North along the Baja coast

Hundreds of sailors follow the lead of the gray whales each fall and migrate from the cooler waters of the North Pacific to the sunny, warm coves, bays, and lagoons of Mexico. With the approach of summer and the hurricane season in Mexico, many of these same sailors must follow the gray whales back north in the spring. And then their boats, which had proved so sturdy and sound on the southbound passage, may sometimes strike these northbound mariners as all too frail for the rough sea.

If you’re one of those planning a round trip to Mexico, you can adopt strategies that won’t speed your boat northward with quite the apparent ease and grace of the whales, but they should shield it and you against the worst of the conditions of the rough North Pacific Ocean. These strategies include waiting for the optimum weather and choosing the optimum route.

The majority of boats making the trip “up the hill” depart from Cabo San Lucas. During the spring months, the size of the northbound group fluctuates, numbering in the dozens one week when a weather window has opened, and shrinking to one or two boats the next. The conversation, whenever these voyagers meet, begins and ends with weather. Everyone waits as long as possible for the optimum weatherlight winds and smooth seas.

The weather along the Pacific Coast of Baja California during the late fall, winter, and spring months features, with a few exceptions, northwest winds. (Not many boats make the trip in either direction during the summer and early fall because of the possibility of hurricanes.) In fact, some insurance companies will not cover boats along the Pacific Coast of Mexico between June 1 and November 1. The prevailing northwest winds can range from light and variable to gale force. In late fall and early winter, days of light and variable winds typically outnumber the days of moderate or strong winds. In late winter and spring, however, moderate to strong winds of 15 to 25 knots predominate. And that sums up the dilemma for voyagers who want to spend a season in Mexico: to avoid the hurricane season, they must head south when light northwest winds are most common and return north when stronger northwest winds are most common. As our young grandson, Jacob, would say, “It’s not fair!”

Substantial waves, typically in the five- to 12-foot range, accompany the prevailing northwest winds that blow down the Baja Coast. And compounding the difficulties for the northbound voyagers is a south-flowing current that can reach one knot in places. So the combined effects of a 20-knot wind, five- to 12-foot seas, and an adverse current make the trip challenging, at best.

Timing a departure

Cabo San Lucas, the primary point of embarkation for boaters heading north, sits in the lee of the Baja Peninsula, basking in the Mexican sunshine. When northbound boaters who’ve enjoyed the warm weather of Mexico for months leave Cabo San Lucas in any weather conditions other than absolute calm, they round Cabo Falsofour miles to the westand immediately experience a different atmosphere. Cooler temperatures, strong winds, and steep waves, and the resulting discomfort, convince many to turn back within an hour after rounding Falso and to watch the weather more carefully before trying again.

There they join the other prospective northbound voyagers waiting for optimum weather. While comfortably tucked in the harbor, all these boaters regularly tap their barometers, logging the readings in order to discern a trend. But, while the barometer is a good place to start, it can’t give the navigators at Cabo San Lucas enough information about the weather up the coast at, say, Bahía Magdalena or Bahía Tortugas. So the nets on ham and SSB radio become the preferred source of information. These netsChubasco, Sonrisa, Baja, Mañana, Pacific Maritime, and othersprovide extensive weather forecasts for the Pacific Coast of Baja. Perhaps even more important, these nets also feature on-the-spot reports from boaters already en route. The navigators on boats a few days’ journey north of Cabo San Lucas have the most helpful information about weather and sea conditions. Navigators waiting at Cabo record these weather reports, attempting to detect another pattern.

With a dedicated weatherfax aboard, voyagers can set their machines on automatic and receive a pre-determined number of weather charts daily. The same charts are available to those who have any one of the “WX” fax programs loaded into the laptop computer, provided, of course, they have an interface cable tying the computer to the HF radio. Comparing these charts over a few days can also give navigators a good idea of weather patterns.

Even excessively optimistic sailors, however, can’t postpone their departures indefinitely while waiting for calm winds and flat seas. Such a wait could take months. A reasonable compromise between ideal conditions (calm seas) and those that are likely (30-plus-knots of wind and 12- to-15-foot seas) is to depart when the forecasters and the evaluation of weather trends predict 15 knots of wind or less.

Choosing the best route

Some voyagers, when contemplating the alternatives to slogging up the coast, choose to sail all the way in two tacks: one long starboard tack of (usually) almost 1,000 miles, and one long port tack to the coastline. One voyager reported he was able to fetch San Francisco using the two-tack plan, but most who use this plan settle for fetching the coast of Southern California.

The drawbacks to this plan are threefold. First, the boat making this trip must go to weather well, an asset claimed by few cruising boats. Second, the time required for a cruising sailboat to make the trip in two tacks, typically 15 days or more, equals or exceeds the time required to motor-sail up the coastline, even with frequent stops to avoid the windier days. And, third, 15 days hard on the wind is more arduous than most navigators or crews are willing to endure. At least those crews that slog up the coast get to stop for some quality rest more nights than they spend underway. For these reasons, few boaters choose to take the two long tacks to get their boats back to San Diego, the first landfall north of the border, wherever their ultimate destinations lie along the Pacific Coast.

Anticipating the passage from Cabo San Lucas to San Diego, an 800-mile voyage to weather, with all its inherent challenges and hazards, intimidates many of us. Perhaps the better way to approach this voyage is to think of it as four separate voyages, each with its specific challenges and rewards.

The first leg for most is the 160- to-180-mile trip from Cabo San Lucas to either Bahía Magdalena or Bahía Santa Maria. Because the crew has been relaxing and sailing in the warm, calm conditions that typify Mexican waters beyond Cabo, the now unfamiliar cold weather, uncomfortable motion, and wet clothingand everything else wet above and below deckmake this first leg sometimes the most difficult of the four.

Those departing Cabo San Lucas for points north will typically face the first challenge within an hour after departing Cabo San Lucas: rounding Cabo Falso, four miles to the west. Cabo Falso can be compared to Point Conception on the California coast, west of Santa Barbara. The wind and sea conditions resulting from the almost 90° turn to the east that the coastline takes at these two points can be ferocious in anything but calm weather. Therefore, the preferred strategy is to depart Cabo San Lucas at any hour that enables you to round Falso before dawn.

In fact, though, we recommend rounding Falso at whatever time of night required to assure your arrival before noon at Punta Redonda, at the southern end of the entrance into Bahía Magdalena. With this timing, you can make the potentially difficult 22-mile passage between Punta Tosca and Punta Redonda before the typical afternoon build-up of the winds and seas. If you’ve had light winds after passing Falso, you will perhaps have navigated a course straight from Falso to a point two miles west of Redonda. But in the more likely event that you’ve hugged the coast to gain some protection, you must turn directly into the prevailing wind between Punta Tosca and Punta Redonda.

To predict with any accuracy the duration of a passage to weather, in somewhat uncertain wind strength and wave height, you’ll need to know how your boat performs in most weather conditions. Assuming 15-knot northwest winds, most cruising sailboats would average about five knots. If your boat’s speed is near this average, allow about 32 hours for the 160 miles to Bahía Magdalena. Therefore, rounding Cabo Falso at 0300 should get you to Punta Redonda at 1100 the following day.

Normally, before rounding Falso, sailboats going north along this stretch of Baja’s Pacific Coast hoist the mainsail only (ketch-rigged boats usually hoist the mizzen, too) and motor-sail all the way. Although the wind is not often westerly enough to add much push from the sails, they help to steady the boat.

You can decide whether to stop at Bahía Magdalena or to go on to Bahía Santa Maria when you arrive at Punta Redonda. We based our decision on the weather first and then on our desire to spend some time inside Bahía Magdalena, surely one of the most inviting destinations on the Pacific Coast of Baja. Small villages filled with friendly people, protected anchorages, abundant and varied wildlife (including the possibility of a few remaining gray whales that haven’t begun their northward migration), and the availability of fuel and supplies are among the reasons we’ve stopped in this bay all three times we’ve voyaged along this coast.

On our visit to Puerto Magdalena (pop. 300) in March of this year, José, the proprietor of Restaurante Miramar, was serving inexpensive lobster and halibut meals. More than the food attracts boaters to the Miramar, however. José also keeps drums of diesel and gasoline on hand for boaters whose tanks are low, and he will deliver items such as ice and bottled water from Puerto San Carlos.

But if winds are light and the seas relatively flat, most northbound boaters consider going on to Bahía Santa Maria to get a night’s rest before starting out on the second leg. Those having any restrictions of time on this northbound passage can scarcely afford to squander good weather windows. Although Santa Maria has no villages, and thus no supplies, it has the same wildlife as Magdalena and is a well-protected and exceptionally beautiful anchorage.

Establishing a rhythm

After completing this first leg, you’ll undoubtedly find the second leg, the approximately 230 miles from Bahía Magdalena or Bahía Santa Maria to Bahía Tortugas (Turtle Bay), easier. By this time the crew has become comfortable with the motion of a boat going to weather and has settled into the routine. This leg is often easier, too, because it allows for greater flexibility; unlike the first segment, between Cabo and Magdalena, where no intermediate stops are available, this leg offers the option of several overnight stops.

Despite this option, when the winds are light and the seas relatively flat, most northbound voyagers, still reluctant to squander good weather, go straight from Cabo San Lázaro, four miles northwest of Bahía Santa Maria, to Bahía Tortugas. Because of the distance, these boats generally depart from anchorage sometime after dawn, perhaps even mid-morning. If good weather holds, they arrive at Tortugas during the morning two days later.

When winds begin to blow briskly out of the northwest, however, these voyagers typically fall off to avoid the continuous pounding straight upwind. Depending on how far beyond Cabo San Lázaro they are when they decide to fall off, they can make landfall at Asunción, San Hipólito, Abreojos, or San Juanico. On our last northbound trip, we stopped at Hipólito after a passage that had become increasingly uncomfortable as we pushed onward.

Other northbound voyagers with the leisure to do so avoid overnight passages altogether when other options are available. For those in this group, the favored route is to spend a day or more at each of the bays of San Juanico, Abreojos, San Hipólito, and Asunción. By rounding Cabo San Lázaro perhaps as early as 0300, you can complete the 85-mile trip to San Juanico on the same day, thereby avoiding the two-overnight passage necessary for those going directly from Lázaro to Tortugas. After San Juanico, the course is close to the shoreline, where you can gain some protection from the northwest winds and benefit from the flatter seas. This option has another advantage; stopping to sample the delights of the small villages in each of these bays.

This route requires that navigators consider two particular hazards. First, we encountered a significant easterly set when we made the southbound passage from San Juanico to Lázaro some years ago. The rusting hulks of ships that have gone aground along this coast suggest that others have discovered this same set. And then, too, boaters must watch carefully to avoid encounters with the rocks and reefs offshore of the entrance into Abreojos. (Significantly, the name “Abreojos” means, “Open your eyes!”)

This route from Lázaro to Tortugas via San Juanico, Abreojos, Hipólito, and Asunción requires twice as much time as does the route straight from Lázaro to Tortugasa minimum of four days and possibly much longer if you misjudge the duration of the weather window. For those with the time, however, it can be a far more comfortable and entertaining trip.

On either route, begin to watch for kelp as you near Tortugas, for it grows all along the coast from about this point north. Not only do you want to avoid entangling it in your prop or sucking it into your seawater intake and plugging the filter, but you’ll want to steer clear of the rocks and sea mounts that beds of kelp often signal, not all of which will be deeper than your keel.

Halfway home

Bahía Tortugas, generally considered the halfway point on the northbound bash, is a favorite destination of voyagers along the Baja coast. Alive and bustling, the town provides fuel, provisions, two good restaurants, a telephone service, boat parts and repairs, and a community that welcomes visiting boaters. A panga and driver from Gordo’s (Fatso’s) marine service will deliver fuel, water, or ice to your boat.

Our recent visit coincided with the town’s five-day celebration of Carnaval, and many of the townspeople we met in stores and restaurants urged us and the crews of the four other sailboats anchored in the bay to participate in the community festivities, which ended each day with a dance under the outdoor pavilion of the community hall. Wherever we went in town the day after dancing the night away, local residents we had met greeted us warmly and encouraged us to return again.

After resting up and enjoying the pleasures afforded by Bahía Tortugas, voyagers must then tackle the third leg to San Quintín, a distance of about 180 miles. Like the second leg, this one offers some options. The first part of the passage is the easiest if approached in one of two ways. The most popular approach is to round Punta Eugenia and head directly for the protection of Cedros Island, 29 miles northwest, stopping at the anchorage near the northeast corner to wait for good weather before making the remainder of the run. Sometimes the anchorage gets crowded, so newcomers may have to return to one of the marginal anchorages farther south along the eastern shore of Cedros.

Knowing that anchorages along the east side of Cedros often fill up, you may go up the west side of the island instead and stop at Islas San Benito. These three remote islands 20 miles west of Cedros offer anchorages that rarely have any other boats in them, and from San Benito you’ll have a slightly better angle when proceeding northward toward San Quintín. Most of us who’ve stopped at Benito have found much to do and see there. The elephant seals, in one of the largest rookeries along the Pacific Coast, exhibit little fear of people and continue to loll about, flip sand over their backs, and use their trunk-like snouts to push one another out of a better looking piece of sand. They generally ignore the intruders. Several structures, including a small chapel, line the cove on the west island, some of the former dwellings used seasonally as fish camps. For a good hike, the switchback trail used by donkeys that carried oil to the old lighthouse leads up to an increasingly spectacular view of the islands. You may have to share the trail with the remaining feral donkeys.

From the north end of either Cedros or Benito, voyagers must cross Bahía Sebastián Vizcaíno, considered by experienced navigators of the Pacific Coast of Baja to be the roughest water of the entire passage, where most boats do indeed seem frail. When winds are light and seas reasonably flat, the best advice is to make a direct run to San Quintín, about 130 miles. If you don’t find light winds and can’t wait for better than marginal conditions, however, you can run for the coast, about 80 miles from either Isla Cedros or Islas San Benito, and tuck in at the anchorage in the lee of Punta San Carlos. Leaving Cedros or Benito at midnight, you should arrive at San Carlos shortly after midday, before the winds and seas have built. Not an ideal anchorage, Fondeadero San Carlos does nevertheless protect from the winds veering down the coast.

After you’ve rested for a night at San Carlos, the best strategy is to get underway about dawn, pass Sacramento Reef and Isla San Jerónimo before noon, and be anchored at Bahía San Quintín well before dark. (Because Sacramento Reef is almost impossible to see, most northbound voyagers pass at least two miles to the west of it.) The anchorage behind Cabo San Quintín is well protected even in winds of 30 knots, although waves do occasionally wrap around the point and set anchored boats to rolling. When we anchored there recently, 25-knot winds blew far into the night, but the boat motion was comfortable, and our anchor held well.

Pressing for San Diego

The last leg, the 160 miles from San Quintín to San Diego, is normally the easiest of the four, with lighter winds and calmer seas, although the only certain rule concerning the weather along the Baja Coast is its uncertainty. If you aren’t in a rush when you depart from San Quintín, you can stop at Punta Colnett, 40 miles to the north, and enjoy sitting below the splendid, nearly vertical cliffs, striated in patterns of yellows, reds, and browns, that protect the anchored boats there. From Colnett to Ensenada is a good day’s run of slightly more than 60 miles. Then for the last day’s run, another 60-mile passage, depart Ensenada well before dawn to get into the customs dock in San Diego before quitting time or at least before dark.

The total time for making this passage from Cabo San Lucas to San Diego varies widely from voyager to voyager, depending on weather and the inclination of the crew to savor the anchorages and villages along the route. Racing boat crews with a favorable weather window may make the trip in as little as five days, though that time is rare. One voyager we know made the trip aboard a heavy 38-foot cutter in slightly more than six days, motor-sailing non-stop except for a two-hour fuel break at Bahía Tortugas. But most sailors we know who’ve made this passage have considered a 12- to-15-day trip a job well done.

Despite its potential for rough seas that may cause you to reflect on the frailty of you and your boat, and despite the fact that few but the most well-armored of sailors express much enthusiasm for making it, the voyage north from Cabo San Lucas to San Diego does have its merits. Though you may not always be in the right state of mind to appreciate it, the Baja coastline has the same striking contrast of chamois-colored sand beaches and sienna-, yellow-, and buff-colored sawtooth mountains that impressed you on your way south. Sunrises over those mountains are splendid displays of coral and pink clouds (we won’t say “red skies at morning,” for we don’t want to spook you), minutes before the brilliant red globe appears. Sunsets over the Pacific are often even more splendid. Gray whales glide by almost daily, sometimes identifiable only by the bursts of spray off toward the horizon, at other times close enough for you to see the barnacles on their heads and backs. Schools of spinner, Pacific white-sided, and common dolphins hurry past or else stop to gambol in the bow wave of your boat.

But if you’re unable to take much aesthetic pleasure in this rough passage, at least you’ll have the satisfaction of having proved, with your safe arrival in San Diego, that both you and your boat are strong enough to have completed the voyage north along the Baja coast.

Carolyn and Bob Mehaffy are the authors of Cruising Guide to the Hawaiian Islands, published by Paradise Cay Publications.

By Ocean Navigator