The basic journey is three legs long, and the reward is cruising the Sea of Cortez.
As soon as hurricane season is over, several thousand U.S. recreational boat owners will take their vessel and jump down Baja to pursue bliss: winter cruising season in Mexico. Get ready to break out the flip-flops and make piña coladas!
How can they do this? You might ask. It’s different for every boat, but the basics of how it’s done are simple.
Smaller boats being towed on trailers from San Diego hop onto Mexico Highway 1, which runs the length of Baja California to Cabo San Lucas, at Tijuana. The new border crossing at San Ysidro is finally open, which makes it easier, and drivers will find plenty of Pemex gas stations along the highway. Side roads off Highway 1 take trailerboaters to either L.A. Bay in the Sea of Cortez or Puerto San Carlos on the Pacific side of Baja.
Alternatively, drivers can cross the border at the Calexico-Mexicali portal and travel the divided Highway 5 to San Felipe in the northwestern Sea of Cortez. From Arizona, trailerboaters most easily cross from Lukeville to Sonoyta, Sonora, and use Highway 8 — the direct route to Puerto Penasco in the northeastern Sea of Cortez.
THREE BIG HOPS
Oceangoing powerboats can usually take Baja in three big hops: Ensenada to Turtle Bay, Turtle Bay to Magdalena Bay and Mag Bay to Los Cabos. But the boat must have the fuel range, and the crew must have the watch-standing capability to make the passages. Even owners with boats that can run at 15 knots might want to stretch their fuel range by throttling back to seven or nine knots. Every boat is different. The “big hop” method usually requires three watch standers.
• HOP 1
Ensenada is 60 miles south of the U.S.- Mexico border, and it is where to get a slip, get paperwork clearance into the country and top off fuel tanks. From here, carry at least enough fuel to reach Turtle Bay, which is about 285 nautical miles by the “big hop” method. That mileage is based on not making extra zigs and zags to follow the curving coastline around Bahia Vizcaino (see map).
Simply point-hop five to 10 miles off from Punta Banda, Punta Santo Tomas and Cabo Colonet, then 10 miles off from Cabo San Quintin and Punta San Antonio. Doing so keeps boats safely outside the Sacramento Reef, as they begin to angle offshore toward Cedros Island’s Punta Norte. All these points have some anchorages that can be used logistically to kill time, in order to pass Punta Eugenia and arrive at the entrance to Turtle Bay with plenty of daylight.
• HOP 2
Fuel is the main game here, and no marina yet exists, but if you anchor off the town, the skipper of one of the fuel pangas will zoom around your boat and offer to sell you fuel. They’ll tie up alongside while they pump as much as 1,000 liters of diesel into the deck fills. Or, if you med moor off the east side of town’s historic fuel pier, you can get any amount of fuel. Prices are based on scarcity. Turtle Bay is an excellent refuge anchorage, but don’t count on the town for provisions or fine dining.
After Turtle Bay, it’s about 243 miles to Santa Maria or 270 to Magdalena Bay. You’ll want to point-hop five miles off the minor headlands of San Roque, Isla Asuncion and Hipolito, then 10 miles off Punta Abreojos, unless you want to anchor at Abreojos to visit Laguna San Ignacio Whale Park.
From Abreojos, jump offshore for about 120 miles. Aim for a spot five miles west of Cabo San Lazaro, the major turning headland. Be prepared to avoid ship traffic that’s rounding Cabo San Lazaro between five and 10 miles off. Boats are able to stay within five miles of the rugged, steep coast until they turn into either Bahia Santa Maria or Magdalena Bay — or visit both separately.
Santa Maria is a wide, easy-in, easy-out anchorage that provides good shelter from north winds. But if tropical storms are still roaming down south, boaters may feel their uncomfortable swell inside Santa Maria to some degree. In that case, continue into Magdalena Bay and turn north to anchor in Man of War Cove at Puerto Magdalena village.
Sometimes, anchored boaters can arrange for limited fuel to be delivered in jerry jugs or portable tanks from Puerto San Carlos, which is a commercial port nearby with fuel docks for ships. Yatistas are welcome to stop after they clear in with the authorities. But don’t count on getting fuel here.
• HOP 3
Be sure to pick a good weather window for the last leg, a 175-mile jaunt, because it has no fuel and no reliable anchorage. After clearing Punta Tosca, aim for Cabo Falso. Sometimes a northwest wind lifts big following seas that can mash the starboard bow into northbound swells rolling up from the south.
Boats with low freeboard should stay closer to shore — say, three to five miles off the beach — in order to benefit from any small lee, but watch-standers need to always be vigilant for buoys and nets. Bigger boats may fishtail south while enjoying a knot or two of push. This is where an autopilot earns its keep. Turn at Cabo Falso and try to arrive in the morning hours at either Cabo San Lucas or San Jose del Cabo for two simple reasons: to avoid the fleets of sportfishing boats that zoom out at first light and to avoid the afternoon buildup of diurnal winds.
Sometimes, this last hop down Baja is glassed off. Finally, you can break out the flip-flops. Does anybody remember where the blender got stowed?