Sea of Cortez Kayak Expedition: Part I


When whitewater stuntman Tyler Bradt undertakes a major sea kayak crossing, he encounters some surprising new challenges. Including seals.


The Sea of Cortez kayak expedition began as a distant thought – a vision of an adventure through a sunny, windswept sea far removed from the cold Northwest winter. The original idea was Boomer’s and Sarah’s, but it only took me about five minutes on the phone with Boomer before this vision began obsessing me too.

The mission was to cross the Sea of Cortez through the Midriff Islands and then to descend the Baja Peninsula for however far we could make it.  I liked the idea – a serious crossing and an open-ended adventure with lots left to the imagination.

We spent that morning passed out in the parking lot of the San Diego Yacht Club, contributing a little dirt bag kayaker culture to the local yachting scene.

I loaded up in my Ford Ranger on January 14th and pointed it south from Portland, Oregon – just as one of the biggest storms of the winter closed in behind me. I drove nonstop from Oregon to LA and picked up Boomer and Sarah at the airport at 5 a.m. the next morning.

My little contribution to this journey was the kayaks. Naturally not wanting to paddle over 400 miles of flat water, I began doing some research on how we could utilize the common northerly winds in the area to push us along. I found Triak’s, 18-foot-long, sleek, sexy sea kayaks – born to sail. With a mast, main sail and headsail, the theory was they would carry us along with the fresh northerlies, letting us cover a greater distance and minimize our efforts. Of course, this was just a theory for the time being.

The owner of the company, Thayer, was to meet us in San Diego and give us a trial run with the boats. We spent that morning passed out in the parking lot of the San Diego Yacht Club, contributing a little dirt bag kayaker culture to the local yachting scene. Thayer found us, and we immediately hopped in the boats to sail around, trying hard not to display our complete ignorance of sailing. After a little excitement, we got them dialed in, and we were soon zigzagging all over the Yacht Club, providing great entertainment for a handful of spectators.

We came out of the Yacht Club hopeful that the boats might be able to hold up to the abuse we were about to put them through. The Ranger was now loaded to the brim. Riding three across the bench seat, we continued on our 15+ hour marathon into Mexico.

After thanking them for the information, I turned and began walking away, hoping that there would be no lead cutting through the night air.

The mission started off with a dull thud. As soon as we set off to try and make our first crossing to Isla Tiburon, the headwinds grew until we struggled to make forward progress. Boomer flipped his boat, and Sarah had to stop short of where we had found protection behind a point of land. Finally, after battling for hours, we regrouped, still in sight of the parking lot from where we had started.

The next day, we awoke to find that the winds had calmed down. The whitecaps that had prevented yesterday’s crossing had subsided. Under light winds, we sailed and paddled 14 nautical miles to the island and then continued around the tip – happy to finally be on the water and making progress.

Anticipating another day of paddling on the Sea of Cortez. ©Tyler Bradt

That night, under a sky full of stars, I walked up the beach to a small fishing camp nestled in the back of the bay, hoping to get some weather information. As I got close, I turned on my headlamp; I didn’t want to surprise the fishermen, or so I presumed. As I neared the house, I made out the forms of half a dozen men, each toting automatic weapons. In this part of the world, that either means military or cartel – either way, I was past the point of no return, and walked cheerily up the house trying to convey my good will. After the usual formalities, everything seemed fine, but the fingers never left the triggers of the guns. I learned that we were in for about three days of strong northerly winds. With the biggest crossing of the trip right in front of us, this was bad news. After thanking them for the information, I turned and began walking away, hoping that there would be no lead cutting through the night air.

The winds arrived before the sun the next morning. We immediately woke up and began building the shelter that we would end up staying in for the next two days straight. We kited some, and climbed a mountain – but more than anything, we sat in our shelter and watched the winds howl. We could see giant whitecaps in the distance and wondered what it would be like to be out in them. Then we concluded that we’d rather not find out.

From here, our pace of life began to find its rhythm. It’s a beautiful thing to tell time by the sun and travel when conditions allow – and when they don’t, well, to sit in place and admire the world around us. We were in a seldom-visited part of Mexico in the middle of the Sea of Cortez, literally stranded on a desert island. Life at the moment could not get better.

Finding the rhythm of the expedition. ©Tyler Bradt

With the winds still blowing, we began working our way up the island to get to a vantage point where we could plan the next crossing. We camped that afternoon, anticipating a calm early morning crossing to the next island, Isla San Esteban.

The next morning we awoke with stars still hanging in the rapidly lighting sky. After our usual hour-and-a-half preparation, we jumped in the boats to attempt the crossing. After about an hour of paddling through a dead calm, an uncommon Southerly breeze began to stir. Pulling out full sails, the Triaks responded immediately, and we ripped across with on a ‘broad reach’ doing about 5–6 knots. Flat water just got exciting! We reached the island before we had even finished our packed lunch, thrilled with the miles we were making. We had officially made it to the middle of Sea of Cortez! San Esteban is a small mountainous island with cliffs dropping from hundreds of feet up straight into the ocean. We stopped in a small bay and surveyed the scene. We certainly could have camped right there, but with the winds favoring us, and after days of sitting around, we were eager to make miles. Making the decision anyone as gung-ho and excited as us would naturally make, we decided to head for the next island – another 14-mile crossing over an ocean trench 3,600 feet deep.

Boomer skirts the island cliffs. ©Tyler Bradt

We set off unaware of the shifting winds and tides. It was a struggle to gain ground against the island, trying to get around to the other side. Trying a better angle on the wind, and hoping that the current would subside a little further away from the island, I navigated about ½ mile offshore, breaking away from the team. As in whitewater kayaking, we operated as a group, but when it came down to it, we all had our own lines to choose.

It was then that I heard the seals – their barks echoing off of the towering cliffs guarding the north side of the island. Curiosity got the best of me, and I change­­d my tack back towards the island. As I began getting closer, I could see Boomer in the lead with Sara following. The commotion coming from the water around them was unnerving. I picked up my pace to see if there was anything I could do to help, and, of course, because I didn’t want to miss out on any action. Thousands of seals lined the small scattered beaches below the cliff face. They lounged lazily in the afternoon sun, but were all too aware of the intruding gringos arriving at their island. I pulled out my camera and began filming the crazy scene in front of me. Looking over my shoulder, I saw Sarah paddling uncommonly hard, and decided to hold up for a moment to make sure everything was OK. As she approached, I noticed that something was wrong – she was making almost no headway despite paddling  hard. As she came nearer, I could tell her boat was slowly sinking…

Read the rest of Tyler’s story in “Sea of Cortez Expedition: Part II.”