September 19, 2007

Tips for Getting Ready to Ha-Ha, 2007 - Cruising to Mexico and Beyond

There have been a lot of changes in Mexico in the last three years, so an update to our article in Latitude 38 in 2006 is in order.

We've been actively cruising on our Valiant 50, Raptor Dance, since we headed out the Golden Gate and turned left in Sept 2004. We'd like to share with you some of our more offbeat observations and recommendations on from the Ha-Ha's XI and XIII We would like to stress that these are our opinions, based on what we've learned along the way. Your mileage may vary!

Whether your just doing the Ha-Ha as a vacation experience or as the start of long term cruising, we hope you find this information useful. You can find more information about some of these topics on the links in the article or on our website at http://raptordance.com.

There's lots of information out there on how to prepare for the Baja Ha-Ha and your escape to the cruising life . One of the best is Latitude 38's own "First Timer's Guide To Mexico" - available online at the Baja Ha-Ha website: http://www.baja-Ha-Ha.com/Guide/index.html.

What's New: Provisioning in Mexico is even easier!
Many of the Super Mercados have a much greater range of ingredients than before. We've even found previously hard to find ingredients such as high quality Washington State Apples, good quality lamb, Balsamic vinegar, Asian sesame oil and chop sticks. US products and brands are available, but may be a tad more expensive. Some markets such as Commercial, Soriana and
Gigante have displays of goods from Costco!

Crackers, other than the basic saltines and Ritz, are still very expensive if you can find them at all. US cereal brands are available, but pricey.

Provisioning is a challenge up in the Sea of Cortez, so be sure to stock up in La Paz or Mazatlan before heading up.

Don't overlook the local markets! You'll find both weekly markets, such as the Tuesday market in Jarretaderas (near Nuevo Vallarta) to the huge public markets open daily in Mazatlan, La Paz and other cities these offer interesting and sometimes exotic foods at low prices.

Great wine is still hard to find, so bring it with you, enjoy the "drinkable" Mexican or Chilean wines – they're still much better than $2 you-know-who or better yet, enjoy the beer and margaritas!

Entering Mexico
In 2006, only frozen Beef was confiscated in Cabo. In 2004 chicken and fresh eggs were also taken. This mainly only happened to boats who pulled into the Marina – sometimes just to get fuel. To be safe, all beef should be gone from your freezer before arriving in Cabo. We don't have any reports of food being confiscated in Ensenada - but enforcement varies widely in Mexico.

Mexican Charts are way off
Both paper and electronic charts of Mexico are unreliable. They're generally at least 1 to 3 miles off - except in busy harbors, where they're pretty accurate. We recommend relying on the wisdom in Raines Cruising Guides or the Cunningham Guides to the Sea of Cortez. Charlie's Charts are a good supplement to the above, but a little dated.

What is pretty good and free of charge is Google Earth! http://earth.google.com. We often download and print a chart of a new anchorage with the lat/lon grid turned on for a spot-on aerial chart of the area. Google Earth is so good, you can use it to plot the narrow channel into the Lagoon at Barra de Navidad. We posted the Google Earth channel boundaries, course in and anchorage boundaries for the Barra Lagoon from SV Legacy on our website at: http://raptordance.com/KMZ/BarraLagoonWaypoints.kmz See their website at http://www.legacysailing.com/local_knowledge/tenacatita_and_barra.htm for other waypoints and a writeup on the area. All the usual disclaimers apply, not for navigation - if you run aground it's your own fault, etc...

Maps of Mexico are also improving. In mid-September 2007, Google added free street maps for 54 countries, among them Mexico! http://maps.google.com

"Boat Cards" are a great idea!
When you meet all your new friends on the Ha-Ha and later while cruising, you will want to exchange contact information. You'll make so many new friends that you'll wish everyone put their pictures on their cards rather than a picture of their boat!

A few weeks after meeting a bunch of new friends, the pictures are extremely valuable in remembering who's who.

Boat cards are like business cards and should supply information about you, your boat and contact info, We suggest including your picture, name(s), boat name, boat type, email addresses (Sailmail, Winlink, etc.), mailing address, cell/sat phone, and any other information you'd like to share that fits on the card.

You can print your cards yourself on your computer printer using business card paper from an office supply store or you can use a commercial printer. We've found that some of the Internet printing companies do a really great job at a fairly low cost. We use Vistaprint they have great service, low prices, high quality and rapid turn around.

Buy an appetizer/potluck cookbook and use it!
You will be going to a lot of cruisers potlucks in Mexico. Your first will likely be during the Ha-ha at Turtle Bay.

After awhile, you will get very tired of the same old contributions. Come on folks, bring something more than chips and dip or a bag of carrots!

It's not very hard to make very tasty finger foods or even entrees! Fresh ingredients are very little trouble to find and use in Mexico – so let your tastes run wild!

Enjoy the Local Culture
You are in a fascinating country with a rich family oriented culture full of great traditions, music, dance and interesting quirks. Lot's of cruisers never get away from the cruisers' culture (yes, we have one) to sample what our great host country has in store. It will also help you learn Spanish.

Look around, enjoy what the locals enjoy! For example, on a local Puerto Vallarta bus last year we saw a poster (in Spanish) for a match at the local Lucha Libre school gymnasium. We went, it was so much fun, we took some other cruisers to a larger match later in the season – everyone had a fantastic time.

Radios are your lifeline
Marine VHF and SSB are the primary means of communicating in Mexico and beyond. Make sure your radios work and you know how to use them. Check them out completely before you leave!

If you have a Uniden VHF, see the August 2007 issue of Latitude for information. You'll probably have to send it in to be updated to not have problems in Mexico or elsewhere in the world. Most Uniden VHF radios are not set up to function outside the US. Send me an email if you want more information.

Marine SSB is highly recommended
Yes, you can do the Ha-Ha and cruise with just a Marine VHF radio, but in Mexico and the South Pacific, Marine SSB and Ham Radio are the only way you can keep in touch with the cruisers' radio networks. These nets are a valuable source of weather and current destination information. You can also use them to keep in touch with the many new friends you will make along the way.

Marine VHF is uses radio frequencies that only work over the "line of sight" between the antennas at each end of the conversation, so it's rare that it will work over more than about 20 miles for a mast head antenna, 5 miles or so for handhelds.

Marine SSB uses radio frequencies that can, on the lower frequencies, refract a little around the curvature of the earth and, on the higher frequencies, bounce off the ionosphere. So you can reliably communicate over distances of hundreds or thousands of miles. If you pick the right frequency for the time of day, season, weather on the Sun, and a few other factors. Fortunately, there's a computer program that's available for free that figures this all out for you (ICEPAC – see below).

ICOM makes the most reliable Marine SSB radios. We have the 710RT, they're stable and rock solid. The newer ICOM-802 model has had some problems but they're fixed on new radios – check with your supplier to make sure. If you have an older ICOM-802, make sure you don't have the "clipping" problem that would require sending the radio back to ICOM for updating. You can also refer to the Technical Note from ICOM which includes a contact phone number and email address for questions.

Test the radio by setting up a contact with another boat or one of the radio nets and making sure your audio quality is up to snuff. Don't just talk to someone nearby, try making a contact at least a few hundred miles away.

In addition to the radio, you will need a Marine Pleasure Vessel license. These are available from your government (here in the US, the FCC) for a small fee. No test is required.

We highly recommend also getting an Amateur Radio (Ham) license. This requires study, but almost anyone with the determination to get one can learn what's needed. There are many courses that can tutor you through the whole process. Morse code is no longer required so getting your license is much easier than in the past.

Marine and Ham can both use the same equipment. Marine Radios are allowed to be sold that can transmit and receive on the Ham bands – but not vice versa. Both Marine and Ham use Single Sideband (SSB) transmission in the radio High Frequency (HF) range – between 2 and 30 Megahertz – the difference is in the particular frequency ranges (bands) assigned to each service. Cruisers jargon is a bit sloppy however: SSB is usually used to refer just to Marine HF SSB communication.

Wireless Internet (WiFi) is almost everywhere
We've even hit an open access point in the from La Manzanilla in the Tenacatita anchorage. The regular adapter on your computer just won't cut it though for access from your boat. You'll need a better WiFi adapter or antenna of some sort.

Our recommendation is to keep things very simple. Remember, you'll be in Mexico and unless you run across a cruising computer geek, you'll need to do your own tech support. See our article on
Using WiFi While Cruising
" for more details.

Sailmail and/or Winlink are the way to go for email.
Wireless Internet is now found in many places in the world, but not everywhere and not at sea. If you need to keep in touch with your family or work, you may need a satellite phone. For those of us who are full time cruisers, Sailmail (http://www.sailmail.com) and Winlink (http://www.winlink.org) provide reliable, low cost text only email.

These services also let you file position reports so your family and friends can see where you are. This is especially nice on long passages. See my writeup on "Position Reporting and how we do it" for more info.

Sailmail is a non-profit operation, it's annual fee of $250 goes to support the station network. For this fee, you can send and receive 90 minutes of email per week. This is enough for most folks to keep in touch with work, friends and family. You will need a standard pleasure vessel ("PL") Marine license from the FCC (or your country's government if not the US).

Winlink, on the other hand, uses amateur (Ham) radio, so you will need a Ham radio "General" class license or above.

We highly recommend the SCS PTC-II Pro or USB radio modems. Lower cost units just aren't as reliable or fast. The optional extra Pactor III Permit is recommended if you have more than a couple of emails a day. Pactor III increases the effective speed of the radio link.

Also, make sure your modem can and you've got the cables to have your radio modem command your radio to change frequencies. You will do a lot of frequency changes on your radio, it's much more convenient to be able to drive everything from your PC.

Jim Corenman's Airmail program is available for free and supports both email services, see http://www.airmail2000.com. Be sure to also download and install the free propagation program "ICEPAC". This is the magic program that helps you figure out the best frequency to use. It integrates seamlessly into Airmail and is very easy to use. You must make sure that your computer clock is set properly and your location is also entered correctly – the later is real easy if you have a GPS hooked up to your computer.

Make sure you get everything hooked up and try sending and receiving email before you leave. This is very important as forgotten parts are hard to come in Mexico.

Also, check to see if you have interference when transmitting email in your other systems. If you do – either solve the problem before you leave or learn to live with it. It's not uncommon for your transmissions to light the pilot lights on your power panel on some or all of the "off" circuit breaker, cause your autopilot to do strange things (ours "snake wakes") or even crash your PC.

We once spent 2 days exploring radio stores in La Paz looking for parts to help another cruiser out. When transmitting on some radio frequencies their radio caused their computer keyboard and mouse to act like a chimpanzee was trying to write Shakespeare. We ultimately gave up trying to find the ferrite filters to put on their keyboard and mouse cable in Mexico. They just avoided the problematic frequencies until they could get and install the filters.

Cell and Satellite Phones
Cellular coverage is surprisingly good in Mexico. Coming down on the Ha-ha XIII we found we had coverage with AT&T (Cingular) in Turtle Bay and Bahia Santa Maria. On New Years Day 2007, the new cell tower in Tenacatita came online, so it's getting even harder to escape.

However, unless you do your homework and get the right cellular rate plan, the per minutes prices can be pretty horrendous.

The different cell phone providers keep altering what plans they offer, so you'll need to check. If you have Verizon, look into their "North America Choice" plan. If you have AT&T Cingular, you may be able to get their "North America" plan. These plans let you use your US base minutes to, from, and in Canada and Mexico with no long distance or roaming charges.

If you're not able to get such a rate plan, consider getting a "Prepaid" phone in Mexico They're readily available.

Warning! If you have an iPhone - make sure you turn off it's data features. There are no good data plans available in Mexico and folks have racked up huge bills without warning, since the iPhone love to chat with the servers back home to see if you have any mail or other messages.

Our Iridium Satellite phone is often less expensive per minute than roaming with a cell phone. We found a store that sells prepaid Iridium time for $1/minute. Also, you have 1 year to use the minutes and if you renew, unused minutes roll over. You can also use your Iridium for email and data, but very slowly – it runs much slower than dialup, only 2400 bits per second (dialup typically runs up to 56,000 bits per second).

On the other hand, you might just do without a cell phone all together (don't forget you're cruising!) and use Skype when you have Internet connectivity.

Spares
It's likely that parts for your boat and boat systems will be hard to get in Mexico You can get parts for some brands pretty easily e.g. Mercury outboards, Yanmar Diesels. Others, like our Westerbeke engine and Nissan outboard are much more difficult. We'd recommend taking lots of spares – particularly consumables like oil filters, fuel filters, belts, raw water impellers, etc. Motor oil is readily available so that's not a problem.

Bottom paint is twice the price, so bring enough along if you're going to repaint in Mexico

Spares can be shipped into Mexico with a bit of effort. When you're in San Diego, stop in and open an account at the Ha-ha sponsors: Downwind Marine and West Marine. Many of the San Diego chandleries can have parts walked across the boarder and put on in-country transit to get it to you. Downwind can also sometimes find other cruisers who will bring parts to you on their way South.

In conclusion:
The Ha-ha is a great way to meet your fellow cruisers and have a fun time heading down to Mexico. Mexico is a blast! We hope to see you down here.

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