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Old 05-14-2001
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Liza Copeland is on a distinguished road
Cruising Baja


Stark scenery and stocked chandleries are usually mutually exclusive. A cruising vessel and her crew visiting remote areas should  have plenty of spare parts and the accompanying mechanical know-how before setting off.
Stark but stunning, Mexico's Baja Penisula is the first taste of foreign cruising for several hundred boaters headed south every fall. We have always loved our many visits to Mexico. Although part of the North American continent, it is Latin American in lifestyle, language, and heritage. An enchanting blend of colonial Spanish with ancient Indian civilizations gives rise to distinctive regional cultures that have their own architecture, cuisine, music, dance, arts and crafts.

For most sailors this contrast of cultures is also fascinating, and a fundamental part of the adventure of offshore cruising. For those without travel experience, however, the differences can be intimidating and we found that several cruisers in San Diego were apprehensive about sailing south. Their anxiety was heightened by the shortage of boating amenities including a lack of  Coast Guard for rescue along the coast, fewer weather forecasts and marinas, poor charts, questionable water quality, a different language, and a lack of well-stocked marine stores and familiar products in food stores.

When these cruisers ‘took the plunge' and headed south, however, many were relieved to find few of their fears were realized. They had ignored the fact that Baja California with its desirable weather, endless white-sand beaches, abundant sea life and proximity to the United States has long been a busy tourist destination. With an increasing number of boats heading south from California each winter (over 1,000 made the trek this year), officialdom ashore has been streamlined and facilities for crusing boats have been improved. Within the large cruising community there are endless resources, and if there is a problem with the boat there is usually someone close-by who can sort it out. The many radio nets that operate throughout the day are a further source of advice; several also have weather buffs, who broadcast the latest forecast received via their hi-tech on-board electronics.


The Sea of Cortez also offers idyllic anchorages. While the numbers of cruisers visiting the region are on the rise, there's always a way to get off the beaten track.
The 710-mile voyage from San Diego to Cabo San Lucas was, as usual, a relaxed trip. It is possible to daysail the length of Baja Pacific coast, with the exception of the last 150-mile leg from Magdalena Bay. The prevailing winds from fall to spring are northwesterlies, which, combined with the favorable current, give a comfortable ride when heading south. In contrast, the bumpy passage for boats northbound has been named the Baja Bash. For those not inclined to sail to weather, it is now possible to sail north in the Sea of Cortez and have your vessel trucked back to the States from Bahia San Carlos.

Cruisers tend not to head down to the Baja until November, and most return by May, to avoid the hurricane season that lasts from June to October. Winds are generally benign although Chubascos—fierce local winds of short duration—can occur in the fall in the southern Baja.

Just 65 miles south of San Diego is Ensenada, Mexico's first Port of Entry, an easy day's run for most boats. Boats must clear in with the Port Captain's office (Capitania de Puerto), Immigration (Migracion) and the Customs Office (Aduana), or have an agent complete the paperwork for a fee. It is also advisable to complete the paperwork for the temporary importation of your boat into Mexico, which lasts for 20 years. Without this it can be hard to arrange for the boat to be hauled out or have yard work completed.

"Learning the terms ‘thank you,' ‘please,' ‘good day,' ‘how much,' ‘where is,' and ‘goodbye ' as well as the numbers from one through 10, is a good practice in any country."
Crews are welcomed with Mexican charm, although, as with officials the world over, being respectful in one's manner and dress never hurts. Many Mexicans speak English, but knowing some Spanish is useful, as well as courteous, and will get a positive response from the locals. Learning  ‘thank you,' ‘please,'  ‘good day,' ‘how much,' ‘where is,'  and ‘goodbye ' as well as the numbers from one through 10, is worthwhile in any country.

Ensenada is the first stop along this coast, a fishing and commercial port with a mouthwatering fish market, great restaurants, classic architecture, pottery galore and large supermarkets, and where you can pick up anything you forget to purchase before leaving the States! It is also the center of Baja's wine industry, but if you are a connoisseur, stocking up before you leave the US might suit your palate better. We stick to the delicious local beer or Margaritas.

Having cruised the coast on  80-foot Mustang two years before, we decided on a direct passage from Ensenada to Cabo San Lucas this time in our Beneteau First 38 Bagheera. As usual it took a couple of days to get into the routine of three hours on watch, three to sleep. We had become spoiled with our sons Duncan and Richard crewing on board, and their absence took some getting used to.


For southbound cruisers, overnight sails offer a premium opportunity to watch the sunrise.
"It isn't just the sleep I miss," I moaned to Andy. "It's easy to get back into the three-hour routine we did around the world; it's the company, noise and action!"

"Remember when you were teaching school every morning to the boys when they were young, while everyone else was visiting or going ashore. Now you will have that freedom," countered Andy.

He was right, but although it had been busy I had enjoyed the school routine with the kids and their enthusiasm for life. It would take me a while to get used to cruising with just the two of us on board and I was heartened by the fact that all three sons would be visiting for Christmas. I was soon back on form. Passage blues are common, but mine seldom last for long.

It was an enjoyable but chilly sail to within a day of Cabo when the wind died and we resorted to motoring. The full moon and bright sky were pleasant for night watches and for tracking the surprising amount of shipping.

‘What an easy run,' I noted in my journal on the third day out. ‘Washed chart-table cushions, marinated steak, had a great sleep, caught a tuna while Andy showered on deck and finished The Perfect Storm.' (A friend had thought this would make good reading on passage!)

En route we passed close to mountainous Isla Cedros, a favorite stop for cruisers with its variety of anchorages, unspoiled village, unusual flora and the endangered Cedros mule deer. Circular and protected Turtle Bay, Bahia San Bartolomé was next; this was where we had filled with fuel at the long dock and stocked up on groceries on our last trip. Then came Magdalena Bay, commonly referred to as ‘Mag Bay' by the yachting fraternity. When we had visited in Mustang in March, we were delighted to find it was filled with breaching, speckled female gray whales and their calves. Cruisers we met later told us that on their visit two weeks previously, before the males had left to go north, there were so many whales frolicking at the entrance they could barely make their way in.

A brilliant red sky highlighted the distant angular hills as we approached Cabo Falso at dawn. When Andy came on deck for his watch, frolicking dolphins surrounded Bagheera. "Wow! This is marvelous," he exclaimed, "and it's much warmer."

"Yes, it's amazing the difference, and right on cue, as we've just entered the Tropics! I remember other cruisers telling us the same thing, but I didn't believe that it could happen this quickly."

"It helps that there's no wind," Andy replied, "but it's mainly because at the Cape the cold current takes a turn out to sea. That also means it won't be helping us along anymore."


The rocks off Cabo San Lucas signal the end of Baja. Not shown is the tequilla-fueled zaniness one finds in ample quantities ashore.
It had been a fast passage down the Baja. Five days after leaving San Diego the famous arch in the rocks off Lands End was in sight. Then Cabo San Lucas came into view, its hotels and condos perched on the arid cliffs and extending around the white-sand bay. It was ‘civilization' with a vengeance. Sports fishing boats were rushing out from the marina; bright parachutes already glided high in the sky pulled along by speedboats.

A tourist town in the extreme, Cabo can be enjoyed for its colorful handicraft markets, regular shopping facilities and availability of American food. If you are in tourist mode a visit to ‘The Giggling Marlin' is a must, where you can hang upside-down with others and be fed tequila. It is just as much fun to be a spectator! We like the back streets where you can still find restaurants and bars that serve delicious inexpensive local food.

Sixty sailboats from the Baja HaHa Rally were anchored out and we motored through them slowly, chatting to several cruisers along the way.

"What are your plans?" we asked them.

"We'll probably spend a season in the Sea of Cortez," most replied. "But right now we've had a long trip and the agenda is to have no agenda!


Suggested Reading:

Entering Foreign Waters by Liza Copeland

The Third Essential by Don Casey

VHF Radio: Usage and Etiquette by Sue and Larry

 

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