ENCHANTED VAGABONDS–an amazing sea kayaking journey

by Eric Soares on November 8, 2011

ENCHANTED VAGABONDS is my favorite expedition sea kayaking book, packed full of bold action and exciting mishaps.  If you enjoy the early 20th century writing of Richard Halliburton, which is rollicking adventure coupled with a light, almost cavalier style, then you’ll love author Dana Lamb’s account of his and his wife Ginger’s 16,000 mile journey down the Pacific coast from San Diego to Panama in a16-foot homemade sailing kayak back in 1933.

ENCHANTED VAGABONDS was published in 1938, two years after Ginger and Dana Lamb completed their 16,000-mile coastal trip from San Diego to Panama in their trusty paddling craft--the Vagabunda.

Here’s the capsuled storyline. Without much fanfare the Lambs took off from San Diego in August of 1933 in their handmade tandem sailing kayak—the Vagabunda, and proceeded down the Baja coast of Mexico, then cut over to the mainland after rounding Cabo San Lucas and paddling up the Sea of Cortez to San Marcos.  They landed where the Yaqui Indians live, then proceeded south along the coast of Mexico, and had major adventures along the way, including some almost supernatural happenings in southern Mexico.  You’ll have to read the book to find out where. Then they sailed and paddled south through Guatemala, Salvador, Nicaragua, Costa Rica (where they took a side voyage to Cocos Island), and the Panama Canal.  Sound like a long enough journey?  It took three years.

Unlike some present-day kayak adventuring authors, who spend half the book talking about boring planning, tedious logistics, bureaucratic hurdles, and the long drive to the put-in, Dana Lamb devotes one measly sentence to planning:  “Our initial preparations over a period of two years had been conducted rather quietly.”  Next thing you know they are launching from San Diego harbor and adventure comes to them and their little boat—with a vengeance.

Dana Lamb, adventurer and author

The Vagabunda “weighed one hundred and fifty pounds, had a forty-two-inch beam, and a depth of twenty-four inches.  She carried a fourteen-foot mast, and with the jib had a hundred square feet of sail.”  They made most of their equipment and planned to forage off the land, so brought few provisions.  Back then, guns and fishing tackle were essential; freeze-dried stroganoff was not.

In the first few days of their journey they hung out with a ship full of rum runners they met in the fog, then landed on a beach where there was no drinking water and had to distill it.  Back at sea, they were caught in a tremendous storm, and later made a chancy landing at Blanca Point:  “Here the surf was dangerously high—at least twenty feet.  While we were waiting for the calm spell—that is, the low breaker in the series—a big sea caught us and we came in end over end.”  Lamb chronicles several rigorous ordeals in big seas and surf.  How they survived the surf alone is a miracle.  Then they got caught in a maelstrom where tides meet in Magdalena Bay.  Here’s an excerpt:

           “Waves were running in every direction, bumping into each other, sending spray high into the air the canoe began bouncing like a cork.  Scrambling to our feet, we hastily tried to get the sail down.  Ginger stood up to untie the halyards; the canoe swerved crazily and she was flung overboard, as though a giant were playing crack-the-whip with the canoe….Then, as though the furies were not satisfied with this predicament, there came, their dorsal fins sharply cleaving the water, a new menace—sharks.  The water seemed alive with them, all of them heading towards Ginger. She looked up, saw my face, my increased efforts with the paddles, and looked around—one horrified glance.  Then she dug in with fear-driven strokes.  But she was heading straight for the centre of the whirlpool—that equally fatal centre. Somehow, I must reach her before she hit that vortex.”

All of this happened by page 35. They survived that incident only to encounter challenge after challenge.  A few pages later Dana gets mauled by a rabid coyote and lives through it.  Then they get surrounded by a school of breaching whales.  One whale surfaced under the Vagabunda and they “were riding topside of Moby Dick!” And then…

          “Then the canoe started to volplane, and pitched violently into the water.  The whale’s great tale—it seemed twenty feet across—hovered over us…and then came down.  The canoe bounced into the air and we catapulted into the channel.  We took one look round; the water had its usual quota of sharks, which with the breakers on the bar gave us an added incentive in our race towards the canoe. Breathless, we climbed aboard; but where in heaven’s name were the paddles?”

Not all of their adventures took place at sea.  They had several encounters with Mexicans—mostly good, but they had to shoot at some banditos. And then there were the creatures they encountered, ranging from an alligator hunt to a microscopic malarial malady.  Here’s a sample critter:

            “We stared at each other for a long minute and then uttered the one word, “talaje.” The most deadly insect in the jungle had bitten us.  The natives regarded it as a catastrophe of the first magnitude to be bitten once by a talaje—and we were covered with their bites.  The possible dangers of our condition made a malarial attack alone in the jungle seem about as important as a light case of the grippe back home.”

The talaje is a flesh-eating insect whose bite festers “…for several months, and since it is liable to infection it is frequently fatal.”  They managed to survive the bugs only to get caught in a flash flood a short time later.  These are two lucky and resourceful gringos!  Right after that, while in the Forbidden Land somewhere between Oaxaca and Chiapas they discover pyramids and are attacked by a jaguar, which they shoot and skin.

Dana Lamb's detailed map of part of Cocos Island, which the Lambs explored on their expedition.

They finally reach Guatemala and engage in more adventures as they proceed down the coast of Central America.  The president of Costa Rica in person gave them permission to visit Cocos Island, 350 miles off the coast.  “Ever since either one of us was old enough to read books of adventure, Cocos Island, with its rich legendary background of pirate treasure, bold bad men, shipwrecked sailors, treasure seekers, and bloodshed had seemed the ultimate in adventure and romance.”  A ship dropped them off on the island, and they enjoyed many Robinson Crusoe activities there.

Eventually, they end up in Panama and cross the Panama Canal.  Just like that, the journey is over. When I read ENCHANTED VAGABONDS, I could not put it down.  It’s 415 pages of action-packed writing with no fat, just meat. It’s a much better (and believable) book than their follow-up book called QUEST FOR THE LOST CITY.  If you are looking for an inspiring and memorable sea kayaking expedition story, then you will reach El Dorado when you read ENCHANTED VAGABONDS.  Eirik the Grey says “Check it out.”

This book is available through Amazon.com and similar outlets.  I will be happy to answer any questions about the book.  Those of you who have read it, please post your opinions below. 

Note that my wife Nancy and I will be on an enchanted journey to Maui for the next two weeks, and I will return to writing my post when I get home.

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{ 20 comments… read them below or add one }

Scott Becklund November 8, 2011 at 8:35 pm

Ignorance is bliss! Or did they have skills? Does the book give any background on this couple.
We all have tales of stuff we have survived not knowing better. Not of this scale but…..
Thanks Eric I’ll add it to my list for sure.

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Wayne Hanley November 9, 2011 at 2:17 am

Hi Eric,
This is one of my favourite “True Life” adventure books, as you say it is “415 pages of action-packed writing with no fat, just meat”. I found it to be exciting and inspirational and could always picture Errol Flynn playing Dana (no modern actor could capture the feeling). It was an epic adventure before there were decent maps or nautical charts, let alone Satellite communications/weather forecasts, GPS, SPOTS etc.
I must find it on my bookshelves again, as a old adventure romantic I have a seemingly endless collection of books from this genre, though I think it is somewhere near my copy of “Confessions of a Wave Warrior”. 🙂

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Wayne Hanley November 9, 2011 at 5:14 pm

P.S. Have a great time in Maui!

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Eric Soares November 10, 2011 at 5:15 pm

Scott, in answer to your question–the Lambs were very lucky. But they did go out paddling several times to prepare, and they knew a lot about wilderness survival, and were good shots.

Yes Wayne, Errol Flynn would be a perfect Dana Lamb. Ginger Rogers might make a good Ginger too, don’t you think? We’re still on Maui on very official -ahem- bidness. Another mai tai please….

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JohnA November 14, 2011 at 8:52 pm

Another very entertaining post Eric. I will have to grab a copy. He sounds like a wonderful story teller and one of the great raconteurs. Like many of that rare breed, perhaps given to the merest hint of exageration…………………but all in the cause of a good yarn. 🙂

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Eric Soares November 15, 2011 at 12:10 pm

Yes, he does exaggerate, but in this book he is guilty more of compressing time, so the boring stuff is left out. Personally, I much prefer his style to those of many modern travel writers who force us to relive their inner turmoil over the cat who left them, or some such drivel.

When I was in New Zealand last year, staying at Gerry Maire’s house, I sped read (okay, skimmed) his copy of Lamb’s QUEST FOR THE LOST CITY (about their search for a Mayan city in the jungle, briefly described in ENCHANTED VAGABONDS), which seemed s-o-o exaggerated with a tumble of almost impossible happenings occurring one after the other that I got suspicious of the whole tale. Gerry said he thought that at least parts were fabricated, and I tend to agree. Of course, it could be all true and just time-compressed, but who can refute it–or back it up?

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Nancy Soares November 18, 2011 at 2:54 pm

I don’t care whether the story is true or not – it’s one of the greatest yarns I’ve ever read and I will happily read it again someday when I’m finished with Plutarch’s Lives (and other fun stuff – I have a deplorable tendency to read several books at a time so I always have something to read depending on the mood I’m in. I read Plutarch in bed just before falling asleep which is not to say I don’t find him interesting). Actually the Lambs had a lot of skills. Their ability to fabricate a still sounds realistic and practical and saved their lives. As for exaggerating, I know a few people who do that, but it doesn’t take away from their real life adventures…right, Eric??? And we don’t always remember things the way they happened so if we’re going to tell our stories, what’s wrong with filling in the gaps in a way that facilitates the tale? Anyway, I loved their book, and I intend to read the other one about their tour to the ruins. I just dig that stuff!

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Eric Soares November 18, 2011 at 8:35 pm

Are you indicating that I e-x-a-g-g-e-R-A-T-E!?! Arrrrrrr. It ain’t so, and I’ll defenestrate anyone who says different.

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John Lull November 21, 2011 at 11:09 am

I picked this book up off the coffee table at Eric & Nancy’s house when I was up there painting their living room and hallways. I was working so I had to put it down on occasion, otherwise I’d have read it in one sitting! No exaggeration.

This is a great tale and while it’s hard to say if it’s all true, most of it rings true when you read it, especially the small details about the environment and culture of the local people they encounter. The part about Baja sounded very accurate, based on what I know of Baja. I know nothing about the Guatamalan jungle, and I have no desire to experience the hot, humid, sticky, bug-ridden hell hole they describe, in spite of the great beauty that shines through all of that. But even if only half the story is true, these are two of the most resourceful, skilled outdoor adventurers in the history of the world, to answer Scott’s question.

I really like the matter-of-fact, even understated, style of the writing. If it’s an exaggeration, it’s done in a very low-key way. The events are almost unbelievable, but Dana Lamb describes these events as though they are commonplace.

Finally, there is no way to describe this book. You just have to read it.

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Eric Soares November 21, 2011 at 1:29 pm

I second everything you say here, John. Good insight.

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Annie Campbell December 31, 2011 at 5:08 am

Dana and Virginia were my husband’s Uncle and Aunt. There is an excellent article on them at Wikipedia under “Dana and Virginia Lamb”. My mother, ironically, had a BBQ on the beach with them shortly before they left on their great adventure. Dana’s 2nd wife recently donated all their ‘stuff’ to the Sherman Library in Corona Del Mar, California. And Eric, you may be interested to know that their boat is on display at the Adventurer’s Club in Los Angeles.

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Eric Soares December 31, 2011 at 9:50 am

Thank you for sharing, Annie. It is a small world after all. The next time I visit Los Angeles, I’ll be sure to check out the Vagabunda at the Adventurer’s Club.

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John Lull December 31, 2011 at 11:02 am

That’s very cool, Annie. I’d love to see that boat. Next time I get to L.A. I’ll definitely check it out!

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Ron Wagner January 30, 2012 at 9:04 pm

John Goddard, is or was a famous explorer who kayaked the entire length of the Nile from its headwaters in Folboats or a similar design, and wrote a book about it. He lost a good friend on the trip. It is more drawn out, but gives a good idea of that part of the world. He wrote very well, but is more on the intellectual side. Another author wrote a book about tiny boats that went great distances. I will try to get back with more info.

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sam barke October 3, 2012 at 8:31 am

But, is it true? It left me thinking some of it was, and much of it, a considerably embroidered rattling good yarn. Awfully repetetive too: something awful happens, and the plucky pair overcome it — and even teach the inhabitants how to live. Look at Dana’s physique for starters. Look at the size of the cockpit. We are never shown a picture of the two actually sailing.

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Nancy Soares October 4, 2012 at 8:39 am

Hey Sam, thanks for your comment. Certainly a lot of the Lambs’ story is true. I agree with you on the repetitive plot cycle, but when you think about it, is that really surprising? A lot of trips are like that – something awful happens and you have to deal. And that’s what often makes the best story. Also, as Eric surmised, there is a lot of time compression. The Lambs’ didn’t write about the days and weeks when nothing interesting happened (thank God!) Regardless, it’s a great read, very entertaining, and who can argue with that?

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Annie Campbell October 4, 2012 at 9:59 am

I mentioned before that the Lambs were my husband’s Uncle and Aunt, but that doesn’t mean we know any more about how ‘truthful’ the books are:) At one point they were called away from their adventures to write the desert survival manual for the US government. I found “EV” to be extremely entertaining and inspiring. A biography of their lives has been published, not nearly so entertaining:) You all realize they built the Vagabunda themselves, yes?
Annie Campbell

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Nancy Soares October 4, 2012 at 4:28 pm

Absolutely, Annie. I doubt if there was any other craft available for them – like the Tsunami Rangers they designed and built the boat they needed to do the things they wanted to do.

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Joseph Curry September 16, 2016 at 3:12 pm

Annie they were my mentors pand personal friends, They were responsible for turning e away form old China, the gobi and the pacific basin. I am a member of the elite Explorers Club and have eyed the Adventures Club.

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John Lull October 4, 2012 at 10:46 am

I’m about as skeptical as a person can be (show me the evidence!!), but I have to say, as far-fetched as some of this story may have sounded, I found most of it to ring true. From what I know after making numerous kayaking trips on both coasts of Baja, everything they wrote about that part of their journey was spot on and totally believable (Baja coastal waters haven’t changed since then!). In fact, If anything, I thought some of it was understated. I know what it’s like to launch into surf on the west coast and their account of doing that was not exaggerated in the least.

Regarding the journey through the tropics, I have no experience in the tropics, but none of it sounded unrealistic. I think these were two very resourceful and gutsy adventurers for sure!

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