Wednesday, March 23, 2011

"Through the hills of Baja with NO brakes! Who needs brakes?"

It was March 2008 and we were on our way to one of our favorite spots in Baja. We were heavily loaded with supplies to work on our tree house and pulling the Samurai as well. The summer before I had rebuilt the engine in Big Red and put a new system of brake lines and master cylinder in. We were just about 25 miles north of Lake Chapala when I noticed there was something going on with the brakes. They started feeling a little soft in the brake pedal. I’ve felt that feeling before when my brakes had given out, but this time I had a whole new system in so there shouldn’t be anything wrong. I wasn’t using the brakes that much for Big Red has a five speed transmission which allows me to use the gears instead of using the brakes constantly.

I was hoping my hunch was wrong but the next time I stepped on the brakes I felt that lousy feeling again and my hunch was right, something was up with the brakes. I didn’t say anything to Roberta because I didn’t want her to worry. So I began driving a little slower and making sure that I didn’t have to reply on the brakes, I needed to save them for when I would really need them. As I was driving along, I was trying to figure out what the problem could be. The next time I needed to use the brakes the pedal went almost to the floor. I was completely out of brakes! I figured a good place to pull over with what little of the brakes was left would be Lake Chapala where the restaurant was. There were truckers there and a good long flat area in case the brakes failed completely. But before the next turn in the road I needed to use the brakes and they were gone. I gave a little statement of excitement and Roberta asked me what was wrong and I said nothing, just thought something was up with the engine, but not so. We got to Lake Chapala and pulled off to the side of the road with no brakes so I was down shifting until I was in 2nd gear, then I shut the engine off and let the engine stop us. I then told Roberta we were out of brakes and had been for the last 10 miles. I got out to see if I could tell what was wrong and it was easy to see. The back right rear wheel was covered in brake fluid. I had Roberta step on the brake and the fluid was leaking fast.

First we had to unhitch the Samurai. We had about 2 hours, maybe 2 ½ hours of daylight left so we decided to head for Guerro Negro and try to make it before dark. I would use the gears and go slow on the down hills. We had walkie talkies so we could communicate while driving. I wanted Roberta to drive the Samurai . This would take some of the weight off Big Red and so Roberta wouldn’t be in Big Red also for her safety. So we were off and everything went well. It was easy with the gears that I have, the new engines compression made the down shifting easy to control Big Red.

We were about 65 miles into driving and talking back and forth. We were climbing a gentle grade which at the end of its downhill side is a dangerous curve at the bottom of it. I was talking with Roberta on the walkie talkie and let my timing of shifting the gears go a little to long, for when I shifted into 3rd gear I realized I was going a little to fast to downshift into 2nd and I was already at the top and beginning to descend down the backside of the hill and steadily gaining speed instead of slowing down so I could shift into 2nd gear. If I shifted into 2nd gear now I would probably blow the engine. I got a real lousy feeling as I began gaining speed and approaching one of the more dangerous curves in Baja. Plenty of accidents happen on this curve. Now here I am going way too fast! As I start into the turn, Big Red is starting to lean so I instinctively start pumping the brakes but there are none! Now I need to make a decision fast. Do I go wide on this blind curve and hope there are no cars coming or do I stay in my lane and hope Big Red doesn’t roll. It feels as though its going to roll the way it’s already leaning and I’m only just beginning to take the turn so I decide to take it wide into the other lane, all the while stretching my neck as far as I can to see if another car is coming. Fortunately I made it around the turn with no accident. By the time I was through the turn I was sure that Big Red would have rolled had I stayed in my lane. I was almost on 2 wheels as it was.

We continued on to the military check point which was at the bottom of a long grade and I made sure all my shifting was right for if I blew it this time I would certainly run through the check point taking a few signs with me. No problem though, by the time I got to the check point I was able to shut the engine down and stop me right at the guard. He noticed the engine looping as I came to a stop. I said to him, no brakes! He looked at me with surprise and waved me on and made the statement, Loco Gringo!

We made it to Guerro Negro just at dark. We pulled into the Malaremo and had a good nights sleep. Next morning I took off the brake line to see what was wrong. It had a crack in it behind the nut where the flare seats on the slave cylinder. A factory defect that almost cost us dearly. So I took the line to the auto parts store where the guy cut off the bad piece and reflared it for me at no cost. I went back, put it on, bled the brake lines and we were off. I now carry my own flaring tool, just in case. Makes me wonder how lucky we were that the line didn’t give out going down the hill into El Rosario.

Just another trip with Big Red and it’s surprises. All in all, it was about 120 miles of no brakes!

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