Are you buddy boating in Mexico or going it alone?
Because I’m among the many veteran Mexico cruisers who help with the CUBAR rallies, I get a lot of questions from folks who admit they don’t have much cruising experience or aren’t sure if their boat is cruise worthy. Most of them wonder if it’s too dangerous to explore Mexico’s charms on their own.
Dangerous? No. But for anyone with zero experience who isn’t willing to prepare himself and his boat, anywhere could be risky. Normally, a rally newbie has some cruising experience in local waters, just not in Mexican waters. You can glean a lot by poring over guidebooks, charts and boaters’ blogs from Mexico.
“OK, I see it’s being done by lots of other people, so I can figure it out for myself, right?” Right! But boaters want to feel safe and comfortable about crossing a new horizon for the first time — such as down Baja and into the Sea of Cortez or mainland Mexico for several months — which is exactly why buddy boating–type groups flourish.
WHY BUDDY BOAT?
Let’s say some wise old cowboys have attained a lot more experience at the foreign cruising rodeo than have some newbies who’d like to ride along. With an organized group, all the newbies get to ask questions of the old cowboys, learn the ropes, and see how and why they get prepared as they do — before they all saddle up and head south together.
Teaming up with a few old hands is an easy way to gain one’s first good experience. Everyone begins the adventure better prepared, and if the newbies keep their eyes and ears wide open, they’ll expand their local knowledge en route. Old cowboys need a good excuse to stay sharp, too, so it’s a win-win situation.
Maybe it’s just two skippers with slightly different experience levels preparing for a two-week jaunt from San Francisco to Santa Barbara, with a rest stop in Monterey. Oil change done yet? How many filters are you taking? Any special tools? Do you have a fuel bladder, a tow bridle? Buddy boaters in such a situation probably stay in VHF range and go out for dinner at the destination.
To absorb maximum value from the experienced dudes, hundreds of boaters each year join organized groups such as CUBAR, Baja Ha Ha, Puerto Vallarta Race, etc. Gleaning knowledge from others begins a year in advance for participants in such rallies. Logistics sessions, workshops and social dinners allow prospective participants to ask pointed questions pertaining to their boat and crew, their experience level, their fears and expectations. Old dudes and newbies sit together practicing their Spanish, comparing crazy sea stories and favorite destinations, analyzing watch schedules, discussing new gear someone’s considering — anything, really.
Before departure day, skippers can attend classes on diesel engine care, dinghy skills, navigation electronics, provisioning, ground tackle, life-raft demonstrations, tricks from fishing pros, and colorful travelogues of the glamorous resort stops.
PICKING A BUDDY
When it comes to traveling with a buddy, can you both travel about the same speed in expected conditions? Can you reach the same fuel stops? Are the same marinas OK? If you say something similar to the sentiments below, then buddy boating is probably a good idea:
“Our kids got along so well with the Sea Star kids that we decided to buddy with them over to Mazatlán for a few weeks. After that, we’ll see.”
“The Johnsons’ boat is similar to ours. We cruise about the same rpm, stop at the same places, and we appreciate seeing them on radar. So we’re planning to buddy with them up to Alaska next summer.”
“Bob and Jane speak great Spanish and are willing to keep us out of trouble. They’re going back to three or four places we want to go, so we’re happy to travel in their shadow awhile.”
If you find yourself saying something along these lines, maybe it’s best not to buddy boat with them:
“Pete said he doesn’t trust his chartplotter for Baja, so he wanted us both to stay 10 to 20 miles off. But we’ve got excellent radar, depthsounder and GPS charts; we feel safer coasting about five miles off.”
“Our pals love to go ashore partying every night, which is fun. But after a week we couldn’t match their pace. Our budget isn’t as big as theirs.”
“I don’t mind sharing my tools and helping old Joe with a bit of routine maintenance, but their engine room is so cramped that I just couldn’t work bent over like that anymore. We changed our itinerary to get away from them for a while, and my back is feeling better.”
What solo newbies miss most is the opportunity to communicate with other boaters, whether they grab each chance to chat or not. An easy fix is to set up a daily radio check with some other boaters who are also “out there.” Single sideband radio, HF email or a satellite phone work well for this. However, don’t let non-nautical family back home get too worried if you don’t answer immediately.
Standing watch overnight can feel more draining if you’re the only recreational vessel in many miles. Using AIS to identify other vessels makes the night watch less intimidating — even if you don’t contact them.
Plan your course legs to avoid making two consecutive overnight runs. But if that happens, spend a couple of extra days resting in a comfortable anchorage or marina before saddling up again.