Monday, December 25, 2006

The Super Camper : Nearly destroyed in Baja

Below is the story of the Super Camper's second trip to Baja which ended in disaster. If you don't feel like reading the full account, scroll down to the bottom for a video summary.

December 20th 2006, 2:00pm. Almost ten hours into a fourteen hour drive, about to round a corner, following a Jeep at a safe distance, gnawing on teriyaki flavored beef jerky while discussing the feel of the ride after removing the anti-sway bar, suddenly I notice a large white utility truck coming towards us from the opposite direction, taking the curve ahead a few feet too wide.

There’s that moment when you recognize impending disaster. You don’t have time to go through the thought process of what’s happening now or even what might happen next. You’re simply locked into the moment. And almost as if you’re watching a movie, you’re completely powerless to do anything but brace yourself and experience it. Those moments are not soon forgotten. So it is that those few seconds are painfully clear in my memory.

The utility truck and Jeep swerved in opposing directions but not quickly enough to avoid impact. They bumped briefly and then bounced off like billiard balls. We watched the utility truck pass by Ryan’s window in a blur, and for a moment, believed we were clear. Then came the impact, the crunching sound, of metal on metal. The force knocked us sideways, shoving us into a ditch. We teetered at an angle long enough for me to look down, out the window at the pile of large rocks lining the road that had prevented any evasive maneuvers, and consider the possibility of us tipping over.

Fortunately there was no cliff, and our low center of gravity served us well as we did not tip. The camper righted itself, and I struggled to get my mind around what had just happened.

“Thank God we didn’t tip over”, I was thinking, when next to me Ryan started yelling, “get out, get out, there’s gas!”

I jumped out. The video camera had been in my lap and I started filming the utility truck still driving down the hill. I thought he was going to run, so I tried to focus on the license plate with shaky hands. He pulled over at the base of the hill and Ryan was still yelling at me to get away from the camper.

The truck had hit us just behind the driver’s door in the Xtracab section and completely annihilated the utility box holding our 5 gallon extra gas tank that we had just filled only a few miles before. It was now emptied in a pool on the pavement and gas was running down the road producing a very flammable slick. In the hours following, we would also give thanks that it did not ignite. Ryan tried to neutralize the risk by emptying our fire extinguisher onto the puddle, and we sat separately on the rocks on the side of the road in anger, frustration, and disbelief.

The Jeep with California plates had pulled over up ahead and two well-dressed Mexicans were examining their damaged wheel well and flat tire while a boy of about 8 looked on from inside the vehicle.

The Jeep was safely off the road, as was the utility truck, but the camper was stuck in a ditch and blocking most of the lone Southbound lane. I was impressed by how quickly and professionally the Mexicans began working together to control traffic. It seemed well rehearsed, as if this sort of thing happens all the time. After a semi-truck missed the front corner of the camper by less than a foot, we decided to try to move it off the road.

Ryan got in, started it up, and put it in drive. Stepping on the gas pedal produced no result. He put it in 4-wheel-drive, and amidst the smoke from burning rubber, the front wheels caught hold and pulled the camper out of the ditch, across the road, and into a turnout on the other side. From there we could get underneath and really survey the damage.

The driveshaft had been ripped free of the differential and was dragging on the ground.

The driver’s side spring was broken completely and the other spring was tweaked.

The airbag we had just installed was ripped apart. The tire wasn’t just punctured, but completely blown to pieces. The aluminum angle that protects the edges of the camper fulfilled its duty, preventing the camper from crumbling, but it was crunched and the underside was mangled where the utility box had previously hung.

I was standing there, video camera in hand, trying to imagine how we would ever get the camper home in that state, appreciating the fact that we hadn’t been hurt and that we had purchased Mexican insurance, but our cell phones had no service and help seemed far away. The guy who hit us, from here on referred to as “El Culpable” (the responsible one), began looking underneath the camper to see what could be done. Together, he and Ryan jacked it up and changed the tire. Then with the camper still perched on the jack, El Culpable and his partner, the logo on their hats told me they were electricians, got under the camper and started looking to see if the driveshaft and differential could be re-coupled. His partner seemed useless, and to prove my impression correct, he would soon resign himself to sitting on a rock on the roadside and smoking cigarettes while watching the cars go by, occasionally looking back at me with a creepy grin.

Meanwhile, Ryan and El Culpable got to work beneath the camper. After much strain, they were able to loosen the bolts that held the drive shaft.

Once loosened they struggled with the long piece of unwieldy metal until eventually the ends slid together and the two parts were once again connected.

The next largest impediment to driving was the broken spring. Of course that wasn’t going to be magically fixed on the side of the road, but they surmised that if they could get the whole spring moved forward enough, and then the front end pulled down and tucked under the piece of the frame that it was connected to in happier days, it would hold in place enough to drive to the next town. That was another interesting undertaking accomplished by employing many rocks of various sizes stacked together behind the tire to lift up the back end of the spring and force the front end forward. The back of an axe was used as a hammer to force the spring back into alignment, and finally, by jumping on the bumper to rock the spring forward further, the spring was eventually made to rest beneath the flange of steel that Ryan had attached to help support the bed mount under the weight of the camper. I’m sure he had no idea that piece of metal would actually help us in this situation.

A police officer arrived on the scene at about this point, almost two hours after the accident. He circled the scene with that confident swagger displayed by men in uniform, flashed me a sparkling smile, and then launched into a fast-paced exchange with El Culpable wherein the driver admitted that he was in fact culpable, and explained that there had been another car involved, but had they changed their tire and left. The cop thought that over while looking at the dusty ground, then planted his feet wide apart, folded his arms over his chest, and asked what we wanted to do next. We told him we would try to drive to the next town, El Rosario, which was about twenty miles of hills and valleys away, call our insurance company, and figure out what to do.

The cop immediately began discouraging us from contacting the insurance company. He was pushing for us to just drive to a mechanic and have it fixed there, with El Culpable picking up the bill. We weren’t sure of the full extent of the damage, but it seemed like something that should be fixed by professionals in the States, rather than a cheap Mexican job. The cop kept insisting that it would be much more of a hassle to get the insurance involved. He threatened that if we wanted a police report, both vehicles would have to be impounded and could be kept there up to a month before everything could be sorted out. After some arguing, I finally insisted that we get on the road and told the cop we would consider our options along the drive.

As soon as my cell phone registered service, I dialed the insurance company. We had purchased our Mexican insurance through Sanborn’s, a distributor for General Electric. They answered almost immediately and seemed helpful. We gave a report of what had just taken place, and the representative told us that he would try to send an agent down that night to take a look at the damage. By the time the caravan of cop, electrician, and injured camper was nearing the next town of El Rosario, it was apparent that the cop was in a hurry to get this over with. Re-inserting the drive shaft into the differential brought the back wheels to life, but the spring was attached very precariously, and every revolution of the tire produced a rubbing sound. The brakes also felt squishy, so we were driving slowly over the hills and through the valleys. The cop pulled along side us and signaled to “hurry up!”

Pulling into town, the speed bumps were torturous. The cop seemed to be on a parade route, waving, or pausing to chat with various people along the way. Eventually we were led to a dirt driveway with a small adjoining office lined with junk vehicles. Within minutes curious onlookers had us surrounded. The cop began issuing instructions to the short rotund mechanic, then paused to ask if we had called the insurance company. When I answered in the affirmative, his frustration level rose significantly. The mechanic shook his head and said that since we had already made the call, he couldn’t help us. We were a bit confused by all of this. No one spoke English, and while we both speak Spanish quite well, it was still difficult to understand the cop in his speedy tirades. He wasn’t making it easy on us. He was angry and blaming us for being difficult. He instructed the mechanic to attach the camper to the tow truck and told us that we would follow behind in his car on the way to the next big town of San Quintin. This didn’t sound good to us. We didn't want to risk further damage or let the camper out of our posession. I called the insurance company once more and told them of the developments. They said that since San Quintin was closer to Ensenada, if we were towed there, the adjuster could get to us faster. So we gave in and watched the swarm of Mexicans theorize on how to lift the camper.

They first hooked the chain to the camper so that the chain was lifting the truck by the bumper. Since we had extended the bumper about a foot to accommodate the extra length of the camper, it was not sturdy enough to support the weight. Ryan tried to explain this to them, adding to the anger of the cop, who just wanted to get things moving. To change the angle of the chains to avoid the bumper, they then slid a long board under the spare tire so that it was taking the load. Ryan objected once again because the beam that supports the spare tire is even weaker than the bumper. At this point the cop was irate. We realized that he was late for a holiday party and in no mood to wait for us to make sure the camper was towed safely. The other Mexicans seemed to be siding with him. I tried to explain to the cop and a suave Mexican who I later learned was the owner of the Electrical company and the truck that had hit us, that this wasn’t just about getting money out of the insurance company. I explained that we had built that camper ourselves over the last two years and this was only its second trip. To us, it was worth more than money. We just wanted it fixed correctly. I think the owner understood but the cop was not to be swayed.

Ryan got underneath and removed the spare tire from the harness, which had already been bent by the attempted lift. Then they were able to put a board on the chain that would be supported by the frame itself. We called it “good enough” and got into the cop car. Quite possibly the most surreal moment of the entire experience was looking out through the cracked windshield of the cop car at the camper, being dragged precariously by a tow truck, at a slight angle so that the front corner of the truck was riding about a foot into the oncoming lane, while the cop sang along to Mexican Oom-pa-pa music. We cringed every time a huge truck narrowly missed taking out the front end of the camper.

Just after dark we arrived at the junkyard in San Quintin. The insurance adjuster called and said they would arrive first thing in the morning to take a look at the damage. We didn’t want to leave the camper, and since we were equipped for two weeks out in the desert, we decided to make camp in the junkyard. No one seemed to mind.

That next morning, rather than opening the camper door to a view of a point break, we watched the sun rise over crashed cars.

The insurance adjuster arrived promptly at 8:00am, a short well-fed woman with a warm smile and her husband. Like everyone else, they spoke little English. She circled the camper, taking photos of the damage, as well as the truck that had hit us, which was parked conveniently alongside.

We filled out a simple report. She said they had to tend to another situation further South, and would return at 1:30pm to meet with the cop and the responsible party. The cop showed up at nine, looking disheveled, still trying to get his tie situated beneath his collar, asking where the adjuster was. When we told him they had already came and left, he stormed off.

There was a cute little dog in the junk yard that we named "Pinchy" as in "pinchy perro". Playing with him helped pass the time.

Ryan called his Dad, who immediately offered to make the seven-hour drive down to pick us up. By the time he arrived, just before sunset, the adjuster still had not returned.

All afternoon the cop kept reminding us that it was our fault that this situation was so difficult. If we had just had the truck fixed in El Rosario, he insisted, we would be already on our way back home, or continuing on our camping trip. He didn’t realize the extent of the damage. Ryan had slid under the truck and saw that the broken spring was really the least of our worries. The transmission was leaking oil,

but much more worrisome was the realization that the frame itself was tweaked on both sides.

Ryan began to consider the fact that the truck might be totaled.

Around 6pm, right when we had given up on the adjuster returning at all, they showed up. Apparently they had run out of gas. The cop was cursing and carrying on with a smile, giving them the jovial Mexican equivalent of “where the heck have you guys been, we’ve been waiting all day!” Throughout the day, his entire attitude towards us had changed. The night before, Ryan had given him a bottle of rum to take to his party, and we had won him over. The adjuster met with the cop, gave us a copy of the report, and took $1,200.00 from the responsible party. It was Friday, and she said that due to the holiday, the camper would be towed on Tuesday, the day after Christmas, back to the US to a mechanic in Chula Vista. She told us to take everything valuable out of the camper.

With that resolved, we began moving everything to Ryan’s Dad’s van. There was quite a lot. The refrigerator was filled with marinated meat, sausages, and bacon, which we couldn’t bring back across the border, so we gave to the cop for his trouble. We also had several packs of cigarettes kept in the camper in case we needed to bribe any cops, which we also gifted to our new cop friend. He was pleased to say the least. We filled the van with everything else including the cushions and the cabinet doors. Ryan had spent so much time making them he couldn’t bear the thought of having them stolen. He unwired the auxiliary battery, and pulled off the electrical panel that held the solar controller. Then there was still the solar panel, the refrigerator, the mattress, and the compressor, none of which could be easily removed. Ryan sat there and thought it over. He decided there was no way we could leave the camper in the junk yard for four days unlocked, since it had to be inspected at the border. We decided we had to stay with it, so we spent another night in the junk yard with Ryan’s Dad camped in his van. The owners of the junkyard might have thought we were starting a gringo community within their gates.

In the morning we were able to convince the junkyard owner to load the camper on their flatbed tow truck and take us to the border that day.

There, we drove ourselves through the two-hour line, across into the US and had another towing service carry us the rest of the way home.

The camper now sits peacefully in the patio where it was put together, awaiting its fate. We have filled out claim forms and are now waiting for the insurance company to send another adjuster out to let us know how much we will be awarded. Updates to follow…

Press play...

Monday, December 18, 2006

The Super Camper: Post First Trip Modifications

While our maiden voyage of the Super Camper was certainly a success, there were a few things that we decided needed fixing.
First, the stock springs on the truck were pretty weak, especially when loaded with the camper. We decided to add a little more support by adding a set of AirLift air bags.

While the directions claimed ease of installation, like most things it is never as easy as you think it will be. Putting the springs together, lining them up, and drilling the holes was simple enough, but the self-tapping screws included with the springs would not self-tap. Ryan tried to use his tap and die kit to help the screws with their job, but still the screws would not go in. Ryan launched into a tirade on the cheapness of the whole setup and wondered aloud for the hundredth time why nothing ever works correctly. Eventually, he gave up and drove to OSH to buy nuts and bolts. This strategy added a new dimension of difficulty to the installation since the access hole on the other side of the frame is tiny. Getting the washer and nut onto the bolt involved an incredible amount of patience and finger dexterity. We lost several washers and nuts into the dark cavity of the frame despite many fishing attempts with a magnet. Finally we realized that my fingers are longer and thinner than Ryan's and my capacity for patience is greater as well. I was eventually able to get the harder-to-reach washers and nuts in place.

Here is one of the airbags, in place and inflated.

In this photo you might notice the 6" PVC pipe that we added for extra water storage. This tank holds 7.5 gallons and is fitted with a pump and a long hose with several attachments for a sprinkling shower or a high pressure sprayer. I'm guessing we will still employ the portable solar shower in most instances, but in warmer weather or for hosing out sandy wetsuits this setup will be very useful.

Here's what the pipe looked like before it was attached to the camper.

Here's Ryan attaching it.

This is the length of tubing and the filter to keep the pump safe from any debris that might somehow find its way inside.

Finally, here is the sprayer. It sprays about 15 feet, so watch out!

Back to the air bag installation, with the camper still resting on the jack stands, you can see that the air bags raised the camper a fair amount. Of course the angle became less extreme once the tires were back in place. Overall the air bags raised the bumper 1.5 inches.

The camper also had a tendency to really rock side to side, especially after a big truck passed us on the narrow roads in Baja. So, we installed a Hellwig rear stabilizer bar.

Below is another view that shows how it attaches to the frame.

Another more basic need we realized while in Baja was a place to set drinks down. We purchased two drink holders from Boater's World and installed them in easy-to-reach places.

Before our first trip, we bought mirror extenders. They attach to the mirror with plastic hooks and a nylon strap, with a few suction cups to help hold it in place. The extender tended to vibrate and slip out of place. Cranking it down as tight as possible would result in the plastic hook snapping off. In wet weather the nylon strap stretched and caused the mirror to sag.

Ryan decided to add a second strap with metal hooks. He made metal peices into hook shape and spray-painted them black:

I then sewed on a heavier nylon strap. Hopefully this will keep the mirror extender in place.

In order to keep the auxillary battery charged to run the refrigerator and lights, we ordered a Kyocera 130-TM Solar Panel from

Unfortunately, due to a confusing specification explanation on their website, we didn't realize that the panel came with a 4" high junction box on the back that prevented the panel from being able to be mounted flush to the top of the camper. You can see it resting at an angle in this photo.

Ryan wasn't quite sure what to do about that. We were worried that cutting down the box might void the warranty and considered returning the solar panel. While he sat on the camper to ponder the situation, I was busy packing my surfboards for Hawaii.

You can see my surfboard bag on the lower right corner of the photo.

I went to Hawaii to compete in the Op Pro at Haleiwa. Here I am in my jersey about to go out and compete against my friend Lisbeth Vindas-Dias from Costa Rica.

Another part of my job in Hawaii is to get photos for my sponsors. The crowds and tricky conditions combine to make the job difficult sometimes. Here I am surfing at Rocky Rights on the North Shore of Oahu.

The waves weren't the best the first week I was there (notice the flat ocean in the background) so I filled the time by snorkeling.

My friend, Lindsey Baldwin and I went hiking with a few of her friends and climbed a waterfall.

It was a little scary without a harness because the rocks were slippery, but it definitely produced an adrenaline rush to make it to the top.

Once the waves did pick up, O'Neill had a team challenge which broke the big group of girls into teams. We competed in boogie boarding, innertubing, and rafting. This was one of the biggest waves I caught on my trip. I never would have expected the biggest wave would be ridden in an inflatable raft with a couple friends. We actually made this drop, believe it or not!

I love Rocky Lefts!

For more photos and a lot more stories about my North Shore experience, check out my other blog at :

Back at home, Ryan had decided it would be too much trouble and expense to return the solar panel. He didn't want to have to raise the overall height of the camper any more than necessary, so he decided he would have to cut down the box.

He used his grinder to carefully grind down the plastic and then attached the wiring.

We then ran the wires along the inside and covered them in white heat shrink so that they would blend in better.
Here Ryan is sealing the outlet hole for the cables that attach the solar panels to the charge controller and battery so that no water leaks in.

Finally, we mounted the solar panel on top.

The panel is 130 Watts, 10 Amps, at best. So far we haven't seen any more than 5 Amps because the panel is mounted flat and it is winter, so the sun isn't directly overhead. Our Norcold refrigerator only draws 2.5 Amps when cycling, so the solar panel more than keeps up with it.

On our trip, we noticed that with the door open, water dripped along the edge of the door, ran under the corner and then fell onto the gas spring which would carry drips inside the camper. Ryan figured if he installed a little piece of metal along the edge that hung down slightly, it would keep the drips from running over the corner and make them fall straight down instead. We ended up cutting a strip from our mini-blinds and riveting that to the door since it was thin and light and a good size for the job.

We also decided to install a gutter to help keep the drip flow down. Here I am painting it (as well as the pieces that we used to mount the solar panel).

Ryan, putting the gutter in place.

There is a poem by Oliver Wendell Holmes called "The One-Hoss Shay" about a man who built a sleigh (shay) in "a logical way". Taking into consideration that there is always a weak link, he made sure that every inch was as strong as the next. Here is an excerpt:
"Now in building of chaises, I tell you what, There is always somewhere a weakest spot,-- In hub, tire, felloe, in spring or thill, In panel, or crossbar, or floor, or sill,
In screw, bolt, thoroughbrace,--lurking still, Find it somewhere you must and will,-- Above or below, or within or without,-- And that's the reason, beyond a doubt, A chaise breaks down, but does n't wear out.
But the Deacon swore (as Deacons do, With an "I dew vum," or an "I tell yeou," He would build one shay to beat the taown 'n' the keounty 'n' all the kentry raoun'; It should be so built that it couldn' break daown! --"Fur," said the Deacon, "t 's mighty plain Thut the weakes' place mus' stan' the strain; 'n' the way t' fix it, uz I maintain, Is only jest T' make that place uz strong uz the rest."
Ryan's performance of the poem in its entirety was quite a sight! Frank Robinson, founder and current president of Robinson Helicopter distributed the poem to all engineers with a hand-written title reading "Robinson Helicopter Company design philosophy." If you'd like to read the entire poem, it can be found here:
With this inspiration, we sought to strengthen our weakest links.

Of course, weight has always been a big concern. After reading the posts on we finally motivated to do something we had been meaning to do for a while. We drove out to Long Beach and weighed the thing. It was a little intimidating pulling up to the scale amidst all the serious truckers. We learned that the truck with camper, dry, weighs 4,520 lbs. It turned out to be about 300 lbs heavier than we were hoping, which concerned us. Eventually we may purchase steel wheels to replace our aluminum set, and will probably weld support to the frame.
Ryan has been concerned with the weakness of the bed mounts for some time. After seeing this photo on demonstrating what could happen, and knowing how much the camper actually weighs, we decided to immediately add support to our mounts.

Ryan fastened two inch steel angle to support the bed mounts from every angle possible.

Ryan had purchased a flood light a while back and we have been trying to decide what to do with it. Reversing the camper at night is difficult due to low visibility. In order to help shed some light on the situation, we decided to install the flood light in the back. Ryan wired it so that it will come on when the camper is put in reverse. It also has its own switch in the back so that it can be turned on to help light up the camping area if needed.

On the subject of lights, we bought off-road lights to help see all the bumps in the road. Rather than buying a front bar as a mount, because they are expensive and heavy, Ryan decided to make his own pieces to mount the lights to the bumper.

After extensive research and debate we bought KC Hilites Slimlites in Titanium because we prefered them to the 8" size that most other companies offered. Plus, they look cool.

With that, our modifications are complete (for now)! We are leaving tomorrow for another test run in Baja. Merry Christmas and Happy New Year, we're outta here!