Charter Sailing in Baja -- Panga, Panga, Panga!

Bareboating off the southern coast of Baja, there is virtually no cell phone coverage, and you are out of VHF range after a day’s sail from the charter base in La Paz. Over a week, we sailed about 60 miles north to Isla San Jose. We encountered two tiny villages of a dozen or fewer families. We saw no more than two or three other charter boats and a couple of dozen cruisers.

 Anchorage at Isla Coyote. Photo by Bob Fox

Near Isla San Jose, the outboard on the dinghy quit. We had used it every day to explore shallow coves and mangrove lagoons and to approach fishing camps to buy fresh fish. Our amateur diagnosis confirmed that the motor was getting fuel and spark, but it would not start. There was no way to communicate with the charter base. It was too far to return for repairs. Following the advice of a salty cruiser, who seemed to exist solely on rum and cigarettes, we hailed “panga, panga, panga” on VHF channel 16 as we anchored off the village of San Evaristo. “Panga” is a generic reference to the open skiffs used throughout that part of the world for fishing and transportation.

 Pangas on the beach. Photo by Tobe Plough

The transmit key had barely been released when we had a reply from Ramon, also known as Chico Lara. Like almost every other man in the village, Ramon is a fisherman. You can identify them by their weathered look and their white rubber boots, identical to those worn by Chesapeake watermen. Ramon is also an entrepreneur. He promised to bring out the village mechanic presently. Two hours later Ramon came alongside in his panga to tell us that the mechanic was out fishing and would return in the afternoon. By late afternoon there was no sign of a mechanic, so we called Ramon again. He took us into the village where we were able to score a couple of cases of beer and six tomatoes. We also learned that the mechanic was too busy to bother with us.
Limited communication capability is just one factor that suggests that Baja bareboaters need to be self-reliant. While high-quality provisions, especially fresh produce and seafood, are plentiful and reasonable in La Paz, once you have left La Paz, you cannot count on finding any provisions, fuel, water, or services. We didn’t see a single restaurant until we returned to La Paz.

 Anchorage at Ensenada Grande. Photo by Terry Smith

What Baja lacks in man-made amenities, nature makes up for in spades. Navigation is simple. There are minimal tides. There are little used anchorages surrounded by striking scenery on the several mostly uninhabited islands. You will probably never see more stars than you will see from a deserted anchorage in Baja. Best of all is the wildlife. Picture pelicans, terns, boobies, cormorants, and frigates all working the same school of bait. Imagine not just the usual group of dolphins riding the bow wave but a family reunion of the dolphin clan, hundreds of them, also feeding on a large school of fish. Swimming with sea lions anyone? It took days to stop jerking my head around every time I heard a manta ray leap from and fall back into the sea.

 Fishing village at Isla Coyote. Photo by Terry Smith

When Ramon returned us to the boat, he volunteered to have a look at the outboard himself. He quickly confirmed our diagnosis that it was getting both spark and fuel and determined that it was getting too much fuel. The carburetor float was stuck. The next morning he appeared at the agreed time and towed the dinghy to another fisherman who also had mechanical skills. He dismantled and cleaned the carburetor. Success: the motor ran perfectly.
Of course things have changed since Steinbeck’s “The Log From The Sea Of Cortez,” but not as much as you might expect. If you decide to give it a try, don’t forget : panga, panga, panga.

by Bob Gallagher