Sailing Mexico was the start of Joshua Shankle and Rachel Moore’s plan to circumnavigate the world. They find bustle and peace as they cruise the country’s west coast
Sailing Mexico: a fiesta afloat
I could smell it in the air; there was a tangible, noticeable difference in the atmosphere and I could not contain the joy that was bubbling up inside me, writes Joshua Shankle.
Night after night I had been trapped in Gore-Tex, confined to the cockpit and the shelter that the dodger provided from sea spray, cold dew, and scattered showers.
After over two weeks of living in my foul-weather gear, it emanated an odour even I could detect.
Rounding this cape was different: instead of making our way through confused seas and accelerated winds only to find more cool Pacific Ocean, my face was met with a new wind.
A warm, dare I say tropical breeze now filled our sails and I was finally able to shed my fleece.
Agápe, our Tayana Vancouver 42, was slowly drifting down the Pacific coast of Baja Mexico.
This last cape, Cabo Falso, brought us within 10km of our first real introduction to Mexico, Cabo San Lucas.
Sailing Mexico offers a wide range of cruising grounds, the nearly 4,970m of west coast shoreline can be split into three distinct areas; Baja, Mainland, and Southern Mexico, with hundreds of anchorages and seaside communities scattered along the coastline.
Less than 200 miles south of Agápe’s homeport, Ventura, California, these waters represented the first of many new countries that we would have the opportunity to cruise in.
In hindsight, our time spent sailing Mexico was an amazing introduction to cruising.
The laidback, slower-paced living was just what I needed to shake off the schedule-filled and deadline-oriented atmosphere I had been living in.
A phrase I would love to say and hate to hear was, ‘Si, lo haré Mañana’, or ‘Ya, I’ll do it tomorrow’.
It was a four-word phrase my wife, Rachel and I would learn to loathe.
Everything took longer than expected and workers never seemed to be in a rush.
After casting off from the hustle and bustle of Los Angeles, California, learning patience and how to slow down were necessary growing pains.
Being forced to learn these lessons early on in our cruising has helped keep my sanity over the years.
Located so close to the USA, Mexico is relatively accessible and affordable, and there are boatyards every few hundred kilometres with reasonably priced labour.
Inexpensive internet and cost of living have also allowed many cruisers to live and work remotely in Mexico, refilling their cruising kitties.
This massive country has a lifetime’s worth of exploring and you’ll want to use up the length of your visa to take in as much of it as you can.
A tourist visa is usually good for six months, but for American sailors, visa runs to San Diego or any one of the southern states are easy, and cheap flights can be found.
A temporary import permit (TIP) costs around $60 USD and allows a vessel to stay within the territorial waters for up to 10 years.
The influx of cruisers and tourists looking for cheap tacos and strong margaritas has no doubt led to the expansion of services and tourist-oriented cities along the west coast.
Busy beaches, bustling cities, and fancy marinas dot the coastline, but luckily the wild and remote anchorages that filled my daydreams could still be found.
After eating our way through the larger cities of Cabo San Lucas and La Paz, Agápeēwas itching to find the remote and picturesque landscapes of the Sea of Cortez.
The Sea of Cortez, a Cruiser’s Guidebook by sailors Heather Bransmer and Shawn Breeding became our bible, detailing virtually every anchorage and destination, starting off with the more popular anchorages and continuing on to less crowded havens further north into the sea.
The alluring desert landscape and endless anchorages can easily draw a yacht in for months.
As Agápe’s food stores dwindled and our desire for a change of scenery grew, we decided to make the overnight sail out of the Sea of Cortez and over to mainland Mexico.
We also had a bit of a timeline: with a well-defined hurricane season, we wanted to see as much of Mexico as possible before safely tucking Agápe away.
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The wind was light for our 160-mile crossing but we were able to sail for most of the day and night, seeing more turtles than I could count.
We had to continually change course to avoid striking them.
We also saw many sea lions and humpback whales, and even hooked a large marlin that jumped out of the water with impressive strength, breaking the 70kg test handline in less than a second!
Entering the centre of Mexico’s three cruising grounds, we entered a bit of a transition zone.
Here cactus give way to palms, and the dry desert heat becomes equatorial and humid.
Even the cruising changes as large marinas become more distant and typical tequila-soaked tourist towns give way to an old-world feel.
This 500-mile section of coastline encompasses some of Mexico’s finest wildlife refuges and most popular cruising grounds.
Protected stop-overs like Isla Isabel, San Blas, and Bahía Matanchén provide glimpses into the country’s abounding and diverse wildlife.
Blue-footed boobies, giant frigate birds, iguanas, crocodiles, and tropical fish became our new neighbours.
We were also sailing during the heart of the humpback whale migratory path and could often see these acrobatic giants breaching and tail-slapping as we hopped down the coast.
Bahía de Banderas is one of the most popular destinations for cruising boats; with four large marinas, white sand beaches, steady breezes, and protected waters, this place checks all the boxes for a cruiser’s paradise.
It’s no surprise that many sailors choose this as their jumping-off point for a Pacific crossing. Puerto Vallarta and Bahía de Banderas also mark one of the turning points for boats heading back north into the Sea of Cortez for the hurricane season.
The waters of southern Mexico, from Barra de Navidad to the border town of Puerto Chiapas, are firmly in the tropical zone.
This was my personal favourite section of coastline.
Warmer waters, palm trees, fewer boats, and a more wild feel.
Even the detail-filled pages of the guidebook became sparse and vague as we picked our way from one picturesque bay to the next.
Here, even in the less frequented cruising grounds, we easily found services and good provisioning.
With many locals making their living from the sea, Mexico is well suited for the cruising lifestyle.
Agápe would eventually find herself in the southernmost port of Puerto Chiapas, tucked away in a secluded marina.
Cleaned from bow to stern and stripped of all canvas and everything on deck, she would ride out hurricane season amongst a spider’s web of lines in Mexico’s last tropical port.
Mexico holds many fond memories for us and is one of our favourite cruising grounds.
Both Rachel and I look forward to working our way back through the country on our second lap sailing around the world.
Tips for sailing Mexico
Mexico represents the largest coastline in the eastern Pacific, and while many yachts will pass through, few truly take the time to explore Mexico in its entirety.
The cruising season here is well defined as the hurricane season – from 1 June to 30 November.
Winds are typically light and benign and the sailing is fairly predictable with winds building in the afternoon and dying off in the evening, following the land effect.
Depending on your location and the season, there are some annoying weather patterns to take into account: Coromuels, Northers, Chubascos (violent squalls with thunder and lightning, encountered during the rainy season along the Pacific coast), Tehuantepecers (strong winds blowing across the Isthmus of Tehuantepec in Southern Mexico), and hurricanes.
Monitoring weather and tuning into one of the many SSB nets to verify the forecast is important, as well as learning about these weather patterns in advance.
The only paperwork you have to obtain before entering Mexico is a fishing permit. Just having a hook on board means everyone on board should have a permit.
Showing up to the Port Captain and Immigration offices well dressed and prepared, with all necessary forms in duplicates, will make checking in and out of ports a breeze.
Bonus points if you can learn enough Spanish to communicate with the officials.
While you are checking in it is worth getting a TIP (Temporary Import Permit) for your boat, unless you plan to race along the entire coast.
Marinas here are usually inexpensive and we were continually lured in by cheap prices, communal happy hours, and conveniences.
If I could go back and do it again, I would skip a few marina days in favour of the beautiful sunsets and cooling breezes on the hook, and spend longer at each stop.
Useful publications and charts for sailing Mexico
Sea of Cortez: A Cruiser’s Guidebook by Heather Bransmer and Shawn Breeding, 3rd edition (Blue Latitude Press, $49.95)
Pacific Mexico: A Cruiser’s Guidebook by Heather Bransmer and Shawn Breeding, 2nd edition (Blue Latitude Press, $49.95)
Mexico Boating Guide by Capt. Patricia Miller Rains, 3rd edition (Point Loma Publishing, $69.95)
Admiralty Chart 4802
Source: Yachting Monthly