Land Ho, Mexico!
FUBAR Navigates the Barren Baja Coast to Explore the Fertile Sea of Cortez. From our March 2008 issue
Tony Fleming's Venture, a Fleming 65 and one of FUBAR's escort vessels, steams toward La Paz. After exploring the Sea of Cortez, she will head to the Galapagos Islands and the Panama Canal, eventually crossing the North Atlantic.
Oftentimes it takes someone else to try something new before others have the courage to follow. Or sometimes it takes a group to achieve things individuals wouldn't otherwise attempt on their own. This concept of "safety in numbers" is catching on in the world of long-distance power cruising, and the FUBAR (Fleet Underway to BAja Rally), a 917-mile flotilla voyage down Mexico's Baja peninsula and into the Sea of Cortez, is the latest example of how organized events are stretching the horizons of everyday boaters.
This odyssey was conceived by Bruce Kessler, known for the globe-circling adventures he has experienced aboard his oceangoing Zopilote and her successor, Spirit of Zopilote. Sponsored in part by the Del Ray Yacht Club, the FUBAR took place in November 2007. Fifty powerboats ranging from 28 to 96 feet left San Diego, California, for La Paz, Mexico, after weeks of planning and preparation.
Each boat was required to have a minimum range of 450 miles without carrying extra fuel abovedecks, and each was inspected for basic safety and seaworthiness by experts brought together by FUBAR's organizers. Interspersed throughout the fleet were seven escort vessels, including Pacific Escort, captained by veteran long-distance cruiser Jim Leishman, one of the founders of Nordhavn.
Kessler and his committee of volunteers helped expedite immigration procedures, arranged to have fuel trucks and barges waiting at critical stopovers, and reserved transient slips at the better marinas. More than one member of his committee spoke Spanish, which proved to be a godsend at times, especially in the more remote areas of Mexico, where things can quickly become lost in translation.
Beyond safety and convenience, flotilla cruising creates a spirit of camaraderie, and the FUBAR participants enjoyed a series of organized beach parties, dinners and local tours throughout the two-week voyage.
Choosing the Route
Mexico's Baja peninsula, an 800-mile stretch of barren desert dividing the Pacific Ocean from the fertile, fascinating Sea of Cortez, is host to a number of well-known sailboat races, as well as the ever-popular "Baja Ha-Ha," which attracts nearly 200 cruising sailboats each year. The FUBAR Odyssey, however, was the first major event organized specifically for power cruisers who wanted to explore the area.
Prevailing northwest winds and seas favor the "downhill" run to Los Cabos ("the capes"), where the twin cities of Cabo San Lucas and San José del Cabo are located. But this is no easy coastal cruise. Safe ports and protected anchorages are few and far between, and the availability of fuel, spare parts and mechanical help is as sparse as the desert land itself.
The planned route included stops in Ensenada, Turtle Bay, Santa Maria, Magdalena Bay, Cabo San José and finally Muertos Bay and La Paz, both of which are in the Sea of Cortez. The longest run was the 282 miles from Ensenada to Turtle Bay, and because fuel is hard to find south of Ensenada, all boats — even the faster sport fishermen — ran at displacement speeds (typically between eight and nine knots) to conserve fuel.
The downhill trip is really a baptism for the "uphill" return. Ocean swells, heavy head seas and on-the-nose wind combine to create what is known as the "Baja Bash," and it is not unheard of for naive first-timers to put their boats up for sale rather than face the 800-mile trip back to the States.
Most FUBAR participants planned to explore the Sea of Cortez before returning home, while some had more ambitious plans that included stopping in Costa Rica, transiting the Panama Canal and heading to the Caribbean or up the Atlantic Coast.
Different Boats and Different Folks
The FUBAR fleet was a mixture of motoryachts, sport fishermen and long-range cruiser/trawlers, and their owners were as varied as the boats. The smallest vessel, Brown Eyed Girl, was a 28-foot Skipjack built in the late 70s and run by three fun-loving, retired firefighters from California. At the other end of the spectrum was the 96-foot Qué Sera, a luxurious, Dutch-built motoryacht complete with a paid crew of three, her owners and their guests.
In between these extremes were several Nordhavns and Selenes, as well as at least one Bertram, Hatteras, Grand Banks, Chris Craft, Bayliner, Offshore, Riviera, Egg Harbor, Mikelson, Fleming, Hampton, Ocean Alexander, Viking and Ocean. While most of the boats were from Southern California, the Pacific Northwest was also represented, as was the East Coast.
The owners ranged from those with years of offshore experience to those who had never done an overnight passage. For many, this eye-opening 917-mile voyage would have been intimidating without the support of the FUBAR fleet.
Setting the Stage
San Diego was chosen as the staging area where check-in procedures, seminars and captain's meetings would be held. With the cooperation of the Mexico Tourism Board, boats and crew with proper documents were precleared by immigration before leaving, making the entry into Ensenada, the first Mexican port, as simple as checking into any domestic marina.
Regardless of how well one plans for a voyage, there are always last-minute boat details to deal with, and with its numerous marine suppliers and services, San Diego proved to be the ideal departure location.
Highlighting the organized seminars were briefings by Dr. Jerry Kornfeld, focusing on medical preparedness, and by retired Captain John Rains, who literally wrote the book on cruising Mexico (the Mexico Cruising Guide) and who would be serving as the fleet's director of navigation. Bob Senter, a marine technical consultant working with Northern Lights and Alaska Diesel, conducted an informative session covering mechanical issues and engine-room checks.
Heading To Ensenada
Finally after weeks of preparation and a celebratory send-off dinner, the fleet departed San Diego and headed for Ensenada, a straightforward, 65-mile run that served as a shakedown cruise. The early-morning weather was foggy, damp and gray, but everyone was in good spirits and looking forward to the adventures ahead.
I was fortunate to join Tony Fleming aboard his beautiful Fleming 65 Venture, which was another one of the escort vessels. During the trip, I learned there aren't many places Fleming hasn't been to in a boat that he built. In addition to hearing his fascinating stories and entertaining exposé of the boatbuilding business (Fleming was part of the original Grand Banks organization), I enjoyed seeing his artfully produced videos documenting his worldwide journeys.
The fleet arrived in Ensenada by mid-afternoon, with half the boats proceeding to Cruiseport Village Marina and the other half to Marina Coral. Although this had been a short leg, many skippers decided to top off their fuel tanks, and Kessler had arranged for a truck to arrive at Cruiseport with clean diesel at $2.40 a gallon. Both marinas were conveniently located downtown, and with a scheduled stopover of two nights, many of us enjoyed exploring this classic Mexican city by foot.
Ensenada is a working port, busy with commercial traffic and cruise ships. It's also where more and more cruisers are having their boats shipped via yacht-transport vessels. Some vessels arrive from the East Coast, others from the Pacific Northwest — all with the intention of exploring Baja and the Sea of Cortez.
Our First Overnighter
After our two days in Ensenada, highlighted by a dinner party and an official greeting from the Ensenada Tourism Board, the fleet headed southeast to Turtle Bay, a distance of 282 miles. This was the first overnight, offshore passage for several participants, and we were fortunate to have ideal weather and sea conditions. Kessler joined us on Venture, and Chris Conklin, Tony Fleming's captain, established an easy watch schedule of two hours on, two hours off for the four of us. We ran at nine or nine and a half knots the entire way, burning just under 10 gallons per hour.
The organizers recommended that boats stay one mile from each other after dark, but some skippers were either uncomfortable being separated or simply not sure of the rules of the road. The night's silence was sometimes broken by amusing radio conversations, with one helmsman reminding another that the overtaking vessel is responsible for maintaining the minimum distance, not the other way around.
As the sun set on the infinitely wide, Pacific Ocean horizon, we began to get into our respective passagemaking routines, and I was reminded of how thoroughly I enjoy being on the ocean in a well-found vessel with good shipmates. While Kessler busied himself with official FUBAR activities, Fleming and I traded sea stories, boat-business humor and photographic tips and tricks. (Fleming is an avid videographer.)
This was my first extensive use of an AIS (Automatic Identification System)-enabled radar. It was reassuring to know the identity of so many of the boats surrounding us. With or without AIS, the radar's ARPA (Advanced Radar Plotting Aid) allowed us to track each target, monitoring its distance, speed and course. If you plan on making overnight passages, ARPA is a valuable feature you should become familiar with, and AIS is especially helpful in identifying commercial vessels. Venture is also equipped with a full pan-and-tilt FLIR thermal night-vision viewer, a device I learned to love, realizing it would enable me to safely navigate at night through the maze of crab pots on the Chesapeake Bay.
With only a few minor mechanical problems to report, all boats arrived safely in Turtle Bay by mid-afternoon, roughly 33 hours after departing Ensenada. Kessler had thoughtfully arranged for Annabelle, a small fuel barge, to service each boat needing diesel. The alternative was to approach the rickety old, 15-foot-high fuel dock, drop your anchor to windward, drift back, grab a line and catch the fuel hose — not an ideal situation. Ruben Patron, the owner of Annabelle and a shoreside restaurant, showed us his official permit to build a new marina, complete with a modern fuel dock. Witnessing this man's tenacity, I wouldn't be surprised to see his dream project come true.
Turtle Bay's small, isolated village of less than 1,000 souls has been going through tough times since its fish packing plant closed nearly 10 years ago. But the people of this dusty, desert town are surprisingly cheerful, and there are a number of cantinas and tiny grocery stores within walking distance of the beach — although don't count on finding much fresh, refrigerated food. As in most parts of Baja, however, the cervezas are chilled and plentiful.
Turtle Bay To Los Cabos
After two days, the fleet departed on its next overnight passage, a 228-mile run to Santa Maria. Judging from the radio chatter, there was a higher comfort level among the less experienced cruisers, and thanks to ideal weather, the passage was without incident.
The anchorage in Santa Maria Cove is well protected and easy to enter, and by early afternoon the entire flotilla had arrived. A fleet of fishing pangas ferried nearly 200 partygoers through the surf to the beach, where a small, rustic restaurant was perched on a hill overlooking the bay and where we sat on the rocks sipping beers, margaritas and bean soup. I kept my eye on the rising surf after learning that 150 sailors participating in the Baja Ha Ha had recently been forced to spend the night on the beach because they couldn't get back to their anchored boats through the big waves. Our FUBAR group had better luck, and except for a wet derrière or two, everyone got back safely.
The next day Fleming, Conklin and I joined Leishman and his crew in exploring the cove's winding tributary by dinghy, and we discovered a tiny fishing village located far up the small river at the water's edge. Without its few isolated signs of modern civilization — satellite dishes and four-stroke outboards — this could have been a scene from John Steinbeck's 1951 "The Log From The Sea of Cortez."
For the short run to Man-O-War Cove in Magdalena Bay, I joined Leishman aboard his company's new Nordhavn 55. Also on board were his brother Jeff, who is the lead naval architect and designer of the Nordhavn line of trawlers; his brother Jay; his wife, Sue; and his two sons, James and Eric, who both work for Nordhavn.
Leave it to this adventure-loving group to make a 30-mile run interesting. Eric, 23, apparently doesn't travel far without his surfboard, and he showed off his form as his uncle and brother turned the ship's dinghy into a ski boat. And James, 26, who is part man, part fish, donned his wet suit, grabbed his speargun and brought us a 60-lb. grouper from the deep.
After dropping our anchor in Man-O-War Cove, we were boarded by an official port captain, who inspected the ship's papers and the immigration documents of crewmembers. None of us really understood the purpose of this procedure, but the official was friendly and courteous, especially after being offered a cold beer (unofficially, of course.)
I rejoined my shipmates aboard Venture for the 182-mile passage to Cabo San José, and again, it felt good to be at sea. After my watch in the pilothouse was over at 10 pm, I sat up on the flying bridge, mesmerized by the night sky, absorbing the quiet magnificence of an ocean passage. Back on watch hours later, I spotted the glow of Cabo San Lucas, and by mid-morning Venture was maneuvering Med-style to its assigned slip at the recently opened Puerto Los Cabos Resort and Marina facility just outside San José.
This all-new 2,000-acre resort complex is an example of the exciting things coming to the area. With slips for 500 boats, including yachts up to 150 feet; two signature golf courses; a hotel, restaurant and a new, luxury home development; it is attracting yachtsmen and sport fishermen from afar. While the city of San José maintains its provincial, classical style, the nightlife and glitter of Cabo San Lucas is less than 20 miles away.
The La Paz Payoff
Until we rounded the corner of Los Cabos and headed north, most of us had only read about Steinbeck's Sea of Cortez. For many, this would mark the beginning of a winter of exploration and discovery. Our first stop was an anchorage in Muertos Cove, 75 miles from San José. This misunderstood name (it means dead men) comes from the old "dead men" mooring system that utilized ore-mining carts buried in the sandy bottom. A highlight for many of the FUBAR participants was attending a lavish party hosted by the developer of Bahia de los Sueños, a future, luxurious, planned community complete with its own landing strip.
But the big payoff came in La Paz, 150 miles from Los Cabos. The capital city of Baja, La Paz has a population of nearly 200,000 people, and its attractive waterfront is lined with hotels, restaurants and shops, not unlike South Beach. The FUBAR fleet stayed at the modern Costa Baja Resort & Marina, which is just a short taxi ride from downtown, and which hosted a farewell dinner for the fleet.
Officially, the FUBAR Odyssey ended after a 13-day, 917-mile voyage. Of the 48 boats that left Ensenada, 45 arrived safely in La Paz, with two staying in Cabo and one going to Puerto Vallarta.
Reported problems within the fleet included a leaky hydraulic steering line, a few clogged fuel filters (caused by using 2-micron filter elements instead of the engine manufacturer's recommended 10- or 30-micron elements), a failed GPS receiver and a cranky freshwater pump. Not bad considering the complexity of modern yachts and the distance traveled. None of these problems caused delays, safety concerns or serious inconvenience.
The real payoff, however, was the experience gained and the friendships formed. On the one hand, those who left San Diego just two weeks earlier with little or no offshore experience now had the confidence to explore distant shores on their own. On the other hand, experienced cruisers told me how much more fun it was to share their new discoveries and their boating knowledge with others. By all accounts the FUBAR Odyssey was a huge success. It will undoubtedly lead to other such events for power cruisers, encouraging more owners to use their boats the way they were intended to be used &emdash; for voyaging long distances and discovering new places.
Reprinted Power Cruising Magazine