Cruising Mexico's Sea Of Cortez

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All cruisers need to be self-sufficient. Those bound for Mexico’s Sea of Cortez need advanced degrees in self-sufficiency.

Available navigation charts are not the best. The Mexican government doesn’t broadcast weather forecasts and sea conditions over VHF radio, as do agencies in the United States and Canada.

There is no Mexican coast guard listening on Channel 16 in case you get into a jam or run out of fuel. There’s not much fresh water, and some of it may not go down well, and fuel docks, grocery stores, and mechanical help are scarce and scattered.

The beauty of the sea, its islands, and shoreline is so compelling that boaters come in droves and most are self-sufficient. Sailboats probably were the first, but motoryachts now routinely make the long haul down the Pacific Coast of Baja California, around the capes on the south end and into the Sea of Cortez. There’ll probably be an unusually large fleet of power craft exploring the sea late this fall after the second FUBAR rally out of San Diego ends in La Paz. It’s high adventure and good times.

I’ve been on the Sea of Cortez in November cruises a year apart and would return for wonderful weather—85 to 90°F, lots of sun, a refreshing sea breeze, and the hurricane season has ended—as well as for snorkeling, kayaking, fishing, and exploring the rocky spine of Baja California that looks barren but teems with interesting plant and animal life.

Getting there requires a sound craft, fine seamanship, and an open calendar. Surviving there demands self-confidence, self-reliance, innovation, a willingness to help others and to be helped when necessary, and a boatload of spares.

Even with my limited Baja experience, the need for boater self-sufficiency may be more important in Mexico than in my home cruising waters along the Inside Passage because of isolation, limited communications, the lack of shore facilities (except for La Paz), and the absence of organized weather reporting and emergency response.

Boaters in Mexican waters need to be superbly capable, able to navigate safely despite outdated and sometimes erroneous charts, and possess a keen sense for changing weather and the ability to fix things. Those I met fit the bill.

One is Bill Lee, a San Diego engineer, technician, and mechanic, who bought a basket-case 1960-vintage Romsdal 65 North Sea trawler nearly 20 years ago and with imagination, unimaginable hard work, and a lot of cash created a fine ocean-cruising yacht, Ocean Quest. As a liveaboard in La Paz, he shares his knowledge and skills with fellow boaters on the Sea of Cortez and is sort of a Mr. Fixit, especially for that most important cruising accessory in Baja—a watermaker. (Watch for a feature on Bill and Ocean Quest in a coming issue of PassageMaker Magazine.)

On my most recent November vacation I was a guest aboard another North Sea trawler, Ursa Major, a 65-foot Malahide that offers charter service in the Sea of Cortez in the winter and in Southeast Alaska in the summer. She and Ocean Quest cruised up the Baja coast together and the morning after we returned to our moorage in La Paz there was a lineup of boaters waiting for Bill to finish breakfast. Six had problems with watermakers and were seeking his advice, help, and parts.

Favors are repaid. On the day we were to leave for Isla Espirito Santo, the hydraulic device that controls Ocean Quest’s variable pitch propeller would shift into reverse, but not into forward. Bill decided the hydraulic mechanism needed to be removed. Josh Haury and Jon Love, crew from Ursa Major, volunteered to spend the day with Bill fishing the 200-pound piece of machinery from deep in the bilge below the master stateroom.

Later, they helped return it to its proper place, ending 14 hours of labor. And it worked—Ocean Quest went cruising the next day without a problem. I suspect there is no one in Baja California who could diagnose and haul that piece of original equipment built by Ulstein in Europe nearly 50 years ago.

Hurricanes usually are not a threat in late winter in the Sea of Cortez. But what about the every-day kind of weather forecasting, from daily temps to the strength of the northerlies that blow in the winter? There are many options.

When I cruise the Inside Passage my morning ritual seldom changes. I first switch on the VHF radio and dial in the appropriate channel for weather forecasts and conditions from NOAA in the U.S. or Environment Canada in British Columbia. And then I start heating coffee water.

The coffee ritual is not threatened in the Sea of Cortez, but there is nobody talking on what we know as weather channels. There are no government forecasts or condition reports available to recreational boaters. At home, we appreciate the presence of Coast Guard stations in the U.S. and Canada and their around-the-clock response to emergencies on VHF 16. That, too, won’t be found in Mexican waters.

But the basics for weather forecasting are available, particularly for boaters in La Paz marinas with internet connections. There are many websites offering online weather forecasts.

Anyone with a computer and internet access can check Weather Underground (wunderground.com) for long-range forecasts in the Sea of Cortez.

Internet weather reports also are available from buoyweather.com. Its forecasts include wind velocity and wave height. Much is available freely; subscribers may get more detail. This site also color codes forecasts: green flags mean conditions are good for cruising; yellow means the same as small craft advisories, and red is a warning of hazardous weather conditions. A sailing friend who has cruised the globe praises buoyweather.com.

Other forecasting websites I found include intellicast.com and weather.com.

These forecasting groups offer international weather reports, so boaters may look at what’s happening at home while they are cruising. I also know boaters who use those internet reports to supplement weather information available over VHF radio while cruising in U.S. and Canadian waters.

Winter winds on the Sea of Cortez are affected by weather conditions in the Gulf of Alaska and northerlies are common. Seas generated by northerlies of 20 to 30 knots often are sizeable and of a “short period,” as buoyweather.com describes them. They are steep and square, as we discovered one day.

But what if you’re in a quiet little harbor far from busy marinas? Then it’s time to check radio nets for weather info.

Forecasts based on some of the internet services and supplemented by local experience and knowledge are broadcast daily on VHF and high frequency SSB radio nets in the Sea of Cortez for those beyond internet connections. I listened to an amateur forecast on VHF Channel 22. (It was correct in forecasting strong northerlies, but winds arrived a couple of days earlier than predicted, thus introducing us to brutal short-period waves that kept the two big yachts from going as far north as planned.)

Cruisers use the radio nets to discuss and report local weather conditions and to give reports covering many topics of value to cruisers. VHF net, dubbed the paranoia channel by some amused listeners, offers cruisers a chance to rant about government back home.

I asked how cruisers handled emergencies at seas. Usually, other boaters, fishermen, and commercial vessels respond to distress calls. Occasionally, I’m told, the Mexican navy may lend a hand. On one occasion that was mentioned the owner of a large private yacht dispatched a personal helicopter to evacuate an ailing boater. La Paz has several hospitals and clinics and is the place to go with health problems.

La Paz is a busy community with several good marinas, boatyards, a fuel dock, mechanics and electricians, and OK water. But in the increasingly popular cruising waters north of La Paz, you’re on your own, although the town of Loreto has some limited services.

Charts for the Sea of Cortez are based on old surveys and may have errors of up to a mile. Computer navigation systems using GPS data may suggest a boat is high and dry on the beach while it’s still in deep water. Local knowledge is invaluable and is readily shared. Josh, skipper of Ursa Major, draws his own charts of favorite harbors, with depths precisely noted. The Moorings, which charters sail and power cat boats out of La Paz, has produced cruising charts for its customers.

Guidebooks provide chartlets of harbors, appropriately marking them “not for navigation.” The newest is Sea of Cortez, A Cruiser’s Guidebook, written and published by Shawn Breeding and Heather Bansmer. They have cruised Mexican waters since 2003 aboard their cutter-rigged Westsail 32 and share their knowledge and experiences in the book ($49.95 from bluelatitudepress.com). Their chartlets are based on U.S. charts and are GPS accurate and incorporate information from satellite photography, aerial photos, Shuttle Radar Topography Mission data, Mexican topographic maps, and their personal observations. Depths shown on the chartlets are based on their surveys. I suspect they get wide use for navigation within harbors.

My interest in cruising among the islands north of La Paz grew from attending a lecture there more than a year ago by Pat Rains, a veteran Mexico hand (as is her husband, John). Author of Mexico Boating Guide, Pat began chipping away at my belief that Mexico was too hot, too dirty, and primitive and she painted a glamorous image of island cruising in the Sea of Cortez. She made it sound something like my San Juan Islands, less the big crowds and Bayliners.

And that made me dash for the airport when Joyce Gauthier, owner of Ursa Major, invited me aboard for a pre-season cruise with friends.

Cruising is good on the Sea of Cortez. Winter weather is bone warming, even when the wind blows, and the rocky landscape is every bit as stunning as the trees and mountains we grow up north. But come prepared.

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