While the conditions for the Baja Bash are inevitable, facing them doesn’t have to be.
The annual migration of boaters in and out of Mexico is controlled by hurricane season. Most boaters head south in early November, when hurricanes have just ended, and return north in May before the tropical storms begin again in June. But is May the best time to head home? Boaters who go then are pushing against the strong prevailing northwesterlies, which give the northbound trip its name: the Baja Bash. If not then, when is the best time to come home?
The surprising answer is that May is often the toughest month with the strongest northwesterlies. November, just when most boaters are headed south, is when the northwesterlies are lightest and, therefore, would be the easiest time to head north on the Baja coast.
By May the cold fronts, which are a feature of winter and early spring, have mostly stopped invading California and Baja California waters. The Pacific High, which lasts nearly until November, is settling into its quasi-stationary position between Hawaii and California. The U.S. interior deserts are heating up and the hot air rising out of them creates what is known as the Yuma Low. The clockwise rotation of air around the Pacific High feeds into this low and creates strong northwesterlies along the Baja peninsula. Such winds often blow 20 knots or more and can last for days — hence, the Baja Bash for boaters returning from Mexico. May and June typically have the strongest winds, which gradually slack off in the summer months. April is a transition month and not a bad time to give it a try.
By November the deserts are cooling off and the Pacific High is breaking down, which allows cold fronts to make their first weak forays into these waters. Consequently, winds are light along the Baja coast, so it’s a great time to be headed north. As winter progresses, more cold fronts invade and block the building of the high and its subsequent northwest winds. When a low-pressure system approaches the coast of California, winds can be light along the Baja coast. The strongest of these fronts will on rare occasions reach all the way to Cabo San Lucas and must be watched out for. But overall, winter is a good time to be returning from Mexico.
In planning a Mexico trip, use this information to your advantage. For a yearlong trip, leave in November and return in November. For the typical one-season cruising itinerary — traditionally, leave in November, come back in May — think about coming back in April instead. It cuts the trip short by a month, but the return will be drastically easier. Alternatively, return from Cabo San Lucas as late as July 15. It won’t be as good as a November return, but the northwesterlies will have died down from their May peak. Even though a small risk of hurricanes exists, it is very rare for them to reach the Baja peninsula before mid-July. However, check with your insurance company. While some will allow a departure at this time, others will require a return before May 30.
It’s Got Legs
Regardless of the timing of the return trip, stay within five miles of shore, where practicable. The winds are stronger farther offshore, and they blow day and night, almost like a trade wind. Being close in takes advantage of the diurnal land/sea breeze effect. During the day the land heats up while the sea remains relatively cool. Hot air rises and the cool air over the water rushes toward the land to fill the lower pressure created by the hot air’s rising. At night the opposite happens. The land cools off more quickly than the ocean, at which point the cooler air subsides and blows toward the ocean. Land breezes are typically weaker than sea breezes.
Close along the Baja shore, the normal cycle of land/sea breezes means that, generally, from about midnight until about 10 a.m. a light northwest wind blows, which makes it fairly easy — or at least tolerable — to travel northwest up Baja. However, around 10 a.m., the wind begins to fill in from the northwest, which is right on northbound boats’ nose. That northwest wind usually builds to a peak about sunset, then gradually subsides throughout the evening.
The trick to minimizing the bash is to take advantage of the land/sea cycle. That means boaters will be underway at night, from about sunset until about 10 a.m., when traveling conditions should be more favorable. Nighttime running requires sharp navigation and extra vigilance from the watchstanders, even though it’s contrary to most people’s normal sleep cycle. Don’t worry; when it’s rough outside, it’s usually too difficult for anyone “off watch” to sleep anyway.
Sleeping during the day is the other half of this trick. It’s only possible after the boat has been tucked into a nicely protected anchorage with no rock and roll. Daylight allows people to see hazards before they set the hook. Most crews will establish their radar’s perimeter alarm or leave one crewmember awake on “anchor watch.”
Along some stretches of the Baja coast, anchorages that are reliably sheltered from northwest winds are few and far between. Slower boats may still have to run 24 hours between restful anchorages. The faster the boat, the easier it is to take advantage of this midnight-to-10 a.m. trick.
Most important, if the forecast is good for several days, take advantage of it and keep moving, avoiding any stops other than for fuel. You might get tired, but consider yourself lucky instead.
How Cool is That?
Stop by Stop
Departing from Cabo San Lucas, run within five miles of shore to Mag Bay. Along this 150-mile stretch there are no anchorages. From Mag Bay to Santa Maria is only 30 miles. From Santa Maria turn due north to San Juanico, which is 97 miles away. Many boaters are tempted to take a straight shot from Santa Maria to Turtle Bay, but this takes them well offshore where it gets very rough. Heading to San Juanico keeps the route closer to shore where it is calmer. The 160-mile stretch from San Juanico to Turtle Bay includes several well-placed anchorages for shorter runs: Abreojos, Hipolito and Asuncion.
From Turtle Bay, pass outside Isla Natividad and Cedros Islands for 57 miles to anchor at San Benitos. This is an offshore leg that can’t be avoided, because the coastal route inside of the huge bight of Bahia Vizcaino is very long and out of the way and includes dangerous currents and shoals. From San Benitos to San Quintin is 126 miles and potentially the roughest part of the Baja return. Winds and seas should subside closer to the coast. Then run from San Quintin to Ensenada (107 miles) to clear out of the country. Complete the remaining 60 miles to the Custom’s Dock in San Diego, and the Baja Bash is behind you.