Posted by John
We didn’t really know what to expect when we signed up for the Baja Ha-Ha last May. We didn’t get a lot of information about it after we signed up, either. There were seminars and meetings as the date got closer, but these were put on by sponsors and seemed more like opportunities to sell something to us rather than specific details about the trip itself.
The first official event where we learned much of any detail was a kickoff party held the day before the Ha-Ha start. It was held in a West Marine parking lot in San Diego. That presented its own opportunity to spend more money, and so we did. That it was held the day before the start was a little annoying since that’s when people were making last minute preparations, buying food and returning rental cars. Due to our shared rental car needing to be returned by 4 PM, we had to leave the party early.
Out of 180 boats entered in the Baja Ha-Ha rally, 150 actually started at the same time from San Diego on Monday morning, October 31st. Local television news stations took footage of the parade of boats leaving San Diego while fire boats (well, technically, police boats with a single fire pump) sprayed water into the air. Everybody put up at least one sail so it would look cool for the video, but there wasn’t any wind.
The wind picked up later in the day. It was really nice sailing for a while. We even had all four of our sails up at the same time, something we rarely have the opportunity to do.
Things started going downhill as soon as the sun went down. The winds had picked up a little too much, as had the seas. We reefed both the main and the mizzen, and furled the staysail. We sailed off into the darkness with plenty of stars, but no moon. It quickly became eerily similar to the first night out from Cape Flattery: invisible swells, seemingly coming from different directions and slamming us in the middle with all their force. By this time, two thirds of our crew was in less than perfect condition. Rolling from side-to-side with no visible horizon, with violent pitching and yawing thrown in, will pretty much get to me every time. You’d think we would’ve learned the first time, but no, we still had gear and supplies dumping out onto the floor and sliding around the cabin.
The Tuesday morning weather report indicated that the conditions were not going to improve until Wednesday. Although I was beginning to feel better and function more, Julie, who had hand-steered through most of Monday night, was exhausted, and could not do it for a second night in a row. Later in the day, to go easier on ourselves, we decided to start up the engine, haul in the sails, and power through the deteriorating sea conditions. It proved to be the right choice.
Tuesday night was rougher still. We don’t think we were rolled as far or as violently as we had been coming out of Cape Flattery, but we don’t really know because our tilt gauge broke when something crashed into it. Three out of our four sails became unusable because the halyards or jib sheets were so badly wrapped around and tangled. We could not do anything about them until everything calmed down. Our auto-pilot, unable to handle the big seas at times, would go into FAIL mode and we’d have to quickly grab the wheel and retain control before things literally went sideways.
Sure, it’s all fun and games until someone gets hurt. The Ha-Ha fleet was using VHF channel 69 for communications with each other. Everyone monitored it continuously. It was the fleet’s communication line, but with the boats spread out by a hundred miles or so, not everyone could hear every conversation. One of the first reported problems during the night was a failed boom vang (a rigging device used to help hold down and control a boom) on “Jersey Girl.” The failure of the vang damaged their boom. They reported at first that they were going to head into Ensenada for repairs, but then continued sailing instead. Then reports of more problems on more boats started coming in. One boat broke its boom in half; another broke its tiller and had to rig up emergency steering. We heard of breaking whisker poles (used to hold sails out, away from the boat), electrical problems, dead engines, blown out sails, and even an onboard fire in one boat. But the worst event of the night began with a mayday call and continued with the ensuing radio traffic, all during the pre-dawn hours. Imagine trying to maintain control of your boat in storm-like conditions, well after midnight, in complete darkness, while boats all around you are suffering damage and breakdowns; and getting bits and pieces of radio traffic, much of it from “Jersey Girl,” who acted very professionally as the fleet’s apparent rescue coordinator, concerning flares, life jackets and signaling devices. It can be a lot for tired brains to hear and process.
When the sun finally came up, and the fleet was tied together with the once-per-day long-range SSB radio roll call, it was learned that the mayday had come from the Ha-Ha boat, “Summerwind,” a Newport 41 from San Diego. They had run up on some rocks and the boat was destroyed. All crew was safely recovered and taken to a hospital to be checked out. “Jersey Girl” had looked for the beached boat during the night but couldn’t find it. They went back at daybreak and found it dismasted and breaking apart in the surf. The rest of us could only imagine what the crew must’ve gone through.
We arrived at the entrance to Turtle Bay, the approximate halfway point down Baja, late on Wednesday night but decided against trying to enter the bay in the dark. We hung out, floating around in the ocean, until daylight. “Slainte,” who had been ahead of us since the start, had run into a little trouble of their own and had decided to anchor for the night in a suitable spot north of Turtle Bay. They saw us on their AIS and hailed us on the radio as we passed by. Joe remarked that this was supposed to be fun. Earlier, the voice of “Jersey Girl” had similarly commented that there hadn’t been much “ha-ha” in the Ha-Ha yet.
The next morning we entered the bay as the sun came over the horizon. We were in Mexico now. We didn’t n eed to unpack our dinghy to get to shore because almost before our anchor was set, men, and sometimes boys, in fishing pangas came by offering taxi service, garbage collection and just about anything else that could be worked out.
The must-attend event of the day was a baseball game between the boat crews and the local little league teams. It was held on the town’s very nice ball field. Robyn and I closely examined the grass on the field, but still couldn’t tell if it was real or fake. It was about the only thing green around. Even the roads in town were dirt.
On Friday, the main event of the day was a beach party a couple of miles south of town. Some people re-anchored their boats closer and landed on the beach in their dinghies, kayaks, paddle boards, or whatever. We took the easy route and hailed a passing panga.
Before we started this trip, when Robyn asked what to expect, we had promised her that she would have experiences that she, and we, could not imagine ahead of time. When we got back to our boat and settled in for the evening, Robyn remarked that things were becoming surreal.