Part of a sea state weatherfax
Mon 18 Aug 2003 US/Pacific

Our last -- and biggest -- project is now complete: the installation of our new SSB! Yay!

SSB stands for Single-SideBand, and is the type of radio used for decades for long-range marine communication. This allows us to talk and listen over long distances -- thousands of miles under ideal conditions, although the actual range is extremely variable, depending on atmospheric conditions, sunspots, the time of day, etc.

This actually lets us do a range of things:

• It gives us a means to talk to people if we need help, even out at sea (VHF radio only works over 20 miles or so). We have a 406MHz EPIRB, a distress beacon that works through satellites anywhere in the world, but actually being able to talk to someone about our situation is always going to be better.

Tropical cyclone warnings

• It allows us to talk to other cruisers in the general area, such as throughout Mexico, via organised radio get-togethers known as "nets". This gives us a great way to socialise with fellow cruisers, as well as giving us access to cruising news such as detailed weather analyses, actual weather reports from people in various places, news about port fees and clearance procedures, which port captains are enforcing which rules and in what way (always an unknown in Mexico), and much more.

• We can use the SSB to receive radio-fax broadcasts, in particular weatherfaxes. These are regularly-broadcast weather maps showing current and future contitions, including wind and wave forecasts and hurricane predictions, and even satellite pictures. This is extremely useful when planning a voyage, as we've already found out.

Part of a satellite pic, showing cyclone activity off Mexico

• Using a modem attached to the SSB, we can send and receive email. HF radio (such as SSB) is an incredibly primitive medium for email, but it works, albeit slowly. Until recently, speeds were limited to around 600 bits per second -- compared with 56,000 bits per second for a typical home modem. Our new modem supports the latest standard -- Pactor 3 -- which can hit a heady 2,800 bits per second! However, actually getting this speed depends on near-perfect radio conditions.

The other snag is than when sending and receiving, we're using the same frequency as everyone else in quite a large geographical area. For this reason, we're limited to 10 minutes per day of connect time -- which means that our emails have to be limited in size. Still, being able to send and receive a few pages of text each day from friends and family, even during an offshore passage, is incredibly useful.

The new-look nav station.

The installation was a huge job, which warrants its own page, for those who are interested. But with all that done, we're ready to get going, heading for La Paz and then up into the sea of Cortez. There's just one snag -- a tropical depression, and potential tropical storm, heading up towards La Paz. Thanks to the weatherfaxes we're getting with our new toy, we can see this building, well south of Cabo, but forecast to head up that way. So, it looks like we'll be hanging around here for a while longer.

Tue 26 Aug 2003 US/Pacific

Our current status is -- totally ready to leave. We were going to head out last Monday -- and that would have put us into La Paz at the same time as Ignacio. That's the tropical depression we've been tracking on the weatherfaxes all week; it strolled north to La Paz, and suddenly jumped up to a category 2 hurricane -- that's 90 knots of wind in the centre, which was pretty close to La Paz. We're kind of glad we held off.

Right now we're planning about 3 more weeks here, during which the crew will visit folks back east and I'll guard the boat; then we'll stock up and leave. We'll probably head to Turtle Bay, and either hang there for a while or nip round into the Sea. Then, once hurricane season's over, we head south!

So, I'm now spending most of each day pulling in weatherfaxes, which are fantastic. This is way cool -- we were watching Ignacio 4 days before he hit hurricane status, getting all the forecasts, satellite pics, etc. Makes us feel quite confident about getting to the Sea of Cortez during hurricane season, since it's just a quick dip down into the hurricane zone then back up to (relative) safety.

Sat 25 Oct 2003 US/Pacific

Well, hurricane season is nearly over -- it ends "officially" on October 31. I don't think the hurricanes have quite such a consistent view of the seasons, but it's certainly true that major storms in November are rare, and get much more unlikely as the month progresses, due to diminishing water temperatures -- hurricanes live on warm water.

Although September is generally the worst month, there have been destructive late-season hurricanes in the past. Given the shock of Marty, a "rogue" hurricane which slammed La Paz and most of the Sea of Cortez, people are taking hurricanes very seriously right now.

Still, with water temperatures dropping rapidly, the end of October is the time of year when people start heading south from California, to cruise and winter over in lovely, warm Mexico. A popular destination is the Sea of Cortez (also known as the Gulf of California), the body of water between Baja California and the Mexican mainland. Of course, a lot of people head farther south, and come from farther afield than California; we've met cruisers from all over, including the UK and Germany. Still, one of the main events of the month is the Baja Ha-ha; a big cruiser's rally from San Diego to Cabo San Lucas, at the tip of Baja California.

I'm writing this for non-Californian sailors, of course, because if you've been sailing on the west coast for more than 5 minutes you've already heard of the ha-ha. Everybody talks about it -- lots of people talk about doing it, or about people they know who have done it, and a surprisingly large number of people actually do it -- about 130 boats, which equates to something like 450 people, including single-handers and whole families.

Gitane, at the Cruiser's Anchorage

The ha-ha itself is 750 miles or so, and takes about 7 days, with a couple of stops along the way. However, the actual ha-ha is, for most people, the nucleus of a larger plan. The event is actually organised out of San Francisco bay, and lots of people sail to San Diego from there, or farther north -- incidentally a far tougher sail than the cruise down the Mexican coast. And lots of people use the ha-ha to make cruising friends prior to a much longer cruise, such as winter in the Sea of Cortez, or on down the coast to Panama and the Caribbean, or across the South Pacific.

Our own plans don't include the ha-ha, but the whole of San Diego seems to be buzzing with it as the month goes on; more and more boats are arriving from the north, and making hasty last-minute preparations. Our good friends on Gitane are doing the ha-ha, although their boat is already in Ensenada, just over the border, so they'll have a head start. Tonight we went to their leaving party, to wish them well; they are hoping to ultimately head for Panama, so hopefully we'll see them on the way. They are, of course, still in the midst of frantic preparations, even at this stage; they'd brought their laptop and GPS up so I could help them set up their navigation software, which I was very glad to do!

The sky

One odd thing; as we rowed back to Moonrise in the La Playa anchorage, we smelled smoke on the air. Odd...

Sun 26 Oct 2003 US/Pacific

When you set off to go cruising, you naturally think about, and attempt to prepare for, all of the hazards that could threaten your boat along the way. Hurricanes, rogue waves, pirates... but not, of course, forest fires.

Until today, that is.

Ash on the deck

This morning, lying in the V-berth forward, I noticed ash on the hatch over my head. Humph, I though, some idiot shook out his barbecue upwind of us. But by the time the Sun was well up, it was getting darker -- and the sky was noticeably a deep orange colour.

When I stuck my head out the hatch to check it out, I was hit by an overpowering smell of smoke. We'd noticed a smoky smell getting back to the boat last night, from Gitane's farewell do, but nothing too extreme. By now, the whole sky was a thick pall of smoke, and the boat was covered with a coating of coarse, gritty ash.

Looking over the anchorage

This was our introduction to the South California wildfires. A whole series of fires, affecting California from north of L.A. to the Mexican border, sprang up and started to consume hundreds of thousands of acres of parched vegetation, fanned by hot and dry Santa Anna winds off the desert. The resultant plume of smoke has darkened the sky all over San Diego, and showered the city with ash.

From our point of view, the whole sky is dark brown, except for a narrow band of blue to the south; the light is an apocalyptic orange, except for the south-facing houses on the shore, which stand out dazzlingly in the gloom. The Sun, when it is visible, varies from orange to deep red.

The red Sun

We rowed -- through ash-covered water -- over to shore around noon, hoping to drive to somewhere where we could breathe fresh air, but it turned out there really wasn't any place to go; even up on Point Loma, the air was full of smoke and ash. In fact, we were rather trapped, with fires were to the north and east, ocean to the west and Mexico to the south...

We went and sat drinking coffee in the bakery for a while, which, being air-conditioned, was not smoky, which was a relief. But eventually we had to return to the boat. The row back was unpleasant -- a lot of smoke in the air -- but the boat herself was blessedly clear inside. We have been trying to keep it that way, by sealing it against the intrusion of ash and smoke; rags block the gaps around the hatch, and upturned buckets over the vents keep the ash out. The resultant atmosphere inside the boat is stuffy, but bearable.

Ash on the water
Mon 27 Oct 2003 US/Pacific

This morning was once again gloomy and orange, with a strong smell of smoke in the air. Yesterday there was a strong sprinkling of ash on the water; today, that has turned, in places, to a thick, solid-looking carpet. As is still falling from the sky, though not so heavily -- and all this from fires 20 miles away.

Today being Monday, we can't anchor at La Playa any more, so at 9:00 a.m. we moved the boat to the police dock. The good news is that there are spaces, because this is the day the Baja ha-ha leaves! All of the boats which have been cramming into every available slip in San Diego bay are moving out, heading out to Coronado Roads, for the official start. It's quite an impressive parade, although somewhat gloomy, with lines of ash-covered boats heading out under clouds of dark smoke. A strange start for everyone's cruise, but I'm sure they'll be glad to be away.

Looking back at La Playa

We had been planning to watch the start from Point Loma, which directly overlooks it, but the smoke over there is so thick, we wouldn't be able to see a thing. Indeed, once at the police dock we met a couple of really nice guys on Tess, an old wooden boat, who were late getting to the start, and had come in for some repairs -- they said that they'd sailed right past the start, and couldn't see more than one boat at a time. Imagine their surprise as the sailed down the coast to sunny San Diego, only to get here and find it choking in smoke and ash!

The Sun on the water

Anyway, with the ha-ha gone, things are calming down a little, but the space at the police dock was quickly filled up with non-ha-ha cruisers, such as ourselves; this means there's a great atmosphere of like-minded people on the dock, except that we're all huddled indoors, complaining about the choking, eye-watering atmosphere. There are actually 4 British boats here; Lucina, from London, Dreamworld, a trawler-style motor cruiser from Kingston-on-Hull, ourselves, and another boat next door from Jersey. New Venture, a converted fishing boat from Douglas, was also at the anchorage with us.

A red sunset

The other good news is that my good friends on Ceilidh arrived today -- from the Bay Area, like us. They'd spent a lot more time working their way down the coast, and are planning to spend a few days here before heading south to Mexico. We were glad to be here to welcome them in to the last slip and take their lines.

More good news was that the forecast was for westerly winds, bring cool, moist, and above all smoke-free air from the ocean. Fingers crossed...

Get ready...
Fri 31 Oct 2003 US/Pacific

The ha-ha is gone, but the docks are still crowded with cruisers heading south, waiting until the big crowds have moved on. This is actually really nice, as there are plenty of people to talk to who will be making their way down free of any schedule, like ourselves. Among others, there are two steel junk-rigged schooners just across the dock from Moonrise, side by side.


The fires are still burning all over southern California, but the wind from the ocean arrived as promised, so they're being pushed east, away from us. This is very bad news for people out east in towns like Julian, but at least the wind is a lot cooler and moister, which I think is helping. For us here in San Diego, the west wind picked up on Tuesday, bringing a dense fog, which for several hours still smelled strongly of smoke. By evening, this had thickened into an incredibly dense pea-soup smog, which cut visibility almost to zero; but by midnight, this had thinned to a more normal fog, and the smell of smoke was gone at last.

The extent of the smoke, though, is incredible. The pictures below show just how far out to sea it went; some cruising friends of mine went to Las Vegas to escape the smoke, and found that by late in the week it had blown that far east.

Well done!

We were busy on Wednesday, but yesterday I set to cleaning the boat from stem to stern, getting rid of every trace of ash from the decks and all of the appalling clutter thereon. One point of interest was the arrival of a film crew, who spend the morning setting up to film the Movie of the Week, which is apparently set in Berkeley Marina (which is nothing at all like the police dock, but oh well). I carried merrily on with the scrubbing, making a huge pile of stuff-to-be-cleaned on the dock, and then broke off for lunch. After a well-deserved rest, I headed up to the bathroom, only to find myself walking right up the ramp between two actors who were trying to do their part with me squeezing past them. "Cut!" rang out -- oh well, they should have said something! I spent the next hour in the cockpit scrubbing, while filming went on, taking in Moonrise -- still looking a lot like a floating junk-heap -- and the beautiful dragon logo on Ceilidh's bow.

The Navy's dolphin pens

This morning, the cleaning moved onto the dinghy, hosing out the huge mess of ash from inside. As I was working on this, one of the Navy dolphin teams was doing some training right behind Moonrise. They put on a little show for the cruisers, with their dolphin doing the most incredible acrobatic jumps just behind the dock, and apparently having the time of its life. Usually I'm not here when the dolphin teams are around, but this time I managed to grab the camera and get a few shots.

So with the worst of the cleaning done with the convenience of a hose at the dock, the boat is now around at La Playa for the weekend.

More Ha-ha / San Diego wildfires coverage can be found in Latitude 38, the San Francisco Bay sailing monthly. See the electronic editions for Oct 27, Oct 28, and Oct 31. These NOAA satellite pictures show the extent of the smoke drifting out to sea from San Diego (and south Cal generally):