construction activity, maybe because of an air of poverty and neglect that pervades the town like the dusty patina on a street bum's shoes.

The vulture population has sensed this moribund quality and positioned themselves with opportunistic vigilance on top of power poles and electric lines. Judging from what is happening in San Felipe these days, it will not be long before they will have to surrender their posts to real estate agents.

We exchanged a few words with a Checkpoint Charlie guard and were permitted to pass from East Berlin into West. Ed parked the Subaru beside the palapa restaurant. That was when we saw the raft. None of us were engineers, but we instinctively knew we couldn't reach it with a screwdriver. Mike suggested the water was shallow enough for someone to walk out to the vessel. He didn't mention any names. I had never seen the bay completely devoid of water so I had my doubts. Ed just stood there waiting for a better idea.

"Too bad I didn't think to bring my bathing suit," I said.

"It's not very far," returned Ed with a wonderfully uninflected tone, a voice that left the decision-making completely up to the one with the idea.

Oh hell, I thought. It's 90 degrees and there's a bit of a breeze. How long would it take for my clothes to dry anyway?

I kicked off my sandals, removed my socks and waded into the water, careful to shuffle my feet as a warning against any manta rays that were peacefully sleeping under the sand a footfall ahead. Then I eased into the tepid water and began a steady Australian crawl (why that name? all the Australrian crawling I've ever seen was in bars) toward the raft. Well, it was either further out than I thought or my arms had gotten shorter while I slept the night before. I had to change to the breast stroke (why that name?) and the back stroke, then back to the crawl before the raft finally let me touch it.

There was a small aluminum dingy alongside, partially filled with water. I climbed onto the raft. A nice shiny Johnson outboard was chained, screwed and then tethered to the rear of the Rooster (isn't that an image?). I snapped in the kill-switch grommet, gave a couple of squeezes on the gas line's rubber bulb, set the choke, put the motor in neutral then yanked the pull cord. Surprisingly, the engine came to life. My thought was to power the raft to shore and plunder it at our leisure. But first I had to swing about and bring her directly over the anchor

The Island Rooster has no tiller. The rudder is controlled by two lines that swag on either side of the cockpit to the cabin. The idea is to pull on the respective line to turn her to port or starboard. But even with the rudder hard over and the Johnson echoing the sentiment, it became apparent the bay was too small to accommodate the Rooster's ability to come about. So I killed the engine.

My next idea was to transfer the Johnson to the dingy and motor back to shore to pick up the others. But that required some bailing beforehand. And the only thing I could find for this job was a scoop-shaped plastic bottle with its cap missing.

When the dingy was nearly empty, I stepped back onto the Rooster to deal with the outboard motor. First there was the braided nylon mesh strap that passed through a hole in the stem of the Johnson. I found a piece of split pipe under some gear and proceeded to beat the strap with the edge of it, using a two by four as backing. It took a great deal of pounding but the strap finally relented, especially after I slipped the fluke of a small anchor under it and pried. Next came the chain, which was padlocked to the transom. I remembered that the frames of most of these motors were made with a kind of pot metal, good shear strength but pretty cheap and brittle in any other direction. I rummaged among the things strewn on deck and found what looked like a peeve hook on a handle. I slipped this into the link nearest the motor and swung the handle up. A small piece of the motor frame popped off and the chain fell to the deck. Finally I loosened the motor clamps and rocked the engine back and forth. The screws pulled out of the damp plywood without a sound. The Johnson was free of its fetters.

It was a heavy motor. Easily a hundred pounds. Wrestling it into the dingy was not a pretty sight. I probably looked like Helen Keller at a pinata party. But it was finally onboard and I scrambled to join it. Now the trick was to lift it into the water, slide it down the dingy transom and give it a bit of a twist as the clamp collar aligned with the upper transom. Hopefully the thing would just fall into place.

The collar slid right on by the lip of the stern and tried to make a beeline to the center of the planet, using the middle of the bay as a starting point. In a panic I planted my foot on the transom, reached to the back of the motor lid for the hand grip and heaved with all my might. The lid flipped off the Johnson and fell into the water like a cockroach sewering down a sink. I held onto the sides of the motor and watched the white lid fade to green and then vanish into the murky bay.

Now the engine was unbelievably heavy. And the dingy no longer offered any freeboard. With both our weights at the stern of the little vessel, we made that aluminum boat look like a Viagra ad. I grabbed the back of the motor and heaved. Water poured over the transom in a torrent. With a tremendous effort the motor was onboard and I was scrambling to place my weight at the bow. There was now several hundred pounds of sloshing ballast in the dingy and one seesawing arm that was doing its best to remove it with the help of that ridiculous bailing scoop with the hole in its end. After a quarter hour, most of the water was out. I found two canoe paddles and shipped them, along with the gas tank. Then I untied the painter and cast off, feeling a little silly paddling to shore with a perfectly good motor as a second passenger.

Ed and Mike dragged the boat onto the beach and helped empty it. We rolled the dingy to clear it of water then set it in the shallows and clamped the Johnson to the motor mount. The engine came to life with the first tug and we let technology do all the work on the return trip. On board the Rooster, Ed began unscrewing the wood gussets that secured the cabin door and I turned my attention to the advertising signs.

"I'm in," called Ed.

I pulled out the last screw of the largest sign. The long swath of plywood suddenly twisted out of my grip and plunged into the brine. I watched as it breached halfway out of the water like a two dimensional porpoise, then calmly floated over to Mike's outstretched arm in the dingy.

"I was waiting for that to happen," he said. "But you sure lucked out with the way it fell."

"God, I can't believe this," came Ed's voice from inside the cabin. "This is frightening." I heard several items being relocated or overturned. "There's a dish of rotting dog food in here. There hasn't been a dog on the raft for a month."

"In case of emergency?" offered Mike with a laugh.

"I'm afraid to touch anything," Ed complained. Then the cabin door disgorged a big plastic suitcase. I moved around to the stern of the raft and began unscrewing Ed's sign. I heard another suitcase join the first one.

We loaded the signs and baggage into the dingy and gingerly found our places. I yanked the motor to life as Mike cast off the line. We made the trip back at a cautious two knots, careful not to swamp the little boat with the water it was plowing.

Ed fully expected the Johnson to make the trip back to San Felipe in the back of his Subaru. It was a nice car and I didn't see the need to leak gas all over its interior. Besides, the email said the suitcases were the principle stars of the opera. The motor and dingy were expendable. So we put the signs and cases in the car. Ed suggested we eat at the restaurant before we leave. We went inside as the cook stepped out of the kitchen to greet us. The affable Mexican proved to be the restaurant's entire work force. As the waiter, he took our beverage order while we looked over the menu. He brought over a botana, fried tortilla chips with hot sauce. Ed took a great liking to the sauce and when the meals arrived, good and hot, he smothered his with the sauce.

KreugerLandWhen the cook brought us another round of sodas and beer, we held him from returning to his grill. Mike and I explained in passable Spanish that we wanted to give him something. We took him outside and pointed to the dingy and Johnson outboard. We told him about the email, told him the owner was not coming back. We also explained where to find the motor lid at low tide. He nodded politely but seemed remarkably unenthused by our wild act of generosity.

"He thinks it's a joke," said Mike.

I explained it wasn't a joke and after the fourth time of reassuring him that it was free for the taking, we paid our tab and boarded the Subaru. As I turned to glance at the raft, I saw the cook looking with new eyes at the dingy and motor. It was now obvious we were preparing to leave. Without the Johnson and dingy. So maybe....

As an antidote against the heavy grayness of Puertecitos, we stopped by a place with some color -Kreuger's zany property, a few miles out of town. Along with the condition of the road, it helped put the bounce back into us.

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