At least one popular sailing publication encourages boaters in Mexico to spend as little time as possible in the Sea of Cortez in November, or bypass it altogether, and instead steers them to mainland destinations like Puerto Vallarta, Zihuatanejo and Manzanillo. It's hard to tell whether or not these areas were popular with cruisers before the sailing publications began promoting them, but however it came about this region, aka "The Mexican Riviera," is chock full o' boats from November through March. Come March, many of these boats cross the South Pacific from mainland Mexico to the Marquesas and other islands, New Zealand and beyond; and most of the others turn north again to cruise the Sea of Cortez in April after the winter weather lightens up and the temperatures once again reach triple digits. The general rationale to guiding boats to mainland Mexico during November seems to be that the weather in the Sea at that time is less predictable than on the mainland, and ranges from uncomfortable to dangerous, while the mainland conditions are more pleasant for longer periods. We've now been both places, and disagree. Herewith, our tale.
When we were still in Seattle dreaming about cruising Mexico, we'd read the same publications everyone else does - including the publication linked above. Assuming these publications knew something we didn't, when we first arrived at the southern tip of Baja in November, 2007, we crossed over to Mazatlan for the holidays and then followed the
herd vast majority of cruisers south (for us, at least, as far as Puerto Vallarta). Don't get me wrong; we had a good time in this area during our month-long cruise in February 2008 and we saw many very cool things as we've described in this here blog. The birds of Isla Isabela, the crocodiles of Matanchen, the Huichol art and the flamenco-fusion music of Tatewari just can't be beat. But as nice a time as we had, I never figured out why so many cruisers prioritized so much of their time in that particular coastal area instead of visiting anywhere else in Mexico. Like people who've slept with Fielding Mellish, I felt like something was missing.
We plan to give the Mexican central and southern mainland another chance in November 2009, when we aim to go south through Mexico and into Central America. However, we were sufficiently underwhelmed by the Puerto Vallarta area when we visited it in February 2008, that this season we decided to buck the trend and go north into the Sea when everyone else headed south. I tell you what, it was a very good decision. November through the first half of December in the Sea of Cortez in 2008 gave us some of the best all-around cruising we have ever had anywhere since we first started sailing together back in 1997. Think of it: six weeks at anchor, all of it good.
We weren't the only boaters who found such stellar cruising here. We met other cruisers with the same impressions we'd had: some uncertainty about heading into the Sea when so many other boaters were making a beeline south (were we somehow making a terrible mistake?), followed by some surprise that so many people bypassed the Sea when its weather was calm, air and water temperatures were in the 70s-80s F, the fishing was good and we all had our choice of a number of quiet anchorages. More than one cruising boat - some who had spent more than one full season cruising Mexico - remarked that having seen the November conditions in the Sea they'd felt they'd been a bit misled by the general notion that the mainland was a preferred destination.
It may simply come down to a difference of tastes, or perhaps skill sets. GB and I spent years cross-country skiing and high-altitude wilderness backpacking before we ever considered sailing, so anchorages with a wilderness feel to them like there are in the Sea of Cortez appeal to us more than a condo-filled shoreline in Acapulco. We spent 10 years cruising in Pacific Northwest conditions year-round before leaving for Mexico; so we can, for example, anchor in 30 knots of wind and not drag. We're OK with cool weather and water, and hunkering down in a gale. I am much more physically suited to the cooler, drier weather of the Sea than I am to the hot and humid mainland; and I absolutely love all kinds of critters, of which the Sea has plenty. Look at this hermit crab over here on the left, so fat he's breaking out of his shell. Heh. Take also, for example, the outstanding November snorkeling - visibility to 40 feet and more; schools of fish sometimes so numerous it was like swimming in a silver cloud. We cavorted with sea lions (well, they cavorted; I bobbed around like a neoprene-covered cork), and we saw brightly colored blue-barred parrotfish, king angelfish, Mexican hogfish, giant damselfish, blue-and-gold snapper, Moorish idols, guineaowl puffers, California halfbeaks, Cortez rainbow wrasses, Chancho surgeonfish, butterflyfish, blennies, grouper and at least four species of eel. Birds? Yellow-legged gulls seen nowhere else; little blue heron, snowy egret, frigatebirds...I could go on with the fish and the birds.
Comparisons: In addition to the hotter, more humid climate, the mainland's no-see-ums are aggressive, especially in the San Blas/Matanchen Bay areas. The mainland anchorages south of Mazatlan are exposed to Pacific swells and tend to be rolly to various degrees; in some places like Matanchen Bay and Chacala stern anchors are necessary to keep your boat bow-to the swell. Other anchorages may be suboptimal for swimming, what with sea snakes, salt water crocodiles, effluent from shore, and whatnot in the vicinity. Disadvantages to anchorages in the Sea of Cortez from November through March include day temps in the 80s and night temps in the 60s, requiring a blanket for sleeping, conditions which I hear some people find too oppressively cold. [That sound you're hearing now is the hysterical laughter of cruisers from Canada and the PacNW.] Swimming gets more problematic as the water gets colder and murkier, stinging jellies become more prevalent, and all the cool fish go AWOL. Wetsuits are a good idea. However, the main drawback to winter cruising in the Sea is having to manage the northers that blow throughout the season. A norther can pin down a boat at anchor for days at a time, which means anchorages must be chosen with care. We had no significant northerly weather during November 2008, but the many wind-free days we had (though they were excellent for water and land exploration) were suboptimal for sailing and our wind generator. So even nice weather has its downside.
As winter approached we sat out two light northers (winds for 2 or 3 days in the mid-20-knot range) during the first half of December, at anchor, with no ill effects. However, the gods were whispering to us that it might be a good idea to put in to port for a while to let the worst of winter pass us by. Sure enough, as we celebrated the Christmas holidays in Marina Costa Baja the stronger northers started (higher winds lasting for longer periods and bringing more cool air with them). It pays to have a weather plan - but then, that's true of cruising the mainland or anywhere else, isn't it?
In conclusion, northers notwithstanding, I believe that anyone who tells you to bypass the Sea of Cortez in November might be doing you a disservice. We have cruised the Sea in March and April when the publications suggest you do so - and frankly, the 2008 Spring conditions were not as good as the late Autumn conditions of November and early December 2008. Obviously individual results may vary, and maybe we just got lucky. But I'd still recommend a November cruise in the Sea of Cortez to anybody. Come see for yourself and draw your own conclusions. If you somehow have a horrible time, you'll still be able to scoot south and catch up with everyone else. You can't lose!