Given the fact that, as we write this on October 18, monster Hurricane Rick is churning to the northwest far off the mainland coast of Mexico, but expected to swing to the north and northeast and perhaps hit Cabo and La Paz with Category 1 or 2 force winds, and that it’s just eight days until the scheduled start of the Baja Ha-Ha, we thought it would be an excellent time to share some information on the most recent 20-year history of late season hurricanes off the Pacific Coast of Mexico.
As far as most mariners are concerned, we think the primary issues are as follows: How late in the year the last tropical storm or hurricane started; how far south the storm started, giving an idea of how much warning mariners had to either batten down the hatches or flee north; how far north the storms made it with 35 knots of wind; and, of particular interest to Ha-Ha entries, if any of the storms would have threatened the Ha-Ha course. We think you’ll find the answers to these questions to be informative and fascinating.
For the record, we have relied on data from the Unisys hurricane page, a site that every Mexico-bound cruiser might want to visit.
First, a word on Rick. As long as he doesn’t hit land and cause destruction — we’re keeping all our fingers and toes crossed for those with lives and/or property in his path — you have to marvel at this creation of nature. Rick is not just a Category 5 hurricane — meaning a hurricane with over 135 knots of wind — but a Category 5 with winds over 160 knots. There hasn’t been a hurricane this strong off the Pacific Coast of Mexico in 20 years. To give some perspective, Rick has almost six times the force of the minimum strength hurricane. And to put Rick in historical context, there have been nine Category 5 hurricanes off Mexico in the last 20 years. Interestingly enough, they often came in groups. There were three in ‘94, two in ‘97, three in ‘02, and one in ‘06.
In any event, here’s our year-by-year analysis:
- 1989: Sept. 25-Oct. 5, Hurricane Raymond, which started at 15.90°N, far offshore the Mexico-Guatemalan border, made landfall along the Middle Reach of Baja’s Pacific Coast with tropical storm force winds. The damage ashore was minor; a month too early to affect the Ha-Ha; no Cat 5 storms that year.
- 1990: Oct. 21-31, Cat 1 Hurricane Vance, started at 11.30°N, far off the coast of Costa Rica, and died at 19.40°N, about 500 miles southwest of Cabo. No damage ashore; would not have affected the Ha-Ha; no Cat 5s.
- 1991: Nov. 7-12, Cat 2 Hurricane Nora, which started to form about 800 miles southeast of Cabo, and lost most of her strength about 500 miles south of Cabo. No landfall; would have come within about 300 miles of the Ha-Ha finish with 25 to 30 knots of wind; no Cat 5s.
- 1992: Oct. 25-30, Tropical Storm Zeke, started at 12.60°N, which is far off the coast of Guatemala, and died about 400 miles southwest of Cabo. No damage to land; would not have affected Ha-Ha; no Cat 5s.
- 1993: Oct. 2-6, mild Tropical Storm Norma, started about 600 miles off the coast of Acapulco, and died about 750 miles southwest of Cabo. No damage to land; would not have crossed Ha-Ha path; no Cat 5s.
- 1994: Oct. 8-15, Hurricane Rosa, which started about 600 miles west of Acapulco and made landfall with Cat 1 force between P.V. and Mazatlan. Extensive damage ashore; would not have crossed Ha-Ha path; three Cat 5s in ’94!
- 1995: Sept. 16-26, Cat 4 Hurricane Juliette, started well offshore of Acapulco and died about 600 miles west-southwest of Cabo. No damage to land; would not have affected Ha-Ha; no Cat 5s. Hurricane season ended very early in ‘95.
- 1996: Sept. 30-Oct. 4, Cat 1 Hurricane Hernan started well offshore southwest of the Guatemalan border and made landfall near Manzanillo with Cat 1 winds. Damage to land along 200-mile stretch of coast; would not have affected the Ha-Ha; no Cat 5s. Another early end to hurricane season.
- 1997: Nov. 7-10, Cat 2 Hurricane Rick — yes, another one, giving that name a bad reputation — started at 9°N and came ashore south of Acapulco with Cat 2 winds. Extensive damage ashore; wouldn’t have come within 750 miles of the Ha-Ha; but get this, in ‘97 there were four Cat 5 storms and four Cat 4 storms.
- 1998: Oct. 16-20, Hurricane Madeline started at 17.80°, which is about 500 miles west of Manzanillo, curved in and followed the coast from P.V. to Mazatlan with 75 knot winds, and fizzled in the middle of the Sea of Cortez about halfway between Cabo and Mazatlan. No damage; would not have affected the Ha-Ha; no Cat 5s.
- 1999: Oct. 8-11, mild Tropical Storm Irwin started about 100 miles west of Manzanillo and ended about 500 miles west of Manzanillo. No damage to land; would not have affected Ha-Ha; no Cat 5s.
- 2000: Nov. 3-8, Tropical Storm Rosa started offshore of border between El Salvador and Guatemala, and made landfall with lots of rain south of Acapulco. Rain damage to land; no effect on Ha-Ha; no Cat 5s.
- 2001: Oct. 31-Nov. 3, Cat 1 Hurricane Octave, so far out in the Pacific it’s not worth considering, as was Narda, a Cat 1 hurricane a few days before. Previous to these was Tropical Storm Manuel in the middle of October, which started south of Acapulco and headed far offshore. No damage to land; no threat to Ha-Ha; no Cat 5s.
- 2002: Oct. 22-26, Cat 5 Hurricane Kenna, started far offshore of Guatemala, but made landfall at San Blas. Tremendous damage ashore. Some waves broke on malecon at P.V., and there was slight flooding at a couple waterfront restaurants at Punta Mita. Boats at Paradise Marina had 50 knots of wind, but no damage. In three ways Kenna is similar to Rick: 1) third week in October storm, 2) Category 5 storm, and 3) followed coast then made turn to the north and northeast. No threat to Ha-Ha; three Cat 5s.
- 2003: Oct. 20-26, Cat 1 Hurricane Patricia, started off the coast of Guatemala and died about 500 miles to the west of Acapulco. No damage to land; no effect on Ha-Ha; no Cat 5s.
- 2004: Oct. 11-13, mild Tropical Storm Lester, started 300 miles west of Guatemalan border, fizzled out near Acapulco. Rain damage ashore; no effect on Ha-Ha; no Cat 5s.
- 2005: Sept. 28-Oct. 3, Cat 2 Hurricane Otis, started well offshore of Acapulco, died slightly offshore of Bahia Santa Maria. No damage to land; more than a month earlier than Ha-Ha fleet would have come through; no Cat 5s.
- 2006: Nov. 14-20, Cat 2 Hurricane Sergio, started about 300 miles southwest of Acapulco and died about 700 miles west of Acapulco. No effect on land; no effect on Ha-Ha. Not only does Sergio remind us that mid-November hurricanes are possible off the south coast of mainland Mexico, mild Tropical Storm Rosa had stirred nearly the same waters Nov. 8-12. But again, no effect on land; no effect on Ha-Ha. A short time before Sergio and Rosa, Oct. 21-26, Cat 2 Hurricane Paul formed about 700 miles south of Cabo. By the time it was within 300 miles of Cabo, it had lost strength, then turned west and crossed the Sea of Cortez to make landfall north of Mazatlan. No damage ashore; would not have crossed Ha-Ha path; one Cat 5.
- 2007: Oct. 15-23, Tropical Storm Kiko started about 800 miles south of Cabo, went east, went northwest, then died about 500 miles southwest of Cabo. No damage to land; no threat to Ha-Ha; no Cat 5s.
- 2008: Nov. 2-5, mild Tropical Storm Polo formed way down by Clipperton Atoll. No damage to land; no threat to Ha-Ha. On Oct. 8-18, Tropical Storm Odile, which started off El Salvador, swept mainland coast of Mexico to about Manzanillo. Rain damage; no threat to Ha-Ha; no Cat 5s.
- 2009: Oct. 15 and expected to last until Oct. 27, Cat 5 Hurricane Rick, started 350 miles west of El Salvador and, as we write this, will possibly hit southern Baja with Cat 1 force winds. Damage to southern Baja could be extensive, although Cabo has previously withstood direct hits from 100-knot hurricanes before. Wind and waves expected to reach 30 feet will no doubt make a mess of the multimillion dollar Bisbee Black and Blue Marin Jackpot slated to start out of Cabo on Wednesday. Will not affect Ha-Ha; one Cat 5 to date.
What conclusions can we draw from this historical data? First, that late October tropical storms and hurricanes aren’t the least bit unusual. In the years ‘90, ‘91, ‘92, ‘97, ‘00, ‘02, ‘06, ‘07, and ‘08, there were tropical storms or hurricanes during or after the third week of October. Five of them occurred in November. While some of the November storms threatened or made landfall on the mainland, the closest to approach Baja was Nora in ‘91, and she didn’t even get within 250 miles of Cabo with 25-knot winds.
An interesting aspect to all of these late season storms is how far south they formed. For anyone north of Puerto Vallarta, there was at least five days of warning, and for anyone at Cabo or anywhere on Baja, there was a week of warning. For boats on Baja, that’s a long time to flee north to cooler waters.
With regard to the Ha-Ha, there has not been a tropical storm or hurricane in the last 20 years that would have affected or even threatened the event. Make no mistake, this doesn’t mean that it can’t ever happen, just that the closest has been Nora — if the Ha-Ha had been around in ‘91. It’s also very encouraging to see how much warning — a week — the Ha-Ha fleet would have had in the event a storm developed.
What finishes off hurricane season? Cooler water, which is kryptonite for hurricanes. Fortunately, there are a couple of things that are promoting the cooling right now. One is shorter days. As you may have noticed, the days are getting shorter all the time. Another is cooler nights. Bob Smith of the 44-ft custom cat Pantera tells us that evening temperatures in La Paz have dropped to 70º, which is conducive to the water cooling. But the biggest chiller of all are the northwesterly winds that bring cold air down from the North Pacific. We note that forecasts calls for 20-knot winds to blow down the coast of Baja for the next several days, and again toward the weekend and the beginning of next week. All of these things will contribute to the closure of the ‘09 hurricane season.
While the Grand Poobah will closely monitor Hurricane Rick, and consult with Commanders’ Weather and other sources about possible future tropical storms, as of today, the plan is to start the Ha-Ha as scheduled on October 26. As we’ve done every day of every Ha-Ha, we’ll be getting a daily update on the situation in the tropics from Commanders’ Weather. As always, if the conditions in the tropics warrant it, we will delay the start of the second and/or third legs. In our opinion, there is a nearly insignificant risk of a tropical storm affecting the fleet on the first leg of the Ha-Ha or while in Turtle Bay. In the highly unlikely event of such a forecast, we would advise the fleet to head north to even cooler waters. We expect that boats would have such a large lead time that they could make it safely to San Diego, if not Santa Barbara. But as it stands now, we’re more than cautiously confident the Ha-Ha will start on time and continue as scheduled.
As for now, all our thoughts are with people threatened by Rick, as well as those with boats and other property in that area. Prepare well and keep a positive attitude — you’ve ridden these storms out before.