The Baja Bash

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The Bash is a 950-mile run up the wild and desolate Pacific Coast of Baja.

Described by some veterans of Mexico as the Baja Bash, it starts in Cabo San Lucas and ends in San Diego. The compass heading is generally northwest. And now the bad news: Consistently strong winds, large swells, and a nasty surface chop are nearly always directly out of the northwest. If your timing is wrong, the northbound trip can be 950 miles of constant bashing into head seas and strong winds.

Normal afternoon wind speeds on the outside of the peninsula during winter and spring are between 20 and 25 knots, though 30 to 35 knots is not considered unusual. It can be a rough and tiring trip for a crew and hard on a boat. Equipment breaks, hatches leak, and boats have been lost doing the Bash. It's not Cape Horn, but it can get ugly.

After spending nearly four years in Mexico and Central America, my wife, Judy, and I dreaded making this final run up the coast to return home. I listened to all of the horror stories and then began looking for an alternative to heading the boat north.

We discovered there were several ways to avoid the Bash.

Some cruisers have their boats trucked from San Carlos, in the north end of the Sea of Cortez, to San Diego.I considered the option,but Gracias, our 38-foot DeFever trawler, was too tall for a truck, and the $5,000 price tag was a bit high.

Another possibility is to have a delivery skipper take the boat north.This, too, can be expensive, and we didn't like the idea of someone else running our boat.

Also as an alternative, we could simply leave Gracias in the Sea of Cortez and never take her north. A surprising number of boat owners do just that, but this clearly would not have worked for us. We also considered selling the boat in Mexico-it was about time to replace Gracias with something a little larger-but that created a whole new set of problems we preferred to avoid.

We finally decided to "bite the bullet,""earn our spurs,""do the wild thing," and take the boat north ourselves. We began researching the best way to avoid an unpleasant trip.

We questioned as many old-timers as we could, studied weather patterns, reviewed the pilot charts, and finally purchased an excellent tome called "The Baja Bash" written by Jim Elfers. If you plan to do the Bash, I recommend Jim's book. He goes into great detail about the unique weather patterns associated with the Baja Peninsula and traveling tactics, especially for sailboats. And he has mucho experience making this run. We discovered the trip north doesn't have to be a bash-it can be fun.

Timing

We learned that timing was critical and tactics important if we were going to turn an ordeal into a pleasant, uneventful passage. Timing is probably the single biggest factor in avoiding bad weather. To miss the Bash, don't go north in the winter or spring. This is when the northwesterly winds are at their peak along the Baja coast. And we wouldn't consider leaving Cabo during mid- to late August, September, or October, because tropical storms and hurricanes develop regularly along the Mexican mainland. These mid- to lateseason hurricanes are especially dangerous, as they are more likely to come inland along the Baja Peninsula.

Early summer and late fall provide the most benign weather for this passage. July, early November, and all of December are considered by many to be the best times to go north, as early morning winds tend to be light, and the northwest swell can be fairly flat. But you need to keep looking for those low pressure systems-late-season hurricanes are not typical, but they do occur. Flat seas and mild morning winds are fairly normal for that time of year, and air temperatures are comfortable.

However, depending upon your tactics, there is one problem with traveling north after November 1: Lobster season has begun along the Mexican coast, and most of the anchorages are strewn with buoys that mark traps and gillnets.

If you plan to run north without stopping at any of the anchorages, stay offshore 10 to 20 miles and the buoys and nets won't be a problem. You won't, however, be able to hide from the afternoon winds by scooting into a protected anchorage.

A friend who is a commercial fisherman recently made the run by himself from Cabo to San Diego in three-and-a-half days without stopping! That's not my kind of trip, but boats with adequate fuel and at least a three-person crew can usually make a nonstop run during July, November, or December and experience few weather problems.

There is danger with a July departure: potential hurricanes, and they can be a big problem. The eastern Pacific hurricane season officially begins June 1 and ends November 1. Some experienced cruisers, with good justification, would never consider traveling through hurricane territory in a slow boat during storm season. In fact, many insurance companies will not cover boats that remain in the eastern Pacific hurricane belt from June through October. So why even consider a July departure?

Typically, the eastern Pacific hurricane season doesn't begin until early August and reaches its peak during September and October. Most of the early season hurricanes-those that develop during June and July-start as low-pressure systems in the Gulf of Tehuantepec (in Southern Mexico), slowly form into hurricanes, and end up heading west away from land. These early hurricanes generally are not a problem for coastal cruisers; however, there are no guarantees, and there always is some risk in starting the trip in July.

We decided to leave Cabo San Lucas on July 20, 2000, anyway.

Risk

We believed the best way to minimize risk while traveling during the beginning of hurricane season was to listen carefully to weather reports on the Ham radio or pull wind and surface analysis reports from our weather fax. Our preference was to listen to the radio. The Chubasco Net, found at 7.294 MHz, provides a daily weather report that generally is quite accurate. The forecasters are all amateurs, but they are surprisingly good. If a low-pressure system is brewing anywhere along the Mexican coast-and that's exactly what the forecaster looks for-it means don't head north! It's that simple.

There are several other advantages to checking in daily with the net. The controllers unofficially track your progress up the coast. If two or three days go by and they have not heard from one of the northbound boats, they are likely to broadcast a "health and welfare" inquiry to other cruisers.

It's no big deal and no one begins a search, but concern is heightened and fellow cruisers start looking carefully in all of the anchorages for the silent boat. Checking in daily also allows you to listen and talk to a friendly audience; it was reassuring for us to hear friends advise and provide encouragement.

Tactics

We preferred taking 12 to 14 days to complete the passage and planned on stopping almost every afternoon at an anchorage. Winds along the Baja coast generally come up around 1100 and develop fully between 1300 and nightfall. We tried to be at anchor no later than 1400 to avoid those strong afternoon winds. Unfortunately, because of the distances between anchorages, it is usually necessary to leave an anchorage between 0100 and 0300 in order to be secure at the next stop before the strong afternoon winds kick in. The good thing about an early morning departure, even though it is dark, is that the wind usually has stopped and any lumpy seas have settled down.

If making the trip north in mid- or late July and planning to anchor most nights, the lobster buoys won't be a problem. However, a November departure date with nightly stops means that it may take an extra hour or so to get out of a dark anchorage because of the buoys. We think it's a good idea to note the location of any nets or buoys when entering an anchorage so they can be avoided when leaving in the dark.

The first thing I do after dropping the anchor is to plot our course out of the anchorage while I can still view any obstructions and the exit route is fresh in my mind. It goes without saying that you need accurate paper charts to make this run, or any coastal run, even with a fancy chart plotter and a good GPS.

As you can see, the ideal northbound weather window is short, but the likelihood of light winds and flat seas makes it a fun and rewarding trip.

Stops and Hurdles Along The Way

The first major problem after leaving Cabo San Lucas is Cabo Falso. It is only six miles from the arch at Cabo San Lucas, but strong winds caused by the cape effect can make this the most difficult leg of the trip. These winds can blow steadily as far as 40 miles north of the cape. Our first attempt to break through Falso failed. After rounding the arch in Cabo at 0500, we were immediately blasted with 30-knot winds that damaged our Bimini top. We turned around and waited two days for our next attempt.

The second try was a piece of cake. We had flat seas and virtually no wind for the next 170 miles. There are no anchorages between Cabo San Lucas and Magdalina Bay, a distance of 150 miles, so this can be a long and arduous passage. Because of good weather, we elected to bypass Mag Bay and continued 20 miles up the coast to our first anchorage, Santa Maria.

After leaving Santa Maria, the distance between anchorages begins to shorten; our next stop was San Juanico, which is a 90-mile run. After San Juanico most of the daily trips are between 50 and 60 miles. The long passage to the States then can be broken up into more easily managed, shorter segments.

Rest And Fuel

The best all-weather anchorage between Cabo and Ensenada is Turtle Bay. About halfway between Cabo and San Diego, it is the only refueling stop along the central coast. Over the years it has been a reliable source of clean diesel fuel, though somewhat expensive. When taking fuel directly from the rickety pier-generally a tricky Mediterranean mooring procedure-try to station a crew member on the pier next to the pump to monitor the fuel meter. Sometimes the attendant "forgets" to reset it, or he clears the meter before anyone has had a chance to view it, resulting in even higher fuel costs. It has been reported that this is not always an honest mistake, but it can be avoided. We only took on 100 gallons of fuel, so we elected to have it brought out to us in a panga in 50-gallon drums.

Turtle Bay is a good spot to lick your wounds, reprovision, and, if needed, have parts trucked into Mexico from the States.

Cedros and San Benitos Islands

Continuing north, the next hurdle is the infamous north end of Cedros Island. It is not unusual, especially in the winter and spring, to be stranded at Cedros for more than a week waiting for the wind to subside. Even though it's a shorter run and the island provides a great lee for 20 miles, we avoid the lee of Cedros altogether. Our preference is to run from Turtle Bay, outside Cedros, directly to the San Benitos Islands. This, however, is a slightly longer trip, but it allows you to avoid the windswept north end of Cedros and leads into the most interesting anchorage in all of Mexico: the San Benitos Islands.

Marine wildlife at San Benitos, though not unique, is as varied as any place in the world. We have viewed gray whales migrating north and south along the islands, blue whales- nearly 100 feet in length-swimming less than 20 feet from the boat, and orcas hunting seals and sea lions. Bull elephant seals regularly battle on the beach right in front of the anchorage, and fishing for yellowtail, white sea bass, and grouper is outstanding. Commercial fishermen have advised us that great white sharks are fairly common outside the kelp beds, though we have not seen any.

Clear, warm water and mild currents allow spectacular diving and spearfishing at the islands; it seems that nearly every rock is covered by an abalone and every crevasse is packed with lobster. However, no one but local commercial fishermen is allowed to take these succulent critters. The Mexican government has done an excellent job of managing the lobster and abalone fisheries with the aid of these strict rules.

Once you have cleared the north end of Cedros, or in our case the San Benitos Islands, the balance of the trip can be fairly straightforward. The only significant problem area is the run past Sacramento Reef (a very large, rocky reef that has claimed the steamship Sacramento and the sailing vessel Goodwill). Good navigational skills, reliable paper charts, and a good GPS make this an easy location to avoid.

Almost Home

After we ran past Sacramento Reef, we anchored at Isla San Geronimo. Only a few hundred miles south of San Diego, it is a small island 12 miles north of the reef and is an excellent anchorage. One of our cruising guides indicated that Juan Cabrillo anchored at the island in 1542, when he, too, had the pleasure of doing the Bash while exploring the Pacific Coast.

The run from San Geronimo to San Diego usually is uneventful. There are lots of adequate anchorages and no serious obstacles to low you down. My wife and I were surprised at how excited we were as we crossed from Mexico into the United States. However, it was a little sad when we lowered our worn and tattered Mexican flag for the last time. But it sure felt good to be back home!

Sailboats, compared to ocean-going motorboats, generally have a difficult time with the Bash. Most are underpowered, which makes motoring into pounding head seas and stiff winds difficult. The trip up the outside of the Baja Peninsula tends to be a wet, cold, and bumpy ride for sailors. This is usually not the case for seaworthy trawlers. When the wind blows hard and seas build, it's awfully nice to throttle back just a bit, turn on the windshield wipers, and enjoy the trip from a nice, warm, dry steering station.

Maybe that's why trawlers are becoming so popular.

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