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Mexico Cruising 101: What Should First-Timers Prepare For?

posted: 10/1/2012
What do first-timers really need to know about cruising in Mexico? What surprises do they have in store, good or bad? What one thing should they prepare for or take along, that you wish you’d known about before your first year cruising in Mexico?            

I recently surveyed dozens of experienced Mexico cruisers in La Paz, Mazatlan and Puerto Vallarta, also at my online seminars and at a recent Southern California boat show. Here are their top five categories:            

1.) Prepare for more time living at anchor and under way.            

2.) Invest in a good dinghy and outboard engine, and maybe dinghy wheels.            

3.) Get HF email, but don’t get carried away.            

4.) Practice simple Spanish with locals.            

5.) Lock things up, but don’t be paranoid.            

Life at Anchor and Under Way            

“I’d say the main difference from ordinary cruising in the U.S.,” said Geoff K., who has cruised Pacific Mexico for four years, “is that we spend a lot more time at anchor. We certainly do enjoy the marinas, almost identical to the U.S. except cheaper. But the thing is, they’re mostly clumped around a handful of resort ports, and the very best cruising is in between the marinas.            

“We typically cruise 150 miles of natural coast for three or four weeks at a time, at anchor every night somewhere, maybe in a bunch of little bays out at the islands, sometimes at little fishing villages. Sometimes we’ll spend 10 days surrounded in complete wilderness, all to ourselves. I’d say we spend more than half our time on the hook.”            

For life on the hook, cruisers need a reliable ground-tackle system (everyday anchor and spare, storm anchor, chain, rode, powerful windlass), and they need to be competent at anchoring for staying overnight in changing tides or wind directions.

Another boater advised first-timers to “figure out how to manage their power and water consumption on the hook, because they’re likely to spend a lot more leisurely days and nights at anchor than when cruising the U.S. On average, we have spent only about one week per month plugged into a marina.”            

The more water and power you can produce yourself, the less time and money you’ll spend at a marina. Even for limited power and water use while on the hook, solutions for self-sufficiency range from high-tech wind generators and solar panels to a portable gasoline-powered generator or a built-in diesel generator.            

Marinas provide potable water to fill tanks and wash boats, but low-draw reverse osmosis water-makers are pretty much standard equipment, even on sailboats cruising Mexico. Take along a spare water-maker membrane and replacement parts.            

Sailboaters should prepare to motor, because long periods of no wind are possible in these balmy tropical waters.            

“After the first year,” said Geoff K., “there are no purists down here. If you want to get anywhere in particular, plan for the possibility that you’re going to have to motor more than sail.”

While you’re finding your ideal balance of marina vs. anchorage, you may want to prepare your boat and all your crewmembers (including family and friends) for more frequent anchoring in a variety of wind conditions, and in new and unfamiliar locations; for sleeping soundly on the hook; and for getting ashore from the anchored boat by dinghy -- even landing on wild beaches.

Dinghy, Dinghy, Dinghy!            

“We use our dinghy at least 10 times more in Mexico than we ever did in the U.S.,” said Suzana R. from the Seattle area. “Be sure and tell the first-timers to buy a good dinghy.” She said dinghies aren’t only for use in remote anchorages or for hauling groceries in port.            

“We use our dinghy sometimes in big marinas, like Cabo San Lucas and La Cruz, for when someone’s on another dock, because it’s easier to hop in the dinghy that to walk all the way around in the heat. Someone’s in Marina El Cid and we’re in Marina Mazatlan? We take the dinghy.”            

Wonderful anchorages are abundant in Mexico’s cruising grounds, but dinghy docks are few and far between. The spot where you anchor may be a long, wet haul from the nearest place you can land a dinghy to step ashore. Surfers naturally understand how to count wave sets and get ashore between the big ones. You’ll use your dink to reach the good diving reefs or fishing holes, or your nearest neighbors anchored in the next cove.            

Dinghy Hoisting
: When anchoring out in remote places overnight, get in the good habit of hauling up the dinghy and motor, securing them on board before bedtime.            

Why? If the anchor drags in a midnight squall, you will need to quickly raise the anchor and get in gear to move and reset it more safely. But if your dinghy painter in the water accidentally wraps around your turning prop in the process (very common), you’ll have to stop -- maybe drifting toward the rocks -- to untangle it before engaging the transmission again.             

Sailboats often rig a block and tackle from the boom or spar for the dinghy hoist, and use the topping lift or extra halyard to lift the motor to its bracket on the rails.            

Powerboats can use an electric crane to bring a larger dinghy on board, but in an anchorage, this task may need to be done before the wind picks up. Davits off the stern are popular on both types of vessels.            

With our without wheels? Dinghy wheels allow you to land on Mexico’s long, gently sloping beaches or rocky coves with more agility, speed and safety. All brands attach to the transom outboard of your outboard motor, then the wheels flip up when under way. But the type that also easily locks the wheels down when moving is preferred. Why? Because you often don’t have time to tilt the outboard up and simultaneously force the wheels down as you approach a beach between breakers -- often at high speed, to keep from getting pooped.            

Dinghy accessories (oars, anchor, and fuel tank) should be lashed securely inside, just in case you broach or flip in the surf zone. This usually only happens when you’re freshly showered, dressed well and carrying a plate of deviled eggs to a beach potluck.

Towing a light dinghy may be OK in sheltered waters, but, surprisingly, many dinghies are lost because of an unnoticed failure of the towing rings or pad eyes. Towlines should be polypro or buoyed, as they can frequently foul your prop when you have to slow down or jog unexpectedly, or in following seas or when another boat’s wake overtakes you from astern. If you’re towing a dinghy behind, you may opt to take it back on board before you enter a crowded waterway or a marina basin.

Dinghy Theft
: When you ask veteran cruisers about security in Mexico, their first thought is about the possibility of dinghy theft, not violence by drug gangs. Thieves really only want the outboard engine, because they’re easy to sell, but they usually have to steal the dinghy to get the motor away from your boat without a lot of noise.             

To discourage dinghy and outboard theft, one experienced cruiser advises painting the cover of the outboard a bright neon color, day glow paint if possible, so it’s obviously difficult for a thief to sell.

If your dinghy ever gets lost or stolen, contact the nearest Mexican navy base or port captain’s office to report it. Officers are best able to track down the “usual suspects” and get property returned to you.            

Proof of minimum liability hull insurance from a Mexican affiliate insurance company is required by all marinas in Mexico. To get reimbursed for a lost or stolen dinghy and motor from any insurer, be sure to keep their serial numbers with your insurance papers -- maybe a photo as well. Make sure your U.S. insurance company covers the boat, the people and all your stated belongings in Mexican waters.            

Report any theft on the morning VHF radio net, so the cruising community can be on guard. But don’t go public with a reward offer: Here’s why.

One of my boating friends left their very expensive dinghy in the water at night in a crowded anchorage; it was gone the next morning. In hopes of getting it back, they announced several times on VHF radio Channel 16 that they were offering a $5,000 reward for its return -- no questions asked. Did it work? Although there had never been a single dinghy theft in that anchorage before, the next night six more dinghies were stolen.

Staying Connected or Unplugged

Nearly all Mexico’s marinas offer Wi-Fi service, so cruisers can have Internet access on board all day and night, sending and receiving emails while berthed, even download or stream movies. Some marinas like Costa Baja in La Paz are hard wired for your security, especially important when you’re handling your banking online.            

Cellphones work great in Mexican ports and urban areas, and with cellphone coverage you can have text messaging and amazingly inexpensive Skype phone calls anywhere in the world. Buy your cellphone a Mexican SIM card and some local bandwidth, rechargeable online by the month.            

If you’re concerned about compatibility between the various USB banda ancha (broadband) devices and routers available, one rig to check out is the Huawei E5836 with built-in Wi-Fi, from Telcel. The battery is rechargeable and it works with multiple devices, can also be taken off the boat and used ashore.            

But cellular voids (places with no signal) are found in spots along Baja’s remote outer coast (after Ensenada before Cedros Island, after Turtle Bay before Mag Bay, after Mag Bay to off Santo Tomas); also you lose signal out in the middle while crossing the Sea of Cortez.

Satellite phones cost much more than cellular, but we’ve found 100 percent coverage when voyaging 200 miles off Mexico’s coastlines and while crossing the Sea of Cortez.

Want inexpensive email at sea in Mexican waters? No problema.

High frequency (HF) radio is for long distance communications, unlike VHF, which is limited to line of sight. Single sideband (SSB) is a form of HF radio that lets you talk on the many popular SSB networks, interesting gab fests that meet on specific SSB frequencies daily.            

If you have an SSB radio and a laptop computer, you can easily get set up to send and receive email in the middle of the ocean via SailMail.com. If you have a ham radio license, you can also get long-distance email via WinLink.org. Another provider or two have also recently joined this market.            

I highly recommend HF radio for cruising boats, not just VHF, because you can receive weather fax charts, call other boats for free and, in an emergency, you can broadcast almost halfway around the world.            

Staying connected while cruising in Mexico is easier and less expensive than ever -- sometimes too much so. Veteran cruisers warn that gadget geeks can easily get carried away with staying connected, forgetting why they went cruising in the first place.

Bienvenidos, Yatista!            

So, these first-timers got lost going down Baja, looking for Magdalena Bay. Somehow they bumped their way into the shallow Boca de Soledad, about 55 miles north of Mag Bay, then quickly ran aground in the mangroves.            

As the sun was setting, two panga boats came in from fishing, heading home to the town of Puerto Lopez Mateos just around the corner. The pangueros circled the gringo sailboat, now tilted at a crazy angle, and asked if anybody on board was sick or injured, or if they just needed help backing out into deep water. The pangueros offered to throw them a tow line.            

On board, the first-timers -- who spoke no Spanish -- assumed they were about to be boarded and attacked by pirates, so they got on VHF 16 and screamed for help in English. The nearest port captain responded and sent out two more panga boats to assist the stranded gringos.            

Instead of waving hello or getting out the Spanish/English dictionary, these terrified first-timers related on VHF16  that they now planned to shoot the band of pirates with their flare pistol.            

Fortunately for everyone, the gringos didn’t carry out their defense plan, but they did remain awake all night, broadcasting that they were staying prepared for any sneak attack.            

The next morning, the first-timers floated off with high tide and headed back north to California, convinced they had narrowly escaped with their lives from a band of Mexican pirates. This story is still circulating in Mag Bay, by the way.  
          

“Spanish for Cruisers” by Kathy Parsons, Second Edition, is a must-read for anyone cruising south of the U.S. border. Keep it handy on board for constant reference for using the radios, listening to the weather broadcasts, clearing papers with the port captain, pumping fuel by the liter, buying groceries with pesos, meeting Spanish-speaking panga fishermen and asking politely for a tow, for example.            

Club Cruceros de La Paz has set up Spanish classes in groups, with native speakers who can tailor the lessons for nautical jargon. Visit clubcruceros.net or just show up and introduce yourself to this friendly group when you get to La Paz.             

“Barco” just means boat, but a pleasureboat is a “barco de placer.” Any oceangoing pleasureboat that you can live aboard is considered a yacht or “yate” in Spanish.            

We oceangoing pleasureboaters are a unique kind of nautical tourist, identified by the elegant term “yatista,” meaning a yacht person. This term was explained to me by Ensenada’s port captain. It doesn’t matter whether we are on a sailboat or a powerboat, whether we own the boat or are crewmembers, whether we’re male or female, from the U.S. or Europe. We’re all yatistas down here.            

Speaking with locals is the fastest, cheapest and nicest way to learn some conversational Spanish. Find an educated local who can help you with present tense, to give you a few new verbs to play with, who can gently correct your pronunciation when you get tongue tangled. Getting over being embarrassed is the first step.            

Lock Your Boat, but Don’t Get Paranoid


Theft in Mexican marinas is almost nonexistent. Most marinas have 24/7 security guards and locked gates, so the only folks with a key are the slip renters, marina staffers and registered dock workers -- such as mechanics who have been vetted by the marina and who must sign in and out with the marina office in order to get onto the docks.            

Most theft occurs in anchorages.            

Don’t leave your boat unlocked and unoccupied at anchor overnight. If you leave your boat unattended night after night, especially in remote anchorages, then petty theft might occur.            

Among last year’s rash of dinghy thefts in the free anchorage at Laguna Navidad, some yatistas reported that the thief must have used cable cutters to sever the steel cable connecting the dinghy. In all these anchorage thefts, the common factor is that the dinghies were left floating in the water overnight.             

If your boat shape allows, consider installing davits to lift and secure the dinghy and motor out of the water at night and under way.
           
Ventilation is important in the tropics, so yatistas want to leave hatches and companionways open overnight, especially at anchor where fans draw off batteries.             

Hatch Grids
: One security measure we see more often in Central America is hatch grids and companionway grids.            

Have a welder fabricate a sturdy frame and grid of stainless steel tubing, to fit inside your man-sized deck hatch, or that fits within the two slots of your companionway drop boards. This security grid (4- or 5-inch square openings) lets in all the welcome breezes to circulate belowdecks while it keeps out any two-legged intruders. The lock must allow you to open the grid from inside and get out in a hurry if needed, but be located outside arm’s length to foil a casual intruder.            

Beach Cautions: Cable and lock the motor to the dinghy transom. We also cable lock the oars, anchor and gas tank into the dinghy, especially when landing on a busy city beach before exploring inland for a few hours.            

The big security dos and don’ts include: Don’t flash cash, don’t wear bling and don’t make plans over VHF radio to be off the boat overnight. Do learn Spanish, so you won’t be paranoid that every Mexican is plotting against you.

Plan Your Mexico Itinerary            

After hurricane threats subside (and your U.S. insurance coverage begins for Mexico cruising), it’s time to begin heading south of the border. November is usually a good time, whether you’re part of the mass migration or not.            

Baja First: The Sea of Cortez and mainland Mexico have many marinas and good overnight anchorages, but the less-populated Pacific side of the Baja California Peninsula requires more planning, a good eye on the weather and sometimes a bit more seamanship.            

I recommend clearing into Mexico at Ensenada at the CIS office. Three big marinas and boatyards in Ensenada have a year-round community of gringo boaters, but they always welcome the new southbound yatistas -- the Class of 2012.            

After you leave Ensenada, you can’t simply “marina hop” your way down the “outside” of Baja, because it’s 700 miles to Cabo San Lucas. You won’t find comfortable all-weather anchorages every 80 miles.            

Here are some Baja strategies:            

Baja Dash – First-time Mexico cruisers often dash down the Pacific side of Baja California in one push. That’s not always necessary, but if you’re short-handed (a couple, with no crew) and the weather is good, you may want to keep moving. It’s usually easier to keep going south than to find a safe place to anchor every night.            

In November and December, the northern half of Pacific Baja California can be cold and blustery. Yes, you may have a chance to see all the anchorages later, on your way back north. But you should know about them now, too.            

After clearing into Mexico at Ensenada, some cruisers stop merely to avoid bad weather or to replenish fuel. The most practical southbound stops after Ensenada are Cabo Colonet, Punta Baja, Islas San Benito (the San Benito Islands), Isla Cedros (Cedros Island), Bahia Tortugas (Turtle Bay), Bahia Asuncion, Bahia Santa Maria (Santa Maria Cove), Man of War Cove inside Bahia Magdalena (Mag Bay) and Los Cabos (Cabo San Lucas and San Jose del Cabo).              

Sea of Cortez Now or Later: Then, either curve up toward La Paz, or hop from Los Frailes or Marina Cabo Riviera across to the mainland of Mexico.            

If you go fast down Baja in November or December, you’ll get away from winter’s grasp as quickly as possible. If prevailing northwesterly winds push you south, you’re moving with the seasonal patterns, not fighting against them.            

Don’t worry too much about missing Pacific Baja this time, because you’ll find all the tiny toe-holds on your “Baja Bash” cruise north.            

U-Turn -- If your cruising time is limited, you might want to scoot as far south on mainland Mexico as you’re planning to go, such as Zihuatanejo or Huatulco. At your southern apex, make your big U-turn. Then slowly, leisurely, you can “gunkhole” your way back northwest in full cruise mode. Stop and bask in the balmy weather at all the wonderful little anchorages, resort ports and marinas that you zoomed past earlier.            

The Sea of Cortez is one huge cruising ground, with lots of variety and only a few dry stretches. Most veteran cruisers say they could have spent more than one year exploring the Sea of Cortez.              

Hurricane Holes: If you’re summering over, pick one or two of Mexico’s safe “hurricane holes” near Puerto Vallarta, La Paz, Puerto Escondido, Bahia de los Angeles (L.A. Bay), Puerto Peñasco, San Carlos, Guaymas, Topolobampo and Mazatlan.             Follow the hermit crab’s example: Explore in all directions, but be ready to scoot back into safety at a moment’s notice -- or spend the summer in Ensenada, which also lies north of the hurricane belt.            

Baja Bash -- For sailboats, the “least bad” time to head north to avoid the Baja Bash is in November and December, when the prevailing northwest winds are generally lighter. Yes, that’s contrary to the southbound flow.            

You can read more about returning in “The Baja Bash II” by Capt. Jim Elfers, former dockmaster at Marina Puerto Los Cabos in San Jose del Cabo.            

For weather and routing details, read my book “MexWX: Mexico Weather for Boaters.” It concisely describes weather for mariners down here, but it also focuses on shipboard radio communications needed to receive critical storm reports in Mexican waters -- via VHF, SSB, Ham, WX-fax and HF email. There’s a Radio Frequency Guide you can cut out, laminate and keep near your radio.

Geographically, the Pacific side of Mexico runs about 3,500 nautical miles, counting Baja California’s Pacific side, both sides of the Sea of Cortez and mainland Mexico down to Guatemala. Most of this shoreline is undeveloped and rich with marine life.            

Yatistas can pick from about 500 places to anchor for free -- ranging from desert beaches to mangrove estuaries, and from uninhabited tropical islands to coconut palm jungles. Along the coast, we can enjoy about 75 resort ports and 39 full-service marinas, where we can plug back into civilization for a while.            

November through early June is the primary cruising season, when boaters can visit all of Mexico’s Pacific coast in balmy weather. Save the north end of the Sea of Cortez for summer, because in winter it can still be chilly and windy.            

Hurricanes roam up from the Gulf of Tehuantepec during summer, and weather broadcasts pay close attention to them. Experienced cruisers stake out a few favorite hurricane-safe places to home port during summer and enjoy the nearby excursions, or park the boat in a marina and fly home. 

Marina Maxima            

Mexico has completed its big push to open new marinas and grow its nautical industries. Now the call is to improve tourism.             The biggest new private boating facility on Baja’s East Cape region is Marina Cabo Riviera. Located at the town of La Ribera in Bahia de Palmas, this new interior marina hosted a Bisbee billfish tournament this summer, has 45 full-service slips and nice shore amenities. This makes a good jumping off port before crossing to the mainland.            

Speaking of the mainland, Topolobampo, Sinaloa, has the newest boating facility there. Marina Club de Yates Palmira Topolobampo is better known as Marina Topo. As an overnight stop, it is a handy stepping-stone between the north and south halves of the Sea of Cortez. It is located on the north side of Topolobampo’s port peninsula and is so well sheltered that, after three summers with no hurricane damage, the marina has become a hurricane hole.            

In Guaymas harbor, the boatyard and dry storage facility formerly called Marina Seca Guaymas is now called simply Marina Guaymas. They plan to add guest slips by this winter.             

Down near the border with Guatemala, Marina Chiapas has been opened a few months, with 60 full-service slips for boats to 120 feet, located inside a very sheltered side basin off the main commercial harbor of Puerto Chiapas.            

This marina is especially helpful for clearing out of Mexico and getting the international Zarpe required in all other countries farther south. Marina Chiapas also serves as a weather stop at the south side of the Gulf of Tehuantepec, fueling and provisioning many yatistas heading to the El Salvador cruisers rally.             

Fonatur, Mexico’s semi-governmental agency to promote tourism infrastructure, has again changed the names of the eight marinas it operates. Instead of Marina Turistica (which means “tourist marina”), they’re all just Fonatur Marina La Paz or Fonatur Marina San Felipe. The Singlar name is gone, the marinas are no longer for sale and they’re all running at full throttle. The prices for a slip, mooring and haulout in some of the Fonatur marinas have gone up recently, equaling what was charged at others in the group.            

When you shop around for a marina slip, pay close attention to the changing dollar-to-peso exchange rates. As we go to press, you get 12.7 Mexican pesos (MXN) for one U.S. dollar (USD). The peso has been very stable for a long time, and now that no presidential elections are scheduled for Mexico for another six years, we’re likely in for a six-year period of relative stability.            

Ports of Baja California, the Sea of Cortez and mainland Pacific Mexico where yatistas can find at least one marina, one fuel dock or one boatyard -- and sometimes more -- include Puerto Salina, Ensenada, Cedros Island Village, Turtle Bay, Puerto San Carlos, Cabo San Lucas, San Jose del Cabo, Cabo Riviera, La Paz, Puerto Escondido, Santa Rosalia, San Felipe, Puerto Peñasco, San Carlos, Guaymas, Topolobampo, Mazatlan, San Blas, La Cruz, Nuevo Vallarta, Puerto Vallarta, Barra Navidad, Manzanillo, Lazaro Cardenas, Ixtapa, Zihuatanejo, Acapulco, Huatulco, Salina Cruz and Puerto Chiapas (formerly Puerto Madero).            

My wish for the cruising class of 2012: Que le vaya bien. May you go well!

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