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  1998 Baja Ha-Ha Wrapup

The 5th annual Baja Ha-ha, held October 27 through November 7, was the kind of trip sailors dream about. Terrific people, mellow weather, and a variety of great destinations.

The 750-mile Ha-Ha is a cruisers' rally, meaning overloaded boats are the norm, engine use isn't frowned upon, and the emphasis is on making friends rather than beating strangers. The Ha-Ha fleet sailed from San Diego to Cabo San Lucas, with stops after 360 miles at Turtle Bay and after 560 miles at Bahia Santa Maria. Unlike a yacht race in which there is only one winner, everyone who finishes the Ha-Ha is considered a champ.

This year's fleet of 99 starters sailed in boats of all types and sizes. At the extremes were Brian Bouche's Nonsuch 26 Hawkeye and William Hogarty's luxurious Leda, a Dynamique 80. There were a few boats designed primarily for racing, such as John and Nancy Moore's J/130 Break 'n Wind , and David Fullerton's Express 37 Mudshark. About a third of the fleet were older racer/cruisers such as Islanders, Pearsons, Ericsons, and Cals, while another third were full-keel cruisers such as Freeports, Gulfstars, Westsails and Cheoy Lees. There were more multihulls than ever this year, with five catamarans and four trimarans. Most of the boats were in their teens, while the oldest entry, Lee and Patricia Clark's Shock cutter Vagabond Lady, had been built back in 1936.

Thanks to the combination of suitable boats, reasonably experienced sailors, and mellow weather, all the Ha-Ha boats that started on time - and even some such as Blair Grinol's Capricorn Cat that started late - finished on schedule. There were no broken rudders, dismastings or other serious unpleasantness. The worst problem was that Bob and Linda Pickles' Gulfstar 50 Tadita had a Perkins problem. T. Joe Larive of the Hunter 40.5 La Rive demonstrated the Ha-Ha spirit, though, by diverting to tow the disabled boat the last 20 miles to Cabo.

For folks looking to ease into cruising or just enjoy a mild sail, the weather conditions for the Ha-Ha were made to order. While horrific Hurricane Mitch was destroying Central America and the Western Caribbean, the Ha-Ha fleet was being treated to afternoon winds of 10 to 18 knots, and evening winds of four to 12 knots. As befits a rally, the breeze was always from aft of the beam. Other than a couple of hours of three-foot waves, the seas were smooth.

Although most boats took advantage of the motoring allowance when the breeze went light, Mike Hibbetts and his merry crew aboard the CT-49 Orion sailed the entire course. The only other boat to do so was Latitude's Surfin' 63 catamaran Profligate, the race committee boat. Rich Holden and crew aboard the F-27 Seabird could have sailed the entire way if they hadn't spent an hour motoring in pursuit of fish. And after taking line honors on the first two legs, Hall Palmer of the Hunter 54 Pegasus finally grew frustrated with the light airs of the third leg and fired up the donk. Later, he wanted to kick himself.

Two boats motored the entire way. Only one - gasp! - was a powerboat.

The atmospheric conditions during the Ha-Ha were brilliant. Other than some partial overcast on the second and third days, and some brief Hawaiian-style squalls that afflicted a couple of boats just north of Turtle Bay, there was nothing but bright sunshine and blue skies. Scout's honor, we didn't see a single cloud for the last seven days.

As if a bright blue sky from dawn to dusk wasn't enough, the sunsets were great, with the sun visible all the way down to the horizon. Even better were the moonrises. Each night the moon grew larger until it was full on November 2, two nights before the finish. If there's a more satisfying form of meditation than sailing downwind in 15 knots of breeze with a full moon illuminating the spinnaker, we've not experienced it.

The air temperatures were also pleasant. It was mostly T-shirt-and-shorts weather during the first couple of days, and sweatshirts-and-long pants weather the first couple of nights. But each day after that, less clothing was needed.

Unlike the last Ha-Ha - held at the height of El Niño - the water temperatures were significantly cooler along most of Baja. In the last 200 miles, however, readings jumped 10º to a salubrious 83º at the Cape.

We were distressed to learn that some folks feared that the Ha-Ha is nothing more than a two-week bash during which men emboldened by strong liquor on ill-prepared boats harass women while pumping oil overboard - and all to the Grand Poobah's rigid schedule.

On the contrary, the Ha-Ha is a laid back opportunity for responsible cruisers to have some fun meeting each other while sailing down the coast in a very loosely structured group. There's only one organized Ha-Ha party before the start, a daily roll call, two beach parties, and an award's party. And folks are welcome to customize their itineraries; this year folks stopped at the Benitos, Cedros and Mag Bay. The few folks who entered this year's Ha-Ha with trepidation - fearing either a tasteless frat party atmosphere or a militaristic schedule - report being pleasantly surprised.

At the outset, the Poobah reminded everyone that if they felt the urge to get wild and crazy, the appropriate time was after the Ha-Ha at places in Cabo such as Squid Roe and the Giggling Marlin, which exist for only that purpose. But it was soon obvious that the fleet's primary objective was a pleasant and safe trip to the Cape, not extravagrant partying.

Since an improved economy meant berth space was severely limited at the Ha-Ha's San Diego base, Cabrillo Isle Marina, the fleet was dispersed throughout the area right up until the start. So despite pre-Ha-Ha parties at the Encinal YC in Alameda and at Downwind Marine in San Diego, most Ha-Ha entrants didn't get a chance to meet each other until the West Marine sponsored Ha-Ha Halloween Costume and Kick-Off Party at the marina on October 27th. And because the costumes were so good, half the people remained anonymous even after that.

Past Ha-Ha Kick-Off parties have produced some good costumes, but this year's were probably the best. Lovely Nyna Casey of the Swan 44 Avalon, for example, squeezed herself into such a tight sequin mermaid outfit that she couldn't move from her perch all evening. Another favorite was the chorus line of dancing Corona Beer bottles, complete with the requisite 'lime-wedge hats'. The most outrageous outfit, however, was worn by a young guy who came as the perfect Presidential intern: big hair, bright red lipstick, white pearls, knee pads and a blue dress with a milky stain.

In addition to the free chow and beverages for each Captain and First Mate, each entry was given a goodie bag full of Ha-Ha memorabilia and 'logowear': two T-shirts, a hat, a tote bag, some croakies, a burgee, a First Timers Guide to Mexico, and a special 'navigator's refreshment bottle' complete with the course printed on the holder. Not too bad a haul for the $139 entry fee. In attendance at the party were reps from Marina Palmira in La Paz, Marina Mazatlan, and Marina Paradise in Banderas Bay. The mellow party ended just after dark - after all, the start was only 36 hours away and most folks still had errands to run.

Leg One: The race committee prepared the fleet for the 'mañana experience' by showing up on station a half-hour late. No one minded, least of all photographer Tom Lyon, who takes portraits of each boat from a helicopter every year, sells them to the owners in Cabo, then turns over the profits to the La Paz orphanage.

With a starting line several miles long, the fleet was close enough together for friends to holler 'bon voyage' but far enough apart to avoid getting into collisions. A nice 10-knot breeze filled in about noon, allowing the fleet to make good progress toward the border. Some boats reached with spinnakers or gennakers, others flew only their 'standard whites'. With a nice breeze, bright sunshine and flatter-than-a-pancake seas, it was ideal getaway weather.

By midnight, the wind dropped to five knots or so, and a high cloud cover started to fill in. A bunch of participants fired up their engines. Those who continued to sail faced the option of struggling to stay down on the rhumbline or taking a hotter angle that gave them better speed . . . while sailing well offshore. It always takes a day or two to get acclimatized at sea, and an annoying little beam sea made it even more difficult.

We've sailed to the Cape alone many times, and the solitude is great. On the other hand, it's a hoot sailing in the company of nearly 100 others boats. For as each night fell, you could amuse yourself by visually tracking your neighbors running lights or following their 'blip' on the radar. Come morning, you got to guess the identity of new boats on the horizon. By the second day of each leg, we'd typically have four to 15 other boats in sight. It was great fun.

One of the few safety features of the Ha-Ha is the morning roll call. At 0730, the Poobah would get on the SSB and run down the list of boats. Those equipped with SSBs would respond directly, while those with only VHFs were supposed to relay their positions via a boat equipped with an SSB. Thanks to good manners and great cooperation, the roll calls went quickly and smoothly.

The second day out was partly overcast, but not particularly cool, with 5 to 15 knots of wind. It was overcast that night, and a little cooler, too. Although the moon disappeared about midnight, the breeze stayed pretty consistent at between 10 and 15 knots. "I had the best sail of my life!" Englishman Michael Beattie later reported from his Gemini 34 catamaran Miki G. "We had our main and genny trimmed perfectly, and hit 13 knots with the Autohelm steering!" He must have had more wind than the rest of us.

By the morning of the third day, Hall Palmer, a three-time Ha-Ha vet, was already in Turtle Bay. He'd been able to sail the rhumbline quickly with his light and skinny boat, and covered the 360 miles in about 45 hours for a respectable average speed of 8 knots.

For the slower boats and those who sailed hotter angles toward oblivion, it would be another 12 to 24 hours before they were able to drop the hook in Turtle Bay. Having ripped both our chutes on a devilish cotter pin that protruded from one of Profligate's spreader tips, we aboard the committee boat spent most of the night sailing straight for Guadaloupe Island. We made the best of things in the morning however, after gybing back toward shore. Since the wind had dropped to about seven knots, we heated it back up in order to enjoy a scenic - albeit indirect - route that took us past West Benito, East Benito and Cedros Islands. We also gybed around with the Columbia 50 Knee Deep, worked the face of Isla Natividad, and finally snagged a lobster trap before pulling into Turtle Bay just after dark. Four islands in one day while crossing tracks with about six boats in the fleet - nothing like an entertaining day on the water. Thanks to bright moonlight and radar, we didn't hit a single rock entering the bay.

By October 30, the fourth day of the rally, most of the fleet was on the hook in Turtle Bay. The annual arrival of the Ha-Ha fleet just before Halloween has become a big deal for the residents of Turtle Bay, which typically plays host to just one or two boats. Adults and kids with access to pangas or dinghies go from boat to boat contracting for the delivery of fuel, ice, water and beer, and for the removal of garbage. Kids without boats line the pier eager to 'guard' dinghies or just check out all the new gringo faces. (For more on the fine little town of Turtle Bay, see pages 144-148.)

After the long initial leg, most cruisers were eager to stretch their legs and trade sea stories. The place to do it that afternoon and evening was Javier's Vera Cruz Hotel, Restaurant & Bar. We'd warned Javier to expect a couple of hundred extra guests, so he had tents set up outside, countless cases of beer and soft drinks iced down, and extra help. He also made his phone available for calls back to the States.

Getting a beer or soda was easy; you just helped yourself and later settled with the cashier. By the time the party was in full swing, however, ordering food in the packed restaurant took a long time and actually getting it from the overwhelmed cooks could take nearly forever. But hey, welcome to Mexico! The wait allowed for plenty of time to trade stories and listen to the tequila-fueled music of 'Guitar Bob' and 'Banjo Andy' of Evasion and Profligate respectively. While most folks retired to their boats early - once they were able to find them in what had seemingly become a thousand points of anchor lights - the band played on, to the delight of their Mexican hosts, until after midnight.

Halloween - which was to be the first of eight cloudless days - was the date of the big beach party, held on a miles-long stretch of empty beach just to the southeast of town. Those who didn't want to risk a dinghy dousing in the surf could catch a 'taxi' ride in a panga. Luckily the surf was tiny, as it quickly became apparent that many folks - even those with the best equipment and gear - had little knowledge of the skills necessary and dangers involved with surf landings and launches. (We plan to have a feature on dinghy launchings and landings next month.)

The beach party was typical G-rated Ha-Ha fun. Thanks to a variety of contributors, a big BBQ was jury-rigged so the top fishermen of the first leg could cook up their catch in their special marinades, then share it with the fleet. There was plenty to go around. While there were many contenders, our top awards went to Mark Barger of Lisa Marie, for BBQ'd fish, and Richard Othmer of the Cal 46 Sunda for exquisitely prepared and presented sushi. Having been cruising to the Cape and beyond for nearly half a century, Othmer has it down perfect.

Beach activities included yakking it up with new friends, swimming in the relatively chilly water, walking or jogging down the endless beach, scrambling up the nearby hills for panoramic views, making music, and playing various games such as touch football. More Ha-Ha mellow.

Those who had the energy and penny candies went to town after the beach party to be tricker-treated by the legions of Turtle Bay youth. The kids are as cute as they are persistent. The only disappointment the older locals felt this year was that the Ha-Ha attendance at the local Halloween disco dance was down.

Leg Two: November 1 dawned another delightfully sunny and warm day with a light breeze from the northwest. Having already eased into mañana mode, much of the fleet would be a half an hour late across the line.

Just prior to the start, however, Hawkeye reported that a group of locals - who had been contracted to empty the garbage cans from the beach party site the evening before - had done less than a stellar job, allowing seagulls to make a mess of the place. The Lisa Marie crew immediately reported they'd be staying behind to make sure the beach was left spotless. In addition, a skeleton crew aboard Profligate started the fleet on time, while the rest returned to the pier in a panga to recruit kids to help with the clean-up. In less than an hour, a thorough job had been done.

"We not only cleaned up all of the Ha-Ha garbage that the seagulls had knocked out of the cans," reported Mark Barger, "but the last five years of local's garbage too." Nonetheless, the lesson was learned: You can't always trust locals, whose litter prevention ethic is still evolving, for garbage disposal.

We aboard Profligate, having started late and temporarily chuteless, got a chance to gradually sail our way through most of the fleet, thanks to winds that built as high as 18 knots. It was great to see all the different boats in action; some in performance mode, some in full cruise mode. The biggest surprise was seeing how fast and long John and Nancy Moore could sail their J/130 Breakin' Wind with their gennaker so thoroughly wrapped around the headstay. We figure the only reason they didn't get around to fixing the problem right away was because their crew, chef Sigi Osicki of the Whale's Tale Restaurant in Alameda, had prepared them another delectable meal and they were too busy dining.

By dusk, the wind had dropped to about seven knots and the new sea was already laying down. A few moments after a lovely sunset, a nearly full moon popped up over the brown peaks to the east. Talk about ambience, we kissed the sky! The wind dropped even more during the night, causing some folks to fire up the engines. A number of boats continued to sail, however, enjoying the light but mild conditions.

When dawn broke, it was again fun to see who was around, who'd motored, and who'd kept sailing. We counted 17 boats within binocular range. In typical Mexican fashion, the light morning winds filled in to about 15 knots by late afternoon.

The route between Turtle Bay and Bahia Santa Maria takes the fleet over several sea mounds that teem with fish. By late afternoon, we found ourselves following Mike Gravitt's Ericson 46 Airborne as his crew wrestled with their chute, on a course that would take us right over Thetis Bank. And right over the bank, in a space of a half mile, were no less than three big week-long charter fishing boats from San Diego, each with 50 to 100 anglers. We sailed between them, exchanging waves and confusion about how the other group could be having fun.

A short time later, we spotted a large turtle with barnacles on its back, swimming on the surface. Also seeing a turtle was Ted Stokes, crewman aboard John Gilbert's Peterson 44 Rhumb Rose. The problem was that Stokes' turtle was snagged in some line attached to some plywood. The buffed-out Stokes placed a knife between his teeth, and 30 miles offshore, jumped overboard to cut the turtle free.

If the fishing had been pretty good on the first leg, it was even better on the second. A couple of skippers pulled in large marlin, and tuna were almost jumping onto the boats. Sushi was on nearly everybody's menu.

Later that day, the celestial show was even better than the night before. Another terrific sunset was followed by the rising of an even larger moon. Shortly thereafter, we spotted the light at Punta Hughes that marks the entrance to Bahia Santa Maria. Forget the compass, all we had to do was keep the luff of the chute curling around the rising moon and we'd be headed toward our destination at seven to 10 knots. The air was warm, the water temperature had jumped from 65° to 74°, the red wine was breathing, and the rich aromas from the galley wafted out into the cockpit. It was one of those magic evenings at sea.

There were about 30 boats in the Bahia Santa Maria anchorage when we arrived shortly after dark. Hall Palmer's Pegasus had again arrived first. With the wind becoming lighter as the night wore on, many boats didn't make it in until the following morning.

Bahia Santa Maria is no garden spot. The hills are rocky and brown, and green vegetation doesn't exist in the desert climate. Getting ashore isn't particularly easy, either. Mariners have the option of trying to land on a rocky shore, a beach where the waves pound, or negotiating the bar leading to the ramshackle fish camps in the mangroves. As such, most folks were content to spend the day on their boats, resting up for the final leg or chatting with new made friends.

But for those who made the extra effort to get ashore, 'Bahia Maria' has hidden charms that grow on you. With a little care, it's possible to get ashore to stretch you legs. Hikers who climbed the summit of Mt. Bartolome were rewarded with a sensational panoramic view of San Carlos, Mag Bay, Bahia Maria, and the rugged coast to the north. And with the extreme low tides, the many tide pools offered a variety of rewards. When ashore at Bahia Maria, it's always fun to pay a call to the famous surf camp on the bluff near the point, where in-the-know surfers pay big bucks to stay in tents with tarantulas. No gringos were there this year, but the waves were cranking nonetheless, so the Ha-Ha surf team had all the rides to themselves. Manuel, the caretaker at the camp, was nice enough to remember the Poobah from years past.

Leg Three: For a combination of reasons - homesickness for civilization, no more clean clothes, out of water, eagerness to get a berth in Cabo, but mostly not wanting to spend an extra night at sea - it's become a Ha-ha tradition for boats to start the Third Leg early. It's fine with the Poobah - as long as they let him know what they're doing.

The fleet erosion always starts with a couple of boats that bypass Bahia Maria entirely. Then a couple more trickle out the night before the scheduled start. Other groups leave at 0400 and 0600. If we remember correctly, no more than three of the 99 boats that started in San Diego were around for the official start of Leg Three.

Frankly, the Poobah doesn't understand the rush to get to Cabo, which has become so overwhelmed with people and shlock that the spectacular natural beauty is getting ever harder to appreciate. So being one of the last boats in a spectacular natural place like Bahia Maria brought the Poobah no sorrow.

As it turned out, there were several other boats that weren't in such a hurry to leave either. Pegasus, Saga, Profligate, Orion and a couple of others decided they really wanted to try to sail the entire way to the Cape. With the wind an inconsistent three to six knots from aft, it was slow going in the heat of southern Baja. Two knots was a good score on the speedo in the morning, and three knots wasn't bad in the afternoon. Sure it was slow, but who cared? We all had food and water, the sea was a pretty blue, the sun was perfect for tanning, the seas were flat, and if you drove really carefully you could keep the chute full about 20% of the time. That's darn near ideal in the Poobah's book.

Eventually Pegasus gybed away, then Saga bailed out to spend the night in Mag Bay. A couple of hours before dark, however, we on Profligate had a real Ha-ha moment, when we slowly overtook Moondance, the Kennex 445 catamaran Karl and Jill Matzke are cruising on with their two kids. It was just the two catamarans, smoothly gliding along at pretty much the same slow pace, pulled along by the gentle breeze in the bright spinnakers that contrasted so dramatically with the brown hills of the shore. If we'd been in a race, it would have been a time of tension. But as it was the Ha-Ha, the two crews got to happily share one of sailing's soft and sweet moments.

A couple of hours later, the more competitive Pegasus gibed back right in front of us, so we engaged in a battle royale in zephyrs. It was fun, too. But what made it really worthwhile is that a short time later a huge moon came up, with the Hunter 54 silhouetted against it. Given the large number of other Ha-Ha boats close together on this last leg, we're sure a number of other boats shared the same kind of experiences. When there's any wind at all, the nights on the last leg are our favorite part of the Ha-Ha.

The last sailing day of the Ha-Ha was difficult. It was wonderfully sunny and warm, but the wind was frustratingly light and the swell caused the main to crack like a whip a couple of times a minute. We had a strong urge to turn on the engine, particularly with many other boats motoring past, but thanks to many bottles of ice cold Becks Beer and the Door's Greatest Hits turned up loud, we hung in there. It might have been coincidence, but we like to think that our perseverance was rewarded twice later in the day.

First, a large pod of whales glided past us in the other direction, not 100 feet from our boat. It was awesome. A short time later, a strange-looking sailboat began to rapidly gain on us from behind. Before long, Peter Hogg of the Corinthian YC and crew raced by us in Steve Fossett's record-smashing trimaran Lakota. The boat was being delivered to Puerto Vallarta. It turned out to be a great last day at sea, particularly when a fresh breeze in the late afternoon carried us across the finish line at 10 knots and all the way to the Friars.

By time we motored into Cabo, about half the fleet was already in. The marina situation was tighter than it had been in years, thanks to some weird dates of a fishing tournament in Mazatlan. Furthermore, the Port Captain wasn't allowing anyone to anchor in the Inner Harbor. But it all worked out. Cabo Isle Marina was able to accommodate about one third of the fleet. The small marina next to the outside fuel dock took a group, and a few Ha-Ha folks were able to get Hacienda moorings. Best of all, however, the outer anchorage was as wonderful as it ever gets. The 84º blue water was perfect for diving into each morning, the light breeze was offshore, and there wasn't much of a swell.

By the following day, the Ha-Ha net - based out of the Baja Cantina at the base of the Plaza La Glorias - had been added on to the end of the Cabo Net. By noon, the entire fleet had been accounted for - which was a good thing, because the Ha-Ha Beach Party began a couple of hours later at Jauncho's Reef, a fine but funky beach bar overlooking the anchorage and the Cape. The drinks and food were at a discount, the banana boat rides were free, and for $2 they'd send an e-mail back home. If you really wanted to rub it in to your friends in rainy San Francisco, it was just $5 to have your picture taken on the beach and e-mailed to friends.

It was an easy and mellow party that just kept going. After the volleyball game was called for total darkness, folks sat around the bonfire and listened to well selected tunes from the stereo. Picture yourself sitting around a fire, piña colada in hand, boats at anchor just a few hundred feet away, and you being warm wearing nothing but your swimming suit. Ah, the Cape! Those looking to visit their wild and dark sides later slipped off for a session at Squid Roe.

We're happy to report that only one participant - Monk Henry of Passage West - ended up in the Cabo jail. It's a long story, but what happened was that when he tried to bail a local out who tried to help him, the federale thought he was attempting to bribe him. It was over in a couple of hours. Ironically, the owner and captain of the largest boat in the Ha-Ha fleet had first met in a Cabo jail. Their crime was trying to return a plastic chair a gringo had tried to steal. When they brought it back, they were confronted by the gun-waving owner and the cops. No good deed, it seems, goes unpunished at the Cape.

The following morning, much of the fleet gathered at Lupe's Crazy Lobster, which has taken over and nicely refurbished the old Broken Surfboard site. The Crazy Lobster is now the cruiser's center in Cabo, and home of the Some Like It Hot Rally. It's a good thing, because Lupe's a great guy who offers terrific dining values.

Ha-Ha V came to a close on the evening of November 7 with an ultra casual awards party at gorgeous Cabo Isle Marina parking lot. The folks at Corona Beer were good enough to donate hundreds of free beers, which helped promote the casual nature of the ceremonies. Orion was awarded the soul sailor prize for being the only boat to sail all the way, but nobody left without a 'trophy'. In addition, there were as many silly prizes as could be thought of, such as the only Chinese entrant, the youngest participant, biggest catch, most stuff fouled in prop, most loquacious, and such. It was great fun.

This year's Ha-Ha didn't feature the wildest and craziest group ever, and that was just fine with the Poobah/Wanderer. Everyone arrived safely, mingled well, drank in moderation, and didn't forget to check in when there were supposed to. Bless all your hearts and may your future voyages be a pleasure. We know we missed most of the adventures that happened, so if you'd like to share them, drop us an email.

The Wanderer gave a lot of thought to making this year's Ha-Ha V the last ever. It's a lot of responsibility and work. But thanks to the cooperation and appreciation of all the participants, and the support of the various businesses and government agencies, he's going to do it again in '99. It might not be quite as delightful as this year's Ha-Ha - but you never know. In any event, it will start on October 26 and end on November 6.

© 1998 Latitude38