Sailing Pacific Baja Norte

From Ensenada I started picking my way down Baja’s pacific coast. My initial goal was to get to Turtle Bay, a protected bay with a small town and some services not quite half way down the pacific coast.

View Baja 2012 Norte in a larger map

The first stop was at Islas Todos Santos, a pair of small islands a couple hours west from Ensenada. There are some nice anchorages here on the east side of the islands, but these were filled up by an aquaculture operation and I ended up at an exposed, rocky anchorage further north, staying for several hours. Some hiking ashore, kayaking around the islands, and snorkeling, all very nice. Pelicans and gulls all over the islands.

Upon leaving the islands, I found that the boat’s new alternator was no longer working. I’d adjusted it earlier as the V-belt had been slipping, and now it refused to work at all. Incredibly aggravating. I returned to Ensenada to decompress and consider my options. Having yet another alternator, solar charger or generator shipped to Ensenada would take a while to get through customs, and returning to San Diego to sort things out would be both another large delay and pretty demoralizing. I ended up getting a taxi to the Costco in Ensenada, buying an array of six batteries to lay on the floor of the cabin, and started south without any way to charge them.

My electricity needs are pretty light, and this ended up working out, but the whole experience has been a good lesson in the importance of redundancy for critical systems — I started the trip with three ways to move the boat (sails, inboard diesel, kicker) but only one way to charge the batteries. There are no marinas and very few services along the 750+ miles of coast between Ensenada and Cabo San Lucas, and if the alternator had failed further on in this stretch it would have been a bad situation.

After the false start, I headed south for good on September 23. This began with a 115 mile run down to Isla San Martin, far enough away to get Ensenada out of my head. This is a great island, a volcanic cone about 500 feet high and a couple miles across, symmetric except for a natural breakwater on the southeast side with a fishing camp, where I anchored for the night. Kayaked around the island — lots of birds, some sea lions, kelp everywhere. Would like to do some diving here someday. Mostly too deep and exposed for snorkeling, though I did a bit on the east side and found a vibrant, healthy kelp forest. Hiked ashore in several places too, though didn’t get too far as the island is mostly cactus, chaparral and a’a lava, not a good fit for shorts and sandals.

The next stop was just in the lee of Cabo San Quintin, 10 miles to the south. I stayed and surfed here for four days, great spot. By a good margin the best surfing I’d ever done up to this point, combining a friendly break on a sand beach where I practiced the first two days with a point break that I spent the last two days at, the first real point break I’d surfed. Uncrowded, just a couple groups came in by truck. This would end up being the most secluded of the spots I surfed at on this trip. It’s hard to get completely isolated in Baja from what I’ve seen — most points shelter a village or fishing camp. Not really a bad thing, but different from, say, Alaska or even the more remote parts of California.

Below is the point break at Cabo San Quintin. The main break is actually off in the distance, but on larger sets it could be ridden all the way in to this beach. Did that several times, by far the best rides I’d ever had.

Some good hiking elsewhere on the cape, and a bit of kayaking.

I’d originally wanted to spend less time at Cabo San Quintin, and surf at several places further south in Baja Norte. Staying here longer was due to a combination of factors. First, I was having a lot of fun and feeling lazy, but second, at this time Hurricane Miriam was several hundred miles to the south and moving north, and I wanted to stay close to Bahia San Quintin, which would give me a protected anchorage if the storm became a problem. Fortunately, it dissipated well to the south and all I saw of its remnants were some cloudy skies.

The pacific hurricane season is generally considered to extend through October, but late in the season they seem to mostly affect Baja Sur and my original plan was to stay in Baja Norte, monitor the weather (downloading GRIB forecast maps via satellite phone, worked great) and not head south until after the risk of a hurricane had passed. In the end I headed south too early though, and narrowly (and inadvertently) dodged Hurricane Paul when it rolled up Baja in the middle of October. I’ll get to that later.

Most cruising boats don’t head south until November, avoiding the risk of hurricanes almost entirely. I am sure I will sail this coast again, but I don’t know if I’ll stick to that approach or play things looser, as I did on this trip.

Anyhow, with the threat from Miriam passed I cut plans for other surfing spots in Baja Norte and left Cabo San Quintin straight for Isla Cedros, which involved a 90 mile crossing that is considerably faster than following the coast the whole way down. Unfortunately, on this stretch my autopilot finally died. Since I’d installed it back in 2007 it has found several increasingly inventive ways to fail, all in the drive unit and which I was able to fix with duct tape, epoxy etc., but now the electronics themselves were dying with nothing I could do. I had a backup pilot, but had forgotten it broke several years ago, whoops.

So this left me without an autopilot for the remainder of the trip, a situation I’d dreaded somewhat but which turned out to be not that bad. With the motor running I rigged the tiller so it only needed adjusting every few minutes, and under sail I worked out how to balance the main, jib and tiller so that the boat kept a fairly steady course without needing any correction. The run to Cedros was under sail until the wind died 10 miles from the end, and making the crossing in comfort with no pilot or using the tiller had me feeling like a real sailor for maybe the first time the entire trip.

Isla Cedros is the largest island on the pacific side of Baja, 20 miles long and with a high spine of volcanic peaks. Stayed for a night about half way down the east side. abruptly different climate from San Quintin and earlier. First, it was much hotter than points to the north or the south, the hottest I saw on the entire pacific side of Baja. This was balanced though by great water temperature. From Catalina down to Cabo San Quintin I just wore suits and a t-shirt while in the water, but would get chilled and eventually need to leave. From Cedros on the water was quite warm and I could stay in indefinitely. Really nice snorkeling here, the terrain is boring but lots of fish and the water is just so nice. Hiked a use path up an arroyo to try to get to the island’s divide (following a guidebook) but turned after a couple hours and lots of meandering.

From Cedros I made the 40 mile trip down to Turtle Bay to get some diesel and food, arriving October 1. Stayed a night, went snorkeling — tons of lobsters, literally carpeting the floor in places — then continued on south.

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