Monday, August 8, 2011

The Cedar Dugout Canoe, Vagabundo

This is a story from the late 1960's. The west coast of Mexico was not yet a tourist destination. There were no cruise ships, no para sailing, no jet skis, no Senior Frogs.


Charless Fowlkes took his dog on a 150 mile cruise in an old cedar canoe... but it's best when he tells it...

"The canoe was a derelict from San Juan Island in 1968. The hull had countless splits and was barely in one piece. I bought her for $5 from my longtime friend, the late Carl Harper who took the boat in trade for shoeing a horse."

"Some of the copper patches required to seal it were 8 inches wide and several feet long. Lots of Thiocol was troweled into splintered wood to hold it together. A hole was worn through the bow from scuffing on the beach. I seem to be drawn to the challenge of hopeless projects! The shape is very fair and the cedar hull is very uniform, one inch in thickness. The length is 15 feet with a 34 inch beam and weight of 160 pounds. It's been described as a Native canoe, but I have my doubts."

"I built a cotton sprit sail, a lee-board and a rudder in Seattle, loaded it on the roof of my camper and drove to Mexico. After sailing it the first time in Mazatlan I capsized when landing in 2 feet of surf. I added the outrigger using bamboo poles and a plastic pipe softened and bent in a campfire on the beach. Crude but immensely more stable."

"I launched this outfit at San Blas with my Labrador, Tar Baby and sailed about 150 miles to Mismaloya Beach south of Puerto Vallarta, camping on the beach at night. I had read that this area was the most deserted and beautiful coast on the west of Mexico. Just as I found it."

"My chart was traced from a borrowed chart. Using my very broken Spanish, I talked with Mexican dugout fishermen (the switch to fiberglass had just begun in the early 1960's). They identified places along the coast where the surf was not high and a canoe might land. During my trip of 7 days the highest surf I saw was about 4 feet. I got wet a lot but was never capsized or driven back to the beach when launching."

"When winds were light, I would paddle. On the last day when rounding Punta de Mita and crossing Banderas I had 20 knots reaching and following and was reefed part of the time.
(I reefed by removing the sprit, rolling up and and lashing the peak triangle with grommets along the leach, leaving a small triangular sail.)"

"Tar Baby and I arrived at Mismaloya beach at dark. A great trip with good weather, wonderful scenery, and the few people I met were friendly."

"The Mexican dugouts were common back then and were roughly made from wood that looked like mahogany to my amateur eye. They would be over 2 inches thick and weighed over 400 pounds. Two or more men would land a dugout and put logs under it for rollers to move it above the sea. I could drag my dugout up the beach by myself."

"Mexican fishermen viewed my dugout with interest as it must have looked like a racing shell to them. The Mexican dugouts used sails made from sacks and were normally steered with a paddle. Once in La Paz in 1961 I rented a native dugout for several hours. It was the only one I saw that had a rudder which I thought I might be able to manage. Back then each morning you would see several canoe fishermen sail out of the harbor at La Paz and then returning in the afternoon when the wind changed."

"During the past 40+ years there has been immense growth and development, especially near Puerto Vallarta. When I landed Vagabundo at Mismaloya Beach in 1968 there were two native houses, a palapa on the beach used mostly on weekends and half a dozen ex-patriots and bums like me who camped there for free. I returned to Mismaloya a few years ago to find the inlet filled with houses, restaurants and a couple of hotels."

Though Vagabundo has not been in the water since the color photo from Acapulco in 1968, Charless still has her.

When he told me this story, I knew you all had to hear it.

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