Off the Grid

A couple days aboard a Mag Bay 33 in Arizona’s deep-red canyons teaches Managing Editor Simon Murray the value of unplugging from the real world.

For a saltwater-bred beast, the 33 eats up the Colorado River.

For a saltwater-bred beast, the 33 eats up the Colorado River.

The summer air in the Mojave Desert southeast of Las Vegas is palpable, like stepping into a sauna. During the day, the thermometer climbs to 120 degrees and hovers there, threatening to pop. Wildfires are becoming the new normal for Northern California, with firefighters recently battling the single largest blaze ever recorded in the state’s history. Unlike an unfolding natural disaster, the Mojave feels more like perdition. There’s nothing to fight here. You need only accept it: nature at its deadliest. The smart mammals find shade, a watering hole and wait until dark, conserving energy. The more evolved mammals find a Rum Runner and start early.

The incongruity—an inhospitable wasteland and a frozen libation sipped through a straw—can induce mental whiplash if you’re not careful.

It’s a tale of two extremes. Winding its way along the California-Arizona border, this stretch of the Colorado River abuts the Mojave, offering maybe the last place in the continental U.S. most would consider cruising grounds. The river feeds into Lake Havasu, a man-made oasis created by damming the Colorado River; on either side, unforgiving terrain as far as the eye can see.

Nonetheless, a sizeable West Coast subset of boaters lives for this place, with its arid climes, craggy outcrops and winding waterways. That includes our host and spirited tour guide for the next few days, Barrett Howarth, the 30-year-old vice president of Mag Bay Yachts, his family’s company. Barrett has invited us here to test a Mag Bay 33 before it heads off to a dealership in Massachusetts. But even in a landlocked state like Arizona, the clocks are set to island time.

Pulling into Havasu Springs Resort, you can’t miss the sign. WELCOME TO HAVASU SPRINGS RESORT, it reads: GOOD TIMES AHEAD. Waiting for us is the 33’s light blue hull, looking decidedly out of place in this dusty desert parking lot. Yet even though the boat has been trailered close to 250 miles from Mag Bay’s yard in Adelanto, California, across bone-dry backcountry—past dust devils and wild burro-crossing signs pockmarked with bullet holes—she looks no worse for wear.

“I just finished this thing up this afternoon,” says Barrett, who oversees the fit and finish of every boat before taking it on its inaugural sea trial, usually in the Pacific. “But every chance I get to come out here, I take it.” A workaholic like his father, Mike Howarth, who co-founded and then sold Cabo Yachts before starting Mag Bay in 2014, Barrett doesn’t get out here as often as he’d like. There’s a cot at the Mag Bay yard with his name on it. (There’s one for dad, too.)

The 30-year-old vice president of Mag Bay Yachts, Barrett Howarth hangs out next to the beached 33 on a sandbar.

The 30-year-old vice president of Mag Bay Yachts, Barrett Howarth hangs out next to the beached 33 on a sandbar.

Beside the 33 stands a lonely basketball hoop and a couple of empty dumpsters. Barely any cars. It’s Wednesday afternoon in a weekend town, and the small group assembled at Barrett’s lake house is ready to cut loose. Counting Barrett, we are five—including Dan Harding, Editor-in-Chief; Wes Neil, a heavily inked photographer and the founder of Black Sail Media; and Mark Liebermann, a tall Air Force pilot and Barrett’s childhood friend from Newport Beach.

We throw our stuff in the lake house and take off on golf carts to survey the resort. Equal parts retirement community and Bedrock (the Flintstones’ prehistoric hometown), gated communities are nestled beside RVs while pontoons and jet boats share neighborly slips along the riverside. Nearby, a seaplane stands unused on the shoreline.

Together, we leave the golf carts and clamber up The Pointe. Waiting for us are scenic views of the snaking waterways and red terra firma below. We get there just in time to watch the sun terminate into the shadowy mountains of the horizon. Above us, bats wheel carelessly in the still air.

“It’s Transylvania out here,” says Mark.

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“Tomorrow we’ll rip all the way up there,” points Barrett. As we follow his northward gaze, I make out a single jet boat hightailing it home in the fading light. The last boat on the water. The scene has the feeling of a Wish you were here! postcard.

I reach for my phone to snap a picture, only to be reminded I had broken it a couple days before the trip. No phone? My girlfriend hadn’t been the biggest fan of that idea. But a small part of me had been looking forward to this serendipitous break from connectivity, this desert digital detox. I was hoping to turn off the daily alerts and reconnect with nature, in whatever form it might take.

Back at the lake house, I realize I’m in good company. “This time of year, I usually just throw my phone in a corner and relax,” says Barrett. Above our heads is a cosmic array; a cluster of dense interstellar clouds that form the Milky Way, visible to the naked eye without the light pollution of Las Vegas or Phoenix, both hundreds of miles away, impeding our view.

For Barrett, these sights are nothing new; he’s been coming out here since he was a child. A boatbuilding brat, he grew up riding his 50cc Honda dirt bike around the old Cabo yard. But he also learned the art of woodworking, how to install an engine and sweep the floors. Says Barrett, “I’m pretty sure I’m the only boatbuilder that can say I employ a guy that used to change my diapers.”

At its peak, Cabo employed 540 skilled craftsmen. Barrett still remembers exactly where he was when his father and partners sold the company to the Brunswick Corporation back in February 2006. “I remember getting the text message in the middle of class, and all it said was: ‘It’s done.’ I just broke down crying.” At Cabo, they treated their employees like family. “It didn’t matter if you were cleaning the toilets or if you were a foreman managing thirty guys, you were always treated the same.”

Now with Mag Bay, the West Coast boatbuilding family is taking that expertise and injecting it into their 33-foot center console. With a Michael Peters-designed hull, and a 42-foot express sportfish on the way, the father and son team are hoping to slowly rebuild their loyal following. In turn, they are opening the doors to ex-Cabo employees, slowly reuniting their extended family under one roof.

In its heyday, Copper Canyon was inundated with thousands of boaters. Today, only a few daredevils remain.

In its heyday, Copper Canyon was inundated with thousands of boaters. Today, only a few daredevils remain.

While we’ve been talking, Barrett has been grilling steaks on a grill. As if on cue, all five of us go silent. Each of us finding peace in his surroundings—or at least I think we are. I watch as a shooting star goes streaking across the pitch-black firmament. Tractor trailers wind their way through the mountains, otherworldly lights in the darkness.

After a while, Barrett finally breaks the silence.

“I’m not gonna lie, I have a chip on my shoulder,” he says. “I want to do circles in reverse around the competition.”

Though not the exact bridge from the nursery rhyme, there is a London Bridge in Lake Havasu City. How it got there, piece by piece, from England, was all thanks to the efforts of Robert P. McCulloch. A Midwest magnate made wealthy, in part, from a maternal grandfather who invested in Thomas Edison’s inventions, McCulloch was the owner of McCulloch Motors, which competed for market share against Ralph Evinrude. According to local legend, it was McCulloch who, in 1963, spied Lake Havasu from a plane while looking for a place to test his outboard engines and thought to build a city there. If only McCulloch could see the fruits of his labors. How his city and outboards have grown.

The next morning, it’s already 93 degrees. We bring provisions down to the lagoon where Barrett tied up the 33 the night before. The boat is so new, I watch as Barrett peels off the plastic film that lines the throttle. We place Lake Havasu City in the Garmin chartplotter, undo the mooring—a sunken Chevy 455-hp crate engine—and blast out into the river with the help of two, brand spankin’ new 300-hp Yamahas.

For a saltwater-bred beast, the 33 eats up the river. Her twin-step hull design, at home in Floridian waters or cruising to Catalina Island, corners on a dime and takes the wake of other boats in stride. We’re top dog—one of the largest boats on the river—in this isolated ecosystem of sun-burned beer bellies, jet boats, bikini tops, jet skis and pontoons pulling young tubers. Everywhere we go, we turn heads.

Barrett has been navigating these waters since he was in diapers. When he was born, the first thing his father did was call up a friend at Howlett Boats and put an order in for a 19-foot ski boat that his son could use to ply these waterways. Then, naturally, he proceeded to call the family to tell them the good news.

Priorities. If we had wanted to, we could’ve easily rigged up the 33 to hunt bass or the elusive white sturgeon that’s rumored to be in these waters. But the livewell is stocked with beer and good times are ahead. My phone’s phantom vibration in my pocket has finally started to subside as we pull up to Copper Canyon. The infamous site of MTV’s Havasu Spring Break special, at its peak, this canyon was the number one gathering spot for partygoers. Boats would be tied up so tight you could walk across from one side of the canyon to the other. The partying was so extreme that the surreptitious phrase “What happens in Lake Havasu stays in Lake Havasu” was borrowed indefinitely from Sin City.

Today, the place is a bit calmer—its 60-foot-high jump rock a monument to wilder, hedonistic days. Mark and I swim over and grab a foothold in the porous rock face to get a piece of the action. We scurry up to the second-highest ledge, but it’s not easy. As we stand looking down at the bluish-green waters, gathering our courage, a towheaded 6-year-old climbs past us, throws his neon PFD and jumps with reckless abandon.

“This kid is like a Billy goat,” laughs Mark, before uncorking a back flip of his own.

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After being in the desert for over 24 hours, I’ve only just touched sand. And not the rust-colored stuff that coats the dunes and flecks the rugged mountains that rise above the river, giving one the impression of boating on Mars. The sand on this sandbar looks and feels all Hollywood, as if it’s been shipped here from the Caribbean.

We’ve beached the 33 so Wes, the photographer, can snap some pictures. We’re sharing prime real estate with other boaters, and the infatuated looks quickly turn into introductions.

“I had to come over and admire your boat. She is gorgeous,” says an older gentleman wearing a Titleist hat.

“You boys out of Florida?” asks another, with slicked-back gray hair.

“We’re southern California guys,” says Barrett. “We build ’em in Adelanto, by Victorville.”

Cards are exchanged; new customers potentially made. As we give our salutations, pushing the 33 off the sandbar like football players hitting a sled, the words of the gentleman in the Titleist hat still echo in my head. “I’ve had a place in Havasu Landing for forty years,” he had said. “Like I always say, everything has changed and nothing has changed.”

As we’re leaving, Wes laughs. “If only this boat attracted women like it does middle-aged men, we’d be all set.”

In the distance, a thunderhead rises menacingly. It dawns on me: I’ve stopped worrying about my phone—stopped worrying, really, about things in general. Without taking pictures or video, or getting lost in the confines of a screen, or worrying about hashtags, or flicking through other people’s digital lives, I’m starting to process things the old-fashioned way—with memory’s faulty, imprecise but perfect gaze. I should feel anxious. Instead, looking up at the storm’s wire-like lightning bolts from the boat’s forward sunpad, I feel free.

“You can’t mess with Mother Nature out here. She’ll bite you,” says Barrett. “Out here, you can see it coming, but unless you have a fast boat, you can’t outrun it.”

But we do have a fast boat, so we press our luck. Coming back in, we’re the last boat on the water, and I wonder if someone high above us is taking note of our return journey. If they were, they’d see a colorful array illuminating the dark river, the interior lights flashing a kaleidoscope of colors, music blaring. The desert encroaching in every direction. We’re pushing a top hop of 46 knots as the thunderhead rises in the distance, threatening to pelt us in a biblical downpour. The hot air punishing our faces as the Rum Runners work their magic. If this is hell, I don’t care to see heaven.

This article originally appeared in Outboard magazine.

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