The Baja Bash

Against the Wind from Cabo San Lucas to San Diego

This article is a slightly edited version of the original which first appeared on the Banderas Bay Portal website.

It's been many years since Jim Elfers wrote the book, The Baja Bash. I don't know if it's still in print, but I hope so—it should be.

When we first met Jim in 1996, he was managing the Coast Chandlery in Cabo San Lucas, B.C.S., Mexico. As Jim once commented (and I paraphrase), "Going south, anyone can make it in a 50-gallon drum. Getting back to the States is a whole other story." He wrote his book to offer some valuable advice to cruisers preparing for the Baja Bash.

Over the years, Teri and I completed ten round trips between our original home port in Santa Barbara, California, and the Mexican mainland. The first time we had to contemplate the return passage back to the States, we decided to go offshore. It was a successful voyage.

On our (second) return trip from Mexico the following year, we stopped again in Cabo for a final provisioning. We had gotten to know Jim the previous year and made a point of stopping by to see him. Our visits typically involved a conversation over a few beers and several games of chess at the Broken Surfboard Restaurant, which was then the main hangout for cruisers visiting Cabo San Lucas. Having successfully voyaged offshore on our return the previous year, and having purchased and read Jim's book, I asked him, "Why didn't you mention anything about going offshore in your book?" His reply: "Because nobody except you does that!"

He was right. I can almost count on the fingers of one hand the number of cruisers we've met who have elected to sail the offshore route. I think that's too bad since, in my opinion, the advantages of going offshore far outweigh the disadvantages when compared to the more common choice of slugging it out going up the Baja coast. The following are things to consider before making your choice of passages for a return to the good old USA.

The Baja Bash: is, more often than not, truly a bash! Typically a bashing cruiser must battle strong prevailing northwest winds and seas, right on the nose, for the whole trip. The usual defensive practice is to hop from one anchorage to the next during "weather windows," which often involves many days, even weeks, of being holed up in remote locations, making no progress and dreaming of a cold beer. It also usually depends on trusting some "weather guru," of highly questionable competence (and who shall go unnamed), sitting in a comfortable armchair somewhere in California, sipping a martini and prognosticating about the weather over a SSB radio. Since the best weather windows are those days with little prevailing wind, most cruisers use their engines rather than sails during each hop; trying to tack against the usual headwinds, even if mild, is frustrating, especially for multi-hulled vessels.

Realistically, trying to sail up the coast without using an engine is, if not impossible, a daunting challenge at the very least. Weather conditions are often "feast or famine." Commercial ship and Mexican fishing boat traffic is heavy, to say nothing of the many poorly marked fishing nets and buoys. In short, the Baja Bash is aptly named, as any of you who have already made the trip will surely acknowledge.

The Offshore Option: In days of yore, before small sailboats had 50 hp diesel engines to rely on, no one followed the coast north. Instead, they went offshore, following what has commonly been called the "clipper route." If you want to take the risk that your engine will get you through without any breakdowns, and you're willing to pay the price in fuel and beat your brains out against the weather, by all means go ahead and bash your way up the coast. For those whose curiosity is piqued, I'll describe what I consider to be the advantages of opting to go offshore:

  1. Minimal traffic and none of the typical near-shore hazards
  2. The ability to use sails instead of an engine, often for the entire passage
  3. Much more stable weather, wind and seas
  4. Usually a passage that takes no more time than the bash, and often faster

Disclaimer: The following directions are what worked for us on a limited number of occasions. We make no guarantee that the same conditions and/or navigational possibilities will exist at any time, now or in the future. Mariners must always make decisions based on current knowledge and conditions.

The Typical Passage: Here's how we did it: Provision in Cabo San Lucas. Preferably wait for lighter winds around Cabo Falso before departing. Set your sails close-hauled on a starboard tack, set the windvane or autopilot, sit back and read a book.

To be quite honest, the first fifty miles or so, while getting clear of Cabo Falso, can be rough going and a bit intimidating. I recommend something like a double-reefed mainsail and a storm jib for the first day or so; 30+-knot winds are not unusual in that area. However, rounding Cabo Falso is a challenge that you will have to face regardless of which route you decide on. Just be prewarned and prepared for it.

Keep your sails close-hauled for the entire trip. Expect to actually lose latitude for 3-4 days, since you will likely not be able to do better than a WSW heading for several hundred miles (at least we couldn't) because of the prevailing wind direction near Cabo. However—and here is the real secret of the passage—as you get farther west, the prevailing winds should start to clock around toward the north. By the time you are 5-600 miles west of Cabo, you should find yourself heading more or less NW. From then on, you will be able to parallel the coast of Baja, all the way up to, and past, Isla Guadalupe.

At some point, as you approach Isla Guadalupe, you should notice the prevailing winds shifting back toward the NW, which will drive you more westerly. Using your best judgment as you get nearer the latitude of San Diego, you will want to come over to a port tack and sail toward the coast. With any luck, you will reach the coast near San Diego. At that point you will be able to "smell the barn" and start dreaming of how good that pizza is going to taste when you finally reach port. At least, that's what I always thought of during the home stretch to San Diego.

The time this passage requires varies greatly and is mostly determined by what time of the year you make the passage. Up until about the middle of May, the prevailing NW winds are fairly dependable and you should make good time. After that, however, the NW winds tend to become more variable and fickle, as the pacific high starts dropping for the summer season. Frankly, this has been a problem for us on three of our passages, since we usually stayed long enough in Mexico to attend Loreto Fest, and often didn't get started from Cabo until the end of May or even early June. In the worst case, we were becalmed and had to use the engine to motor in to Turtle Bay, refuel, and then motor up the coast.

Our average time for the passage was between two to three weeks. On one occasion, when leaving earlier in the year and singlehanding the boat (with a "buddy boat"), I made the entire passage in 10-1/2 days! Of course, you should plan and provision for the longer voyage.

Those with little experience with long offshore passages might want to take a look at my article on Watch Schedules, which is available here in the Cruiser section of our website.

I'll look forward to comments or tales from any of you who have made the offshore passage, or who have more questions that I haven't answered here. You can contact me via email at


—Gary Albers, S/V Ishi