Shelter Masthead

Surfing on a Mexican Island in the Pacific

Got a match?

I drive into the isolated town of Puerto San Carlos on a rainy Friday night in early August. I’d been chased off a beach to the north by a rapidly moving weather front that afternoon. I check into my favorite hotel and then watch the hurricane hit the town, blowing sandstorms down the street and palm fronds loose from the trees in the hotel courtyard. I was there to meet my 19-year old son Will, who was flying into Loreto the next day. We were headed to a surf camp on the very remote island, Isla Magdalena, off the southern Pacific coast of Baja, for a week.

The storm passed and the next day, the van shows up from the airport and Will and 4 other people climb out, all heading to the island. One of the guys, with gray beard and straw surfer’s hat, I notice, has really protruding teeth. They stick out at about a 35-degree angle. Jeez, he looks weird. I’ve never seen a surfer who looks like this. Well maybe the guy has a deformed jaw, I think. I shake hands with everyone. When I get to this guy, we shake, and he says, “Got a toothpick?”

“Sure,” I say. (OK, so maybe I’m a little slow to catch on.) I go over to my truck where indeed I do have toothpicks, but before I can open the door, he cracks up and pulls out the false teeth. Everyone’s laughing, as am I (in relief).

Turns out he’s a dentist. “Look,” he says, and opens his mouth. On the upper right is a gold crown with a small diamond mounted on the side. On the left upper side is a crown with the San Diego Chargers logo on the side. And on the bottom right (I’m peering into his mouth all this time) I swear to God, on the side of a gold crown are two miniature golden tits, with perfect tiny nipples!

Charlie Clarke is his name, he’s 50 years old, and he’s altered his professional life so he can surf. In his career, he says, he’s done fillings, root canals, crowns — a full range of dental skills — but now he works just 3 days a week in a dental clinic so he has lots of time to surf.

And so begins a week on Isla Magdalena with Charlie the trickster, his buddy and highly-focused 45-year old surfer Bob Sandison and about 8 other people. The jefe of the camp, Steve, has been injured in a surfing accident (“I was where I shouldn’t have been, “says Steve, who got rolled over a reef a few days earlier and whose back looks like he’s been clawed by a tiger). So the camp is run by Steve’s son, 15 year-old Nick and his buddy from Philadelphia, 14-year old John. More on Charlie, Doctor Bob, the two teenagers from Philly, the aftermath of a hurricane, and four surfers, count ’em, just four surfers, alone on world-class waves for a week…to follow in a later installment.

Underwater Astronomy

Brian, the surf camp’s webmeister, is out on the island this week to fish, and kick back with his girlfriend Judy. I tell Brian the story about my swimming with a school of spadefish the previous week and he tells me about a time when he was diving in the ocean near Cabo Pulmo at night. They had lights and were exploring the nocturnal underwater world. It was a calm and glassy night. When they got ready to come in, he said, they turned off their lights while underwater and looked up.

“We saw the stars,” he said. “from underwater!”

They were pretty clear, he says, because the water was so calm.

It reminded me of going abalone diving in the early ’60s up around Anchor Bay, and getting into the water before the sun was up over the ridge. As I saw the first glow of the sun, appear, I dove down, sat on the bottom, and looked up. As the sun appeared, its rays filtered down into the water, bathing the rocks and water and bottom in rosy translucent light.

Wow, I remember thinking, this happens every morning. I’m just here this morning to see it.