Cruising Baja California can be a wonderful experience. Owning a cruising guide or two can be an invaluable resource on your boat during your travels. On the Pacific side, a rugged coastline and a handful of anchorages hide some of the most isolated parts of the peninsula. The inside of Baja offers hundreds of unique and beautiful anchorages along the coast as well as amongst the islands of the Sea of Cortez. A cruising guide can help you discover more of them.
There are few places that can match the Sea of Cortez for usability, beauty, solitude and tranquility. The cruising season starts when the humidity drops and the hurricane threat disappears, about the second week of October. Usually between the 10 and the 15th of October you wake up one morning, and like a switch, the humidity is gone.
October is my favorite time to explore The Sea, as the weather is still warm, but not oppressive and the water temperatures and visibility are still outstanding. Nights become refreshingly cool and we start to get a bit of wind after the stillness of August and September. Exploring the Sea in October also offer the preseason solitude in the popular anchorages
By mid-January, a bulk of the cruising fleet migrates to the mainland where the weather is warmer. The Sea of Cortez experiences 6 to 8 weeks of what you could loosely call winter during that time. The northers blow every time a high-pressure system passes over the four corners region of the United States and when California gets Santa Ana winds. Overnight lows can drop to the upper 40°’s and daytime highs sometimes struggle for the mid 60°’s.
In early March, the second wave of cruisers hits La Paz. Some are just coming down the coast from San Diego, but the bulk of the new arrivals are boats returning from the mainland, where it is already getting warm. From March until the end of April La Paz is bustling with new arrivals every day and the marinas and anchorages near capacity. It is hard to find a Bahia in the southern Sea where you can wake up alone at this time of year.
But around April 15th cruisers in The Sea start to make for home. Some store their boats to return another season in La Paz or San Carlos. Others decide to make “The Bash” home to the US. The swan song for La Paz this year was Bay Fest. Sponsored by Club Cruceros, the event plays to a crowd already thinned by a return to reality. A northward migration of the fleet is centered around Loreto Fest the first week of May. By the end of May, the boating crowd is pretty much down to the year-round residents.
Summer boating on the Sea can be exceptional too. Snorkeling and diving take center stage with visibility often exceeding 100 feet. The fishing is the best of the year too, with catches of marlin, tuna and dorado. Many boaters choose to venture up to Baja de Los Angeles to avoid the hurricane track. But that area can get oppressively hot and experience winds call El Elephantes which can blow to 60kts for short periods of time.
Loreto/Bahia Escondido is another popular summer hangout with a myriad of islands to explore and exceptional fishing. Unfortunately, Hurricane Marty proved that the anchorages there are not sufficiently far enough north to elude tropical cyclones.
From the middle of August to mid-October it’s just plain hot. During that time our humidity soars, winds drop to no more than a breath and water temps reach near 90°F. Full moon sailing is one of my favorites to beat the heat and nighttime is about the only time you can stand it on deck. The full moon graciously lights your way well enough to see dolphins and sea lions swimming through the water along side you. The light sand bluffs of the islands reflect enough light to anchor securely before daylight.
But all of this beauty and adventure is not without its risks. Despite all the comforts of your vessel and advanced electronic navigation, the waters surrounding Baja can still be dangerous and even deadly. It is very important to understand that even the newest electronic charts, of both the Pacific and Sea of Cortez, are inaccurate. Many sounding and positions in The Sea were taken with lead and line by the USS Ranger more than 100 years ago. Even when properly setting you map datum you will find you anchored position corresponds to a point indicated a quarter mile ashore by your charts.
The coastline of Baja is more than 3000 miles with hundreds of bays, anchorage and islands to explore – with more than an equal number of hazards to
navigation. The Mexican government is catching up with marking these reefs, rocks and points but the weight still rests with the skipper of the vessel to avoid these obstacles. For example, it has been in the last two years that a lighted buoy was installed on a semi-submerged rock in Bahia Balandra, a popular anchorage near La Paz, that has tended to claim a boat or two a year.
This past winter at least 7 boats grounded on the approach to La Paz, a majority of them in broad daylight and one boat was a total loss. It is an easy mistake to make if you don’t look at a chart or read a cruising guide. The Ensenada de La Paz would appear to be a broad open waterway as you round Punta Prieta. Nothing could be further from the truth as in fact the channel narrows to about 150 yards at one point. The entrance to the anchorage is so challenging that until the late 1970’s (when range lights were installed) the port was closed to foreign navigation after sunset.
So, with limited navigational lighting, uncharted obstacles and inaccurate charts how does one keep from running aground? First and foremost never rely on your navigational gear, ALWAYS post a watch. This is good seamanship advice no matter where you are boating.
Secondly, learn good navigational practices. Many of our Baja boaters are from Southern California where practically the only navigational hazards are a continent and a hand full of large islands. (yet each year several managed to run aground on the Zuniga Jetty in San Diego) Points are called points for a reason, they stick out into the water – give them a wide berth, and so on. I have already run aground my one time, the first day I owned my boat in San Diego I found the Chula Vista sandbar. I do hope I never do it again, as I have little pity for striking something that has been there as long as land with something as slow as a boat.
And thirdly, buy AND STUDY at least one of the cruising guides for Baja and the Sea of Cortez. There are several guides that are well researched and will provide you the tribal knowledge to avoid a majority of the pitfalls in cruising our region. Myself, I have three of the guides on my boat’s bookshelf. Each offers a different perspective, sometimes including little-known facts or history about the area you are about to explore. The cruising guides are also useful when planning your trip and ports of call, outlining safe anchorages and facilities available onshore.
When we sailed down the coast in 2000, I studied the detailed descriptions and hand drawn charts of every potential anchorage within a day's range. Even today, when I revisit an island or explore a new bay, I consult at least one of my references for the best anchoring location or submerged obstructions. Every member of your crew that might be responsible for piloting the boat should also be aware of navigational challenges that lay ahead. Many of the ports and anchorages are deceptive as well as beautiful, so try and make safe by nightfall.
Boating in Baja can be an experience of a lifetime, but it can also prove deadly. Knowledge of the local waters can help you avoid making stupid or fatal mistakes and provide a higher level of interest in your destination. Buy a cruising guide and read it!
So until we see you out in The Sea – clear skies and fresh winds!