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Sea of Cortez or Caribbean?

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Missing the pictures? See the August 2011 eBook!

We got a little over-zealous when responding to the following letter, and we thought it might answer some questions a lot of cruising-oriented readers have, so we made a feature out of it.

I've been an avid reader of Latitude 38 since I moved to California in '99, and would like your advice about our cruising plans. My wife and I are greenhorn, wannabe-cruisers. While I've been sailing most of my life, it's pretty much always been racing or daysailing — but on everything from sailboards to dinghies to big boats. We've had a Catalina 34 for five years, and take her from San Diego to Catalina three or four times a year, but we've only anchored out twice, having taken moorings all the other times. This spring we've replaced all the standing and running rigging on the boat, upgraded the batteries, added/upgraded much of the navigation system, and upgraded the ground tackle.

In addition to loving to sail, we are avid divers. We've had the chance to dive both in the Caribbean — BVIs, Bonaire, Cozumel — and the Pacific — Cabo, Puerto Vallarta, and Huatulco.

We're both in our mid-40s and would like to take sabbaticals. We're torn between cruising Mexico or the Eastern Caribbean — although we don't even have a good list of pros and cons for each area, so perhaps "torn" is too strong a term at this point. Our experience is that the diving in the Caribbean has been much better than on the Pacific coast of Mexico. However, we've never been diving up in the Sea of Cortez.
Some other possible factors: We don't have a watermaker, so would the availability of water be a major consideration? Considering how arid the Pacific coast of Mexico is, would our 70 gallons of fresh water be enough? Would we be correct in assuming that water is more available — by collecting rain or in marinas — in the Caribbean than in Mexico? In addition, our Catalina 34 only holds 23 gallons of fuel which, based on our experience, means our range is just under 150 miles.

If we choose to go to the Caribbean, I assume that we'd have to truck our boat to Miami. Or would it be better to ship her farther north, then start by sailing down the Intracoastal Waterway?

We have the notion that the Caribbean offers a wider variety of cultures, foods, etc., than the Pacific coast, but that could just be a notion.

Another consideration would be timing/schedule, although I know from reading Latitude that 'schedule' is sort of a four-letter word. We feel we'll be able to take 12-24 months off for this adventure. Would more or less time favor one option or the other?
I gather that the publisher of Latitude doesn't have to make that decision, as he sails both areas extensively. Maybe we could do the same by sailing south to Mexico and then shipping the boat to the Caribbean. Is that even doable from Mexico?

We'd greatly appreciate any advice you could give us.

Mike 'n Holly Sanderson
Southern Cross, Catalina 34
San Diego


Mike 'n Holly — We'll be happy to share our opinions based on the fact that we've had two boats in the Caribbean for a total of 15 years, and have cruised Mexico since 1978 on six different boats we've owned. We have an acute understanding of your Mexico/Caribbean dilemma. As we've written previously, our putting a Leopard 45 cat in a yacht management program in the British Virgins was a direct result of our not being able to live with just sailing in Mexico or the Caribbean. The two places are so great, but so different, that we just couldn't choose between them. As you read on, you may find that you might not have to make that difficult decision either.

To outline the basics, Mexico has a rich and somewhat homogeneous culture, although the Sea of Cortez and the mainland offer two very different types of cruising experiences. The people of Mexico are as nice as can be, and nowhere do cruisers socialize so much. The sailing in Mexico is generally mellow, and while there is some good diving in the Sea, it's not of the tropical variety to be found in the Caribbean. But the fishing is excellent, particularly in the Sea — as in "What shall we catch for dinner tonight, honey?"

Your "notion" of the Caribbean's having greater variety is correct, although you probably don't realize how correct. If you sail 750 miles south from San Diego into Mexico, you never leave Baja. But if you sail 750 miles southeast from Puerto Rico, you will have sailed to Venezuela via the U.S. Virgins, the British Virgins, Anguilla, St. Martin, St. Barth, Saba, St. Kitts & Nevis, Antigua & Barbuda, Montserrat, Guadeloupe, Dominica, Martinique, St. Lucia, St. Vincent and the Grenadines, Grenada, and Trinidad and Tobago. That's at least 15 major islands, 9 sovereign nations, nearly as many different cultures, and at least four widely spoken languages. And if it sounds as if you can always see another country or two from wherever you are in the Eastern Caribbean, it's often true.

Unlike in Mexico, the wind frequently blows hard in the Caribbean. From mid-December until mid-February, it can blow 20+ knots day and night without stopping, which is frankly more than anybody needs. And it regularly honks through the end of May. It's generally lighter from June to November, but on any given day you have to be ready for 25 knots and squalls with 35 knots. 'Calm' in Mexico is zero knots of wind. 'Calm' in the Caribbean is 10 knots of wind. If we've scared anyone, rest assured that 25 knots in the warm Caribbean doesn't have quite as much force as 25 knots in chilly California waters and, because it's so warm in the Caribbean, 25 knots is really fun — at least for a couple of hours, if you're not sailing right into it.

We're not experts on diving, but the water and fish in the Caribbean are gorgeous, although you're going to have a much harder time catching dinner.

Mexico is astonishingly less expensive than the Caribbean, and generally speaking, the locals and cruisers are more friendly. God knows that the officials in Mexico are much nicer. While this might come as a shock to some people, we also think that cruisers are much less likely to be the victim of crimes — both assaults and thefts — in Mexico than in the Caribbean. In Mexico, narcos target narcos, while in the Caribbean, rich whites are often the target.

While you could have a great time cruising either the Caribbean or Mexico, we think there are two elements of your particular situation that would cause us to advise you to go to one place more than the other. Unfortunately, one element says that you should go to Mexico, while the other says you should go to the Caribbean.

First off, Mexico is — and how can we put this without offending anyone in our own age group? — predominantly retirement cruising. Like the weather, the whole vibe is muy tranquilo. A typical social event in Mexico is a potluck followed by train dominoes with cruiser musicians playing in the background. There is nothing wrong with this, of course, but it generally appeals more to older cruisers. The vibe in the Caribbean, on the other hand, is like the sailing there — more wild and youth-oriented. A typical social event in the Caribbean might include pretty heavy drinking, flirting, maybe pot smoking, and dancing on the tables to live music into the wee hours. Not that we personally do too much of that anymore.

But if you're anywhere near as fun-loving and mischievous as we were in our 40s, the Caribbean is definitely the place for you. Our decade of sailing our Ocean 71 Big O up and down the island chain was easily the wildest time of our life, putting even our 20s to shame. On a scale of 1-10 for excitement-loving folks under 45, we'd give Mexico a 4 and, although it differs from island to island and country to country, we'd give the Caribbean an 8. And some islands would get an 11.

Then, too, the cruising and racing regattas and other events in the Caribbean are much larger and more free-spirited than those in Mexico. It's not that the average cruiser is so much younger in the Caribbean, but rather that the Caribbean is liberally sprinkled with charter boats with younger folks on vacation and crewed yachts with youngish crew — and perhaps 20 times as many sailboats as in Mexico.

While your age might say the Caribbean, in our opinion your Catalina 34 says Mexico. It's not because of limited fuel capacity — you can sail everywhere in the Caribbean — or the water, because you're likely going to want a watermaker no matter where you go. The difference is that we think the Catalina 34 is a Mexico rather than a Caribbean boat for reasons of comfort. It's often rough sailing in the Caribbean, and the rougher it is, the more comfort you're going to have on a larger boat. Sure, you can cruise the Caribbean on a 34-footer, but not nearly as comfortably as you could on a 40-footer, or better still, a 45-footer. On the other hand, you can do just fine in more mellow Mexico with a 34-ft — or even smaller — cruising boat.

Getting your boat to the Eastern Caribbean would be a more expensive proposition than you think. In addition to having to truck her to the East Coast — and Miami is not really any better a jumping off point than Hampton, Virginia, in terms of miles — you'd probably also want to ship her to the Eastern Caribbean. Most West Coast sailors don't realize that it's 1,500 nasty miles upwind miles against the trades and tradewind seas to get to the Eastern Caribbean from anywhere on the East Coast. Trust us, doing that bash is the best way for novice cruisers on a 34-footer to give up cruising after a couple of months.

So we're going to present you with three options:

1) Cruise Mexico, particularly if you only have 12 months. You might not have as wild a time as you would in the Caribbean, but you will have a great time, get to enjoy full doses of both the mainland and the Sea of Cortez, and be able to do it quite economically. And for the record, there is no economical way to ship your boat from Mexico to the Caribbean.

2) If you have 18 months, you can enter your boat in the Baja Ha-Ha cruisers rally in the fall, cruise Mexico and Central America in the winter and spring, do Panama and Cartagena in the summer and fall, and then carefully work your way to the Eastern Caribbean via either the north coast of South America or Cuba, the Dominican Republic, and Puerto Rico, so you'll arrive in St. Martin by Christmas. After slowly sailing down and back up the chain of islands in the eastern Caribbean, you set sail downwind to Florida in June before the start of hurricane season, then truck your boat home.

3) Perhaps the best — but probably least likely option — would be to sell your boat, then find one coming out of a charter program in the Eastern Caribbean. For the last 15 years or so, charter boats have been quite well built, and they come with much of what you need to cruise in the Caribbean and Mexico. You spend from November to November in the Eastern Caribbean with your new-to-you boat, maybe ducking down to the ABCs or Venezuela's islands for the height of hurricane season. Come December, you sail to Cartagena, then to the San Blas Islands, transit the Canal, and start working your way up the west coast of Central America and Mexico, making sure you get up into the Sea of Cortez by the start of hurricane season in July. After a summer in the Sea, you do the Baja Bash home in November, when Baja winds tend to be the lightest. After a couple of months back in California, you ask each other, "What in the world are we doing here?" at which point you take off across the Pacific on the Puddle Jump. Heck, maybe you'll have reached that conclusion a few months earlier, skipped the Bash altogether and just taken off across the Pacific on the Puddle Jump from Mexico.

Good luck. No matter which option you choose, we think you're going to have a blast!

— latitude/richard

Catalinas for Cruising?

In the early days of Catalina Yachts, some of the smaller boats were built for sailing from the Southern California mainland to — duh — Catalina. So we asked Catalina's Corporate VP and Chief Engineer Gerry Douglas about the suitability of a Catalina 34 for cruising the Caribbean.

"When I took over the design responsibilities at Catalina in '83, I decided that all of our boats would be to ABS (American Bureau of Shipping) scantlings, panel stiffness requirements and so forth" says Douglas. "And they were. Unfortunately, the ABS doesn't publish those rules anymore, but they were darn good rules, as can be deduced from how well the IOR boats have held up after all these years. There is also something called CE or 'Certified European' classing, with categories A, B and C. Category A means a boat is certified for 'Unlimited Offshore' use, and all Catalinas meet those scantling modules.

"So when a Catalina leaves the factory," continues Douglas, "structurally she'll have no trouble handling the conditions in the Caribbean. But, there's a difference between safety and comfort. Sailors would be much more comfortable in a Catalina 42 or a 470 than a 34."

Douglas also notes that Catalinas don't come with a few things he believes are needed for safe cruising in the Caribbean. "Things like lee cloths for the bunks, attachment points for harnesses and jacklines, locking pins for the companionway hatch," says Douglas. "They are easy to add on, but they don't leave the factory with them."

Having received tremendous feedback from thousands of boatowners over nearly three decades, Douglas says most of the problems he's seen with Catalinas are age-related issues. Engines, transmissions and pumps wear out with age and use. "Careful attention needs to be paid to all the metal parts. For example, has the standing rigging been replaced in the last seven years? And have the critical metal fittings been checked for crevice corrosion using dye penetration? It's not as hard as it sounds, and we recommend that every owner do it or have it done by a professional rigger. But structurally, there shouldn't be any problems with the hulls, decks, keels and so forth."

(Speaking of dye penetration, we explain it in this month's Sightings, as crevice corrosion has been the cause of a number of serious failures that we've reported on in recent months.)

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This story was reprinted from the the August 2011 issue of Latitude 38. To order a copy (complete with color photos), use the subscription order form, and specify the 4/09 issue, or just drop us a note with a check for $7 to Latitude 38, Attn: Back Issues, 15 Locust Ave., Mill Valley, CA 94941.

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