The Maritime Report: To Baja by boat

The Maritime Report: To Baja by boat

Dave Bloch

Just one of several Ha-Ha boats hailing from our Island city. Photo by Dave Bloch.

Your reporter is back from the 20th Annual Baja Ha-Ha Cruisers Rally, successfully completing the 750-mile journey from San Diego to Cabo San Lucas. Some 125 boats completed the entire trip (165 registered, but there are always some that can't start the trip, and a few had technical problems and had to head back). At least five of the boats sailed the entire trip, meaning they never ran their engines except to get into/out of the stops along the way.

The Ha-Ha is a huge undertaking. The boat owners often spend thousands of dollars refurbishing their boats and often adding new equipment like watermakers, shortwave radios and satellite telephones. The organizers from the San Francisco Bay Area have a huge list of tasks to make this thing happen. Every boat and crew member has to be properly registered and sign the required waivers; they work with the Port of San Diego to handle the influx of boats coming in for the start of the trip and control traffic as we parade out of the harbor.

A special problem this year was that Mexico had completely changed their immigration procedures. The changes might have required the entire fleet to put in at Ensenada to clear customs and immigration. (Both humans and boats have to be checked in when they first enter any country.) The Ha-Ha organizers worked very closely with the Mexican government to create a unique online method of registration that allowed all of us to make our stops at Turtle Bay and Bahia Santa Maria, and not actually go through the immigration process until we reached Cabo San Lucas. It is extremely unusual to be allowed to set foot on foreign soil without passing through immigration and customs first, and it really shows how important the Ha-Ha has become to the economies of the places we visited.

Our 51-foot Island Packet sloop was among the faster vessels in the fleet, making it to the small town of Turtle Bay in about 60 hours. (Other boats took up to 36 hours longer, which is why the fleet stays three nights there.) Turtle Bay once had a thriving shrimp canning industry, but the town is now a very quiet place with sand streets and mostly-closed shops. The Ha-Ha fleet is by far the biggest influx of people the entire year, so for a couple of days the restaurants are filled and the fishermen make some real money taxiing us in and out of shore. Turtle Bay also has gasoline and diesel fuel, so some of those fishermen also haul jugs of fuel out to the boats at anchor.

A lot can go wrong in three days on the ocean, and I was very impressed by how the sailors all help each other. During the radio check-ins that happen early each morning, any boat having a problem or needing something can announce that to the fleet. People respond with offers of expertise, fuel, spare parts - anything they can possibly spare. There was one medical emergency along the route; the Mexican Navy sent a fast boat about 100 miles to pick the person up, transport her to care on shore, and return her the following day.

The high point of this trip for me was Bahia Santa Maria, a beautiful round bay with the entry flanked by high hills, the land flattening in between to beach and mangroves, with a much larger inland bay on the other side of them. The only signs of mankind are a crude dirt road and three or four small cinder block buildings; these are used by fishermen from the town of Ciudad Constitucion who come for a few months at a time. There is no electricity or running water; everything has to be brought in.

But for one day, Santa Maria suddenly sprouts tents, an electric generator, and food for more than 500 hungry sailors. A rock band drives over 100 hard miles over the mountains from La Paz and plays all afternoon - for tips! They've been doing it for years, so you can imagine the impact this event has on their livelihoods. There's dancing, singing and (of course) lots of beer. Once again, the fishermen do a brisk business shuttling us all in and out from our boats.

The last leg of the Ha-Ha is the shortest. Our boat made the trip to Cabo San Lucas in about 26 hours, and I think the last boat came in about 16 hours later. The organizers spent hours on radio and satellite phone arranging to pack 80 boats into the Cabo Marina, sometimes putting four sailboats into a single huge slip designed for a large yacht. (There was a huge 220-foot yacht in the harbor, apparently owned by a Saudi and valued at $2.6 billion. Yes, that's a "b.") Our boat and several dozen others elected to anchor out along the beach.

The Ha-Ha ends with several parties, including a great beach party that features the "From Here to Eternity" Surf Kissing Contest. Participating couples compete by doing their own rendition of the rolling-in-the-surf kiss between Burt Lancaster and Deborah Kerr in the 1953 film. I'm not sure how this tradition began since that scene was filmed in Hawaii, but it's big fun anyway. (See the clip at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1W6AGM-LxGY.)

From Cabo, about a third of the fleet loads up with fuel and food from Costco and heads back home, a much harder upwind/upcurrent trip. Roughly another third sails east and north into the Sea of Cortez to the city of La Paz, a relaxing and laid-back (which Cabo certainly is not) place to spend the winter until coming north in April when winds tend to be more favorable.

For the final third, the Ha-Ha is just the beginning of a much longer adventure. Some will head west on the "Pacific Puddle Jump" to the romantic islands of the south seas, with some of those continuing on to circumnavigate the globe. Others will go south to the Panama Canal, exploring dozens of isolated bays along the way and then coming through the isthmus to the Atlantic side. The boat I traveled on, Solstice, will be doing that trip, then traveling all the way up the East Coast of the United States and then inland, following the "Great Loop" route of rivers and canals to the Mississippi River and down to the Gulf of Mexico. (See http://www.greatloop.org for information on that.)

For me and many others who had the privilege of joining these intrepid adventurers on the first part of their voyage, it was only a few hours on a plane back home. But I'll be following some of the blogs and photos as they go.

More pictures from this trip are at http://www.flickr.com/photos/sierradave/sets/72157637566165855/.

Photos:

1. Just one of several Ha-Ha boats hailing from our Island city. 2. The “From Here to Eternity” surf kissing contest at the Cabo San Lucas Ha-Ha beach party. 3. The next afternoon, over 100 boats in the bay and 500 sailors eating, drinking and enjoying live music. 4. The idyllic setting of Bahia Santa Maria; the small white buildings are the only sign of civilization on the entire 10-mile-long shore.

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