The West Coast's Annual Migration

By Pat Miller Rains

More than 2,500 boats migrate annually up and down our Pacific coast, following the sun as faithfully as the whales, birds, and butterflies. This month, an experienced captain explains how it works.

Aerial photo of Isla Espiritu Santo Baja CaliforniaIsla Espiritu Santo, Baja California, Mexico, tucked in north of La Paz, is a popular destination for migrating western boaters. (Photo: Kerrick James)

It's a universal instinct. Lured by the promise of fair weather year-round, sailboaters, sportfishers, and powerboaters of all kinds and sizes follow annual migration patterns. Ocean cruisers routinely head down to Mexico for the winter, and then migrate up to Canada for summer cruising. The big boats easily ranging even farther, say between Costa Rica and Alaska.

All summer, we West Coasters have enjoyed our home waters — be they in Washington, Oregon, or California, but as the days grow short and leaves turn brown, many set a course south toward lower latitudes. En masse, we gather in Southern California harbors (Santa Barbara, Los Angeles, San Diego) and Ensenada in northern Baja Mexico, hundreds of boats awaiting the official end of hurricane season in the Eastern Pacific. We're likely to meet fellow "southbounders" in the chandleries and grocery stores, because last year, according to immigration records, tens of thousands of nautical tourists visited Mexico from the U.S. and Canada, including boaters who trailer their vessels down from the U.S.

Winter Migration

Starting November 1, we pour across the Mexican border, clear papers at Ensenada, and beeline down the rugged 800-mile Baja Peninsula with the prevailing northwesterlies at our backs. There is a scarcity of reliable overnight anchorages on the Pacific side of Baja, however, refuge can be found in Turtle Bay and Magdalena Bay.

West Coat Migration mapFrom Puerto Chiapas, Mexico, all the way to Sitka, Alaska, each year more than 2,500 cruising boaters follow the sun as faithfully as the whales, birds, and butterflies.

Migration Route 1:

If we celebrate when passing the Tropic of Cancer at 23.5° north, it's still a bit premature to stow the wool sweaters. Not until we round the tip of Baja and stop at Los Cabos and La Paz can we break out shorts and flip-flops — normal attire for the next seven or eight months of winter and early spring cruising, from November through at least mid-May. As soon as we're sufficiently defrosted, many of us cross over to the Mexican mainland and continue hopping southeast until we reach whatever point we've chosen as our southernmost destination. It may be Zihuatanejo, Acapulco, or that new marina in Puerto Chiapas. The point is to keep moving south. Why? While folks back home still have frozen toes, our toes are tan as we flee winter's grasp, plunging south into balmy tropical conditions: 85°F air temperatures and gentle breezes.

Photo of Caleta el Candelero anchorageThe Caleta el Candelero (Candelabra Cove) anchorage is near La Paz, gateway to the Sea of Cortez.

At our southern apex, most of us make a U-turn and finally start gunkholing northwest at a leisurely pace. Our task is to sample 5,000 turquoise coves ringed in powder-white beaches and swaying coco-palms. Southern Mexico and the Gold Coast offer a string of 90 remote jungle-clad anchorages with snorkeling waters and boater-friendly beach cantinas. We balance our months on the hook with an occasional resort port call to soak up five-star marina services in Acapulco, Zihuatanejo, Ixtapa, Manzanillo, Barra de Navidad, Tenacatita, and Puerto Vallarta, in Banderas Bay.

Migration Route 2:

By the time we regain 23.5° north, it could be February. Along the way, we've learned to settle for only the freshest shrimp and tangiest margaritas. We're ready to spend late winter and spring (February, March, April, and at least half of May) making a giant circuit around the south half of the Sea of Cortez — to my mind, THE best cruising in Mexico and Central America. On the mainland side, Mazatlan's five modern marinas boast the second largest liveaboard community in Mexico. But Mazatlan's cultural heart is "Centro Historico," 20 blocks of 1840 Victorian Italianate mansions restored as trendy restaurants, shops, art studios, and the Peralta Opera House.

Photo of cruisers heading ashore at Marina Chiapas, MexicoCruisers head ashore for lunch under the big palapa at Marina Chiapas, Mexico.

At Topolobampo, it's easy to leave your boat in the marina and book passage on the train, El Chepo, as it climbs 7,677 feet into dramatic Copper Canyon. For the best vistas, book first-class train seats on port up and starboard down. Even a quick three-day excursion allows time to hike the pine-clad trails, visit a Tarahumara village, and ride the sky-tram to the crest of the Sierra Madres.

Leaving the Tetas de Cabra landmark in our wake, we cross from San Carlos 75 miles to make landfall at Santa Rosalia, on the Baja side. Built in 1880 by the French mining company El Boleo, quaint little Santa Rosalia harbor is where Mexico's ubiquitous "bolello" bread loaf was invented by French bakers. Boaters always provision with fresh bolellos before migrating 120 miles down the Baja side to La Paz. The craggy peaks of Sierra La Giganta, Baja's mountainous backbone, overlook our coastal path all the way to La Paz. En route we can anchor below red lava cliffs in Bahia Concepcion, called the sea within the sea, where docile black-and-white dotted whale sharks float in the shallow salty lagoons to give birth in spring.

Photo of the half-moon shaped Isla San Francisco in Baja California Sur, MexicoThe perfect half-moon bay of Isla San Francisco in Baja California Sur, Mexico. (Photo: Amos Nachoum)

If we call at Puerto Escondido in early May, we can enjoy the annual five-day Loreto Fest of nautical seminars, dinghy races, ham-radio gams, guitar jams, a chili contest, and other fun put on by volunteers of Hidden Port Yacht Club. The 2016 Loreto Fest will be its 20th anniversary.

The two prettiest destinations are Bahia Agua Verde, which means "turquoise water", and the Espiritu Santo Islands, a 22-mile chain of islands and coves formed of pink volcanic ash called "tufa." At the island's south end are remnants of 1910 pearl farms.

Migration Route 3:

Summer creeps up from the equator, bringing the potential for hurricanes, so migrating boats vacate southern Mexico by late May. By mid-June, we should be either picking out a couple of safe hurricane holes to base ourselves for the summer, or doing the Baja bash — heading up the outside of Baja toward the good old U.S. of A.

Weather Calls Us Back Stateside

Once we're stateside again, migratory instincts draw us north to San Francisco Bay and its vast Delta cruising grounds. For an incognito foray into California's wine country, grab a low-key slip at Napa Valley Marina and line up vineyard tours and wine tastings at a dozen excellent vineyards within 15 miles, such as Carneros Creek, Stag's Leap, Mondavi, Bouchaine, DeSoto, Madonna, McKenzie Mueller, Etude, and more. Sunday brunch among the vines is offered May 30 to mid August.

Photo of San Francisco California boatingThe San Francisco Bay Area is always a draw for boaters.

We can easily spend two weeks exploring the Columbia River, from Astoria Bar, on the Pacific Ocean, for 120 miles upstream through the Willamette Valley to the head of navigation at Bonneville Dam. Snowy-peak views of Mount Hood and Mount St. Helens greet us as we round the river bends. At Big Eddy Marina, we inspect a unique collection of houseboats across from the Lewis and Clark Highway near Gresham.

Farther north, Puget Sound's woodsy waterways could satisfy our wanderlust through spring. Renaissance Faires dot the Pacific Northwest, and one of the finest occurs in early June at the traditional Norwegian village of Poulsbo, about 25 sea miles from Seattle.

Summer Migration

From the Pacific Northwest, hundreds of us migrate north for what's affectionately known as the Canuck Summer. Donning long pants and down vests, we test boat heaters, and while summer days stay light for 17 hours, we don't travel at night due to logs, so we're always thinking of where to stop next. To get safely through the narrow spots, we time our passage with a favorable height of tide to avoid whirlpools and 6-knot current rips. Online tide tables, guidebooks, and intricate knowledge of these waters are required.

Migration Route 4:

Leaving Port Townsend, Washington, we scoot 30 miles across the Strait of Juan de Fuca to the popular San Juan Islands. Many folks spend the whole summer in the San Juans, or between here and the Broughtons. When ready to officially enter Canada, we clear out at Friday Harbor on San Juan Island and clear in at Victoria, B.C., the historic city on the south tip of Vancouver Island — about 30 sea miles apart.

Photo of McKenzie Beach in the Pacific NorthwestMcKenzie Beach in the Pacific Northwest. (Photo: Russ Heinl)

British Columbia and Alaska offer maybe 1,000 pristine anchorages, but they're often narrow ledges next to deep water, with room for only four or five boats to snug in close to shore. Carrying 300 to 400 feet of chain is not uncommon. If you don't get into your next anchorage early, you might be swinging on the outside in deep water with more current. For that reason, it's a bit of a gold rush. The couple of hundred boats that have wintered over in marinas at Victoria or nearby Sidney certainly get a head start on the summer migration, it's true, but veterans know that wintering over here really means leaving your boat in cold storage.

Migration Route 5:

After boats clear into Canada, they divide into those for whom catching salmon is a priority, and everyone else. If we're coming for salmon, the experts advise heading north first to Sitka or Ketchikan, to meet the salmon as they migrate southeast, says Tom Selman of Bellingham, Washington, a king-salmon aficionado and Nordhavn 40 owner. "In spring they start moving south and peeling off east toward their spawning rivers along British Columbia. The trick is to be in position at the mouth of those rivers where those salmon are heading, at precisely the day and time they're arriving." For first timers, Selman recommends berthing at one of the many small fishing lodges that dot the inlets, then hiring one of the local fishing captains, and going out on their boat by the day. They know where the salmon will be, and their boats are equipped. To save time the salmon-fisherman's route may take us outside Vancouver Island, if weather is favorable. From Victoria, it's about 580 miles to Ketchikan. By staying outside Queen Charlotte Island as well, it's about 750 miles to Sitka.

Migration Route 6:

As for the rest of us, we're gunkholing along Vancouver Island's more sheltered eastern shore, visiting Nanaimo and Campbell River. Across the Johnstone Strait from Port Hardy, we can lose ourselves in the Broughton Islands, the other spectacular cruising grounds off B.C.'s fjord coast.

We have some summer left, so the next level (especially for trawlers and motoryachts) is to transit Canada's Inside Passage. This web of narrow, steep-sided passages leads us through 250 miles of forested wilderness from Port Hardy to Prince Rupert Harbor. Staggering beauty lies around every corner. Along the way we can visit Chatter Box Falls, Bella Bella, and a few fly-in lodges with roaring fires. The Inside Passage has several of those tight stretches where we need good tide data and full power.

At Prince Rupert, we're only 80 miles from Ketchikan, Alaska, gateway to Glacier Bay National Park. Grizzly bears and bergie bits (iceberg chunks) dot the rocky forested shores, so keep binoculars handy. Keep watch for V-shaped flocks of Canada geese pointing south — also our cue to vacate these high latitudes. We usually have prevailing wind in our favor for south-bounding, as we're lured back to the promise of the warming sun. 

Pat Rains has logged over 500,000 sea miles, earned her U.S. Coast Guard 100-ton masters license and has written three guidebooks to Mexico and Central America.

— Published: October/November 2015

Your West Coast Migration Checklist

"We're free spirits," said a young man at one of my recent Mexico cruising seminars. His wife added, "We just want to follow the sun." Neither of them, however, was interested in my list of required port-clearance documents, suggested itineraries for summer vs. winter, nor my checklist of safety equipment for long-range cruising in foreign waters.

  • First, check your life raft. If it needs service and repacking, this may take several weeks.
  • If you were thinking of adding electronics, such as a VHF radio or sat-phone, do it far in advance to allow for good installation and then to work out any bugs while stateside. (Remember, you need a ships-station license, and an international MMSI issued by the FCC.)
  • AIS enhances your safety when jousting with ship traffic in the Pacific Northwest and Puget Sound. If you're planning to spend all summer in Alaskan waters, consider "Gumby" suits (thick, neoprene survival/immersion suits) as an investment in safety. Kelp cutters fixed to prop shafts are a good idea; kelp thrives in patches off Canada, the U.S., and northern Baja.
  • If your powerboat has languished for a few seasons, consider polishing the fuel. For sailboats, change your fuel filters and put aboard some spares, tune the standing rig, and fix or replace any sails and running rigging that have chafed or rotted in storage.
  • You'll be anchoring more than normal stateside cruising, so mark (or re-mark) your chain, and replace anything kinky in your ground-tackle system. Sea-trial your dinghy — launch, run for 30 minutes, and retrieve it. You may want air conditioning for the tropics, and a heater for northern climes, so test your generator and batteries under load.
  • For Mexico's sparsely populated regions like Baja and the Sea of Cortez, a signal-boosting antenna amplifies your cellphone and Wi-Fi ability. A set of dinghy wheels helps you land your dink on long sloping beaches and roll it safely above the tide line.
  • Finally, change the oil and replace any old filters, belts, hoses, pumps, fluids, impellers, membranes, gaskets, docklines, fenders, and wiper blades that might fail in the upcoming season. Carry ample spares, but don't go crazy and submerge your waterline.

The Paperwork Cha-Cha

Arriving in a different country aboard your boat isn't like arriving at an airport. You'll need to plan ahead to be sure you meet all the requirements. See this article online for links to information on Canadian and Mexican clearance requirements and paperwork. Here are a few highlights:

  • Everyone needs a passport that doesn't expire before you return. If you're taking a grandchild along, but not both of his or her parents, then carry a notarized letter of permission to cross the border from any parent not on the boat.
  • Registration of documentation for the boat, dinghy, and any motorized toys need to be current. Make absolutely sure the Hull Identification Number (HIN) on these documents matches the HIN on the vessel. If your boat is pre-1974 or doesn't have a HIN, see sidebar below.
  • If you will be in Canada for 44 days or longer, you must either have a Canadian Pleasure Craft Operators Card (PCOC) or the equivalent operator card issued by your state of residence.
  • Canada has streamlined its port clearance procedures for recreational boats. Upon arrival in Canadian waters, proceed immediately to a marine telephone reporting site and call the Canadian Telephone Reporting Centre.
  • Mexico has a great new booklet with links to download all the paperwork you need for customs, immigration, fishing, and national park permits.
  • Mexico requires liability insurance on the boat (and any automobile you drive while in Mexico) from a Mexican insurance company. Find out more and access the website of BoatUS's Mexican insurance partner.


Heading South Of The Border?

The Mexican federal Secretary of Tourism has published an eight-page booklet, "Visiting Mexico By Private Boat," that explains the newly streamlined paperwork rules. The booklet also lists the 10 websites where U.S. boaters can download and fill out all the documents needed for cruising or fishing in Mexico. Alejandro Santander, the Mexican consul in San Diego, said, "Six federal-government departments worked together for two years to create this new set of resources solely to enhance nautical tourism." Santander also apologized for translation errors in 2013 that led tax agents to temporarily confiscate 300 cruising boats.

The consul was speaking in front of an audience of 50 cruising boaters and fishing-group members in San Diego. They asked tough questions that were answered in English by a panel of nine officials, plus four federal officials via web video from Mexico City.

Big Changes

The two most significant changes are to the application for the 10-year Temporary Import Permit (TIP) and to fishing licenses. The TIP application has been streamlined, nautical terms are defined, and the explanations of how to obtain, use, and cancel the TIP are clarified. Santander pointed out where that form calls for hull ID numbers, not registration or document numbers. Santander said that a committee responding to boater questions and input is now deciding how to word the website to also accommodate the owners of non-standard boats. That special category will cover owner-built boats, foreign hulls, production boats that were built pre-1974, and other unique situations. In those cases their permanent hull ID numbers might be located in different places on the hulls or nonexistent, unlike standard built boats. In a major concession to Southern California sportfishing groups that had complained loudly about being required to check into Ensenada prior to fishing near the Coronado Islands, which lie just five miles within Mexican waters, a new online Fishing License is available. It complies with both the Immigration and Fisheries requirements, if it is acquired at least 48 hours before entering Mexican waters. Potential visitors by boat should visit the new TIP website for the latest information. Go to for details on the fishing license.


What To Know About HINs

To avoid previous problems related to HINs, the six federal agencies of the Mexican government have developed a new website that provides all new forms for international arrival of recreational vessels. The new forms (English and Spanish) released in June 2015 were created specifically to clarify where the boat owner's HINs are to be entered, now better distinguished from where the vessel's VIN (Coast Guard Document or state registration number) is to be entered. This online process starts the whole clearance procedure, and all fees can be paid online by credit card. Save the receipt.

Additionally, to get a brand-new 10-year Temporary Import Permit 60 days before coming to Mexico for the first time, visit Mexican government vehicle registration web site. Boaters already in Mexico using the old 10-year TIP forms are fine, but should check to be sure their numbers are correct. If incorrect, they have until the end of 2015 to take their papers to the nearest port captain's office or custom's office to make the correction free of charge. This process was announced June 18, 2015, by Alejandro Santander, Mexico Consul of San Diego. Santander apologized profusely for the HIN-VIN confusion by Mexican tax agents in 2013 that caused 300 yachts to be temporarily impounded at their marina slips. All those yachts were soon released, except a few that were found to have been stolen or were in the country illegally.


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