I had planned to write this in two installments, but there are just too many words. This will be part 2 of 3- Chilly
The third day of the Baja Rally found us up early again to eat and bid goodbye to Coco’s Corner. The bivouac at Coco’s was certainly a once in a lifetime experience. Coco was in all his glory. It was a real Dakar style set up of camping and roughing it.
This was just one of the rally experiences that was truly unique. It represented a lot of planning and hard work by many people. It highlights my personal dilemma. What I will write will cast a shadow over some of this. It is certainly not my intent or something I relish. But I am here to write a chronicle of the event. It can’t just be of the highlights, it has to be of the whole event.
I am not even here to say that all the challenges we encountered were bad. Some of it is simply part of the process. But a race is a race. A race is only as strong as the weakest link. So I am here to tell the story. I expect some will dissent. I have been asked by more than one not to write it for fear of doing harm to a greater good. But I cannot change what has already taken place. I am just going to tell it straight.
The previous night we had been given a road book change. We were to cut out a section of 12 reference notes and replace them with new ones. The primary instruction in the new notes was to make a turn onto the beach, proceed north on the beach a short distance and cross a wash to the houses (fish camp) on the far side. This seemingly routine act would become the focus for the entire following day.
The first section of the day was a 120km liaison south to Santa Rosalillita. From there we started the one long special of the day, a long trek north along the west coast. With the previous day penalty overturned, I would start 3rd behind leader Steve Hengeveld and Scott Bright.
The first 30 minutes were extremely fast, 70 to 80 mile per hour speeds. So once again we were on something that was far faster than I really wanted to race. But the bike felt solid under me and gave me the confidence to ride fast.
After about 50km we got to an area where the road wound around a bit more, far more reasonable average speeds. The navigation was not too technical. But we had to skirt a number of wet lake beds, keeping to a high and dry line, remnants from the recent hurricane. There were a few turns and crazy Ivans, just enough to keep everyone on their toes.
Much of the time I could see the line from the two bikes in front of me. But I made a real effort to not simply follow and keep up on the navigation on my own. Further along a curious thing happened. I came to a big right hand turn that matched a road book note. But I realized that the mileage was 3 tenths short. I had just adjusted my mileage within the previous kilometer or two and I knew it to be accurate. So I decided to keep going straight instead of taking the tempting turn. Sure enough, 3 tenths later was the correct turn.
I remember thinking that this was going to fool plenty of riders. Continuing on I realized I couldn’t make out any tracks in front of me. Sometimes the dirt is just that way. The route made another hard turn up a hill. Then it was down to the beach.
As I turned into the beach sand, what I suspected was clear. There were no tracks in front of me. I was the first rider on the course. Now think about that for just a minute. A washed up racer like myself has put at least 4 minutes on one of the best Baja racers there has ever been. I am leading the way. Such days come along very seldom in a racer’s life. No, I have never been or will be as fast as those Baja heros, but for just once I have done it all just right. My elation would be short lived.
Down the beach I went. 50 yards later, where I was expecting to cross a sand wash, I encounter 50 feet of ocean water. The fish camp set mockingly out of reach on the other side. I quickly proceeded around the little spit of sand to see what the line around the water would be. As far inland as I could see up the narrow rock walled inlet there was water, at least ¾ of a mile. My heart sank.
But all was not lost, there would surely be a way that the locals would use to circumvent the water. I started up the south side of the inlet on a small road. But it too was soon flooded with water. Worse so, it was actually a narrow raised road bed. Not only was it covered with water, but I could see that beyond the narrow greasy raised strip the bottom dropped straight away. Who knows how deep that water might be, certainly enough to swallow a bike and rider.
I back tracked to the beach. Stopping to think, surely there must be an easy solution that I simply don’t see. But wait, this is the new section of the road book we inserted the night before. Could I have possibly got it wrong? Did I accidentally put the old section back in after I had cut it out? Where were Steve and Scott? Had I actually somehow gotten all of this wrong?
But wait, the new section of the road book was narrower than the old one, I can see it right there in front of me. Now it was time to start back and figure out how to solve this puzzle. Every minute I was losing time.
Starting back I came upon the next rider behind me. I quickly explained the issue and he followed me as we set out to find a way around the water. We were soon there. I started up the north side of the inlet. The marsh grass and water were right up to the edge of the rock cliffs. We went short distance and ran out of dry line to follow. Once I was staring at water ahead of me again, I decided to double back.
There was only one road in the area, so that was my next tack. It headed due east, away from our goal. It only took a short distance to see that it would offer no easy route back towards the west where we needed to be. So it was back again to the east end of the inlet, the end of the water.
By now other riders were starting to trickle in and we were gathering a group. I again explained the scenario and we all pondered the problem. One rider commented that we were in the new section of road books notes and wondered what the original notes might have instructed us to do. But no one had an answer for that.
We were stopped long enough that I pulled out my sat phone and attempted to call the organizers. I never got through. I suspect I did not have the correct dialing to reach another sat phone. Two critical thoughts were going through my mind.
As the first to arrive on the scene, I was losing more time than anyone else for every minute that we were stopped. Second, the organizer had gone to some length to talk to us about just such an issue in the opening riders meeting. He stated that if for any reason whatsoever, the course became blocked or impassable, not to worry about it. With the GPS technology in use, they could determine exactly when each rider arrived at a problem spot and we could count on them to make determination to correct the issue. We were riding on both private and public roads. With as many miles as we would cover, the possibility of a locked gate or other blockage was always an eventuality. Therefore I was not overly concerned about this problem. Frankly, I like brain teaser challenges and this was certainly a good one.
We could hear one bike in the distance, towards the water. One rider said it was Steve Hengeveld. He had already blasted across the first flooded road section that I had turned back from and was now attempting to get across the marsh area on the east end.
One rider commented “listen, he got through”, but another said “no, listen to the pitch of the motor, he is stuck in the water”. Then the sound went dead. Riders suggested various ways we might go; attempt to summit the mountain cross country, or possibly take the road to the east. I suggested we should all stay together; the solution had to be in the marsh. If we went together we should agree help out if anyone got stuck. It was decided that first we should find Steve.
Sure enough, Steve was stuck trying to attempt the line on the north side of the marsh, the second line that I had attempted and turned back from. We rode to the same spot I had already been, parked the bikes and walked out to Steve. He was not stuck too bad, but his bike refused to start. I waded into the water with two other riders and we had him up on dry land in just a couple of minutes.
As Steve started to work on his bike, some of our group helped and others watched. Only so many hands can be of use. Meanwhile I took off my gear and set out on foot to survey the area. Within a few minutes I could see that by choosing a careful line and avoiding the water, it looked possible to actually make it around the north edge of the marsh and pick up a faint two track coming from the fish camp.
I walked back and explained the situation to the group. No real progress had been made on Steve’s bike. With full rally gear, lots of parts have to come off to reach anything. I continued back to my bike and set out to ride the line I had scouted. Sure enough, it really was not difficult, just a matter of avoiding the bad spots. Within a couple of minutes I was out to the two track road.
I stopped and looked back, assuming some or all of the riders would make an attempt to follow me. But there was no action. Some were still working on the dead bike and others were just watching. By now another group of riders arrived on the scene. They were tackling the crossing from a slightly different spot.
I attempted to wave them our direction, but I could see they had found a different crossing spot to attempt. Sure enough, with just a few minutes they were across and now on the same road as myself. More riders arrived, followed the same tracks and were right across. By virtue of being in the rear, they were able to follow in minutes what had taken me some time to find. But certainly by no fault of their own, it was simply the way the scene played out.
I now faced a dilemma. None of the riders from my group were inclined to follow me. They apparently decided to stay with the drowned bike. I was now watching other riders arrive and continue on the course ahead of me. I reasoned that I had contributed as much assistance to this situation as I could. Even if I stayed on, there was nothing for me to do but sit and watch, just as some of the other riders from my group were doing. It was time for me to go, there was still a race to run.
I want to make one digression here. The question had been raised, what were the original road book instructions that we had cut out the night before? Arriving home, I found that I had put the cut out portion into the waste basket of my van. I am in possession of the deleted instructions. What do they say? They directed us to the exact spot we eventually ended up at, the east end of the inlet, not to the beach. I am at a complete loss to explain why were directed to a spot that was impossible to pass (regardless of tide) instead of the one we would eventually have to use.
Okay, so I am now back on course. I had to backtrack a bit to the fish camp to get my mileage adjusted. There were a couple of quick turns. I could see that some of the riders in front of me had already taken what appeared to be a wrong turn. I came up to Mike Johnson who looked unsure of which direction to take. Mike had been one of the riders who had found a quick line across the marsh. Mike dropped in behind me and we were off racing again.
The two of us are close on speed, so we were keeping the pace up. I could see that I was once again the first bike on the course. Obviously I had lost quite a bit of time overall, but it was still nice to be opening the track. Mike and I went back and forth for the lead having a good time dicing together.
When we left the marsh, we were only about half way through the stage. But we were making such good time now that it would not take us long to complete it. Late in the stage I came into a silt bed, chose a bad line and went down. I was not going very fast, but I literally buried myself in silt. It was in every crack and crevice of both me and my gear.
I was up and going in seconds, even though I could not see much as it all shook out. About half a mile down the road it dawned on me to look down at my navigation equipment. My GPS was missing! Damn, no choice but to go back and look for it. As I stopped to turn around, Nino Rojas and Johnson came by me.
I was fortunate to find my GPS and only lost a couple of minutes in the process. Now third on the course I cruised on to the finish. I arrived just a few minutes back of those two. I was met by the organizer at the finish and related the events of the day. In short, he told me that he feared we would not be able to pass the water at all and was relieved to see it was okay.
My comment to him was that it should be fine for everyone, but there would be large discrepancies in how much time it took. The equitable thing to do would be to give everyone a “free time” for crossing inlet. As had been previously explained, this should all possible with the GPS tracking equipment. Admittedly, giving the free time would benefit me most, as I was the one who lost the most time other than perhaps Hengeveld. But as the fault was not really of any rider, more the road book, it struck me as the most equitable solution.
I left the stage in high spirits. I had ridden fast and stayed on the route all day. This was the kind of ride that would be near a personal best for me as a rider. I naively assumed the organizers would keep to their word of “making it right” should a course problem arise.
We had another pavement liaison to El Rosario. It had been nearly 9 hours since our 5am breakfast. I was starved. Arriving to our bivouac at Mama Espinoza’s, I was greeted by someone offering me a cold drink and hot taco the instant my helmet was off. I do not remember a taco tasting so good.
The entire crew at Mama’s lavished their hospitality upon us. The tacos and drinks flowed freely well into the night. Oscar and Ruben Hale were both on hand to greet everyone. Oscar even designed the first special section for the following day.
Next up Part 3 – Events take an inexplicable turn