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How to Hop Down Baja in Four Easy Legs

Nearly two thousand U.S.- and Canadian-flagged vessels are gearing up to invade Mexican waters starting right during Halloween and Day of the Dead celebrations.

Sneaky military tactic, you ask?

Nope, just the start of the West Coast’s 2023-2024 cruising season in Mexican waters. Why now, you ask? Because 2023 summer hurricane season recently ended, we hope.

INVASION FLEET

Between November 1 and January 30, at least 1,600 recreational boats from the U.S. and Canada are expected to enter Mexican waters, according to Mexican fishing officials. Most of this invading fleet will be slow moving but comfortable cruising sailboats operated by adventurous couples (from youngsters to retirees) and families with children onboard. Many will be luxurious sport fishing boats with powerful engines capable of running down Baja at 10 to 15 knots. And quite a few of them are trailerable boats that will be bravely towed down Highways 1 and 5 to popular launch ramps inside the Sea of Cortez and along the outside of the Baja Peninsula.

GROUPS

Baja Ha Ha participating boats (almost 200 sailboats, 2 power boats) will amass in San Diego for how-to seminars, last minute provisions and partying, then jump off down Baja on October 30. After that, their proscribed itinerary stops are November 2 at Turtle Bay, November 6 at Santa Maria Bay and November 9 at Cabo San Lucas.

INDEPENDENTS

Unlike the Baja Ha Ha, the other 80% of this season’s south-bounders will cruise down there individually, or perhaps in casual 2- to 4-boat buddy groups, traveling by their own schedule, stopping when and where they please.

The Panama Posse is a loose group of independents, both power and sail. About 200 Posse participants amass at Barra de Navidad on the Mexican mainland during December for seminars and parties. But then they choose their own departure dates, routes, speeds and stops – just so they reach Marina Vista Mar in Panama by mid May for their grand finale party.

Because 2023 is an off year for San Diego Yacht Club’s long-running CUBAR powerboat rally, about 50 of those potential Cubaristas might be joining the Panama Posse.

Those of us departing the U.S. in January will already have enjoyed the holidays with friends and family stateside. As independents, we’ll travel at our own speeds, monitor the weather ourselves, decide when to leave, where to stop.

FOUR EASY HOPS

Here’s an itinerary for independent boaters that gets you down the outside of Baja in four easy hops. I’ve used this southbound itinerary more than 25 times on different boats. The primary requirement is to carry enough diesel for the longest leg, 300 n.m between fuel docks in Ensenada and Turtle Bay. (The ability to receive the latest weather forecasts is also a must.)

HOP 1: San Diego to Ensenada is 65 n.m. We cross into Mexican waters at 32°31’ North; Mexican Navy patrol boats at the Coronado Islands are there to interdict guns coming south, drugs going north. But like the U.S. Coast Guard, they’re available if you have an emergency.  They may hail you on VHF 16 to ask your boat name, home port and where you’re going.

We independents must officially clear into Mexico at Ensenada, our first “port of call.” Ensenada has three big marinas that can help with your Paperwork Cha Cha, or do it yourself at the CIS office near the harbor. We find good provisioning, restaurants, chandlers, boat yards, resort hotels here, plus it’s our last chance to top off with fuel. We won’t see yacht services again until Los Cabos.

HOP 2: Ensenada to Turtle Bay is 300 n.m. This longest hop starts with a pleasant 140 n.m. of coastal cruising, then one jump offshore to cross Bahia Vizcaino. If we must stop before crossing Vizcaino, consider the roomy anchorage outside San Quintin for good shelter from northwest wind.

Turtle Bay lies almost half way down Baja. Thanks to its large overnight anchorage with good shelter in almost all weathers, this is the most popular stop. As a remote fishing village, Turtle Bay has only dirt streets, but clean diesel is usually available. Either a panga with fuel tank will come to us at anchor, or we’ll go Med moor to the tall diesel pier. Ashore are several small grocery stores and restaurants, two schools, a medical clinic, baseball diamond and abalone nursery.

Leg 3: Turtle Bay to Santa Maria Bay is 235 n.m. Again, after an initial 100 n.m. of coastal cruising, we gradually open with the Baja coast. (Bahia Asuncion is an easy anchoring stop before we jump off.) We cross 160 n.m. on a direct offshore course to Cabo San Lazaro, then zip into nearby Santa Maria Bay anchorage. Excellent fishing is found en route over the Thetis Banks, so some boats catch dinner before reaching Santa Maria.

In prevailing northwest conditions, we anchor in the north end of the bay, and stay well outside the breakers for a calm night. In daylight, we’ll watch panga fishermen who must ford the breakers to reach their tiny fish camp up a salt creek in the mangroves. Brilliant white sand ringing this bay is actually a low berm or window into Magdalena Bay proper, so from out here the tops of ships might be seen traveling on the inside. This sand berm is a good place to walk the dog and stretch our legs.

Alternately, if south wind and seas had threatened, we could have added 60 n.m. to this leg in order to enter Mag Bay and anchor up at Man of War Cove for better shelter.

            Leg 4: Santa Maria to Cabo San Lucas is 200 n.m. While passing the mouth of Mag Bay in November, December and January, we always see whales cavorting in the outgoing tides. From Cabo San Lazaro, we can lay a straight 130 n.m. course to a point four miles off Cabo Falso, a dramatic site with its historic lighthouse. (If seas are too big as we open with the coast, we could move in a bit and stay five of six miles off this regular shoreline.)

Turn the corner at Cabo Falso and by five more miles we’re peeking in through El Arco at the boating action at Cabo San Lucas, our destination. Inside the harbor are two fuel docks, one boat yard and four marinas with more than 500 slips, but few vacancies due to 12-month rentals. No problema! We can anchor on the narrow sand shelf just north of the harbor jetties.

Or, because Los Cabos means multiple cabos, we can proceed another 16 n.m. east to the harbor at the other cabo, San Jose del Cabo. Inside are 300 slips, a fuel dock and Marine Group Boat Works with its 150-ton Travelift.

Both cabos provide us yatistas (Spanish for cruisers) with palm-tree scenery, fabulous fishing, tangy Margatitas and a warm welcome. Congratulations. We’ve just hopped down Baja in four easy legs.

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