June 2016 The Bash
 
Ever since we transited the Panama Canal in 2013, we intended to sail west and north to San Francisco. By 2015 we had worked our way to the Sea of Cortez, where we explored the desert-like remote islands and looked for whales. But eventually the time came to sail north to San Francisco.

From Cabo San Lucas (“Cabo”), at the southern tip of Baja California, to San Francisco is about 1000 nautical miles as the crow flies. The coast of Baja runs nearly northwest from Cabo and the prevailing wind is from the northwest, so the trip up the coast is basically against the wind; that's why it's called “The Bash”.

Planning our Bash involved 3 major (and interrelated) decisions: when to go, how to go, and whom we could persuade to come with us.

Since the winds are strongest from late November through early May, we wanted to set sail sometime between June 1 and November 1. However, July through October is the height of the tropical storm season. Devastating hurricanes have hit the Baja in each of the last few years, and we didn't want to be anywhere near such an event! So our options were limited to either late fall or June to early July. We settled on June, maybe extending into early July, depending on how things went.

The second question we needed to answer was which way to go. There are two alternatives: Up the coast or offshore. Almost everyone takes the coastal route. The northwest wind strength along the shore tends to fluctuate over the course of the day, building during the afternoon and abating in the middle of the night or early morning. To avoid getting beat up in the adverse winds and steep waves near the coast, boats that go up the coastal route take advantage of this diurnal wind cycle as much as possible. Each morning at about 3 AM, when the prevailing northwest wind dies out, they motor up the coast. When the wind starts to build again, they sail or motor-sail against it for a while, until at about noon or early afternoon when the wind and waves become uncomfortably high. They then turn into whatever anchorage is nearby, anchor, and get some sleep. The next morning, they repeat this process.

From our point of view, there are several problems with this approach. First, there is not necessarily a calm harbor one can tuck into every afternoon, especially on the first part of the trip. Second, the diurnal effect doesn't actually occur every day – when there's a real storm or the prevailing NW wind is particularly dominant, boats find themselves holed up, sometimes in uncomfortable anchorages, for several days or even weeks, waiting for a “weather window” when the winds subside and the boat can take the next hop north. Third, our boat isn't really made for motoring. For one thing, we don't carry enough fuel to motor all the way up the Baja. Fuel is available at Turtle Bay, about half-way up the coast, but taking on fuel there is not easy – one can tie up to a rickety dock, possibly in a swell, or have the fuel brought out by panga, hoisted aboard and siphoned into the tanks, all at great expense. Also, our 70 HP motor can only drive our 40,000 pound boat at 5 knots at full speed in a dead calm, and we barely make progress at all if there's any sea. And finally, dammit, Akka is a sailboat, and we're sailors!

The alternative to motorsailing up the coast is the so-called “Clipper Route”. The basic idea of the Clipper Route is to leave Cabo on starboard tack (which we'd have to do, no matter what route we took) and then, instead of tacking or motoring up the coast, just trim in and go offshore. At first, your course takes you south of due west, which is annoying, but generally you're still making progress up the northwest-headed coast. After a few days the wind starts to go right, and you ride this lift until you're going parallel to the coast, anywhere from 250 to 350 miles offshore. This lift continues until you're well north of the Mexico/US border, when you tack and get lifted all the way into the Golden Gate. This voyage doesn't depend on motoring for long periods of time, and because the diurnal effect is hardly noticeable more than a few miles offshore, the Clipper Route features substantially lower maximum winds and waves than what a coastal cruiser encounters along the coast.

Despite its apparent advantages over the coastal route, the Clipper Route seems to have a daunting reputation – whole books have been written about the Bash, and the offshore option is barely mentioned, or at best dismissed in a single sentence. So we researched the whole concept, using “pilot charts”, which display the average historical wind strengths and directions all over the world.

The picture below shows the pilot chart data for early June (there’s a pilot chart for each month of the year). It was compiled from satellite data from the last 30 years.

pilot chart with route plan

A word about how to read pilot charts: Each “wind rose” (in black) shows the winds detected at the particular time of year (in this case, June). The arrows fly with the wind – for example, the arrow on the north side of the wind rose indicates north winds. The length of each arrow indicates the percentage of time when the wind blew from that direction, except that percentages over 29% are indicated by a number on the arrow instead of length. The percentage of dead calm is indicated by the number in the center of the rose. Finally, the number of “feathers” on each arrow gives the average strength of wind from that direction, with each barb indicating 5 knots of wind. So, for example, the wind rose offshore near the bottom of Baja California (in the lower right corner of the picture) shows that the wind blew from the northwest 69% of the time with average strength 10 knots, from the west about 25% of the time, and from the north rarely. The wind has blown from the east, southeast and south essentially never in the last 30 years. It was calm only 2% of the time.

Pilot charts must be taken with a grain of salt. Because gales and storms last a short time compared to the amount of time without them, extremely high winds are basically not represented, so the prudent mariner must be aware that winds far above the reported average might occur. Also, near the shore the diurnal effects mentioned above cause the averages to be lower than what one would expect when the wind is actually blowing. For example, look at the wind rose off Magdelena Bay, about halfway up the Baja peninsula. It shows 10-knot average winds, occurring 81% of the time. But in the night the wind dies down; so the winds to be expected during the day are more like 20 knots than 10.

The final caveat involves the spatial averaging of the satellite data. Those data did not come from exactly where the wind rose is located – each wind rose represents an average of observations from the general area around it. This averaging process has a smoothing effect, so if there is a place with very high but very localized winds, those winds tend to get averaged with nearby observations that are much lower, so the wind rose doesn't reflect those high winds. A classic example is at Cabo Falso, a few miles up the coast from Cabo San Lucas, right near the wind rose we looked at first. As we saw, the prevailing wind reported by the pilot chart is northwest at an average of 10 knots. But in fact, winds at Cabo Falso are notoriously strong due to a “funneling” effect caused by the local mountain range. The northwest wind within 20 or so miles of Cabo Falso frequently blows at more than 30 knots and certainly much more than 10 knots on average. However, the wind roses are about 200 miles apart, so the strong Cabo Falso winds got averaged in with the more moderate winds up to 100 miles away (and, in this case, including winds from the Sea of Cortez, which has completely different weather from the Pacific).

The little blue arrows all over the chart are simply the most prevalent wind direction, interpolated between wind roses. They show why the Clipper Route works: There is a nearly stationary high pressure area, which in June is just west of our picture and about 1/3 the way down from the top. Winds blow clockwise around a high and decrease as you get closer to the center of the high pressure area. As you can see, this means that, once offshore, we could expect the wind to go progressively further right, then as we get up alongside the California coast we see it starting to go back to the left, providing a very nice persistent port-tack lift into San Francisco.

The long line in blue, from Cabo to San Francisco, shows our planned route. We constructed it by looking at the most prevalent wind along each segment of the route and assuming that Akka would sail about 50 degrees below that wind. The planned route turns out to be almost exactly 1500 miles long, as compared to the coastal route, which is about 1200 miles. Of course, we expected our passage to be far shorter in time than the coastal route, as we would be sailing 24 hours a day instead of holing up each night.

The prospect of being close hauled (or nearly so) for 1500 miles might be daunting to some, but Akka is built to go to weather and, as long-time racing sailors, so are we.

Even so, we didn't want to do that with just two people on board, so we recruited the best two crew members we could wish for: Gene Rankin and Ken Frick. Gene raced Olympic 470 dinghies against the two of us back in 1976, and we've kept in touch ever since. He has loads of offshore experience including lots of cruising on Akka. He served as watch captain for our Atlantic crossing in 2007 (see Archives/Atlantic Crossing on this website).

We first met Ken in Cartagena, Colombia, where he was cruising with his wife Marilyn. He has thousands of miles of blue water experience, mainly on his own boat. He and Marilyn helped us bring Akka through the Panama Canal in 2012.

To keep in touch with our friends and families ashore, and to provide rescue if we needed it, we intended to rely primarily on our DeLorme InReach satellite communicator, which allows us to send and receive text and e-mail messages. The device also sends a position message every 10 minutes, so all our friends and family members could follow our progress in real time.

We arranged for Carol Robinson to provide weather routing from her home on the East Coast. Although we could get weather reports and predictions via single- sideband radio, those forecasts didn't cover the wind as far offshore as we intended to go, with sufficient accuracy for weather routing. We could get spot forecasts for any positions we wanted, using our InReach satellite communicator, but what you really need for weather routing is a GRIB map of the entire area (like the pilot chart but showing the predicted winds rather than historical averages), and we didn't have nearly enough bandwidth for that. Fortunately, Carol had wifi at home, and so she had all the bandwidth she could ever need for this project. Plus, she enjoys weather forecasting and is good at it. So several times a day, the entire time we were offshore, we sent messages to Carol with our position, speed and heading, and she extrapolated that to where we would expect to be in 6, 12, 18, 24 and 36 hours. She then looked at the predicted winds at those points, as well as at other hypothetical points (for example, where we would be if we tacked). Based on that, she could send us a message telling us what to expect and what course of action she recommended. This proved invaluable!

June 4, 2016
The first step in our journey to San Francisco was to bring the boat south from La Paz, where she had been for the last couple of years, to Cabo. Our actual destination was San Jose del Cabo, about 240 nautical miles. San Jose del Cabo is actually about 20 miles east of Cabo San Lucas, but the Cabo airport is there and also a big marina, making it a good place to pick up our Bash crew. The passage from La Paz to SJ de Cabo is generally downwind in light or moderate winds, and joining us for the jaunt was our daughter Lisa and our friend Pietro Martini.

Alas, all does not necessarily go as planned, and while the wind out in the Pacific Ocean is reliably from the northwest, it sometimes blows from other directions inside the Sea of Cortez. This time it decided to come from the southeast. That was OK for the first little part of our trip, as we sailed northward under spinnaker from La Paz to round Punta San Lorenzo, then motored in very light winds down the coast to Bahia La Ventana, where we anchored for the night. Unfortunately, Pietro was having some problems with seasickness. Seasickness normally only goes on for 24 hours or so, and we were hoping that would true in Pietro's case.

June 5
We continued to experience 5-8 knot winds more or less on the nose, and by a combination of motoring and sailing we made it to La Ribera, where we found an inlet protected by stone jetties. We entered the inlet, only to be told over the radio that there was no room for us at the marina inside, nor in the estuary between the breakwaters. So we found an anchorage under the lee of the breakwaters, where we thought we would be somewhat protected from the easterly winds we expected to blow overnight. We deployed a stern anchor to line us up with the wind and swell, but that proved inadequate and Akka rolled a lot. We weighed anchor in dwindling light and moved out from the protection of the jetty into deeper, open water. That was much better for the boat's motion, but none of us got much sleep.

June 6
The wind got serious, blowing more than 27 knots directly on the nose. We shortened down to the staysail and took a reef in the main. We had planned to anchor along the coast near Boca del Tule, where there was a delightful rustic restaurant and resort that Pietro knew of, but there was no anchorage with protection from the southeast wind, so we just kept on going. Beating to windward in that much wind, combined with major waves, was pretty brutal, especially for Pietro. He was miserable but bravely toughed it out, remaining on deck and handling jib sheets each time we tacked. After 15 hours of beating in heavy winds and big seas, and more than a dozen tacks, we finally rounded Punta Gorda at the southeast corner of Baja, and entered the marina in San Jose del Cabo at about 2200 that night. We unanimously voted Pietro the toughest mariner aboard!

Akka had developed leaks in several cabin hatches so Pietro and Lisa took rooms at the luxury hotel associated with the marina while Andi and Rob tried to find dry spots aboard to sleep in. Pietro had recovered from his illness but still seemed happy to be off the boat.

June 7-11
We found a small tear in the mainsail near the first clew reef point. Of course, we have sail repair material on board, and next morning we set to the job of hand-sewing a patch (actually, two patches, one on each side of the sail) running up the stress line from the reef point.

Over the next few days we also repaired leaks in the hatches, changed the oil on the engine and topped up the water tanks. Also, we drove Lisa and Pietro to the airport, picked up our Bash crew, Ken Frick and Gene Rankin, and did rather massive provisioning at Costco. Of course, all this work didn't keep us from watching the NBA championships on television at a local bar!

June 12
We completed a trial of the Carol Robinson weather routing system, returned the rental car, covered the hawsepipe opening, rigged new Dutchman furling mono-filament lines and topped up the diesel tanks at the marina fuel dock. At 1315 we cast off and headed west to round Cabo San Lucas to begin our Bash.

The wind off the city of Cabo was fairly light, and we motored until we were almost at the Arches of Cabo, where pangas filled with American tourists milled about, gawking at the cave-like rock formations. We cleared those rocks and set sail.

one of the arches at cabo One of the Arches of Cabo

The wind built quickly until it was blowing 25-30 knots by the time we were off Cabo Falso. We took a reef in the mainsail and the sail promptly tore, right where we had repaired it! Feeling shaken and sobered by the conditions and the sail problems, we turned around and reached back into the sheltered Cabo harbor. We found great anchoring not far from a huge cruise ship; our only concern was what would happen if the wind changed and she swung our way.

cruise_ship_at_cabo.jpg Our only neighbor at Cabo

June 13
We spent the day repairing the mainsail. We sewed on so much patch material that we feared we would run out. We tried to find more material from the local sailing excursion boat operator, but he told us he gets all his cloth from La Paz. We called some sailmakers we knew in La Paz, but nobody had any sail material on hand. They could get it from the States in a week or so, they said.

In retrospect, we should have been more concerned about those tears in the mainsail, but the rest of the sail seemed as good as new. We decided that the tear was the result of our hasty and improper reefing on the trip down from La Paz (we hadn't really got the foot of the main down to the boom completely). The local weather station was reporting high winds off Cabo Falso, so we didn't mind the delay for sail repair and good rest.

June 14
We weighed anchor at first light, and set out again. The wind in the anchorage was very light and we were hopeful that the same would be true outside. Maybe we could do at least a little motoring up the coast until the NW wind filled in again!

gene_ken_andi_at_cabo.jpg Gene, Ken and Andi setting out on the Bash

Alas, that was not to be the case. As soon as we cleared the rocks we encountered a fresh northwest wind that quickly built to 30 knots in a short, steep chop. We set the staysail and took two reefs in the main, to spare the repairs we had made around the first reef. At first, we were making only 240 degrees, which meant we were making no ground toward San Francisco; but in about 3 hours the wind started to go to the right, lifting us to about 250 degrees, and dropped in strength down into the teens. We shook out our reefs, set the genoa and were on our way, close-hauled on starboard tack, making 6-8 knots! We would be on that point of sail, at about that speed, for the next 5 days. Rob and Ken served one watch, with Andi and Gene on the other. We set four-hour watches, day and night.

In addition to her normal watch-standing duties, Andi took on all the cooking (with Gene taking the lead on galley cleanup). We almost always eat at a change of the watch, when everybody is awake anyway. If a meal comes at the end of her watch Andi usually just spends the latter part of her watch preparing it; but if it comes at the end of the opposite watch she commonly sacrifices some sleep to make sure the crew has good hot meals. Akka has a comparatively good motion upwind, but still, spending time down below in the galley, preparing meals in a boat heeled over 30 degrees and bucking through the oncoming waves, is not much fun, especially if, like Andi, the cook is prone to seasickness. Despite that, Andi persisted and we ate like royalty for the whole trip. And as the old saying goes, a well-fed crew is a happy crew!

June 15
The wind was up and down in strength, causing us to alternate between staysail and genoa. At 0730 we got a wrap in the staysail furling line, had to drop the staysail to the deck, unwind the furling line and rewind it. We hoisted the staysail, only to furl it again as the wind dropped to 11-16 knots. We were comfortable making 6.5 knots at 250 degrees under main and genoa (as we say, “all plain sail”).

At 1130 the autopilot stopped working. The hydraulic ram end fitting, which is made of 1-inch cast stainless steel, had broken where it went around the universal ball joint that attaches to the rudder post. We removed the fitting, bent it back so it held the ball, and put JB Weld in the break. Not much hope that would hold under real stress, but fortunately we don't really need to use the autopilot when we're beating to windward. We simply balance out the sails and lash the helm, using “Ropespierre”, the quick-release lanyard we made up many years ago. This actually works better than the autopilot because it keeps us on a constant heading relative to the wind. Ropespierre's only problem is that if the wind increases and the boat heels more than usual, we round up into the wind and maybe even tack accidentally. Contrariwise, if the wind strength drops, Akka heels less and Ropespierre makes Akka bear off. This can stall the headsail and make the heel even less, causing us to continue to bear off, until we jibe and come back up again on the wrong tack. But the change in wind strength has to be pretty dramatic for either of these to happen, so all the watch on deck needs to do is pay a little attention. The main thing is, nobody has to be at the helm continuously.

broken_autopilot_part.jpg The broken fitting with JBWeld repair

June 16
240 nautical miles offshore. At just after midnight, the wind went light and we had to motor for almost 8 hours. Unfortunately, the JB Weld repair was still curing, so we had to hand steer until after dinner, when we reinstalled the autopilot fitting and reset the feedback. Then another 5 hours of motoring, but now with a working autopilot. Finally, the wind filled back in, and good news! It had gone right, just as predicted by the pilot charts. We were now steering NNW at times, directly toward San Francisco! This lift didn't hold, but we never saw a course below WNW again. We were pleased and rather proud that this turning point was within a few miles of the place we had predicted we would start sailing north!

June 17
Almost 12 hours of motor-sailing in less than 10 knots breeze, but the rest of the time, sailing at 6+ knots boatspeed, using Ropespierre. At sundown we all sat down for dinner, then went on deck to see a brilliant green flash!

June 18
At 0915, the mainsail suddenly split in two with a loud bang. The reinforced part just below the headboard (the top of the sail) had separated from the rest of the sail. All that was holding the sail up was the bolt rope and the leech line – nothing but daylight and some bare threads between the head of the sail and the rest of it. All crew on deck to lower the mainsail and secure it to the boom. There was no possibility of repair – this was not a tear, it was a complete failure. We set the genoa alone and were making 7 knots in 14 knots of true wind. Not bad!

broken_mainsail.jpg The rip in our mainsail

At 1800 we heard our fishing line clip make a big snapping sound. We had a fish! A 28-inch Mahi provided us with a great supper, with plenty of leftovers for days to come.

June 19
We continued on starboard tack and discussed our options. We were still making excellent progress with headsail alone (anywhere from 6 to 9 knots across the bottom, heading NNW, almost parallel to the coast), our motor was fine and we had lots of fuel. Carol reported from the East Coast that according to the weather models we would get lifted even further for at least another two days. On the other hand, Carol also reported there might be a storm brewing up ahead, we were now without a mainsail and the autopilot was acting up again -- the Teflon bushing around the universal ball had broken up. We had replaced it with a bunch of toothpicks jammed into the gap between the hydraulic arm and the ball but this kluge was hardly a permanent fix.

We asked Carol to do some new weather routing, this time assuming we would tack toward shore, and the picture looked good for making it to Ensenada, the town furthest north on the Mexican coast. At noon, we decided to be “prudent mariners,” called it quits on the Clipper Route, and tacked the boat. We were on about the same latitude as Turtle Bay, just over 350 nautical miles away.

June 20
Rob and Andi's anniversary. On opposite watches, there was not much chance to celebrate together!

At the midnight change of watch we discovered we had no 110V power. This was not a serious problem, because almost all our systems, including the InReach satellite communication system, are run or charged from our 12V system. The only exception is the laptop we use for navigation, which has a 110V charger. A little investigation revealed that moisture had got into one of the 110V outlets, and the “ground fault” safety mechanism in the inverter had shut the whole system down. We solved the problem temporarily by disconnecting the inverter from the house outlets and running an extension cord from the inverter to the nav station, where we plugged in the laptop charger. That was it until after sunrise, when investigation with a multimeter identified the faulty outlet. We disconnected that outlet from the 110V system and power was restored by 1130.

We settled into a pattern – when the wind was between about 12 and 20 knots, we sailed with the genoa and secured the engine, making 6-9 knots about 100 degrees from the true wind. When the wind dropped to 11 knots, the genoa alone could only drive us at about 3.5 knots, so we turned on the motor to augment the sail. When the wind went above 20, we used the staysail, but again, the sail was insufficient to give us full speed and we motorsailed. The result was good steady progress, our boatspeed rarely falling below 5 knots and frequently topping 7 knots, headed more or less northeast toward the coast, under sail alone about half the time and motorsailing the other half.

The Isla de Guadalupe lies 150 miles off the Baja coast, directly on our course. We would near it after sunset and were not sure of the accuracy of our charts. But Rusty Burshell, back in Yorktown, Virginia, superimposed our InReach track reports on Google Earth and guided us south of the island. Good move! Our Mexican charts were more than three miles off, and if Rusty hadn't been there to guide us, we might have run onto the rocks. (Well, not actually, because without Rusty's guidance we would have tacked back out to sea until we could be certain of sailing well clear of the island and its surrounding shoals; but still, thanks, Rusty!)

As we passed south of Guadalupe, the long, smooth Pacific swell turned into rather large, much shorter period waves. At the same time, the wind went light and Akka was rolling almost to her beam ends (or so it says in the log – it couldn't have been quite that bad). So we bore off until we were running directly with the waves and the motion became tolerable. A glance at the charts showed what had happened: the water had shoaled from about two miles deep to less than half a mile deep near the island, causing the swell to get shorter and steeper. Sure enough, as soon as we were past the island and the depth dropped back to about 2 miles, the long, smooth swell resumed. We turned back to course and were on our way.

June 21
Early morning found us motoring in glassy seas and mist. Carol had been telling us that when we got near shore we would encounter east winds, and sure enough, at about 0800 the wind came around to the east and we were able to set our spinnaker and reach directly toward Ensenada! As the day progressed, the wind came even further aft until we were running at over 6 knots in about 13 knots of wind. Then a big gust hit and the spinnaker ripped from top to bottom along the tapes. Ah, well. We had bought that chute in 2007, so we'd enjoyed plenty of sailing with it. Of course, we had never expected to use it on the Bash! We pulled the soggy nylon out of the water and bagged it, leaving it on deck to avoid bringing the seawater below.

We alternately sailed and motorsailed the rest of the day. As we approached the coast, the waves got progressively worse. We were glad we hadn't come up the coast in this kind of washing machine!

June 22
We approached the entrance to Ensenada Bay in almost no wind, and fog. Once again, we asked Rusty to give us the exact positions of the rocks we had to pass, and once again the charts were wrong, though this time, by only half a mile or so. At 1230 we tied up at the fuel dock at Marina Coral, at the north end of the bay.

The offshore part of our Bash was over. From Cabo to Ensenada is 675 nautical miles by the most direct course. If we had come up the coast and encountered perfect conditions, stopping each afternoon and resuming each morning, we would have taken a little over 12 days (figuring 60-mile days). Taking the Clipper Route, we made it in just over 7 days, and the only really rough, choppy conditions we encountered were off Cabo Falso and then again near Ensenada, both of which we would have had to pass through anyway.

Gene had very intelligently set up his flight plans with an open return, so he left us in Ensenada to catch a bus to the border and then go directly to the San Diego airport. As it happened, Ken's wife Marilyn was visiting relatives in San Diego, so he elected to continue with us for one more day. We filled our fuel tanks, had one last Mexican meal at the marina restaurant, and took off northward.

Akka's track on the Bash

June 23
The short overnight trip to San Diego was quiet and uneventful. We motored all the way and actually had to hang around outside the channel entrance, waiting for daylight. We tied up to the Customs Dock and used the dedicated telephone there to call Homeland Security to come down and inspect us. Sure enough, a couple of officers showed up and checked us in. They declined our invitation to come aboard to inspect the boat, and although we were supposed to put all non-preserved meat and vegetables in the trash can provided for that purpose, after we disposed of one bag of food they pointedly walked away.

Our good friend Steve Hunt arranged for us to take a slip at San Diego Yacht Club. Ken called Marilyn and arranged to meet there, and her family, Ken, and we enjoyed a wonderful lunch at the club before Ken left in their company.

So Akka , and we, were back home in the good old US of A, almost exactly 15 years after we left.