Every fall, veteran sailing snowbirds and first-time voyagers flock to the many marinas and anchorages around San Diego Bay. Then, at the end of October, they point their bows south and take flight in the Baja Ha-Ha Cruiser’s Rally.
This year we had front row seats to all the action.
This voyage is a long one — some 800 miles or so between San Diego and Cabo San Lucas at the southern tip of Mexico’s Baja peninsula — and the rally lasts two weeks.
The boats make just two stops along the way, and at a blazing boat speed of 6 to 8 mph, they cover three legs of approximately 350 miles, 250 miles and 200 miles each.
These are overnight passages, and the boats sail non-stop for days at a time, with the crew taking turns at the helm.
In the weeks leading up to the rally, boats arrive from points north, and the excitement builds around the docks.
Boats come down from Alaska, British Columbia, Washington, Oregon and northern California, and everyone arrives with adventure and tropical sunshine on their minds.
We were first introduced to the Baja Ha-Ha in 2008 when we were living in our fifth wheel trailer on Shelter Island. Laws for parking an RV along the waterfront were more lax in those days, and we spent a wonderful month enjoying San Diego from this fantastic spot.
We got a glimpse of the west coast boating life that whetted our appetites and changed our lives.
While we were there, adventurers Stephen Mann and Kathleen Torres were getting ready to depart on their daring 9 month round-the-world voyage via the Southern Ocean.
And the Ha-Ha crowd was spilling in and out of every chandlery and boating related store on Shelter Island.
We went to the Ha-Ha kick-off costume party and got totally caught up in the excitement and festivities. We bought Ha-Ha t-shirts and suddenly had our hearts set on buying a boat and going cruising too!
Two years later, we joined the merriment again — for real! We partied with the Ha-Ha crowd at the kick-off party and then sailed south on our own boat, following in the wake of the fleet.
This year’s party and send-off were just as much fun (if not more-so) as the other two we’d attended.
It was a little nostalgic for us as we remembered our wide-eyed impressions of the first party and our fluttery butterfly nerves during the second party when our own departure was just days away.
This year’s party was full of wonderful flashbacks for us. We listened to the excited conversations between the cruisers as they talked about boat projects and last minute repairs, and memories of our own last minute preparations welled up from what now seems like the far distant past.
The Ha-Ha kick-off costume party is a chance for all the cruisers to let off a little steam the day before the big departure. After weeks of boat upgrade projects, massive bank account draining expenditures on equipment, and laborious installations, troubleshooting and repairs, everyone at the party is radiantly happy to let loose for a few hours.
The kick-off party takes place in the West Marine parking lot, and their employee Ron, who usually wears a normal clothes to work, came to West Marine dressed as a pirate just for the occasion. He transformed into a fantastic, swashbuckling host for the event.
As he invited all the other pirates up on the stage for the costume contest, one of them boldly reached out and grabbed Ron’s pistol off his belt. Ron raised his sword in protest, but luckily no limbs were severed.
Another pirate kept losing his sword out of its sheath on his back. You gotta watch your back at these cruiser gatherings!
All the costumes were really creative.
One teenage boy did a spot-on impersonation of a cranky old man and had the crowd clapping and cheering.
And a pussy cat, a couple abandoning ship in a hurricane, a group of cervezas with limes and a Swedish family (who actually sailed here from Sweden — complete with Pippi Longstocking!) all had a moment in front of the crowd.
One of the most popular groups was the Pan Am flight attendants.
These lovely ladies — uh — guys — brought a little brawn and muscle to their tight skirts… along with furry beards and hairy legs!
But when a pair of cops from East Germany showed up, the tight skirt game rose to a new level! They were chasing a group of prisoners that had balls chained to their ankles and were trying to make a quick prison break. The crowd barely noticed the prisoners, as all eyes were on the two cops!
A special Ha-Ha cruiser for us was our friend Jenny who was dressed in a white lab coat. She is the First Mate of the flying vessel called “Rocket Science.” Her gorgeous 55 foot custom sailboat averages 12 knots with its eyes closed, and has been known to top 17 knots when the skipper and first mate were actually paying attention.
As the boat was being built, the original owner kept telling his naval architects, “It’s not rocket science,” as they worked to create a blindingly fast sailing machine. Well, although to him it wasn’t Rocket Science, to any boat sailing nearby, this boat is actually a sailing Rocket Ship!
They will be starting two days after the fleet, but they will likely overtake everyone in no time!
Now, this is a Grand Event that is known far and wide in cruising circles. So it was no surprise to look up and see a flying craft above us with a camera pointed down into the crowd.
The paparazzi had obviously gathered outside the West Marine parking lot gates, and they were getting whatever shots they could of the wonderful party inside!
Well, there weren’t any big celebrities present that day, but the buzz was on about the great swag that was being given out to the Ha-Ha participants this year.
The Ha-Ha logo backpacks were very classy, and they were loaded to the brim with t-shirts, sunglasses, beach balls and other goodies.
With swag bags full of great stuff, and bellies full of tacos and beer, the partiers finally began to disperse.
As we were leaving the parking lot, we noticed Popeye making off with a 24-pack of beer. He had been slurping a spinach drink all afternoon (although the liquid in his glass was suspiciously tan colored), so who could blame him if he wanted a little pick-me-up for later?
The next morning dawned gloomy and drizzly after a night of pouring rain. Our boat was drenched and our sheets were clammy as we climbed out of bed to see the Ha-Ha crowd off.
This was not the kind of start anyone would want, but maybe the promise of sunshine and fun times ahead got the sailors all revved up, even as they donned their foul weather gear for the start.
We wandered to the other side of Shelter Island at the appointed hour and watched the boats begin to gather.
We had been keeping an eye on the weather forecasts, and for us, this didn’t seem like a great day to leave. The frustrating part about any outdoor event is what do you do with inclement weather?
As a kid back in New England, I remember all our outdoor party invitations always went out with either a rain date or an alternative venue “in case of rain.” It was just part of life in a place where it rains a few days out of most weeks.
But with a gathering of 130 sailboats headed south on a two week voyage, how do you coordinate an alternative departure date?
Fortunately, the excited crowd on the water didn’t seem put off one bit by the drizzle.
For us, however, the small craft advisory warnings and the forecast of 5 to 9 foot seas at 10-11 second intervals for the next few days (very steep and choppy!) did not seem very inviting.
In the end, all sailors have to make up their own minds about when the weather looks best for a passage, and fortunately the big comfy port of Ensenada lay just 70 miles to the south if things got too gnarly for the fleet!
This is a big media event, and a fishing vessel named Dolphin bobbed near our shore with dignitaries from Mexico and San Diego and the media on board. They had fabulous front row seats to the spectacle.
But we were in prime position too, and suddenly we heard a starting gunshot blast from somewhere out on the water, and then the fleet was off. They motored past us, and our camera shutters flew — in between waves to friends, of course!
A fire boat spun in circles too, sending up a huge fountain of spray all around. Here’s a quick video clip…
We found ourselves standing next to a professional photographer from the San Diego Union-Tribune. What luck! Mark had a chance to talk cameras with a true pro, and we both gaped in awe at the lens he was using.
Our cameras were getting soaked in the drizzle, but his pro camera could easily handle that kind of misting. I had to throw my jacket over my camera between each shot, and I wondered if it would survive (it did!).
The mothership, Profligate, a fast 65-foot catamaran, zoomed through the fleet to the front of the pack, leading the way out of the bay. It was a thrill to see all of these intrepid cruisers off on their adventures.
After the row of boats slipped away into the mist, we dried off our cameras as best we could, packed them up, and began walking back to our truck. The chatter between us was non-stop as we talked about all the excitement of the morning.
Funny thing is, try as we could, neither of us could remember the details of our own leave-taking from San Diego Bay on our voyage south those years ago. We had sailed in and out of the bay so many times, and had been back and forth to Ensenada so much, that somehow the specifics of that particular day were lost to us for the moment.
But as we climbed into our truck and drove over to a coffee shop to warm up with a latte and a muffin, we both agreed that we were quite content not to be on the ocean right now.
We’d had our time and loved our cruise, just as these sailors are having their time and will love their cruise too. But as we listened to the fog horn wailing in the distance while we cozied up to steaming cups at our little bistro table in the coffee shop, there was something very comforting and civilized about being warm, dry, and on stable ground — with our own wheels parked out front!