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Sailing to Mexico from the Pacific Northwest: Hazards and Resources

In the previous article about sailing to Mexico from the Pacific Northwest [1], Rob and Debra from Avant highlighted the three passage-making plans that one may choose to make such a passage and shared with us how they decided to take the ‘two-step’ approach. In this article Rob and Debra talk about the hazards that one may encounter along that passage and share some great resources that are available to make the passage easier.


About the Hazards

As you set out on your sail to Mexico from the Pacific Northwest, there are numerous hazards you will encounter. For most, the only defense is a good watch.

Fishing Boats

Most vessels inshore are commercial fishing boats, and many do not use AIS, so other fishermen don’t know where they are fishing. At night, they usually light up like stadiums hosting a World Cup game and are easy to spot. They tend to congregate on offshore banks or directly offshore from ports on the coast. Some fishermen have begun using AIS beacons on fishing gear, which is a bonus.

Debris

Floating debris, especially logs, can be an issue, particularly during or immediately following heavy rains or large tides, and especially off of larger rivers or inlets.

Crab Pots

Crab pots are endemic. While there has been an effort to create a crab pot free zone down the coast, its observance is marginal and equipment drifts into the the lanes anyways. The consortium that manages the lanes [2] hasn’t met to update the agreement since 2017.  Note that in areas subject to strong current, commercial crabbers will generally use two buoys, one to hold the line up and a second on a further 10 feet or so of line that will still be visible and retrievable, even when the first buoy has been pulled under by the current. It’s easier to tangle a buoy in your prop if the current is slack and both buoys are lying idle on the surface.

Bars

Of course, everyone worries about the dreaded ‘bar crossings’ that may be encountered. After all, they do call the Columbia Bar the ‘Graveyard of the Pacific’, right? But if you’re crossing at a slack or flood in weather that isn’t horrible, none of the bar crossings are difficult. In Avant’s passage down the coast, we entered Astoria (the aforementioned ‘graveyard of the Pacific’), Coos Bay and Humboldt Bay/Eureka (widely considered the second worst bar crossing), and had no trouble at all. Our timing had us arriving at each bar on or near slack water, with a slight edge to the flood tide. Many mariners recommend using the last of the flood tide as the optimum time for a bar crossing, when the water is deepest. Waves at each entrance were under two feet, and the period was long, as predicted by the forecasts we sailed under. Charting was universally excellent.

Each harbour with a bar has a coast guard station that can offer advice, an up-to-the-minute bar report, and will even send out a cutter or other boat to guide you in if conditions warrant (we availed ourselves of this at Coos Bay when visibility dropped to under 200’). If you get caught out by a closed bar, you just have to gut it out until the bar reopens, but with modern weather forecasts and a modicum of planning,

 

this is highly unlikely. (Note that the coast guard definition of a ‘small craft’ in bar closing advisories is a vessel under 65’ in length.)

Available Resources

The following resources can make this specific passage more pleasant and perhaps less challenging:

Weather Information

No doubt you have attended courses, read books, downloaded software, studied weather patterns, learned how to download a variety of GRIBs, receive weather faxes, decode 500mb charts, toss chicken bones and generally worked really hard to prepare for cruising by becoming your own expert weather forecaster. Well, on this trip, those skills can be used for entertainment value or simply allowed to rest. (Don’t worry, you will use those skills south of the USA/Mexico border).

Weather forecast zones, inshore and offshore

The NOAA forecasters are as good as it gets, and there are dedicated teams in each of Washington, Oregon and Northern California working around the clock to deliver the most accurate weather forecast possible. These forecasts are available via VHF on the usual WX channels to a considerable range offshore (usually at least 50 miles, often 100+). The forecast zones extend to 250 miles offshore in discrete steps, and the forecast zones are quite small. In addition to the forecast, each weather office provides a ‘discussion’, which underscores the reasons for the forecast offered, how the models informed (or did not inform) the forecasts, what’s likely to follow the forecast period, and any other juicy tidbits the forecaster(s) think might be interesting. You can find the discussion by going to the forecasting office’s webpage and looking for the ‘discussion’ button.

If you want to ‘play along’ with the forecaster, you can download the GRIBs (GFS and NDFD editions) and see if you get the same conclusions.

Live and near live weather observations are also available from the national weather service by finding the ‘observations’ button on the left side of the forecast page. These vary in frequency from every few hours to live, depending on location and observation station type. There are dozens of these between Neah Bay and San Francisco.

Enjoy the weather forecasts. They end at the Mexico USA border and it becomes far more basic there.

Wave Patterns

Waves offshore contribute substantially to the (dis)comfort the crew experience on the passage. Aboard Avant, we have found waves change character at depths of about 60m/200’. When the depths we sail in are under 60m, the waves seem to have a different character, a more insistent vertical component, than they do in greater depths. We always aim to be in depths greater than 60m/200’ whenever possible. When closing the coast, expect waves to ‘feel’ stronger, even if they are not visibly any bigger. Also when closing the coast, watch for secondary wave trains from reflections off shorelines where the shores are steep to, or a change in wave direction where a wave train may wrap a point or headland. And there are also outliers such as this one [3].

Generally, wave height has very little to do with discomfort aboard; it is the ratio of wave height to period that creates difficulty. When waves are ‘square’ (wave height in feet = wave period in seconds), no one will have any fun aboard, whether the waves are 3’ or 8’ high. We choose not to sail in square waves. When the period extends to 1.5x the wave height, conditions become much more tolerable. When the period is 2x or greater wave height, the gentle rise and fall is barely noticeable after a while.

When traveling with the wave train, the apparent period will be longer, and when traveling against the wave train the apparent period will be shorter. Take this into account when evaluating wave predictions.

Guidebooks

The NOAA Coast Pilot 7 is a free download [4] and covers the coast from Neah Bay to the Mexican border. You will want to read chapter three, and use chapters seven to thirteen in reverse order as you transit south. This volume, over 700 pages, is a comprehensive mariners guide to the coast, its character, and its hazards. It is updated weekly, so make sure you have the latest edition downloaded.

There are commercial cruising guides available for the Columbia River and San Francisco Bay, but we found they added little to what the Coast Pilot provided for free.

The USCG has produced a general bar crossing guide [5] with lots of relevant information. Individual bar crossing guides are available as well, and some can be found on this list [6]. The following bar crossing guides (in pdf format) provide specific information about hazards for each bar crossing:

US Coast Guard

The US Coast Guard is a highly professional military search and rescue operation, and operates multiple stations up and down the coast. From late May through Labor Day, they also operate a number of seasonal stations, some located on the jetties surrounding bar crossings. They can be reached by VHF or by telephone (numbers are in the Coast Pilot, or on their website. Note them down before you go). Their VHF coverage is typically at least 25-50 miles offshore, and we found cell coverage was passable at 8-10 miles offshore and excellent at 5. It is ALWAYS worth calling by VHF or cell phone to get a bar forecast before committing to crossing any bar on the coast.

Charts

NOAA charts (both raster and vector) are free downloads and can be used in navigation programs like OpenCPN. They are frequently updated, and OpenCPN has a chart downloader that will automatically update your electronic charts directly from NOAA. Proprietary e-chart sets like C-Map or Navionics are also updated, but not as frequently. Like milk, bread and beer, charts are best fresh, so do use the free resources to ensure you have the most up to date information aboard. Paper charts for backup can be purchased individually, or you can get a ‘chart book’ that covers large sections of the coast. We elected to do the latter, buying two MAPTECH Chartbooks that covered the coast from the Canadian border to the Mexican border.