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
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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!
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
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 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.
Our only neighbor at Cabo
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.
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 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!
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.
The broken fitting with JBWeld repair
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!
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
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!
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.
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.
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.
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!
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
Akka's track on the Bash
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.