West coast cruising life: a briefing for NOAA

Note:  Below is a briefing note I prepared for Jeffrey Lewitsky at the National Hurricane Center in Miami, FL. We’ve sent emails back and forth about the preparation of the EPAC coastal forecast from San Diego to Ecuador. One thing that was missing in my conversations with him was a sense of what keeps cruisers moving about on the Pacific coast of Mexico and south.  NOAA has been producing a similar product for East Coast pleasure craft for years, and given Jeffrey’s base there, I wanted to make sure he and his team had a sense of the “particularities” of life aboard over here, in the most general way.  If you have any comments to add, or stuff you think is just wrong, please let me know by filling out the comment box below!


Jeffrey,

I am thoroughly enjoying the sample forecasts I have been receiving, and am now going through them to get a sense of how they fit in with the “cruiser culture”, and so I am writing this note to give you a sense of how the fleet operates as a loose cohort, some of the major influences on its behaviours, and the way places and zones are conventionally referred to.  Please forgive me for any mistakes/errors, and most importantly, if all or any of this is obvious to you and your team.

Jeffrey, please note I use the term “weatherman” to describe the amateur forecasters who have well-served the Pacific Mexico cruising fleet for many years. They deserve a lot of credit for keeping the cruising fleet safe and I am sure will be enthusiastic about the new EPAC forecasts!

1. Overview

As I am sure you are aware of from your Atlantic perspective, more and more baby boomers have been bitten by the “boat-bug”. (Here is a recent  article from the Dallas Morning News fyi).  Mostly we are an older demographic cruising out here; lots of gray hair (or no hair).  I would haphazard a guess that the average age is 55 years, with a small group of young adventurers who help bring the mean down.

Some large percentage are “resident cruisers” – people who keep their yachts south of the US-Mexico border year-round (even though many of these will fly or drive back north during the hurricane season).  A subset of this group will follow an annual migration of coastal exploration. For example: splash the boat in the northern Sea of Cortez on the Sonora side in October;  cross over to Baja, work down to La Paz, jump across to the Mainland (usually Puerto Vallarta or Mazatlan), followed by a cruise down the Mexican Riviera. Then back again to the “barn” in April-June.  A smaller group is clearly composed of transients who may spend a few weeks along the Pacific coast of Mexico en route to the South Pacific.

Suffice it to say that we are all addicted to information and our boats are becoming better equipped with information and communications technology, (some of which connects us to news of our grandchildren). I have not seen any data about the current state of penetration of vessels with satellite phones, high frequency radios, satellite radios (and services such as Sirius WX),  and broadband capability,  etc., but clearly use of all of them are  growing because we demand it.

The high adoption of the Pactor modem (and similar other technologies) to send and receive emails over an HF radio seems to have reached a point where it is becoming as necessary as a depth sounder.  Largely this is due to the extremely useful work of Jim Corenman and Stan Honey at the SailMail Association.  Because this organization has been so important in providing distribution of NOAA products, it is hard to over-estimate its impact on the sailing plans and behaviours of cruisers.  While many cruisers who have a ham license may choose to use the free Winlink ham service to fetch WX, they will still be using the Saildocs library, provided by Sailmail. Ditto for those getting email via satellite phone service.

Weather Services:  Some boaters – especially those making long crossings to the Marquesas, Galapagos Islands, and Hawaii – do spend money on professional weather routers. Others subscribe to automated web-based services such as Buoyweather.com, MagicSeaweed, etc., to get daily alerts and forecasts delivered to them via HF or Satellite Radio.

There are also a number of Ham and SSB nets, some of which have volunteers who interpret weather data from a number of sources.  In the past, Dr. Don Anderson, an amateur meteorologist and former scientist for Chevron Oil, provided lively daily weather briefings on a variety of radio nets.  He held a remarkable sway over the sailing plans of hundreds of cruising boats.

If he said “Go”, you would go. If you dared cross the Tehuantepec without his blessing, he’d promise you’d “go straight to Davey Jones’ locker. His death left a hole in weather services along the East Pacific coastline of Mexico and Central America.

Today there is, I believe, only one regular amateur weatherman , Geary Ritchie, whose reports cover the Sea of Cortez. He is heard daily on the Sonrisa Ham Net (3968 kHz at 1430 Z).  Stan Burnett, a former cruiser, sponsors a service that scrapes data from NOAA sources, which has been helpful especially in the absence of a formal East Pacific NOAA product. It is available through Saildocs, an operation of the SailMail Association.

Publications:  As well, a number of publications have been instrumental in organizing the activities of “southbound” pleasure craft along the East Pacific coast of Mexico, and none is more influential than Latitude 38. It is a print and online magazine that reports on news and activities, and sponsors two highly successful organized rallies  –  the Baja HaHa and the Pacific Puddle Jump.  Hundreds of boats have been introduced to the East and South Pacific due to this magazine.  As such it is a primary generator of demand for weather information.

Blue Latitude Press has been another source of influence. This Seattle-based publisher has produced very popular cruisers guides to the Sea of Cortez and the Mexican Riviera. The results (predictably enough) are cruisers crowding the same featured anchorages and travelling at similar times, based on recommendations in the books. SV Sarana (Eric Baicy and Sherrell Watson) have produced guidebooks for Central America which are beginning to have an important impact as well.

Festivals and other activities:  In addition to those mentioned above, there are popular cruiser-based events that occur annually which tend to synchronize the movement of pleasure craft. Chief among them are:  the La Paz Bay Fest, sponsored by the La Paz-based Club Cruceros; the Loreto Fest of the Hidden Port Yacht Club; the Banderas Bay Regatta and associated racing/cultural events;  the Zihuatanejo SailFest, which raises significant funds for local charities;  and the Zihuatanejo Guitar Festival. There are other rallies too, such as the El Salvador Rally.

2. Jump points, routes,  hot spots

San Diego:  the start point for a lot of new cruisers and those on the Baja HaHa (see below).  Most vessels travel coastwise along the Baja Peninsula very close to shore, stopping at a few well known anchorages. Some of these also are near minor promontories which generate the sort of winds that get cruisers’ attention (Punta Banda just to the south of Ensenada, Punta Eugenia (which is a great dividing line between PMZ011 and PMZ 013), Punta Abreojos, Cabo San Lazaro, and Cabo Falso  (which marks the turning point into the Sea of Cortez).  Because each of these marks both enhanced winds and a favorable anchorage, there’s a lot of specific interest in these specific spots (see below in section 3 for a comparison of NOAA/ cruiser nomenclature).

Cabo San Lucas:  jumping off point for those cruising north into the Sea of Cortez, as well as a transit point to Mazatlan, Banderas Bay, Revillagigedo Islands (especially Isla Socorro – 18°48’N, 110°59’W),  and to points further south.   Many of those en route to French Polynesia also jump off from Cabo San Lucas (most leave from Banderas Bay, I believe, while a few depart from Southern California).

The Sea of Cortez “Crossings”:  A large number of pleasure craft – perhaps the most common of all Pacific Mexico crossings – will be travelling from Cabo and nearby locations on the southern Cape of Baja California to the Mainland, and this crossing is almost uniformly known as “The Southern Crossing.”

This is to distinguish it from another popular crossing, “The Northern Crossing”, which actually is about at latitude 27° N, more like in the Central Sea.  Go figure.  Jump-off points on the Baja side of this Northern Crossing leave from a cluster of anchorages such as Bahia Concepcion,  Pta. Chivato, San Juanico,  Santa Rosalia, etc.

On the other side, the Sonoran communities of San Carlos and Guaymas both have extensive marinas and haul-out facilities, where many Americans and Canadians leave their boats over the hot summer season.  Usually the migration across the Sea and down south to the “Mexican Riviera” begins after the official end of the hurricane season, so yatistas are quite keen to learn about WX conditions once the weather begins to cool down.  Topolobampo (25°36′20″N 109°03′0″W)  and  Altata  (24°38′N 107°55′W) are becoming more common waypoints as well along the stretch of Sinaloa north of Mazatlan.

In addition, there are a few local conditions that also get the attention of cruisers in the Sea of Cortez:  the “elefantes” (with its characteristic mammatus clouds) that stream down the canyons into Bahia San Luis Gonzaga (29° 49’ N,  114° 23’W); the “Coromuel Winds” of La Paz, BCS, that blow from the SW across a shallow isthmus across the Baja Penninsula to the Pacific Ocean; various “gap” winds at Agua Verde etc., and the summertime convection  “Chubasco’s”  that roll across the Sea of Cortez further north.

But the most predominant “special wind” is what cruisers call a “Norther.”   During strong northers a few spots can generate very strong winds. On Sunday March 16, 2014, ten yachts in Santispac  (26°45.24N  111°53.88W) experienced winds between 50 and 65 kts from the NW.

Banderas Bay is a destination in its own right, with many marinas and some terrific day sailing, so there is a lot of interest in the promontory winds around Cabo Corrientes. Of all the “local conditions” except the gap winds of the Tehuantepec, conditions at  Cabo Corrientes is determinative of travel plans for vessels transiting that area. A lot of lore surrounds best crossing opportunites (the weather windows) and skippers argue about these endlessly.  Banderas Bay is also seen as the extreme southern part of the Sea of Cortez, although many believe that Mazatlan is the true southern terminus.

Cabo Corrientes to  Manzanillo is becoming known as the “Costalegre” (for Coast of Joy) due to the efforts of the State of Jalisco’s tourism campaign, in order to distinguish it from the rest of the “Mexican Riviera”, a term coined by a cruise ship company back in the ‘80’s.   The stretch of coastline between Manzanillo and Acapulco is sometimes referred to as the Mexican Riviera but the expression is loosely applied as well to the entire Pacific Coast of Mexico.

Huatulco and across the Tehuantepec:   Many cruisers see the Tehuantepec as the end of the line because of their belief that the “T-Peckers” are unpredictable serial killers. I personally believe this to be true.

Chiapas to El Salvador:   I’ve skipped Guatemala and Nicaragua because it seems many cruisers do, heading directly for Bahia del Sol (Jaltepeque), the terminus of the “El Salvador Rally” (see below under Culture section).

Panama and beyond:  Of course many cruisers will be taking a left turn at the canal, and will be dealing with the “Papagayos” winds, but I am getting out of my area of experience.  My single sideband net really begins to fade out as cruisers hit the Tehuantepec. Once they transit this area, many are listening and checking into nets such as the Pan Pacific Net, the Maritime Mobile Service Net, and the Pacific Seafarers’ Net. More about these below.

3. Nomenclature and Place Names

A final word on the way cruisers orient themselves to this cruising area, which may require some reorientation with the advent of the EPAC forecasts.  Generally, cruisers of American and Canadian origin use “Sea of Cortez” (note Anglicized spelling ) rather than Gulf of California. Some have even adopted the more “politically correct” spelling, Sea of Cortés.

The WX zones as established by practice over the years by various guidebook authors and amateur weathermen have been fairly imprecise and generally named to correspond with common transit routes and passages.  These “conventional” zones are almost exclusively seen as pertaining to coastal cruising and out no more 25 miles or so (with the exception of course of the longer passages such as crossing the Gulf of Tehuantepec or Sea of Cortez).


Comparison of geographical forecast zones

NOAA Usage Cruiser Usage Other  Comments
Gulf of California Sea of Cortez Spanish:  Mar de Cortés, Golfo de California
US MEXICO BORDER TO PUNTA EUGENIA ENSENADA – CEDROS  
PUNTA EUGENIA TO CABO SAN LAZARO CEDROS – SAN LAZARO  
CABO SAN LAZARO TO CABO SAN LUCAS SAN LAZARO – CABO FALSO  
PMZ017 NORTHERN GULF OF CALIFORNIA SEA OF CORTEZ NORTHERN HALF (N of 27N) Note: some forecasts include a “Northern Crossing” as well, at approx 27° N with reports on the Baja and Sonoran sides
PMZ—    CENTRAL GULF OF CALIFORNIA “Northern Crossing”???  
PMZ019 SOUTHERN GULF OF CALIFORNIA SEA OF CORTEZ SOUTHERN HALF (S of 27N)  
PMZ 021 – ENTRANCE TO THE GULF OF CALIFORNIA INCLUDING CABO CORRIENTES SEA OF CORTEZ SOUTHERN CROSSING FORECAST Note:  Geary Ritchie defines this as Mazatlan to Los Barilles (along 23° N)
 
PMZ 021 MAZATLAN TO BANDERAS BAY  
PMZ021 CABO CORRIENTES Note: a close-in evaluation of winds within 25 miles of the promontory
 
PMZ023 MICHOACHAN AND GUERRERO MANZANILLO TO BAHIAS DE HUATULCO  
 
PMZ025 OAXACA AND CHIAPAS INCLUDING THE GULF OF TEHUANTEPEC TEHUANTEPEC  
GAP WINDS (Near 11N 86W)  
PMZ111 GUATEMALA AND EL SALVADOR  
PMZ113 EL SALVADOR TO NORTH COSTA RICA INCLUDING THE GULFS OF FONSECAAND PAPAGAYO  
PMZ115 NORTH COSTA RICA TO WEST PANAMA  
PMZ117-EAST PANAMA AND COLOMBIA INCLUDING GULF OF PANAMA  
PMZ119 – ECUADOR INCLUDING GULF OF GUAYAQUIL  
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