Class is in Session

Use the lessons learned by Cubar veterans to make your passage down Baja safer and easier.

  First-time cruisers heading to Mexico are often full of questions and a bit of apprehension, especially if they’re going it alone with a small crew. How do we clear in? Where can we get fuel? What are the safe overnight stops along the outside of Baja? Those questions and many more can cause anxiety or even keep someone from trying it.

Group cruises such as CUBAR (Cruise Underway to Baja Rally) can help alleviate much of the angst newbie cruisers feel. Organizers offer training, route planning, maintenance help and more, giving novice cruisers a level of comfort that encourages going for it.

Bruce Kessler is the founder of CUBAR (formerly FUBAR — Fleet Underway to Baja Rally), and he said 10 years of running the event has taught him a few lessons. I’ve tagged along from the start and learned valuable lessons about what goes well and what doesn’t. Boat owners in group cruises or those going it alone can learn something from CUBAR’s lessons.

Does your boat have at least a 400-mile fuel range at an 8-knot average? That’s required for the longest leg on Baja, where there’s no on-the-water service to bring extra fuel. Chuck Dahill, cruise chairman for this year’s (and the previous) CUBAR, recommends all boat owners conduct a weekend training cruise beforehand, “to calculate the boat’s real fuel consumption rate vs. what the manufacturer thinks it is.”

Participating boats get inspected for mechanical readiness during the months leading up to the November cruise, but other cruisers can take advantage of CUBAR’s list of inspection points and spares, at

Everything in the engine room and the steering and propulsion systems should be inspected and serviced. Change the oils and fluids. Replace elderly hoses and belts. Carry maintenance spares for the main engine, generator, alternator, water-maker, air conditioner, pumps, breakers, etc. Locate and test all the seacocks, in case any are corroded or frozen, and tie a bung and a mallet to the pipe.

For running after dark, learn how to dim the screen or monitor on all bridge instruments, to eliminate their distracting reflections from the inside of the windshield. Some older electronics lack night settings.

“The red and green of my engine synch lights looked just like a boat coming at us,” Dahill said. “I ended up covering most of the dashboard with towels.”

Some owners get their boat’s fuel polished before heading south. If your cruising plans call for Central or South America, where fuel in remote places comes from rusty oil drums, consider carrying what’s dubbed a Baja fuel filter, which is, ironically, no longer needed in Baja. Do your fuel tanks have years worth of gunk in the bottom that will get stirred up in bouncy seas and clog your filters? Get that taken care of.

“It’s not as scary as all the veterans make it sound,” Dahill said. “Most people who prepare and plan have little to no problems. The war stories get better over time.”

Because any trip down Baja includes overnight runs (CUBAR has three) between rest stops, your crew roster should include more than two capable overnight watch-standers. Train the crew in advance. Make sure everybody knows how to steer and stop the boat, disengage the autopilot, navigate accurately using the electronics, use all the radios, set off the MOB alarm, make regular engine room checks, keep the log book, etc. The captain should show everybody the location of all the PFDs.

Drill your crew. There’s never been a fire or man-overboard (MOB) situation during CUBAR, but everyone prepares for it. The captain should assign each person a job in case of MOB and then pretend it’s the captain who has fallen overboard. Train all crew to quickly toss a PFD in the water to visually mark the MOB spot and where to find and write down the boat’s latitude and longitude. Plus, the captain should write down a mayday call to keep near the radios.

Practice how to fight a fire in the engine room and the galley. Walk through an abandon ship procedure, indicating exactly what to do with the life raft, EPIRB, dinghy and ditch kit. “Chuck and I laminated our Emergency Procedures checklist — emergency radio, MOB, abandon ship — and taped it inside our control panel covers for quick access,” Kelly Dahill said. “Hopefully we’ll never need it, but it’s ready to guide us through the emergency process.”

Practice anchoring overnight, specifically to test the ground tackle; it’s the cheapest form of insurance. Is the chain marked to clearly show how much is going out? Does the windlass retrieve flawlessly? Check the wiring belowdecks for corrosion. Do you carry spare windlass fuses? Stern anchor? Dinghy anchor? Spare rode and shackles? Should you consider rigging an anchor bridle to take the strain off the windlass and to quiet the noise in the forward stateroom?

Develop some anchoring hand signals. The owners of an elegant 70-foot motoryacht lost their walkie-talkies overboard the first day of CUBAR, so each time they anchored they had to resort to shouting between the bow and the helm station — the opposite of glamorous.

Practice launching and retrieving the dinghy, because you’ll be relying on it for daily errands. Check that the crane or davit works properly. Check the length of the control lines, and practice not bashing the tender into the side of the boat. Does the dinghy have an anchor, bailer and paddle? To protect RIB pontoons from tropical sun damage, consider having canvas covers made.

Every person on board should practice using the VHF. During practice cruises well offshore, conduct a few radio checks: ask any respondent how strong and clear your signal is — “five by five” means loud and clear — and ask their location, to ensure your signal is actually getting out.

If your practice cruise can stay out of the sight of land for more than a few hours, find out if any crewmember shows signs of anxiety or panic. This nasty surprise happened to a crewmember of mine who was an experienced coastal cruiser during a passage to Hawaii.