A Group Effort

Safety in numbers and camaraderie make group cruises a great way for rookie south-of-the-border cruisers to get their feet wet.

Boat owners who joined the CUBAR Odyssey, a 15-day powerboat rally from San Diego to La Paz, cited one of two main reasons, based on experience: safety in numbers and camaraderie. Of the 50 boat owners who signed up, those who described themselves as first-timers to Mexico cruising said the idea of safety in numbers was primarily what enticed then to join. Most of the entrants with some experience boating south of the border said they were primarily looking forward to sharing the group’s camaraderie.

But in the end, how significant were safety in numbers and camaraderie?

Dozens of tales of high-seas thrills and adventures — and a few misadventures — filled the boisterous welcome party at Marina CostaBaja, our final destination in La Paz. It was obvious, as I listened to the tales, that camaraderie and safety in numbers played a huge part in everyone’s success. Here are just a few examples.

1. ENSENADA: Before the beginning of the two-day run for Turtle Bay, the weather forecasts suggested slightly better sea conditions southbound — 15 knots northwest instead of 20 — if we left Ensenada a day earlier than planned. Leaving early meant skipping the vineyard tours, so at Marina Coral’s welcome party we held an informal show of hands: Who will depart early? Who won’t?

The next morning, only four boats stayed, but we all kept in touch on VHF or HF email.

2. SAN QUINTIN: During the first two-day run south, one of the boat crews wasn’t happy about running overnight, so they put out a VHF call for local knowledge about anchoring at San Quintin for the night. I and three other participants related our favorable experiences there, along with a caution about avoiding the breakers. They decided to stop, enjoyed a restful night and caught up to us the next day.

3. CEDROS QUESTION: As my group angled offshore from San Quintin and Punta Baja toward Cedros Island, the big following seas developed a more northerly component. Constant conversations on VHF focused on which way around Cedros Island everyone thought would be more comfortable: outside or inside. Hoping for (and finding) a narrow lee along the island’s east side, my boat opted for inside. Those who went outside found rougher seas. But it wasn’t until we all eventually had to pass through the Dewey Channel’s current turbulence that we regained VHF contact with each other.

“Watch out for a mile-long string of lobster floats off Isla Natividad,” was everyone’s VHF mantra. With that warning repeated boat to boat, we all made it into Turtle Bay without getting snagged.

4. TURTLE BAY: One boat’s autopilot compass failed on the way down. Its crew didn’t look forward to hand steering the rest of the way, but they weren’t likely to find a replacement in remote Turtle Bay. After calling around the anchorage on VHF — Surprise! — another boat happened to have a brand new flux-gate compass, still in the box as a spare. The fix took about an hour.

Despite recent price hikes nationwide on Pemex fuel, all the CUBAR boats that needed diesel enjoyed a discount we’d arranged at Enrique’s fuel dock (33 pesos per liter) and water taxis ($5 round trip). We also arranged a sit-down lunch for 120 hungry crew at Talpa’s Restaurant.

5. MAN OF WAR: Our peaceful overnight anchorage in Man of War Cove was blanketed by dense fog the next morning, when Tom Nielsen had scheduled a halfday guided dinghy tour of the mangrove estuaries in the Soledad Channel. Despite a late start, we had 15 dinghies ready to follow tour guide Enrique Soto and two 22-foot excursion pangas. But as we sped out of the anchorage, the crew on one of the smaller dinghies called on VHF to say they had been left behind, couldn’t locate the pack in the fog and couldn’t find their back to the anchorage.

Another dinghy happened to have been recording GPS. It received the lost crew’s position and quickly circled back, found them and led them to rejoin the tour.

6. RESCUE TOW: Finally, there’s the rescue of Brown Eyed Girl, the smallest boat in the fleet (28-foot Skipjack), which lost its main shaft while fishing 20 miles offshore south of Magdalena Bay. At first, Larry Lucore and his crew of burly firefighters tried using their dinghy’s outboard as a very slow get-me-home engine, aimed toward Cabo San Lucas, but by nightfall rough seas built and severe cavitation ensued.

Christie Donnelly aboard Varnabank expertly coordinated all communications. The CUBAR fleet was spread along about 150 miles of ocean, so Donnelly used her skills on SSB, Ham, InReach, Iridium Go, Spot, and Iridium sat phones with email. Almost every boat had AIS, which helped tremendously. Several of our boat crews volunteered to head offshore, meet the 28-footer and stand by in case, as expected, the outboard failed and they needed to be towed.

Rigging a tow at night in offshore conditions is chancy, but within the fleet sufficient skill and camaraderie were mustered. Sprezzaturra, Eric Bescoby’s 40-foot Nordhavn, had ample fuel range and a good towing rig, and the crew was experienced, so without sacrificing the outboard, they hooked up and towed Brown Eyed Girl more than 100 miles through the night and most of the next day.

As Sprezzatura and Brown Eyed Girl finally motored into Marina Puerto Los Cabos, we all honked our horns and applauded them.

The CUBAR Odyssey, the Baja Ha Ha and the Panama Posse all offer great camaraderie. But safety in numbers doesn’t necessarily refer to fending off pirate attacks. I think it’s more about participating in a larger group of volunteers that’s committed to sharing its wealth of boating experience, local knowledge, tools and, finally, camaraderie.