The Catamaran and the Sea Snakes

I'm on a boat, I'm on a boat.
Everybody look at me, 'cause I'm sailing on a boat.
I'm on a boat, I'm on a boat.
Take a good hard look, at the motherfucking boat.

I was nearly crushed when I fell between two moored boats in a harbor. When I hit the water, I screamed like a little girl, clawed at my rescuers like a drowning chimpanzee and thoroughly embarrassed my preteen self.

And I reacted this way not because of the danger of being, you know, crushed. You see, someone told me there were sea snakes in the water.

The Yellow-Lipped Sea Krait is among the most venomous snakes in the world. It has everything and absolutely nothing to do with this story.

Everyone has a superpower. Something they can do better than just about anyone else. Like how that one guy you knows can cook a perfect steak, or how that other guy is blessed with perfect pitch or the ability to do calculus in his head.

Me? I’m practically dolphin-esque in my ability to swim. And I have a freakish memory for useless facts. I have a third superpower, but it’s significantly less useful — I can roller-skate much better than any man my size has a right to be able to do. Seriously. Six-foot-four and 300 pounds, and yet the hard-won skating skills are still there.

Now, if I could only find a men's underwater roller-derby-and-Jeopardy league.

But in San Felipe, Mexico, both of my primary superpowers — the swimming and the memory — failed me spectacularly.

My Uncle Frank is the reason for the roller-skating. He managed a full-scale roller skating rink in the late 70s, right at the zenith of roller disco. I spent multiple nights a week there. I can still hear it. Roller Boogie. We Will Rock You. Barracuda. Ballroom Blitz. “All skate. This is an all skate in the normal skating direction.”

I had these. I am absolutely not kidding.

Uncle Frank and his wife, Patty, decided to hang up the skates in the early 80s. They had a wild idea. They bought a 36-foot catamaran and sailed it from Newport Beach, California, around the tip of Baja California, and up to San Felipe, Mexico. Given their level of sailing experience — both freshly Coast Guard-certified — this was its own How Are You Not Dead story.

But that wasn’t the wild idea.

The actual wild idea was using the boat and the town of San Felipe as the centerpiece of a vacation charter service. The business model was, you pay them money, they drive you from Orange County to San Felipe in their 70s-era Ford van, they take the boat out and tool around the Sea of Cortez for a while, and they drive you back. If you’re imagining an air-conditioned charter bus, a white-sands resort and someone bringing you champagne and fresh tropical fruit, just stop. This is a 600-mile roundtrip through the ass-end of California and Mexico. In a van. Not a bus. A van.


But my Uncle Frank was amazing. For a very brief time, he actually made this work. Sort of. He moved onto other things. And sprinkled in there were four family trips to San Felipe to see the boat.

Probably the best depiction I could find of the boat we're talking about.

Let’s talk for a minute about San Felipe.

And seriously, it'll only take a minute.

San Felipe was not a resort city in the early 80s. It’s apparently much better now, but at the time, San Felipe had no real economy. The fishery had collapsed. No oil, no minerals, no farming, no factories. A tiny airport, likely suitable only for drug smuggling. It has a beach, yes, but the water is murky and silty from sitting too close to the mouth of the Colorado River. There’s no “there” there.

The boat was moored in the man-made harbor, which consisted of two rock jettys that formed a rough letter “C.”

There it is, courtesy of Google Maps. Note the distinct lack of amenities such as "civilization" and "rule of law."

The harbor was guarded by federales with M-16s, but there wasn’t much to protect.

  • A few rusted-out shrimpers. Nice people, but the boats would make the guys from Deadliest Catch run far, far away.
  • The “school ship,” a vessel owned by the local fishery school. Not once did I see this thing move, nor did I ever see anyone on it.
  • Various semi-abandoned small boats with years and years of barnacles clinging to the hull.
  • Uncle Frank’s boat.

It was bad news, man.

Compared to the San Felipe fishing fleet, the F/V Northwestern is a paragon of safety and seaworthiness.

Nobody swam in the harbor. Uncle Frank told me the shrimpers emptied their raw sewage directly into the harbor.

And oh yeah, there were sea snakes.

Yo, what's up.

I don’t know exactly who told me there were sea snakes. But it seemed perfectly plausible. The water outside the harbor was always the color of a chocolate milkshake, and inside the harbor, it was black. The ruins of Atlantis could have been hidden under there, for all I knew.

Naturally, I fell off the boat between the catamaran and one of the shrimpers. Right between them. You know, exactly where you don’t want to fall, at risk of being turned into hamburger between the two hulls.

We had just pulled in from … I don’t know? Whaddya call it? A pleasure cruise? The wind was never right for sailing. We ran the outboard and aimed for a distant rock island, white with guano. I drank “Hecho en Mexico” Cokes and tried to keep from going mad.

Anyway, we moored, pulling up next to a shrimp boat. I had a job — sit at the front of the boat and, with my feet, keep Uncle Frank’s catamaran from running into one of the abandoned skiffs, also moored to the shrimp boat.

I stuck my foot out, pushing the skiff. Except instead of going straight back, it caromed off the shrimp boat and aimed for the catamaran hull again. I reached out farther and pushed it again. No luck. Farther, push. Dammit, it ain’t right, someone’s going to yell at me for letting our boat get scratched. I extended my foot out even farther. And my ass slipped off the gunwale and I fell right into the water. Sploosh.

Do you hear someone screaming? I don't even have ears and I swear I hear someone screaming.

So, there I was, just thrashing in the water. And my sea snake memory is going apeshit. Pages from encyclopedias are flipping through my mind like a scenes from a carnival of pure snakey, snakelike murder.




I had completely lost my mind, and with it, my memory superpower, which would have told me the following…

Western Pacific. As in, the other side of the goddamn world.

Two guys yanked me out of the water before I was turned into chum. Or sorted into House Slytherin.

Even more embarrassing was the fact that, even at just 12 years of age, I was a full foot taller than my two rescuers. They gave me the look you give a Great Dane when it’s intimidated by a Chihuahua at the off-leash park.

I can't even look at you right now.

And I spent the rest of my life assuring my mother that yes, I could swim quite well, thank you. Thank you, no. Don’t need the water wings. I’m good. Really.