Actually Sailing the Sea of Cortez

Most blogs you read about sailing in Mexico describe the amazing things there are to see and why it’s worth spending a few seasons there.

This is about the sailing experience.

In the Sea of Cortez, the wind either doesn’t blow at all, or it blows like crazy from exactly where you want to go.  In the lulls you drift aimlessly in circles, listening to sails flog. When the Norte blows, you have 30+ kts on your nose and it’s a bashingly numbing ride. For about 4 hours a day, you have perfect sailing conditions. Just time it with the tides…

What I’m saying is, it’s a motor boater’s paradise.

The first major city heading north, La Paz, even closes their harbor when they see 15kts of breeze from the North. 15 kts!! No boats are allowed in or out. I don’t think the weekly regatta has been allowed out to sail once with a decent breeze. Quite a different vibe compared to the race boats in Santa Cruz that come screaming back into harbor under big powerful kites in all but treacherous conditions.

The Sea is amazingly beautiful, Jacques Cousteau fittingly described it as ‘The aquarium of the world,” and It’s absolutely worth every minute you spend there exploring. We swam with sea lions and floated over schools of vibrant tropical fish. We ate delicious fresh ceviche, fish tacos and sashimi all from a few hooks hanging over the stern. We love it here in Mexico.

Ask almost anyone who participated in the 2018 Baja Haha how many hours their motors were running when they were up in the Sea. That should give you an idea of what it’s like to sail here.

The sailing itself, sucks.

We attempted sailing North in both a Norte and without a Norte. Both are trying.

A Norte is a strong northerly wind that seems to occur once every week or so and last a few days during winter months. Sometimes they occur back to back and they last for nearly a week. If a Norte is blowing, expect square 6-8’ waves to build, as the fetch from the Northern Sea is nearly 400 miles. That mass of water moving south also tends to push a sizable current.

In the Norte, you are taking hundreds of gallons of water over the bow and watching your tacking angles  get worse and worse. But hey, there is wind! The trouble is trying to sleep when you are getting air  in your berth as the boat pounds away.

When the Norte doesn’t blow, all predictions are off. Sometimes the wind is blowing from the south, sometimes the west, sometimes the east, but never over 10 kts (on rare occasion you might see 15). Expect lots of lulls and lots of drifting.

While we were here, we did not find any wind prediction software to be accurate, nor the charts for that matter. We tried PredictWind, Sailflow, Windy, and NOAA’s GRIBs, but none of them were accurate when a Norte wasn’t blowing.

All of the tall volcanic islands and hills in the area seem to confuse the fickle winds and make prediction difficult.

Our trick was to wait until well after the Norte shut off and  use a honed skill of… looking out the window.

When the light wind starts to blow in the early afternoon, we would weigh anchor and ride the puffs North. Ideally we landed in any of the hundreds of majestical, calm anchorages before the wind shut off for the night.

If we timed it right, there wasn’t any swell, and we would be hunkered down in an amazing anchorage while the Norte kicked up for a few days. After things chill out, you can weigh anchor and keep going… slowly.

If you have a typical “cruising boat” that is heavy and doesn’t point high, expect to fill those diesel tanks often!

Fortunately for us, Cinderella is a great light wind performer, and though wet, she can pound her way to weather if need be.

Either way, actually sailing in the Sea of Cortez, as with anywhere patience is key, and schedules will make life painful.

Expect to develop monk-like patience here if you attempt to experience the Sea under sail as daily passages tend to be roughly one third to one quarter the mileage you experienced coming down the West coast. For instance, 20 miles may take you all day. But don’t worry, there are plenty of perfect beaches to help you find heart’s center.

Don’t let the sailing discourage you, it is trying, but the experience here more than makes up for it. We wish we had more time to stick around and spend a few seasons really exploring.

10 Replies to “Actually Sailing the Sea of Cortez”

  1. Great to hear both the pluses and minuses of Sea of Cortez cruising. I had suspected the sailing was very challenging but few people talk about it in detail.
    Hope to see more pictures of the sailing conditions. Why does it appear your foresail is slightly reefed while becalmed? Less chafe on the sheets?

    1. Hey Patrick! Good question!

      When the winds are light (really light) or if there is swell we reef down. It’s less sail weight for the wind to hold open and it stops all the heavy sail from banging around if the boat is rocking back and forth. We can still get a kt or so of drive when there is >3kts by reefing down. We just recently added a 3rd reef in our main that helps a lot to steady the boat when the swell is big and the wind isn’t cooperating.

  2. My wife Patti and I (Tom) just bought a Gemini 34 105 MC catamaran based in San Carlos, Sonora, Mexico. I am a fairly experienced sailor, but have not owned a board for many years. Beginning in September we plan to sail out of San Carlos at first on short day sails and to local bays on the Sonora side. Would love to hear thoughts on our plans and suggestions

    1. I was considering San Carlos for dry storage. Do you have any knowledge of costs in the area? Dock fees, haul out, annual dry storage? Living costs there seem very reasonable.
      Thank you for your time,

      1. Hey Kurt, good questions. We never made it that far north on the mainland. We had friends that went there, and it seems to be affordable, but I am unsure.

  3. Thanks for some great info! I’m planning to cruise for a year or two and am thus deciding on what boat to buy… Sounds like the Sea of Cortez would be more fun (and cheaper as far as fuel costs?) with a light displacement racer/cruiser for the calm days and under cover when the Norte blows. Good to know!

    1. I will admit, I am bias of racer/cruisers… But yes, its a great place to cruise with a light wind boat. And there are many for sale in Mexico!

      The only drawback I can think of is water tankage, as most racer/cruisers don’t have very much. We carry 45 gal onboard, 30 in a tank, 15 in jerry cans. Before we installed our watermaker, we had to provision every week or so.

      As for fuel, we don’t know being all renewable energy. I would plan to upgrade any boat you buy with a modern solar setup. It’s pretty great not needing to find a dock for generator fuel, and no noise/smells to deal with.

  4. Thanks for this, we just arrived (it’s May 2020 now) from the south and plan on spending a year in the Sea before heading across the big blue… I really needed to find someone writing about the actual SAILING here, and had been suspecting exactly what you just said about the winds, but needed to hear it I guess, all in all very helpful and very appreciated! Cheers WEsail

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