One of the reasons we decided to begin our journey in the Sea of Cortez was the fact that it is a protected body of water. The Sea is narrow, 700 miles long and between 30 and 150 miles wide, protected from the full fury of the Pacific by the Baja Peninsula. That being said, the Sea is not without it’s own weather related peculiarities, many of them challenging for the would be sailor.
The southern half of the Sea of Cortez (let’s call it Cabo to San Carlos) is fully in the hurricane zone, and tends to get whacked every few years by a major named storm. The northern half, however, has had only one storm pass through at hurricane force (max sustained winds of 64-82 knots) since 1958. Click here to go to the interactive version of the hurricane track map from NOAA.
When storms do make it to the northern half of the Sea of Cortez, they have usually lost enough energy to make themselves a bit less menacing. There are a few good hurricane holes in the northern end, and a there are a few hardy souls that cruise through the heart of hurricane season (mid August- mid October), so with a close ear to the weather report and a bunch of oversized ground tackle, we feel pretty confident we’ll be able to weather the storms.
Bear in mind this video is in La Paz in the Southern half. This is why we are not going to the Southern half in the summer! (If no video appears above, click your refresh button)
Chubascos are violent squalls that kick up during the summer in the Sea of Cortez, and they are known to bring winds of over 60 knots. These are potentially more dangerous than a hurricane, even though they are usually short lived. Their danger lies in that they can arrive without warning. While a hurricane will be tracked and anticipated many days in advance, thus giving the attentive cruiser a head start to get to shelter, a chubasco can strike at any time and slap a boat silly if she’s unprepared. Chubascos come from the SE with big dark clouds, lightning, and high winds (40-60 knots). If a Chubasco cloud is not directly SE of you, you can often watch it go on by miles away.
(If no video appears above, click your refresh button)
Elephantes or Westerlies come from the west sweeping down mountains as they channel through valleys reaching 30-50 knots. They can last all night. Westerlies are very much related to the local topography; one anchorage can have 50 knots and another anchorage just a mile away can have 10 knots.
Nortes are the sustained northerly winds that can blow for days on end at 40 knots or more. This is serious wind velocity to be sure, but the bigger issue is the vast north-south fetch (the length of uninterrupted open water) combined with the duration of constant wind. Unusually steep and short period (close behind one another) waves build up during these conditions, and these seas can be dangerous to the sailor.
Hey, it’s the desert. A good fan, a good bimini and windscoop, and lots of snorkeling.
Articles on weather in the Sea of Cortez
Riding Out a Big Blow at Anchor: Carolyn and Dave Shearlock’s account of riding out Hurricane Marty in Puerto Escondido in 2003.
Hurricanes in Baja: The Baja Insider’s historical look at hurricane patterns in Baja and the Sea of Cortez.
The Two Captains-Hurricanes in Baja: Gwen Hamlin and Don Wilson’s account of riding out Hurricane Ignacio in Puerto Don Juan in 2003.
Trawlering During Hurricane Season: A cruising couple weathers hurricane Nora in Puerto Don Juan in 1997.
Chubascos: A good description of chubascos and what to do to prepare for them from Baja Seafaris.