Baja Ha Ha

October 22nd-November 10th

HA HA Flyer

The Baha Ha Ha is an annual cruisers rally. It begins in San Diego California and ends in Cabo San Lucas, on the southern tip of the Baja peninsula. The Ha Ha was started by Richard Spindler, who is also the founder of Latitude 38, a monthly publication familiar to all sailors in the western US. 

Richard serves as the Grand Poohba, rally organizer, voice of wisdom and experience. He is a practiced proselytizer, extolling the virtues of the cruising lifestyle as well as those of the Mexican Riviera. Each year, he returns to San Diego and like some kind of nautical Moses, leads his flocks into the holy land. His boat “Profligate” serves as the committee boat. Curiously, he is the only person that I have ever heard refer to themselves in the third person, without sounding like a douche. The rally began in 1997 and takes place each fall; the 2018 iteration was the Silver anniversary and scheduled to depart San Diego on October the 29th and arrive in Cabo on November the 8th. To date, more than 3500 boats and over 10,000 sailors have participated in this annual rally.

Richard Spindler
The Poohba (in orange) at Bahia Santa Maria anchorage

A few things about the Ha Ha. First it “is a rally and not a race”. This is, of course, logically fallacious; a distinction without a difference. Asking sailboats not to race is akin to asking young boys not to roughhouse, dogs not to run, the sun not to rise. Throughout the sailing community there are many anecdotes, and jokes that illustrate this fact. “one sail boat going from point A to point B is a cruise. Two sailboats going from point A to point B is a race!” Or “when did the first sailboat race take place?……on the day they built the second sailboat!”

Also, the Ha Ha is not for novices. While there is certainly something to the creed of safety in numbers, it is not a hand holding service and each boat and crew is responsible for themselves. Indeed, the admission application strongly states that, “if at least two crew members have not been off shore, experienced rough weather and spent nights at sea; the Baja Ha Ha is not for you. Do not sign up.” Additionally, in the waivers required by both captain and crew, it repeatedly states; “the Ha-Ha is a high-risk activity open only to those gladly willing to risk injury and death in the pursuit of adventure.”

And still another thing to recognize about the Ha Ha….it is fast! Consider that from August 31st, when we left Port Angeles to October 22nd when we arrived in San Diego, we had traveled sixteen hundred miles over a period of fifty three days. We were about to travel one thousand miles in just eight days!

Once you join the Ha Ha fleet and have been officially admitted; you receive a welcome packet. One of the things included in the packet is the official Baja Ha Ha Burgee (flag). On our transit down the coast, we had come across quite a few boats flying their burgee and we were flying ours. You would always stop and introduce yourself to these boats, knowing that soon, we would be going into an adventure together. We had made a reservation and arrived at the municipal docks (also known as the Police Docks) in San Diego on October 22nd. The first thing that we noticed was that every boat in the small transient marina, was flying a Ha Ha burgee! The fleet was forming and in a week we would be off!

The week in San Diego was spent with preparations and last minute “necessities”; some real, most imagined. The artificial deadline, imposed by the Ha Ha rally kickoff, created some anxiety and a sense of urgency amongst the participants. And, it was contagious. Each boat seeing another boat engaged in some type of mechanical, electrical, cosmetic or provisioning exercise would develop an insecurity that they were not doing enough. And they certainly weren’t doing it fast enough. So in turn, would redouble their efforts, which created more anxiety and insecurity with still other boats. It was self perpetuating. The funny thing is, we were going to Mexico not Tonga; not only Mexico, but Cabo, which is essentially southern, southern California. There is no service offered or product available in San Diego, California that is not also available in Cabo San Lucas! Nevertheless, the anxiety was there and it was contagious. Julianne and I were not immune and also fell prey to it. Making unnecessary trips, to unnecessary places in order to make unnecessary purchases.

Police Dock
Police Dock San Diego

Like the vast majority of cruisers, the boats and crews on the Police Dock were just really nice and generous people. Cruising on a sailboat, like being naked in public, is a great equalizer. It doesn’t matter where you come from, what your religious or political beliefs, or how much money you have. Neptune, the ocean and the boats themselves, conspire against each of us equally. Shared misery produces an easy and natural camaraderie between people who may have never even exchanged a pleasantry in their previous lives. 

As I mentioned, the Marina was full of Ha Ha boats. There was Dawn Treader, captained by Peter, who we first met on Catalina Island; three big catamarans, AY Caramba, Stray Cat and Salish Dragon; Valkyrie from Port Townsend, WA; Wild Spirit, who would help us through electrical issues; the ketch Redeemed, with father and daughter on board; Rejoice who we recognized at once would become friends; Agatha that we had met at the uncomfortable anchorage on Santa Cruz; and many others. Everyone supported and encouraged one another and one night we had our first dock party!

October 28th was a big day. There was a mandatory skippers meeting in the morning, a Halloween costume party for the fleet in the afternoon, Julianne’s daughter Lia was arriving to crew with us down to Cabo and we still needed to go get fuel. We managed to get it all done and soon the morning of the 29th arrived!

Epiphany crew at Halloween party.

The Rally begins with a parade through San Diego Harbor. The parade is a big deal. All of the local news stations cover it, the mayor and city council members are on the committee boat,  there are fireboats spraying water into the air and a festive and exciting energy. There are 160 vessels in the fleet, that is a lot of boats. We muster together, motoring in big loops or figure eights, weaving in and out of one another until the moment arrives and the start gun fires. Then we all begin falling in line, fore and aft of one another, two or three or four abreast. Past the committee boat with its dignitaries, we wave  and pose for the cameras. Many of us are in our Halloween costumes. The whole harbor knew that we were leaving and the shores were lined with rubber neckers, come to see us off. Our departure was well communicated and included in the weekly notice to mariners. There were no freighters and the harbor was empty of other commercial traffic, fisherman and pleasure boats, as they gave way to the self importance of our massive fleet. Naturally then, in the midst of the festivities; flags waving, air horns sounding, fire boats spinning and shooting their massive water canons into the sky, dignitaries, press and general self congratulation…… came  across the water the unmistakable and panic inducing bellowing of one long blast of a ships horn. Entering the harbor and on a head on collision with our parade came the United States Navy……turns out that they don’t give a rats ass about notices, dignitaries, sailing fleets or any other pomp or circumstance that you can dream up. They go where they want to and when they intend to! To make a second Moses reference in one post……..we parted like the Red Sea.

  • (copy and paste url for parade video)

Unfortunately, if like us you moved to port, you came in close proximity to the fire boats and their water canons. The fire crews, having spent the better part of 30 minutes spinning rapidly in circles were dizzy, disorientated and had no idea that the Navy was coming. Boats were forced to pick their poison…..get run over by a Naval warship or get water blasted by the San Diego Fire Department.

Pirate Bill and Lia
Leaving San Diego. Ha Ha parade

Finally we cleared the harbor and were on our way. Our first stop was Bahia Tortuga or Turtle Bay. The bay was roughly 360 nautical miles south east from San Diego; we had to commit to a route! Just a few miles south west from San Diego, and visible from the harbor, lie the Coronado islands and Mexico! There was very light wind and it was time for our first decision….. outside or inside of the islands? The forecast called for very light winds today, but a chance that they would build the following day and the further out you went, the stronger the wind might become. The fleet was of different minds. Immediately a third broke off to the inside and took the most direct route. The remainder, including us, continued south west. By mid afternoon we were west of the islands and it was time for decision number two. Most turned south or south east. We decided to continue southwest and put ourselves in an advantageous position to sail. We had some light winds through the night and were able to continue on with our sails through dawn. In the morning we were rewarded, as the winds began to build! We had 15 knots of wind and were able to steer a southerly course, occasionally cheating in to the east. We were 60 miles off shore now, but we had wind and an advantage over the inland boats.We sailed south all through the day but land was running away from us to the east. I plotted our course and as evening fell, mother nature made our decision for us. The wind died. We drew a rhumb line to Bahia Tortuga on our chart and started our motor. We were able to sail off and on through the next day, but it was light wind and made for a lazy day. We put out our hand line and caught our first fish; a ten pound Amberjack! Finally, around midnight of the third day, we made into anchorage at Turtle Bay. It had been Lia’s first overnights on a small sailboat. She handled it really well, but I thought that she was glad to be anchored!

Lia at helm
Lia on Epiphany

If the village at Turtle Bay has a name, I never heard it. It is a remote and picturesque village. Fishing pangas line the beach and the small pier. There is a restaurant on the beach and a makeshift bar has been opened up for us there as well. The beach is littered with our dinghys. The town has dusty streets, half of which are made of dirt. Adobe houses and storefronts line the walkways. It has a feel of sincerity about it and the people are warm and quick to smile. The Baja Ha Ha has no small impact on the town, it’s sense of self or its economy. For twenty five years this fleet has appeared, as if by magic, from the sea. Bringing with it large sums of revenue for local business and government. The schools shut down for the days that the fleet is in and the children are everywhere underfoot. Also it is halloween, and there is candy for the kids. There are young parents in the town, now with children of their own, who have no recollection of a time when the fleet did not come. And now, so it is with their children.

The anticipation must be maddening for the youngsters. Waiting through the afternoon. Who will be the first to spot a mast on the horizon? Late in the day, the first of us begin to arrive. Throughout the late afternoon and into the early hours of tomorrow it will continue. Boat after boat and as evening falls the anchor lights flicker on and the bay is littered with stars! In the morning when they awake, the siege is complete. We have invaded this bay; we consume it, an armada of gringos. And today the fleet will come ashore! 

There is a softball game between the fleet and the town. The focus is on participation and the umpire very rarely calls anyone out. Everyone bats and some take turns in the field. In the afternoon, three local boys take position in the infield and for an hour, not one single person, man or woman, Mexican or American, legitimately makes it on base. The ump calls everyone safe and the boys don’t seem to mind, but that is not going to stop them from demonstrating their efficiency. Batter after batter, 6-4-3 double play; 6-4-3 double play….here is a little variation 4-6-3 double play and the short stop throws in a mid air 360 just for kicks!

Dinghys at Turtle Bay
Dinghys at Turtle Bay

The next day, there is a beach party on a remote beach on the far side of the bay. We mingle with our new friends, some we are meeting for the first time.  The sun is warm, as is the water. We drink margaritas. There is music and dancing and a men versus women tug of war. A few other twenty somethings are on the Ha Ha, and Lia finally gets to meet some folks her own age. Then as the sun begins to go down, we flag a panga and hop a ride back to Epiphany. Tomorrow morning it will be time to go. Our next stop is Bahia Santa Maria, another 240 miles to the south east.

Tug of war
The women’s Tug of War Team

The wind is just as light and variable on this leg as it had been on the first. Again we push outside of the majority of the fleet. But this time we gain no real advantage and we do not venture any further out. Still, we sail more than most and we arrive off of BSM at dawn on the third day. Many boats, who motored on a rhumb line had arrived the evening before, but we were middle of the pack and we had sailed!

There is no town here, just a small fishing camp and some ramshackle huts. There are pangas, but they are busy fishing and don’t come around like they had in Tortuga. In the afternoon, Gardyloo pulls in and anchors to our stern. Julie and I swim over to say hello.

Once again we have occupied this place; to the people who live here, the scene can only be surreal. On the second day the locals prepare a dinner of fresh fish, beans, salad and tortillas. A band has been brought in from Mazatlan. Across the Sea of Cortez by ferry to La Paz, then a bus north before transferring to some all wheel vehicle that transported them west over the mountains and into the absolute remoteness that is Bahia Santa Maria! The singer it turns out, is a finalist on the Mexican version of the talent show “The Voice”. They play American pop and funk for tips. There is beer and dancing.

Anchorage at Turtle Bay
Anchored at BSM

Leg three begins at at 6AM. It is 180 miles to Cabo and fast boats can make it before nightfall on the second day. We set out and there is wind. Following our same strategy, we push outside; but this time it bites us. There is more wind inside; funneling down the mountains. We are too far out to take advantage and we fall behind the pack. Eventually slowly, we move to the east and try and rejoin the group. As night falls we can see they running lights and know that we are not alone, but we are all traveling at the same speed and we will not catch them. The wind dies and slowly more and more boats start their engines and begin motoring. We decide to join them, at least we can make Cabo in daylight tomorrow! 

Around 11PM I start the motor, Julie is due to relieve me at midnight. As she comes on shift, the engine over heats and we notice that we are losing electricity. We shut down and continue sailing.  In the morning, we discover that we have broken our engine belt, which charges our fresh water cooling pump (thus over heating) and our alternator (thus no electricity). Luckily I have another one on board and a couple of hours later we are motoring again. (Special thanks to Blossom, who was the only boat in VHF range and offered technical and moral support)! Finally, at10PM on the second day, we come around the fabled rocks that mark the entrance to Cabo San Lucas and dropped our hook just off the beach. It felt surreal. 

Cabo rocks and arch

Cabo is Las Vegas with a little salsa on top. The clubs were thumping and the neon sparkled off the water. From just a few hundred feet, it is hard to distinguish between anchor light and street front. It is bright and it is loud. We have completed leg three and the 2018 Baja Ha Ha! We check our chart plotter and realize that we have travelled over 2700 miles and spent 600 hours underway since leaving Port Angeles! 

Two evenings later is the final formal Ha Ha event. There are awards for first second and third place by division. Gardyloo won the award for most talkative on the radio (LOL Suzanna!), Stray Cat won for best samaritan after they towed another vessel with engine trouble all through the night (Blossom definitely deserved honorable mention here, they helped multiple boats) and we even won second place in our division. All that sailing paid off!

But Cabo was not to our taste and we had to figure out how to get Lia over to Mazatlan on the main land so soon we were making plans for next steps. The Ha Ha was a blast and we met some great folks. But it traveled faster than our natural inclination and we were excited to return to setting our own agenda. We would head for La Paz!

4 thoughts on “Baja Ha Ha

  1. Sounds like you two ( three for a while ) are having such a good time. Bill text Chris you caught an amberjack that’s awesome! Loved the pirate outfits 🙂 we miss you two and look forward to trying to make it to La Paz. Glad Lia made it to where she was going. Love you guys!!


  2. Bill, I love your writing! Absolutely smashing. So much fun to read the journey from another perspective. Tickled to hear that Charlie was your aid on repairs; we buddy-boated with Blossom down the coast from Monterey to Santa Barbara, so we rounded Point Conception together. Lovely lovely humans, those Pattersons! Can’t wait to read more of your story! It’s fun to read someone else blogging the same journey. ❤


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