– by Capt. Pat Rains
Summertime, and the living is easy.
But it’s mid July, so recreational boaters who are in the Sea of Cortez right now should have solid plans about where they’ll spend the peak months of this hurricane season (August, September, October) in safety and comfort.
For example, most of us anywhere in the lower and mid latitudes of the Sea of Cortez should already have slip reservations in at least one of the hurricane-refuge marinas at La Paz or Puerto Escondido in Baja California Sur, or at San Carlos in Sonora.
Otherwise, if you’re still in La Paz, you should be cruising north to at least Puerto Escondido, which is another very popular hurricane hole. If you’re not summering over in the marina there, then I think you should plan to continue past Santa Rosalia (not a hurricane hole) to reach summer safety farther north.
Mazatlan on the mainland side of the Sea of Cortez might not be considered a hurricane hole due to the frequency of cyclonic storms that curve off the Pacific and slam into this coast between 22 and 24 degrees North. Most years, boaters berthed in the popular marinas tucked back into Sabalo Lagoon have reported no problem. But it’s “luck of the draw,” and even those marinas usually get booked full by now.
Otherwise, some folks at Mazatlan might head north to the San Carlos area, which has two hurricane-hole marinas and dry storage yards.
The lower and mid latitudes of the Sea of Cortez are vulnerable to tropical-storm winds and torrential rains that flood coastal areas, so if you’re not already hunkered down in one of those hurricane holes I think the best alternative is the upper third of the Sea of Cortez – north of a line between Santa Rosalia and Guaymas. See map.
Very few hurricanes can travel up the narrow north-south length of the Sea of Cortez, nor can they jump over the Baja California peninsula and reform with sufficient strength to travel north again.
Having summered over here 10 times on several different boats, I’ve distilled my list down to four favorite places to hide out during hurricane season in the upper Sea of Cortez. Each is not very far from a hurricane hole if you need to scoot there quickly. They have access to provisions, fuel, and a few diversionary side trips for whenever a hurricane isn’t breathing down your neck.
San Francisquito is a gorgeous multiple-anchorage destination 75 nautical miles up the Baja coast from Santa Rosalia. Spend a week in different parts of the large main bay, while three small adjacent coves are fun dinghy expeditions. All four provide rare protection from summer southerlies, and are graced by crystal turquoise waters and white sand bottoms. A 1-mile outer beach roadstead is good in north wind. All this is within a 3-mile radius.
A dirt airstrip (1,200 yards) gets an occasional fly-in fishing group, and two rustic camp grounds on the south beach may have limited gasoline and water. San Francisquito enjoys the solitude of lying 60 unpaved miles from Baja Highway 1, but it’s a popular stepping stone for all boats crossing the Sea of Cortez via the Midriff Islands within sight. The nearest hurricane hole is 53 miles northwest at Puerto Don Juan near L.A. Bay.
Puerto Refugio or Port of Refuge is not a port; it’s a picturesque sheltered bay that spreads 2.5 miles across the north tip of Guardian Angel Island, an uninhabited behemoth. Tucked inside like a cluster of jewels in a purse you’ll find nine pristine anchoring areas, providing swinging room for about 20 boats total. They’re nestled between four little islands, two fun diving reefs and two low peninsulas that slope down from the island’s rugged 3,000-foot peak.
Refugio is one of the quietest places on earth – well, except for the cries of sea birds diving into huge fish boils every morning, and except at night for the rhythmic “spwoosh” of whales breathing as they traverse the Canal de Ballenas.
For all supplies, go 35 miles south to Bahia de los Angeles, better known as L.A. Bay, which has diesel, gas, groceries, restaurants, a hospital, an airport and 20 modest hotels serving a couple hundred trailer-boating fishermen who trucked here from Highway 1. Nearly 50 small anchoring spots lie between Refugio and L.A. Bay.
Five miles east of L.A. Bay is the nearest hurricane hole, Puerto Don Juan. Again it’s really not a port; it’s a small uninhabited bay with a dog-leg entrance, room for 40 boats to swing comfortably, nearly impregnable to storm winds and seas from all directions.
Puerto Penasco, Sonora, in the northeast corner of the Sea of Cortez is an actual port, finally, population 27,000. Here you find three small marinas, two fuel docks with diesel and gas, seven haul-out yard, good provisioning, hospitals, chandlers, an international airport, air-conditioned movie theatres, and scads of restaurants featuring the region’s mainstay – shrimp.
The U.S. border is only 65 miles north, so hundreds of gringos find it practical to keep their boats here over the summer while they scoot home. I counted only 50 yacht slips, and they fill up fast. But because the tidal range is extreme this far north (23’ max at springs), the enclosed commercial port actually shrink at low tides, providing almost no room for moorings or anchoring.
The best plan is to store boats safely on the hard. Cabrales Boatyard in the harbor’s northwest corner specializes in yachts, uses 150-ton Travelifts with padded straps and coordinates with international boat movers to truck yachts up to the U.S. or down.
Puerto Penasco is the safest hurricane hole in Mexico due to its latitude and geography.
Bahia Sargento (“sar-HEN-tow”) is a pristine 3-mile wide turquoise bay between two sparkling white sand spits. Sargento lies within the indigenous Seri tribal reservation – all sacred land including Tiburon Island, where the Seri people believe their spirits live. No fishing or exploring ashore without a Seri guide, easily hired on VHF 16 in Kino Bay or Chuenque.
Enter Sargento Bay from the northwest, swing wide of the little reef off Punta Sargento, anchor off the northern beach in 15 to 18 feet of clear water. In the shallow tidal lagoon behind this beach you may see Seri families setting hand-made fishing nets. Distinguished by their native dress (“traje”), the Seri often camp ashore here. But unlike typical Mexican pangueros, they seldom initiate contact with outsiders, except during their annual Sea Turtle Ceremony.
Grupo Tortuguero of the Californias, an NGO based in La Paz, helps preserve the Seri’s nautical heritage, and together they now protect all five sea-turtle species that thrive in the Sea of Cortez. For details, visit http://grupotortuguero.org or visit their Turtle Center at 108 Ficus Street, La Paz, (612) 146-3553.