The Art of Towing

I would like to say I awoke afresh that morning, ready to come up for a plan to solve what had probably been the worst thing to happen to us so far. However, due to Lee’s inability to go to bed, I was absolutely shattered, I don’t do well on not enough sleep. This accompanied with being in our current predicament meant I was pretty useless. 

We headed into La Esquina that morning, a lovely outdoor restaurant with tables interspersed between a jungle like garden. We had some coffee and some food and then I returned to the van to try and have a nap. It was way too hot to nap, the inside of the camper was in the high 30’s and there was no breeze here in the town. Lee and Clem went to go and collect our long overdue laundry and go to the shop. When they returned we put some more oil in the engine and decided to try and drive the five minutes Alejandro’s plot of land where we could reside a little more permanently. While camping here hadn’t been too bad, it was pretty noisy by one of the main roads in the town and we couldn’t let Aimee out off her lead. Clem went in front so he was in a good position to tow us if it all went wrong. Ruby still had enough in her though, and we made it to the land. Clem commanded me inside their camper with Aimee and the air conditioning, for which I was grateful. I was simply too tired to be of any use to anyone. Clem lent us his gazebo for some additional shade and with Lee set us up a camp spot. After all his help, he left us to some peace and quiet. He had been very kind and helpful to us over the last day or so and we were very grateful. Now we had a safe base from which we could come up with a proper plan. 

In the meantime, Hanno and Kikki were at Tecolote, where we should have joined them. They had no signal, but sent us a satellite text to let us know how they were getting on. No doubt they were wondering why we had never appeared the following day. We sent them a brief message explaining what had happened and telling them to go to mainland without us. We would be at least a few more weeks sorting a new engine and I didn’t want them to feel like they had to wait for us. When they had enough signal to phone us, they did. They had managed to get onto Balandra beach, which due to Corona number restrictions involves being in a queue at 6am. They said however it was beautiful, while annoying to get up so early, the normally very overcrowded beach was much nicer with less people. They said they would be back in Todos Santos that evening and that they would bring food and alcohol. I suppose that’s how you know who your real friends are. While I would have completely understood if they had chosen to leave, it was really nice that they were coming back. 

We still hadn’t got any closer to a solution, having spent a bit of time looking at engines. Swapping an engine needs to be either the exactly same engine, otherwise the electrical setup won’t be correct or a complete new system. I had emailed Richard, the person who engineers the parts for the conversion. I hoped he would tell me what my options were with regards to swapping the engine. Sure enough he got back to me promptly and with lots of useful information. With a better idea of what we could now do, we would get onto some proper research in the morning. 

Before too long, Bruno pulled into sight. Fish tacos were on the menu. Again, we were lucky to have food provided for us as well as some rather good rum. They also offered to take us to the shops if needed supplies. 

By the next day we were ready to start searching. I made a huge list of all of the scrapyards in La Paz, planning to ask Alejandro to phone around for us. Richard had given me a precise idea of what the best option was and we were looking for an identical engine to swap with a guide on how to identify one. it’s all very well to have one that looks the same, but there are many minor differences between the spec of EU, US and Japanese engines. We would swap the long block across, leaving out inlet manifold and engine management system in place. This was the most straightforward way to fix it and meant we shouldn’t encounter any problems with incompatible electrics. 

I had just finished my rather large list when Kikki questioned whether it was a good idea to get an engine from a Mexican scrapyard. We did also have the plan of ordering one for the US as backup, Subaru’s being far more common there but I was planning on trying to find one locally first. However, she made a valid point. Mexican cars are not subject to any kind of testing as far as I can see. They are driven into the ground. Any car in the scrapyard had probably had a very hard life. Who knew what state the engine was in. Had it ever been serviced? Baja is not kind to cars, the dust while driving is very bad and without proper maintenance could kill an engine. Maybe it was safer to get one from the States. She was right. I think I had been so keen on getting us back on the road I went for the quickest option rather than the best. The engine is pretty important, probably not something to rush into or skimp on. 

We went back to the drawing board looking at companies in the US. There are a lot businesses in California alone who import Japanese engines at around 60,000 miles and resell them. This is something to do with the laws in Japan regarding owning a car. They have rigorous and expensive testing for all cars and as the car’s age increases so does the cost of the testing. This means that it is not economically viable to own a car more than 4 or 5 years old and therefore a lot of these engines are exported to other parts of the world with less strict test procedures. This is a good place to get an engine, you know it is relatively low mileage and has likely been maintained well, a more solid bet. 

We headed back to La Esquina for better signal and as we thought Kikki and Hanno would like it there, to ring around the various companies both through Google and eBay. We didn’t have too much luck. Most companies who advertised their engines online use stock photos. When we phoned up and asked specifically if they had the engine we were told they didn’t have our engine, an EJ201, even though they were advertising one. They all had EJ203’s, which they assured us would be totally fine. I asked Richard, he wasn’t convinced. I didn’t fancy a gamble. I found one company who said they had one and promised to send me photos but never did. Another one quoted $450 for shipping and two weeks. I had my hopes set on the company in Sacramento who said they had one and would deliver it to San Diego for $800, but I wasn’t going to blindly buy something without photos. We knew that the cost of shipping was likely to be the same as the cost of the engine itself, it was very important to make sure we got the right one.

Before we knew it the weekend was upon as and with no chance of getting anything sorted, our engine plans would be put on hold until Monday. We decided to move from Alejandros land to La Pastora on Saturday, we wanted some better signal and a nicer place to camp. With Bruno here we risked the drive. I went to the shop with Bruno first to get some supplies, leaving Lee with Ruby. I phoned him as we left telling him to attempt the drive. We waited at the end of the road. Ruby made it down, she was still running despite everything. I had bought some more oil to try and keep the engine going, but on checking the dipstick we still had a lot of oil. Lots of oil but the oil light is on is not a good sign and definitely points towards bad bearings when coupled with all the movement in the crankshaft.

La Pastora is under a ten minute drive and I watched from Bruno as she kept going. We turned off the dirt track to the beach and began scouting a camping spot. Then we realised we had lost Lee and Ruby. We turned around and found him stopped outside the entrance, Ruby wouldn’t start. No surprises there. I think the engine was beginning to seize from a lack of oil pressure. Bruno towed us the final stage and we parked up next to a small lake that had formed. The sea level was noticeably changing this beach as well as San Pedrito. 

Another reason for our move, was the Catelynne, the carer of Bryan and Lesley’s daughter, Cecilia, was arriving in Todos Santos that day. Since we left their home in San Diego back in February, we had carried round their spare garage remote. Finally, we could return it and also get Aimee’s harness and lead that we had left behind. 

Catelynne and her boyfriend showed up early afternoon and we had a catch up. We exchanged items and also got a handwritten letter from their other daughter, Elizabeth. We definitely need to write back. They didn’t stop with us long but it was nice to see them and even nice to finally give back the garage remote. For eight months I have looked at it every morning and thought, “Shit, I really must post that”. Maybe it’s a good thing I didn’t send it off with the Mexican donkey service, who knows if it would have got there. 

We passed the next couple of days here, at La Pastora waiting for Monday. 

Clem and Emilie joined us for a night and we were sitting in the gazebo with some drinks when the police showed up late at night. Here we go again. This time the state police. They came over to us, asking if everything was ok. We explained we were just camping, having a few drinks. That’s fine, they said, no problem. “Muy tranquilo”. This was a pleasant surprise, they smiled at us hopped back in their truck and drove off. The warning level in Baja Sur was about to decrease to three, and it seemed to be showing. 

With the weekend over, engine searching redoubled. Lee phoned a company in Canada that I had initially discounted because they were so far away. However it turns out that they had exactly the right engine. They also had pictures of the actual engine on the website alongside a video of it being compression tested. I sent Richard a link. He confirmed it looked correct. The shipping was $350, not too bad from Montreal to San Diego. The company is called JDM Racing Motors and seems to have a lot of good reviews. They picked up the phone when we called them, a strong start. We spoke to Nick who seemed very efficient. He told me that you can’t just swap EJ203, you need to swap the cam pulleys, the first person to tell me that. I think that made me trust him more and the fact the he was easy to get hold of. He gave us shipping quotes for land and sea and we were pretty set to go ahead. Despite the fact that it was in Canada, the estimated delivery time was much the same. 

We waited until Tuesday morning, when Richard emailed me back. Happy that while it was more expensive, it was definitely the right one, we went ahead. I paid the extra charge to use PayPal as it was faster than a bank transfer and also would protect out purchase. Then we phoned Nick to tell him we had ordered. He confirmed he would dispatch it that afternoon. Excellent news. With an engine on the way, all we could do was wait.

Hanno and Kikki had decided they were going to do a trip into the mountains while we waited and so we decided we needed to move locations again. La Pastora was beautifully quiet, but it wasn’t near any amenities which isn’t any good when you can’t drive. You can’t even swim in the sea here, the current is dangerous and so with the likelihood of a two week wait, it would probably get pretty boring.

We decided to head back to Cerritos, but that we would camp on the scrubland before the carpark for a little more peace and quiet. There is a supermarket in walking distance which sells garrafons, the hotel bar with wifi and the beach which is good for surfing and swimming. It was a more viable choice for a stranded camper, we just needed to get there. It was also a good sign that the police no longer seemed to care, it’s annoying to be moved on when they arrive if you are driving let alone if you are stuck and can’t actually go.

We had the number for the tow truck, but we really needed some supplies first. Our water tanks were empty, we needed food too. This would be a bit awkward on the back of a tow truck. Hanno and Kikki offered to tow us, it was around half an hour of regular driving. Down the dirt road, over the many speeds bumps in Las Tunas and through the town centre. Then out again on highway one and into Pescadero. The last section is another dirt road to the beach again. We have been towed a few times, but not for long. Normally it’s just a case on getting us out of the sand. We did a brake test on the beach first, as without our engine running the brakes were much harder. The still work of course, but not as easily. Satisfied that we could stop and wouldn’t drive straight into the back of Bruno, we slowly set off. 

We put a long tow rope on for the dirt road, as there was steep dipped section where we didn’t want the cars to be too close together. It was very hard to keep tension on the rope and we had a few unpleasant jolts where I began to question the strength of our towing eye, but we made it.

We then swapped to the short tow rope. Leaving only around two metres between the two vehicles. Bruno is much larger so I can’t see anything in front. Lee is filming the whole thing on instagram and frankly it was terrifying at times. It took us a while to adjust to the best way to do this. Ideally the front car does the acceleration while the rear car does the braking. This keeps the rope tensioned. There is no way that Ruby can brake for Bruno though. Hanno realised this and this meant on the downhill sections he got increasingly faster to tension the rope while I braked at the same time. I think our brakes would have got rather hot. It is a scary experience to be blindly towed at speed round a bend downhill, one I would rather not repeat. Uphill was far better though and soon we cleared the town after navigated busy streets and stop signs. I was glad to be through that. 

On the main road we pottered along, a little less scary but still somewhat unnerving. Mexican drivers sped past us at all opportunities. On bends, slip roads and junctions. It was a little further down the road that we made it to Pemex. Having completed the necessary errands, we had plenty of food and water to last us for at least a week. We made a final stop at the beer shop and saw Jaro drive past. He had been looking for us. 

The final section is a bumpy dirt track to the coast. It’s nearly impossible to keep the tow rope tight as we hit pot holes and speed bumps at different times, but so far I had succeeded in not driving into the back of Bruno. Good for us, I think we would have lost that fight. We got to the chosen spot late afternoon, Bruno towed us into position and the park up near. Jaro came over and camped with us too. We had a celebratory beer that we had made it. I’m grateful to Hanno for being willing to give it a go, even though it was not a pleasant experience and next time if if don’t need to fill my water tanks I’ll probably pay £30 not to do that. Here we were though. Our home for the forseeable future. 

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