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Tuesday, May 5, 2009
What's Become of the Nautical Ladder?

By Kimball Taylor

Worth fighting for? We think so.  Launch Gallery »

Even as the surf environmental movement celebrates the momentary protection of Southern California's Trestles, most are unaware of the near miss the entire Baja Peninsula experienced with a far more devastating proposal. Think of the fabled Dana Point Harbor destruction of Killer's in 1966, a loss that continues to resonate in surf lore, and then repeat that event many times over. For most of the past decade—the right hand hooks and sand wedges of Baja, world class surf and a wilderness relief valve for California Norte's urban surf population—were slated for destruction.

In 2001, El Presidente Vicente Fox and FONATUR (Federal Tourism Promotion Fund) Director John McCarthy assembled a media event in La Paz to announce final preparations for the opening salvo of Escalera Nautica, or the Nautical Ladder. At heart of the event was a 222 million pledge that would lead to 1.9 billion in development along both coasts of the Baja peninsula. Incorporating a handful of pre-existing marinas on the Sea of Cortez, the plan envisioned 27 marinas in total, with several to be built along the wild Pacific coast. Thousands of hotel units, dozens of new roads and a boom in land speculation was assumed—"land, sea and air"—all of this came confidently announced by the people who brought us the high rises of Cancun and Huatulco. Pointing out that much of this would occur in some of the Pacific's most important bio reserves, National Geographic News called it "possibly the most ambitious, contentious project for tourism development in the Western Hemisphere."

The idea was, like the missionaries before them, Alta California's fleet of yachts could set forth from Los Angeles, Newport and San Diego in anticipation of a protected rest stop one day's journey from each post. At Santa Rosali'ita yachts bound for the Sea of Cortez (as the plan went) could be de-masted, lifted from the water, and transported overland to Bahia de Los Angles, where they would quickly enjoy the calm wind and vibrant waters of the gulf. Fortunately for the developers, but unfortunately for the dream itself—planners overestimated the size of this boating market by some 600 percent—a number that would compel nearly every boat, skiff and trawler in California to gimp toward the border in order to complete it.

A slice of paradise that doesn't see much boat traffic these days.  Launch Gallery »

Yet the reason that Escalera Nautica raised eyebrows even within the surf world's half-hearted environmental movement, was the fact that each Pacific port had been planned for geographical hooks that held serious right hand point breaks—San Juanico (Scorpion Bay), Punta Abreojos (Razors), Santa Rosali'ita, Puerto Canoa and Cabo Colonet, among others. In addition, the roads that these marinas, hotels, airports and golf resorts would inspire, almost inarguably would be paved to the rest of Baja's most pristine breaks. Whales, abalone, and Pismo clams aside—this had California surfers bummed. Said Surfer Magazine's Randy Ward (a long-time Baja hand), "We figured we had less than ten years before the place was burned."

In March of 2009, on a "transect" of the peninsula with bi-national conservation organization WildCoast—nearly 8 years after the inauguration of Escalera Nautica—the political and economic outlook had completely changed. By 2007 the coastal conservation world had geared up for yet another uneven fight, when unexpected factors arose. In 2008 Presidente Calderon declared war on drug cartels, which unmasked rampant corruption among border city police, set cartel against cartel, and sparked a wave of violence that scared away a major portion of the tourism industry. The United States' economic bubble, which provided easy equity partly fueling the Baja market, collapsed. Scores of investors lost their principals, and projects were abandoned outright. In the wake of these events, the ridiculous logic of many early '00s developments came to light. Chief among them was Escalera Nautica.

Still, a model marina had been completed at Santa Rosali'ita (another right point), and FONATUR hung its hat on it. As National Geographic's Robert Roper wrote, "Even wrongheaded development can be cause for enormous hope."

The harbor that could have been.  Launch Gallery »

On the northern approach to the marina, within the Valle de los Cirios reserve, one can view half of a hillside blown apart to create jetty rocks. Down the road, the main right sand point comes into view. After construction on the jetties to the south began, sand flow changed and the naturally forming pointbreak dissolved. Serge Dedina, WildCoast's Director, surfed the spot many times over his 30 years of Baja travel. He also watched its demise. On this trip however, he noticed small lines beginning to spool down the point once again. This created a lot of hope that the wave might make a come-back. But if so, it's due to the same design flaws now plaguing the marina—namely, that it sits downwind from eight miles of sand dunes and smack in the littoral (like a sand conveyor belt) zone. Recent estimates suggest millions would have to be spent yearly just to keep the marina entrance free of sand.

The first-world parking lot, deluxe harbor master's building, docks and maintenance warehouses lay empty. Because of the marina's poor location, it's never been used. Now the desert was taking it back. Wind-driven sand had nearly filled it, taken over portions of the jetties and brimmed boat slips. Only a section of the marina held any water, and this only a few feet deep. Millions of dollars of equipment lay idle. The Pemex gas pumps that had never pumped gas, rusted away. The most incredible aspect of the project was the mouth of the marina itself—it was clogged with sand and dry, and just a few feet out front spooled a perfect, top-to-bottom two-foot wave. It was the kind of miniature perfection you can watch for hours. And there had been stories of surfers camping out here to catch it on just the right swell. "Twenty years from now," said WildCoast's Zack Plopper, "This will be just another sand point."

Amazing to think that somebody would ruin a lineup like this.  Launch Gallery »

From the looks of things, it would take a shorter span than that. It's easy to envision only the harbor master's facility remaining long enough to give an indication that this might be the only man-made wave for nearly a thousand miles in either direction.

Driving away on the best road in Baja, built to accommodate Santa Rosali'ita's yachts, the realization comes that this was the same marina design intended for the other pointbreaks in Escalera Nautica's plan. The surf world's environmental community wasn't ready to fight that plan, had political and economic factors not intervened.

Since then, FONATUR abruptly dissolved after 30 years of creating short-sighted mega resorts in Mexico. Some say, however, that only the name Escalera Nautica has died, and the plan still exists. But maybe the example of Santa Rosali'ita and the additional time the economic downturn has provided could give the surf community an idea of what should be fought for, and how strong the surf environmental movement needs to be to win.

Removed in the Baja wild, what would we do without places like this?  Launch Gallery »