Piracy on the Sea of Cortez

An early morning dream-voice told me Chamula was back. As hard as I had tried not to, I had fallen in love with the captain of a co-op shrimping trawler, Joven, out of Guaymas, Mexico. We met six months earlier in a little palapa restaurant at the mouth of the Mulege River. For months now, I had been having the most amazing experiences. The morning of the dream my sister and I talked over coffee, and I told her how much I had wanted to go out with him on this latest expedition. However, Chamula couldn’t promise when he would return and he thought it best I not go. Just then Alisabeth’s boyfriend, Marcos, came through the door, his fierce Yaki Indian face looking even more so today. Gravely, he reported that the Joven had been robbed; the crew held at gun point by the Mexican mafia!

The story unfolded. Shrimp boats worked nights and rested during the day, the crew catching well deserved sleep. They had anchored off the coast of Sinaloa, Mexico, and it was then they were boarded by six men with guns. Forced to take off all their clothing, they were thrown into the hold. The 600 kilos of shrimp, their personal belongings, and money were taken.

We hurried out to the ship, and I will never forget the sight of them: bare-chested, ratty sweatpants, and hatless, squinting against the sun. At that moment it would have been hard to tell the difference between the banditos and the crew. Everyone looked really rough. We were told that this was a common occurrence, because of the wealth the shrimp represented, as valuable as gold, the Mexican mafia regularly took its share. Alisabeth looked at me with great big eyes. “You wanted to be on this boat trip.” I looked at Chamula. He nodded. I could not even picture the horror I would have faced, or the likelihood I would not have returned.

The blustery north winds kept the boat grounded for several days. Since the captain and crew were paid according to the amount of shrimp brought in, it was critical to get back to work and make up the loss. I still couldn’t get myself to say goodbye and head back to the states, so when he asked me if I wanted to go back out, I foolishly said yes. Alisabeth reminded me that it was an “experience of a lifetime” and we both laughed at the old joke. Back on board, I watched as the palm trees receded in the distance and the water caught the last golden rays of the sun; I was already having grave doubts about my decision. Chamula had not told me where we was going or how long we would be gone. I found him at the helm and it was then I learned the truth. We would be motoring for two days, and the first mate mentioned that we were headed to Sinaloa! What? Chamula sheepishly affirmed that it was true, not wanting to tell me because he did not want me to return to the states. We were headed to the coast of Sinaloa, exactly where they had just been robbed!

“Pendejo!” I retorted angrily, swearing like a Mexican sailor. Out on the deck, I flopped down and leaned back on the salt encrusted nets. I was in shock. I felt like I had volunteered to be kidnapped. All this because I didn’t have the guts to say goodbye. Well, I had made the choice, and the choice put me here. Done. Now the only thing to do was either stay mad or have an adventure. Since it was such a small world aboard a boat in the middle of the sea, I thought adventure was the better choice.

Chamula followed me. I did not understand how he could put me in harm’s way, and told him so. His answer was very pragmatic. He assured me that since all the shrimp were gone and the mafia knew that, we would be safe from the threat for a while. The seas began to pick up the further south we went. I started taking heavy doses of Dramamine and went to sleep. When I got up the waves had turned dark blue with deep troughs and white caps. I brought coffee forward to Chamula and asked if he could show me where we were. Might as well learn something during my voyage into hell. He was all too happy to see I was not holding a grudge. In the evening we had gone south to Loreto then southeast across the Gulf in the night. Now we were near mainland Mexico. I sat on the step of the wheelhouse, sipped coffee, and watched the whales spouting.

At 4:00 p.m. the rumble of the engine went silent. We tied up at the stern of another co-op boat in the middle of nowhere. Well, I knew we were in the Gulf, but I could see no land. The sea was a constant relentless motion. Worried, I asked the Captain if we weren’t going near the coast. No, he admitted, this was much different from Mulege. It was unlikely we would see land, because the gulf was so shallow here that boats could anchor right in the middle without a problem. I thought the boats might not have a problem, but I certainly did.

The next morning I crawled from the bunk and the motion of the Joven threw my body against the cabin wall. “Mierda!” Another day of heavy seas. I wondered how many days I could keep myself drugged and asleep. It was then I wondered if I could get Chamula to let me off the boat. When I asked he said he had a friend in Los Glorious, Sinaloa who could probably help. And just like that the captain pulled anchor and we headed to the mainland. I felt horrid to be the reason that everything was changing course. My hermanos looked at it as just another lark, an “aventura” in the moment, and if you were a woman stuck in the middle of the gulf, their attitude had a lot going for it.

Once moored off Los Glorious, the wonders of Mexican transportation became clear. Everyone knew the Joven, and a panga was already on the way out. The seas were turbulent. I literally jumped from the ship to the smaller boat below as both were tossed around. The pescador handling the launch maneuvered through the breaking surf. And like a surfer, riding the curl, he would pause a moment, and then at the perfect time he would use the force of the water to propel us forward. We would glide on the force until another wave would reach us. We rode the momentum all the way to the beach.

After pulling the boat above the tide line, we walked into the barrio of adobe brick houses. Chickens and dogs ran loose everywhere. We stopped for cold drinks at a little tienda. The sun was hot and penetrating. Sitting under a shade tree near the Sinaloa River, the old friends talked while a lone gringa looked on. In Mexico there was a time to visit and a time to go. You never thought about going when you visited. But when it was time we had to go back out to the trawler to get my belongings. We jumped back into the panga and roared through the Mangrove trees out the gaping mouth of the Sinaloa River into the smashing surf. The breaking waves hit the bottom of the boat so hard we had to hang on with both hands, not to be thrown out. I knew Chamula was expecting me to be afraid, but when he looked over at me, I was grinning so big we both must have looked like loons. I was “muy loca” for more! And that day I earned the title, “Pirata.”

Back aboard the heaving decks of the Joven, I went in to pack. Chamula would not let me to go alone, and so we both went to the beach to meet his friend. We rode in the back of an open truck all the way to Los Mochis airport. It was a tearful goodbye. My life had been profoundly changed in these months. I had lived and loved life fully. Yet I had to leave and it hurt. Looking down on the shimmering gulf waters, I picked up my journal to keep the memories fresh. Like a giant backbone of ancient volcanic rock the Baja peninsula rose up out of the water. Slowly, I closed the journal to prepare for the landing in La Paz.

Leave a Reply