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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.