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Summer Boating (Hiding Out) in the Upper Sea of Cortez

Boaters throughout Mexico’s cruising grounds are now considering where to locate themselves for 2023’s fast approaching hurricane season, especially since NOAA recently announced the 62 percent possibility of El Nino conditions returning in June.

Previously we looked into two different areas that contain safe summer-boating options: (1.) south of the Gulf of Tehuantepec and its neighboring hurricane nursery; (2.) from Barra de Navidad up to Puerto Escondido and everything around the lower Sea of Cortez. We’re not looking at Mexico’s hurricane alley, the Gold Coast and Costa Alegre.

So, this time, we’ll scan the upper Sea of Cortez looking for any relatively safe marinas, moorings, dry-storage yards and so-called “hurricane hole” anchorages.

HIDING OUT

“Why did you call it ‘hiding out?’ From hurricanes?”

“No, not especially from hurricanes,” said Julie T., when I met her in San Carlos, Sonora.

“The heat and humidity were just awful. We spent all of August just hiding out below decks in the air conditioning.”

She said even though she and her husband did use a small air-conditioning (AC) unit to cool their sailboat in a Sonora marina, they often sought out other cool spots, “wherever we could find it. Lots of time in the movies we’d sit through it twice, or hang out in the big-box grocery stores through the hottest hours of the days.”

“We know of at least one family with small kids that simply moved into an air-conditioned hotel near the marina for most of August,” she said.

UPPER SEA OF CORTEZ

Where does the upper part start? If we draw a horizontal line from Santa Rosalia on the Baja side of the Sea of Cortez for 75 n.m. eastward across to uninhabited Punta Lobos on the Sonora side, that line can serve this discussion as a hypothetical border between lower and upper Sea of Cortez. We’ll look northward from that line on both sides.

Before our oceans warmed, full blown hurricanes were seldom drawn up this narrow body of water, but now they are, and sometimes Pacific storms actually leap across the Baja Peninsula as they absorb more heat from the sea surface in the Sea of Cortez.

Check today’s sea water temperatures here https://www.ospo.noaa.gov/Products/ocean/sst/contour/ and scroll down to Gulf of California.

GUAYMAS, SONORA

Why Guaymas, you might ask. Pronounced “WHY-mas,” this modest commercial harbor is ringed in protective hills, and 1.2-mile-long Bird Island blocks big seas from entering the harbor’s 0.6-of-a-mile wide opening to the southeast. Inside the harbor, two islands further serve as wave baffles protecting marinas and boat yards on the shoreline.

In the Playitas area of Guaymas’ south harbor boaters find Marina Guaymas well sheltered docks and three dry storage yards with dirt floors that have been popular with cruisers. In the harbor’s north end are a small Fonatur Marina Guaymas and its adjacent dry storage yard with concrete floor.

As of May 1, this yard was already full with 48 boats planning to summer over “on the hard.” (This marina’s 15-boat dock, now rebuilt, had failed during a previous hurricane and damaged boats.) 

SAN CARLOS, SONORA

This trendy resort town only 17 n.m. northwest of Guaymas has two separate and well enclosed marina basins, each with its dry storage yard. Both are good choices.

Marina San Carlos lies east of landmark peak Tetas de Cabra, and boats can anchor or grab a mooring in adjacent Bahia San Carlos. Its large dry storage yard safely located a mile inland has an area reserved for painting or repairs, while the separate vessel storage yard (called “Marina Seca San Carlos”) is a popular place to leave boats behind through all or part of hurricane season while the owners fly north to cooler climes.

Marina Real’s yacht basin lies just west of Tetas de Cabra and its smaller dry storage yard is adjacent. Around both these popular summer marinas we find ample yacht services, eateries and shops.

Moving north, the next three summer boating locales are over on the Baja side.

PUERTO DON JUAN, BCN

Not a port at all, this small uninhabited bay provides excellent hurricane anchorage thanks to its narrow dog-leg entrance and natural basin mostly surrounded in hills. Whenever named storms threaten to reach this far north (almost 29° North latitude), Don Juan has swinging room for more than 20 cruising boats. And unlike Mexico’s summer marinas and boat storage yards, Puerto Don Juan is free. No wonder it’s so popular. For supplies, take the boat to anchor off the village of Bahia de Los Angeles (L.A. Bay) six miles west.

PUERTO REFUGIO

Here’s another place named Puerto that is not a port. It’s an anchorage area that has for decades provided boaters with excellent shelter on all sides from any hurricane that could make its way this far up the Sea of Cortez – 29°33’ North Latitude. Located at the northern tip of 42-mile long Guardian Angel Island with its peaks to 3,300 feet, this 3-mile wide refuge consists of at least six snug anchoring areas that are nestled among four shielding islands and two multi-faceted bays. Come here well stocked, because the nearest supplies are 45 n.m. south back at L.A. Bay.

SAN FELIPE, BCN

CAUTION: In the far northern end of the Sea of Cortez, we encounter two conditions that require caution. The farther north we go, the more radical are the tides, ranging up to a whopping 22 feet difference during extreme neap and spring tides. Combine that with the very shallow gradient of the region’s sandy shorelines, and you find anchored boats sitting high and dry on the mud next to shore, while the water has receded a quarter mile farther out.

San Felipe thrives on beach-resort tourism and panga fishing. On the south edge of town, rip-rap breakwaters jut out a quarter mile from shore to partially enclose a square harbor. Inside are two launch ramps, a stationary concrete dock system used by fishing boats, a 100-foot fuel dock and 15 slips of Marina Fonatur San Felipe.

San Felipe is usually safe from tropical storms, thanks to its northerly location (almost 31° North Latitude). So it should provide a safe refuge for dozens of yachts that need to summer over, right? Sadly, this harbor has serious silting issues that prevent anchoring in almost half its shelter. And local excursion boats keep the small marina full year-round.

So, San Felipe is an option only for boats 30-feet and smaller, or able to be hauled out by trailer and stored nearby between uses.

PUERTO PENASCO, SONORA

Not only is this the most northerly harbor in the Sea of Cortez, it has a narrow slightly curved entrance channel and it’s also almost entirely enclosed by high land. All this shields the interior from high wind and big seas. Inside Puerto Penasco are two fuel docks, six small marinas and two boat storage yards, all available for safe summer boating in this northwest corner of the Sea of Cortez.

For sportfishers and cruising boaters, the two most popular marinas are Fonatur and TerraMar, both found on the harbor’s south side. For dry storage on land, the 150-ton Travelift at Cabrales Astilleros handles most of the yachts and larger sportfishers. Because this small harbor’s tidal range is so great, anchoring isn’t a long-term plan.

NEW WEATHER ZONES

Affecting boaters in Mexican waters, see NOAA’s new changes to the offshore weather-forecast “zones” for Pacific Mexican waters: https://www.weather.gov/marine/offtafbMexmz

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One thought on “Summer Boating (Hiding Out) in the Upper Sea of Cortez

  • I live 42 km south of San Felipe. While they are not common, we got smacked by hurricane Kay last September. The eye was on the Pacific side of the peninsula, but the storm still hit hard. It just happened to hit at the same time as a full moon high tide, and the storm surge basically flooded San Felipe and destroyed many beach homes along the coast. So while relatively rare, San Felipe has had its share of hurricanes in the past, three in the last decade.

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