As we enjoy the awesomeness of Emerald Bay at Catalina Island, and having just returned from a great trip “ Bulli “ camping and visiting family in Europe, I have some time to reflect on the “ Baja Bash “. First, a little background. My wife Tanja, dog Noah, and four year old son Mats spent the winter cruising Mexico (you can follow our adventures at tosailornottobe.com), but when it came time to head back north to San Francisco Bay we had decided that Tanja and Mats would skip the portion from Cabo to San Diego. So off they went by plane, and I was joined by my new crew.
I met Reiner (no offshore sailing experience) for the first time in Cabo after he responded to a post I put up on a sailing forum. We had spoken only briefly and he asked few questions, so I liked his style – and being German, he was a shoe-in in Tanja’s book. Matt (very little sailing experience) soon followed, after a quick stop in SF on his way home from college. His hard-as-nails, all around badass Mom had committed him to the trip, and I don’t think he knew what he was in for.
We provisioned, prepped ‘ Alsager ‘ (my 50 year old Dutch built steel sloop) and waited patiently for five days in Cabo while hoping for a break in the weather, as having made the trip in Alsager some years prior and on numerous delivery gigs I knew how critical it is when northbound. After days of 25+, the wind was forecast to stay below 25 and we were tired of waiting, so despite the long term outlook being far from ideal (and after seriously considering heading to Hawaii instead), we decided to go for it…but were mentally prepared to turn tale if necessary. There are a few factors that can make this a tough trip, and account for the fact that a large portion of boats that cruise south never turn around. One is almost certain to have headwinds and adverse currents the entire way, there are long stretches without a safe anchorage (let alone any services), and the sea state can be be very tough due to boxy, short period swell, occasionally from multiple directions. The overwhelming tactic is to wait for a benign weather window, load up with extra diesel, and motor like hell, but this has never been my game. I like sailing and own a boat meant for that. However, experience has taught me that a bit of calm weather allows for time for repairs, and some rest, so I did truly hope for that.
We set out around 6pm after watching the breeze trend down significantly from prior days, with hopes that we would not get hammered rounding Falso at sunset. Departing calm, sunny Cabo in t-shirts had us tempting fate, as soon we were pulling on foulies and plowing into a solid 20+ while motor sailing deep-reefed. We were taking a ton of green water over the boat and did give some thought to turning around, but were making good progress, and I knew that if we pushed through it and made northing quickly we would come out the other side of it and enjoy a reasonably calm night. My rookie crew were not phased, and neither were seasick! It paid off as after a few hours the conditions abated, and we were on our way.
Come the next morning, the breeze built quickly. We killed the engine and thus started a pattern that we would more or less stick to for the duration of the trip. Sail by day, and motorsail by night and around critical headlands when getting past them before late afternoon saved us the worst of local effects – clutch for making the bash as quick and painless as possible. Alsager and her crew held up well, but it was very wet and cold, despite being mid-May with the sun shining. More of a submarine than a boat, we were continuously doused in the cockpit and the only reasonably dry spot was tucked in behind the dodger, where Noah took up residence. I wore two sets of foulies with multiple underlayers, and the offwatch spent most time below decks. We battled for 48 hours, and pulled into Mag Bay for a much needed rest and drying out. Alsager is normally dry below, but the forepeak was soaked due to a leaking hatch we thought we had dealt with in Cabo, and also through another hatch over the galley. Fortunately were were able to sort both sufficiently, thanks to clearing clogged drains, plumber’s wax, duct tape and sticky-backed Dacron! We had hoped for a restaurant meal but were unsuccessful, but a bonus was topping up our diesel tank at $5/gallon vs the $8/gallon we would later pay in Turtle Bay. It was Reiner’s first stop at an off-the-beaten path, non-gringofied Baja village and he was not impressed…
We checked weather and left around 6pm at night, again hoping for a bit of a calm night, which was not to be. It blew hard and the sea state was big and messy (there was also a large long period south swell in the mix). It was the next day that things were at their worst. We were deep reefed and sailing fast, but we were taking so much water over the boat and into the cockpit that it was pretty uncomfortable and I wondered how long it would be before we had some kind of equipment failure due to salt water ingress somewhere…and just when I was debating heaving to for a while the decision was made for me. An exceptionally large wave hit us hard and broke over the boat, and in that instead the autopilot alarmed and we rounded up. Fortunately I was in the cockpit and was able to grab the wheel, but I was getting fire-hosed VOR style back there and got cold very quickly. With nightfall coming we needed to sort things out, as we still had another 80 miles or so to go until San Juanico (aka Scorpion Bay). I called the guys up, explained heaving to, and we did it. Wow, what a saving grace! No more water over the boat, a dry cockpit, and some time to think.
The thought of hand steering for the remainder of the trip was horrible given the conditions, but I had a feeling I could fix the autopilot once we reached the anchorage (we tried quick fixes while hove-to without success). I rigged the tiller, which gave us two big advantages over the wheel. It allowed one to hide behind the dodger and stay dryish, and it was much easier to rig lines and get Alsager to steer herself efficiently to weather. In fact, this worked so well that even once we later fixed the autopilot, we continued to use this setup under the right conditions. She was much smoother steering to the breeze rather than to a compass course, and it saved batteries so we didn’t need to run the engine just for charging purposes. It was on this night that Matt really came through, learning to hand steer to a compass course on a very black night when we could no longer “ tiller pilot “ due to the fading breeze, and I had reached the point where I could no longer physically keep my eyes open.
We made San Juanico in about 36 hours, and I was very happy to anchor near the catamaran “ Nibi “, aboard which were fellow Canadiens (Quebecois, in fact). This family was intending to spend the entire summer on the West coast of Baja, surfing and windsurfing their favorite spots. Quite new to sailing, they are fearless and commented on how few boats ventured north, or turned their engines off going anywhere for that matter – “ lots of sailboats, not many sailors. “ We had a great night onboard Nibi, sharing some wine, laughs and pizza. This was a real treat for us as these two can really cook, and was a harsh comparison to Spam and eggs, ramen, and pasta onboard Alsager. Reiner commented that he may mutiny and stick with Nibi!
We spent a few days in San Juanico, as going north immediately did not make any sense. The breeze was forecast at 25+, and we needed to rest and get the autopilot working. We cleaned up, enjoyed the warm, calm mornings, and I even managed to get some waves at one of my favourite breaks again. Matt and Reiner spent their days playing cards, Backgammon, and reading, and Matt managed to take in the Warriors games via the AM radio we had on board. This was HUGE for him, as he is a sports fanatic and plans to make a career out of it post college. I had the foresight to carry a spare junction box onboard, and after an hour or so cursing tiny wires and failing eyesight, we were all very happy to have a working autopilot again. Nibi waved us farewell, and I said “ bonn chance “ to a great family living out of the box and out of the “ system “. I hope we meet again one day, and look forward to hearing of their south pacific tales.
The next leg took us to Punta Abreojos, and it was another windy one, but by this point it was becoming pretty routine. We debated carrying on to Asuncion as it was early in the day and we had only been sailing about 36 hours, but I knew the breeze was going to build significantly that afternoon, so we made a tough call and dropped the hook. The surf was large so rather than try a dinghy landing, we rested onboard and watched the breeze. It cranked up to 25 late afternoon, so I was really glad about our choice. The plan was to depart at night when it showed signs of fading, which we did. It was a little unnerving since we had seen a lot of fishing gear in the water on arrival, but luckily we stayed clear. The next afternoon was the first of the trip that I would describe as “ nice “ sailing. Still reefed down and in foulies (with the exception of Reiner who sported his standard “ speedo weather “ attire), but the cockpit was mostly dry as the sea state had mellowed out. We pulled in Turtle Bay, had some dinner, and went to bed.
The next morning we went ashore. We walked the town, and I was struck yet again at how rough it really is there. Being a world away from all of the California money that has impacted a large part of Baja, it is quite a sight, and despite the fun that can be had there during the Haha (we didn’t partake but happened to be there at the same time the previous fall), it is not a place I would choose to spend my time. Reiner mentioned that he should become mayor and clean the place up. We had a really bad meal (the only time in six months in Mexico), and paid way too much for cold showers and diesel, but we did rest up, clean the hull, and put together a plan for the second half of the trip. At this point we were about two weeks into things on account of the weather delays, but it looked like we may finally get a break, as it appeared that starting in about three days the breeze would lay down to less than 15 knots and we could make a straight shot to Ensenada, or perhaps even San Diego. So after three days in lovely Turtle Bay we pushed on, with what had now become our standardized sunset departure. I was a bit apprehensive as the safe bet would been to have waited another 24 hours, but we were keen to leave and I was worried that if we did not, we may not be able to make Ensenada before the window closed again. It was a windy, rough night, and although we experienced less than 15 knots the next day, it was tough, slow going due to large, boxy waves from two directions. Every once in a while one would surprise us and dump into the cockpit, and we were very happy to lose sight of Cedros as things were much better 30 miles north of there. In fact, the sky turned grey and with the exception of a few hours here and there and some wind overnight off of San Carlos, it was very mellow from there on. We shook the reef out for the first time, and even had to motor a lot. We checked our fuel and in theory we had enough to squeak into San Diego, so rolled the dice and bypassed Ensenda. Just when I was starting to sweat a little and redo my math, low and behold, a nice southwesterly filled in and we were able to reach along the rhumbline for almost 50 miles. We arrived in San Diego and tied up at the customs dock with almost 20 gallons in the tank!
We checked in after dark without issue, and slept like dead men until the Harbor Police woke us after repeated attempts and kindly “ asked “ us to move into a slip. I work up dazed, and it took me a few minutes to work out where I was and what I was meant to do. After moving Alsager, back to bed it was, comforted by the fact that it was job done and I was on easy street, at least until it came time for Point Conception in a couple of months! It took us about two and half weeks to complete the trip, in contrast to the eight days it took me in Alsager the first time. I was really lucky with my awesome crew, having gambled bigtime on inexperienced strangers – I guess that I can say my intuition paid off. I’m disappointed that the trip wasn’t more of a cruise for them, but I did the best I could have given the conditions and with what the West coast of Baja has to offer in the spring – and that we didn’t land a single fish! We said our farewells, and I spent two days desalting and drying out Alsager, having only a single repair to make after all that rough ocean sailing – changing a bulb in the bow light. From there, Noah and I double handed in beautiful SoCal sailing conditions to LA, where I put the tough old girl to bed for 6 weeks and went to meet my family in Germany.