Our gracious hosts invited us to stay longer, but we needed to begin getting ourselves and our boat Groovy ready for the long 1,100 mile voyage from Puerto Vallarta to San Diego.
Hurricane season had officially started, and the hurricanes had begun their steady march up Mexico’s southern coast.
A doozy storm was on its way towards Puerto Vallarta, and the skies were already darkening when we took the bus from La Manzanilla back to Puerto Vallarta. As our bus wound along the edge of Banderas Bay, the cliffs were filled with dramatic waterfalls from the recent rains.
This was Hurricane “Cosme” and it looked truly frightening on the weather prediction charts. Fortunately, Paradise Village Marina is tucked into an estuary, and we weren’t threatened.
Eventually, Cosme passed on, and the skies cleared to give us some spectacular days. The iguanas had been busy laying eggs, and suddenly a huge crop of vibrant green baby iguanas showed up everywhere.
The heat was intense, and the best way to beat the heat was to get in the water. We played in the waves, relishing our last days in the tropics.
Splashing around, it was impossible to imagine that once we started up the outside of Baja California, we would have to start wearing long sleeves, long pants and jackets.
The voyage from Cabo San Lucas to San Diego is known as the “Baja Bash,” and it is a passage most sailors dread. The wind howls out of the north non-stop, and the waves build to a frenzy, leaving the struggling sailor pounding relentlessly into fierce headwinds and steep seas for 800 miles. Traveling at four to seven mph, the suffering goes on for days!
We both read and re-read the bible on the subject, The The Baja Bash II, written by a captain who has made the trip dozens of times in all kinds of boats. It is a fabulous book that explains exactly how to tackle the trip.
Like many sailors, after reading it the first time three years ago, I vowed never to do The Bash! The vivid descriptions of misery and woe that sailors experience are enough to make any sensible person ditch the boat and fly home instead.
Besides ferocious winds and nasty seas, the real kicker is that as soon as you begin the Baja Bash in Cabo, you leave the tropics in your wake.
Rather than easing through a transition from warmth to coolness as you sail north, you begin to shiver in the face of a cold, mean wind as soon as you turn the corner at the bottom of Baja.
Looking around Groovy, we realized that we had off-loaded almost every scrap of warm clothing we owned. So we dashed to Walmart to get some sweats and other goodies. What luck that they had some!
The Baja Bash II also advises doing The Bash in either July or November. Unfortunately, most people make the trip between March and June, because it gets them out of Mexico’s blistering summer heat and back to California in time for the summer sailing season.
However, that is the very worst time to go. The horror stories we’d heard from friends doing these springtime voyages were truly hair-raising!
In July, on the other hand, the outside of Baja actually calms down once in a while, because the south winds blowing up from the frequent tropical storms temporarily negate the prevailing north winds.
Sailing with hurricanes brewing nearby doesn’t sound like a great idea, but in July the tropical storms tend not to make landfall on the Baja peninsula as they do later in the season. Instead, most move west, passing well south of Baja and dissipating out at sea.
We watched in amazement as the hurricanes rolled up the coast like bowling balls and then tumbled out to sea, all with precision regularity. For a few days after each storm, periods of tranquility swept up the Baja. It was like watching a train go by and the dust settle afterwards. Our trick was to find an opening, jump aboard, and ride the train.
The hurricane we chose to ride was Dalila, and we wanted to time our departure for about 48 hours after it left our coast.
By then the seas would be back to their normal easy roll, and the winds would be quiet. All we would need to do is stay ahead of the next hurricane coming up behind Dalila.
Sounds easy. But hurricanes aren’t all that predictable! What’s worse, Cabo is an awkward place to hang around.
At $175 USD/night for a slip, most folks anchor in the bay that is wide open to the south instead — fine in November’s north wind but dicey when it sometimes turns south in July.
So our hope was to find an opening in the weather long enough to travel 290 miles across the Sea of Cortez to Cabo and then go another 180 miles up the Baja coast to Bahia Santa Maria, stopping in Cabo just long enough to get fuel. To do that we needed a 72 hour window. Good luck!! Weather windows were more like 24-36 hours, if they existed at all.
I had a nail-biting few days while I looked at Passage Weather and Sail Flow morning, noon and night. Each site offers about 30 weather charts covering a week’s worth of forecasts that are updated every three hours. That is a TON of constantly changing data!!
To make things really tricky, the two sites didn’t always agree on their predictions!
Adding to the confusion, Sail Flow’s charts are given in local time, but Passage Weather uses Greenwich Mean Time, which was six hours ahead of our local time. So on their charts, 00 hours Tuesday was really 18 hours (6pm) Monday. Good grief!
While I got bleary eyed staring at the computer, my palms sweating and brain frying, Mark got the engine ready.
Due to the constant headwinds, this voyage is almost always done exclusively under power, and the engine needed to be in tip top shape.
Oil changes, filter changes, etc., were on his “to do” list, and he meticulously worked his way down his list.
Because the fuel in the tanks gets a really good sloshing underway on this trip, as the boat bashes through the waves, whatever debris may be lurking in the corners of the tanks gets mixed into the fuel.
Many boats end up replacing their fuel filters several times before they get to California. We know of one that went through 10 fuel filters before the engine died one final time outside Ensenada where they got a tow.
We had only two spare fuel filters and wanted a third. But there were none to be found anywhere in Puerto Vallarta. The big “chandlery” Zaragoza had fuel filters for huge sport fishing boat engines, but none for smaller cruising boats.
The little boating goods store at our marina had some filters, but not our model. The chandlery in La Cruz was an expensive cab ride or long bus ride away, with no guarantee they had one either. Egads! We hoped two would do.
We also wanted more plastic jerry jugs for fuel. We carry 86 gallons: 66 gallons in the tank and another 20 in plastic jerry jugs. Under normal conditions, this is enough to travel about 600 miles. On this trip, our longest run without an easy fuel stop would be 400 miles between Cabo and Turtle Bay. However, it would not be under normal conditions!
We expected to travel much more slowly and to consume much more fuel as we fought the wind and waves. However, when we saw the $50 USD price tag for each 5 gallon plastic jerry jug, our jaws dropped. I gave Mark a shaky grimace, “We should to be able to go 400 miles with what we have, shouldn’t we????” He made a face. “Sure…” he drawled.
These are the crazy decisions boaters face with difficult passages. In an ideal world we would tow a barge carrying all the spares and tools we could ever possibly need. We might even tow an identical boat as a “hanger queen” we could rob for parts. But this was reality.
As the tension about these technical aspects of our departure built, I wrote a blog post explaining our decision to end our cruise so we could pursue other tropical travel lifestyles.
To my utter astonishment, the post took off like wildfire, and we received the most unexpected outpouring of support and affection from our readers.
This rocked our little world. Sharing our pics and stories has become a passion for us, but suddenly feeling so much heartfelt warmth from our friends and followers made our decision to take a new path for our travel adventures that much more poignant.
Heightening our emotional roller coaster ride, every afternoon the skies became black, the lightning show started and the torrential summer rains fell.
Surrounded by rolling thunder, flashing lightning and pouring rain that pummeled our little boat in its slip, the Baja Bash loomed huge and intimidating before us. During those dockside storms the upcoming voyage felt truly life threatening.
As I examined the hurricane-filled weather charts and wrote about why we were leaving this lifestyle, Mark massaged the engine and lubed everything in sight, and we told each other with bug eyes and pounding hearts, “It’s going to be a great trip.”
Our morning for departure finally came, and we snuck out of the marina before we were fully awake. The knot in the pit of my stomach only grew larger as we said goodbye to our dock mates and rounded the bend towards the open ocean.
By the time we reached the channel to the bay, I was beginning to choke up. Standing at the helm in a bathing suit, I suddenly realized just how much I loved this boat and this life, difficult as it was at times. Tears slid down my face.
Cruising is a beautiful way to live and travel, and it is worth every effort to pursue. But it is not easy.
This bittersweet moment as we were leaving Paradise Village Marina channel said it all: surrounded by tropical beauty, the warm, soft air brushing my tears dry, and the rolling blue waves soothing my soul, my stomach churned in sheer terror at the prospect of our upcoming voyage.
This was it. We were leaving Mexico. We were leaving the sultry tropics and would soon be leaving our boat. Mark gave me a long, loving hug, and I realized that I was actually okay with it all, gut-wrenching as it was.
Before we could really get going, though, we needed to stop for fuel at La Cruz, 8 miles away. When we pulled in, we were greeted at the fuel dock by Katrina Liana, a phenomenal professional captain and friend to all cruisers. Three years earlier, her boat had been anchored next to ours for several weeks in San Diego Bay as we both prepared to sail south.
We had sailed down the Baja coast at the same time that fall. The last time we had seen her, she and her husband Rob were diving off the bow of their boat in Cabo, happy to have completed the voyage.
As we caught up on three years of news with her now, she told us she had sailed up and down the outside of Baja at least 20 times over the years. She reassured us that we were making the trek at the very best time of year and that all would be okay.
Her cheery smile, warm spirit and calm confidence made us feel much better, and our fears began to subside.
We left La Cruz under blazing, hot sunny skies, and our hearts suddenly felt free and full of anticipation. We were going to have a beautiful sail to Cabo, and we settled in to enjoy it.
As if to confirm our good feelings, a pair of dolphins suddenly bounded over the waves towards the boat.
As the mainland slipped away in our wake, puffy clouds formed in the sky. Oddly, we suddenly noticed that one cloud was orange.
It was early afternoon, many hours before sunset. How could one cloud be orange? We decided it had to be a good omen.
Then the clouds got darker and darker, and the water began to take on fascinating patterns of ripples and mirrors, as if slicks of oil were spreading out in ribbons across a gravel surface.
The clouds turned black above us. Growing heavy and thick, they spritzed us for a while and then moved off behind us.
A lightning show started off our transom. It was far in the distance over the land behind us, and we knew it was the gods’ nightly high voltage power display we had been witnessing back in Puerto Vallarta.
In no time the sun began to set, and we got ourselves ready to swap watches overnight.
The wind stayed below 10 knots apparent, on the nose, and we continued to motor peacefully all night under the Milky Way.
In the morning — the 4th of July — the mist was thick and it obscured the sunrise, but as the day progressed the sun came out and the water became bluer than blue.
The sea was silky smooth all around us, undulating in a continuous, voluptuous motion. We were on our own magic carpet that stretched in a perfect circle all around us, clear to the horizon.
The ocean had been 89 degrees F when we left Puerto Vallarta, and when we looked now it had slipped to 85.
A big pod of dolphins approached us. They were headed somewhere in a bobbing, lumpy group.
They stopped for a few minutes by Groovy to leap out of the water and check out our deck layout and our choice of gear in the cockpit.
A group of them swam to the bow and played just in front of us. They zig-zagged back and forth for a while, seeming to love zooming along while the bow of a big sailboat plunged up and down in the waves just behind them. Then they were off.
The hours began to run into each other as we made our way across this widest part of the Sea of Cortez, and eventually we found ourselves 150 miles from shore.
The conditions were so totally calm, it was impossible to imagine that a hurricane was raging a few hundred miles south of us. We traded napping for reading and playing on the computer, and we took turns keeping watch and sleeping.
The thread connecting all our activities was simply, “Are we there yet?” With every passing hour we were another 6.5 nautical miles closer to our goal. It was a great vast nothingness out there and there was absolutely nothing going on in it.
As the sun began to fall from the sky our second night, the wind picked up. Within an hour we went from a sleepy 8 knots of apparent headwind to 22 knots and spray. The seas kicked up and they frothed and foamed around us.
The sun set, but we were suddenly too busy trying to keep our balance to mess with taking photos. The boat flew off a few waves and landed with a resounding crash, shaking everything on board to its core.
Yikes! This wind had been predicted for the last 6-9 hours of this leg of our trip, but that didn’t make it any easier to accept its arrival. We battened everything down and got ready for a long night.
A few more flying leaps off the crests of waves persuaded us to slow the boat speed to 4-5 knots. Climbing up and over each wave, alternately pointing at the sky and then at Davy Jones’ Locker was far preferable to those brutal crash landings!
We each tried our best to sleep while off watch, but it’s hard to fall asleep when your body is being thrown around like a volleyball and the boat is creaking and complaining loudly about the circumstances.
Finally, around 5:00 a.m. Puerto Vallarta time, the boat stopped mimicking a bucking bronco. Two hours later, we dropped the hook in the pitch dark in Cabo San Lucas, feeling our way around the anchorage by memory and radar. Whew! Leg One of our trip was done. 291 miles in 44 hours, from Wednesday July 3rd to Friday July 5th, averaging 6.6 knots. Just 800 miles to go. Woo hoo!!!
After two days of no weather forecasts, we quickly got online for a sleepy one-eyed look at what was going on. Things had changed! Hurricane Dalila had died down more than expected to the southwest, but another hurricane was forming behind her. It looked like we could ride this next hurricane up the coast of Baja if we waited around until Monday. We would have a nice strong southerly wind to push us north!
Fabulous!! How easy is this Baja Bash stuff?! We could catch a few winks, go to the fuel dock when it opened in the morning, and then enjoy three days of rest anchored in Cabo San Lucas. We’d be protected from the predicted north winds while we waited to hitch a ride on the next hurricane’s south wind. Very nice. Easy peasy.
I announced these plans to Mark and he raised an eyebrow. “Really?” He said, looking more astonished than seemed reasonable. “You want to stay here?”
“Absolutely!” I said yawning and closing my laptop with certainty. “We’ll relax here and then catch that next hurricane.”
He said nothing. But something about his doubtful expression lurked uneasily around the edges of my mind as I fell asleep… Continued…