Historically, mid to late September has been the peak of hurricane frequency in Mexican waters, at least according to the Pilot Charts. Late season hurricanes tend to curve back toward land, drawn there by hottest seawater temperatures along the mainland or within the Sea of Cortez.
On September 5, the National Weather Service updated their predictions for the rest of 2023 and early 2024: The Pacific will have above-average sea surface temperatures and atmospheric anomalies, including a 95-percent chance of El Nino conditions, including 66-percent chance that it will be a strong El Nino.
Nobody really knows how to predict it anymore. So the prudent mariner will prepare his or her boat for the worst conditions that summering over can bring.
Question: do you plan to leave your boat in a one of the relatively hurricane safe marinas or boat yards while you vacate to cooler climes for the summer months? Or will you stay aboard your boat either berthed in one of those marinas or at anchor in a natural hurricane hole through the peak of hurricane season?
Among the many cruisers I know or have recently interviewed about this topic, their decisions about whether to stay or leave were split 50-50.
LEAVE THE BOAT?
If you’re leaving the boat, then time is even shorter, because you must complete all storm preparations before you fly away.
First choice is to get snuggly berthed for the summer in one of the marinas that are as hurricane safe as possible, for example, Puerto Penasco, Marina San Carlos, Marina Puerto Escondido, Marina CostaBaja. If you aren’t in a marina by now, they might all be booked full for the summer by veteran cruisers. (Gotta’ anchor out? See below.)
Checklist: Inspect all dock lines, spring lines and their chafe gear; consider replacing the worst four lines. Amplify the chafe gear with leather, hose, carpet. Be sure each piece is lashed onto the dock lines so that it can’t slip out of place despite many hours of jerking motion. Some boats also use a loop of chain on the dock cleats. See the European surge protectors pictured.
Everyday fenders are not good enough; they’ve probably gone flaccid in the heat. While large beefy fenders (round or tear drop) are still to be found in (or ordered from) Mexican chandlers, buy at least four new ones, and set them up to hang properly, not pop out. Some cruisers hang tires as hurricane fenders.
Windage is killer. Deflate the inflatable and stow it. Stow and lash down the hard dinghy wherever it will not become a kite in 75 knots of wind. Remove all deck cushions, awnings, standing rigging, surf boards, fuel jugs and other deck gear. Stow them either below decks or in a marina storage building along with your outboard. Drop the Bimini and lash it down or remove it. Sailboats need to remove all sails, period.
Ramon Delgado, a marina staffer in La Paz, reported seeing “ice chests, gas jugs, surf boards, barbecue grills ripped from the boats and go flying up in the air” during storm force winds.
Some marinas refuse boats that have not removed their roller furling sails. Most damage comes not just from roller furling jibs that unfurl and shred themselves, according to Delgado. The flailing sails often wrap the rigging or antennas on neighboring boats, and they also snare and damage dock boxes, pylons and light posts in the process.
Before you depart, use a focused dock hose to check water tight gaskets on your deck hatches. Close and dog down all ports that might leak. Damp Rid or cider vinegar help to prevent mildew below decks.
If you put your boat in the care of the marina management or a professional boat sitter, agree in writing exactly what they must do to protect your boat in storm conditions, like check for chafe on dock lines, reposition fenders, a daily check of your air conditioning, batteries, bilge pumps and engine room. Give them all your stateside contacts and those of your insurance person’s. Get regular emailed reports.
As a hurricane approaches, some marinas will spring and fender two boats together between dock fingers, like a spider in the center a web, so they don’t bash each other. Check your neighbor’s sail rig or outriggers. Get the contacts for any fellow cruiser who is staying aboard, just at least for weather updates.
If you plan to stay aboard your own boat even as a hurricane approaches, stay in VHF contact with the marina office and your neighbor boaters. The sea water may get so fouled that it clogs your engine intakes. Don’t risk injury. Do vacate the boat and head ashore well before the docks start bouncing up and down, disconnect and leave you stranded. If you do get stranded, stay on the VHF and turn on deck lights.
After a hurricane, be prepared to take care of yourself and others. Those ashore may have no electricity or running water, roads may be impassable for emergency vehicles, and food supplies maybe gone.
If hauling your boat out onto the hard seems like a safe option for hurricane season, scout around for a yard that boasts a concrete floor, because a dirt floor gets soft and mushy in torrential rains. Even asphalt flooring gets soft in hot sun. Both types of floors have allowed boat stands to tilt and drop boats on their sides.
Inspect the boat yard’s hull stands. Look for beefy stands with a wide base and big soft hull pads, or yards that use wooden railroad ties as hull stands.
Ask to stow all your wind-prone items (see above) in the yard’s closed sheds. But if you must stow it all below your keel, wrap small piles of stuff in separate tarps to avoid adding more dangerous windage.
Here are a few ports that have popular boat yards: Puerto Penasco, San Carlos, Guaymas, Puerto Escondido, Banderas Bay, even Puerto Chiapas. For example, Marina San Carlos in Sonora has a separate dry storage yard located a safe mile inland, so it’s a popular place for about 350 boats to park throughout summer. The boat yard at Marina Puerto Escondido is shielded by high ground on all sides and has a concrete floor.
“I’m more likely to die of boredom down here than from a hurricane,” said Paul Belia, an old cruiser friend who has spent many summers at anchor in the Sea of Cortez aboard his sailboat Sun Runner.
To avoid dying of boredom, pick one or two interesting hurricane-hideout areas in the upper Sea of Cortez. Pick those within a day’s run of a known hurricane hole. Pick one that also has at least a lively village for resupplies and fun.
For instance, in the L.A. Bay region of northern Baja, tiny Puerto Don Juan is a well-known hurricane hole anchorage (see photo) that has dozens of islands nearby with pristine anchorages, interesting dinghy excursions, easy hiking trails, colorful snorkel and scuba dive spots and prolific fishing grounds.
The small town of Bahia de Los Angeles has grocery stores, cantinas with Wi-Fi, and an air conditioned cinema. Several beach resorts here have welcomed us colorful cruising boaters and fishermen to their lovely pools and restaurants.
Puerto Don Juan itself is a small bay that’s well protected from hurricane winds and seas from 360 degrees. Although it has room for at least 20 cruising sailboats, powerboats and sportfishers to swing for days, it’s not a port. It’s totally undeveloped, except for an occasional boaters’ BBQ ashore.
To avoid hurricane-season boredom, most successful summer cruisers develop a hobby aboard. Even if you don’t take up ham radio (see my previous Mexico Report), it’s prudent to become expert at tracking any tropical depressions, tropical storms or hurricanes that develop down south and begin heading up the coast of Mexico.
“Leaving a boat at anchor with a neighbor keeping an eye on it? That seldom works,” said Delgado. “As storm winds pick up, the other guy is too busy on his own boat, and it’s too rough for him to get in his dinghy and go over to save your boat. I’ve seen it a hundred times,” said Delgado.