Dreaming of cruising Mexico? This fall, more than 25,000 U.S. boat owners are making plans for their adventures down south. Whether you own an ocean-going yacht or a fishing skiff on a trailer, you’ll be happiest if you prepare before you go.
Prepare what? Isn’t it the same as cruising the U.S. West Coast?
Similar but different. Let’s look at specific preparation steps that are unique to cruising Mexico – for the boat and the people.
Prepare for life on the hook
Mexico’s Pacific coast houses 22 full-service resort marinas with slips and yacht services. (See the section on “Mexico marina madness” on page 30 for the complete list.)
But most of the 3,000-mile shoreline is pristine and delightfully undeveloped, compared with Southern California. You’ll find 100 times more uninhabited beach coves and free anchorages than you will marinas or mooring zones. Hence, owners of properly outfitted cruising yachts will be able to spend most of their time living comfortably on board while at anchor. The freedom and independence of this cruising lifestyle is the big attraction. If boredom strikes, it’s easy to hoist the anchor move on the next spot.
Even trailer boats with a cuddy cabin can anchor out overnight, and sleep until boaters decide to return to the launch ramp where they parked their trailer and tow vehicle. Mexico has hundreds of launch ramps to sample.
Living on the hook in Mexico is a gloriously simple lifestyle, but it does require a few unique preparation steps to keep things swinging smoothly.
“We don’t plan to anchor on our way down Baja,” said a first-timer at the Newport Beach Boat Show. “After Ensenada, we’ll just stop at marinas every night, so we don’t need to practice anchoring until we get to the warm waters of the Sea of Cortez.”
Oops, sorry, but after you leave Ensenada, the next marina is 700 miles down the coast in Cabo San Lucas. In between, you might need to anchor for rest from standing watch, or to seek refuge from heavy weather. About 30 anchoring spots are found along Baja’s Pacific coast, but the most reliable is Turtle Bay, half way down.
Prepare by rigging your boat’s standard overnight anchor and rode for a range of 25 to 45 feet of water, with as much chain at the bottom as you need. Rig chafe gear at the bow for everyday use, plus carry rubber hose material for when additional chafe gear is needed. Also prepare your boat with a bigger storm anchor and a smaller portable anchor for bow-and-stern situations. Don’t forget that the dinghy needs a dinky anchor too.
Practice anchoring by taking turns being captain verses deckhand, until you recognize when your anchor has hooked good and solid. Practice retrieving the anchor from a different direction, as if the wind or tide had shifted during the night.
Because so few shore lights are seen along Mexico’s coast, first-timers often find it difficult to locate reference points ashore. So, consider setting up a simple perimeter alarm before going to sleep. If the radar senses that you are dragging toward the rocks or shore, the alarm will wake you in time to avoid problems.
The mighty dinghy
Your boat’s dinghy and outboard motor will be vastly more important while cruising down south than they were stateside. Dinghy landings are not as prevalent down here.
Get a good inflatable and reliable outboard, because anchorages are often a couple miles or more of open water from the nearest places where you can actually land safely to get ashore. You’ll need reliable water transportation to reach the best diving or fishing spots, and you will want to visit friends on their boats in neighboring coves.
First timers “yatistas” soon upgrade to more durable dinghies and more powerful outboards– as much expense and weight as you can manage. One limit is that you want to be able to bring your dinghy and motor onboard at night. Davits off the stern are popular. Sailboats often rig a block and tackle from the boom or spar for bringing the dinghy aboard, and use the topping lift or extra halyard to hoist the motor into its bracket on the stern rails.
Dinghy wheels are a nice option. They make it easier to land on Mexico’s abundance of long, gently sloping beaches and spend more hassle-free time ashore. You just hop out and roll the dinghy farther up the beach, instead of having to drag it through the sand and rocks to get it pegged above the surf or rising tide line. The type of dinghy wheels kit that locks the wheels down underway seem to be preferred, because you don’t always have time to tilt the outboard up and simultaneously force the wheels down as you surf clear of the last waves.
Cruisers report having a much more rewarding experience in Mexico after they have learned at least a few key phrases in Spanish. A very helpful book is called “Spanish for Cruisers,” by Janet Parsons, which covers nautical conversations from rigging terms to engine mechanics.
Practice what you’ll say on VHF, like identifying yourself to authorities, getting directions into a port, or asking for a weather forecast. Say “cambio” for “over.”
Power & Water
Independence has a price tag. A water maker and generator / alternator are expensive gear, but they may be requirements for comfort and safety.
Veteran cruisers pay close attention to their power consumption, and to the level of water in their tanks. They employ all kinds of solar panels, wind generators and power saving devices.
Consider outfitting your boat with power-thrifty appliances, like a microwave instead of an electric oven, or a built-in ice box with side freezer instead of a household type refrigerator. Consider installing a foot pump for fresh water at the sink in a guest bath room, or installing heads that flush with salt water instead of fresh water.
The more electrical power and potable water you can carry or produce onboard, the less time you’ll spend tied to a dock while charging batteries and refilling your fuel and water tanks.
Tropical heat wave
As you cruise south, it’s easy to underestimate how hot the water and air temperatures can become at lower latitudes, and again when you summer over in Mexico.
Expect to spend more time lounging or sleeping in your cockpit, fly bridge or pilot house berth than you did stateside. Outfit these areas with durable seat cushions and insulating window shades, but avoid dark color materials that collect more heat than they reflect. A canvas wizard can custom fit a snap-on awning that creates on deck shade and helps cool below decks. Install low-voltage fans in the galley, nav desk, berths and main salon. Chandlers sell simple “wind scoops” that clip on over deck hatches to direct any little breeze down to your sleeping quarters.
When it gets really hot, many cruisers pull into a marina slip and plug into shore power, just to run the air conditioner and to enjoy the poolside comforts as well.
Just do it
Don’t get mired down in preparing your boat for every possible contingency. At some point, quietly slip the stateside dock lines and make your escape to Mexico cruising.