And if you’d rather trailer to Mexico than cruise there on your own bottom, click here.
A golden desert sun casts sprawling shadows across the docks at La Paz’s CostaBaja Marina on this November afternoon just prior to Thanksgiving. Expedition-style trawlers, brawny sport-fishing yachts and sleek pilothouse motoryachts lie quietly in their berths after the long offshore cruise from southern California, their crews chatting and enjoying an eagerly anticipated respite from logging so many blue-water miles.
Most yachts that take part in the annual FUBAR (“Fleet Underway to Baja Rally”) to Mexico’s Baja California Sur are significantly longer than 50 feet. Walking the docks, you can tick off the expected names — Viking, Hatteras, Cheoy Lee, Grand Banks, Selene, Nordhavn, Skipjack.
Proudly perched among her much larger companions, the 28-foot Brown-Eyed Girl has made the 900-nautical-mile run to La Paz three times. She hails from San Diego County, and her skipper, Larry Lucore, proves with each one of these trips that you can take a small boat on a blue-water cruise.
Baja or Bust: Small-Boat Refit
Lucore has an abiding love for the nearly 1,000-mile-long Baja Peninsula, going back decades.
“I came to Baja as a 12-year-old, camping at San Felipe,” Lucore recalls. “That was in 1952, before the roads were even complete. I bought a house here in the 1980s.”
Lucore and fellow crew members Gary Bruntsch and John Hunt comprise Brown-Eyed Girl’s FUBAR crew. The three men, all retired firefighters from Encinitas, California, have known each other for more than 30 years.
Lucore says the sturdy, rugged Skipjack — named for his brown-eyed wife, Della — is more than capable of long-range cruising, with a few modifications. Two critical steps were repowering and adding fuel capacity.
“According to FUBAR rules, you have to be able to cruise 450 miles at 8.5 knots between fuel stops,” Lucore explains. “So I increased the capacity of the main fuel tank from 140 gallons to 175 gallons and added an extra 50-gallon tank forward. And I replaced the twin diesels with a [single] 270 hp Cummins MerCruiser Duoprop. That gave us our range for the first FUBAR in 2007.”
It was the third repower for Brown-Eyed Girl. First, Lucore repowered with twin gas engines, then with twin Volvo Penta diesels. In 2005, he went for that single diesel engine. Hunt observes that the single engine had two noteworthy benefits.
“With that one engine in the center, we have much better storage,” he explains. “It’s also easier for maintenance and battery access. You don’t have to be quite so young and agile.” More space is safer than a shoehorn installation for working on an engine in offshore rollers.
Next, Lucore added a smaller dinghy to the boat. He downsized from an 8-foot to a 7-foot model, the smallest available. It still can carry a whopping 760 pounds, yet it won’t interfere with the windlass and anchoring equipment as its predecessor had.
For the 2011 FUBAR, Lucore also added weather curtains to the bow rails, which has made a difference.
“It makes a bigger nose on the boat, so it’s better going into weather,” he observes. “And we get less spray up here. The dinghy didn’t even get wet. Eyes twinkling, he adds, “We used to drive this boat with a mask and snorkel. We almost had to put our fins on.” We’ll file that tidbit away for our next Skipjack test.
The final addition: a pilothouse to replace the canvas and clear window curtains. If the weather’s agreeable, the windshield panels push outward and the side windows slide open. If it’s not, the captain and crew stay dry.
There was a concern with the pilothouse, because it added 500 to 600 pounds to the boat. “The windows alone are more than 300 pounds. When we left California, we realized she was top-heavy. We just hadn’t factored in the extra weight,” recalls Hunt about the problem.
Once they crossed the border and arrived in Ensenada, the crew spent time reorganizing provisions to better balance Brown-Eyed Girl. Once that was done, the little Skipjack was ready; aboard, Lucore fitted a complete electronics package including GPS, autopilot and FloScan fuel-flow instrumentation.
“We have everything the big guys have, but smaller,” Lucore says.
“Remember when we used to steer with just a compass?” Hunt asks him, laughing.
Tight Quarters, (Mostly) Smooth Ride
After a long wait for fuel at Ensenada’s El Coral Marina, Brown-Eyed Girl departed on her first overnight passage on Nov. 9. Crew members kept watch with two hours on and four hours off for each man. Their log notes, “Bright moon, smooth water, no wind.”
One man slept in the queen berth, another in the V-berth. The third, Bruntsch, slept on deck.
Brown-Eyed Girl’s accommodations are Spartan, with a small fridge and a camp stove in the galley and a marine head. The shower, Lucore comments with a grin, is on the swim step.
As with any offshore cruise, there were a few glitches. When they arrived at Cedros Island, the crew noticed that their oil pan was leaking around the gasket (the pan had been recently replaced). They tightened all the bolts, thankful for the service space provided by a single engine — and then discovered that the main bilge pump wasn’t working. Nor was the 700-watt inverter, so the freezer worked only when they ran the generator.
“These kinds of things remind you that the boat lives in an environment that’s trying to destroy it,” Hunt notes with a laugh.
Lucore nods, adding, “To do something like the FUBAR, you really need a knowledge of boat systems. And lots of spare parts.”
When Brown-Eyed Girl left the Cedros anchorage, her crew fished their way down the island’s east side, trolling up a calico bass for supper. The log notes, “Arrived in Turtle Bay. Still air and water. Sky looks dark to north.”
Weather blew in overnight, rocking the anchorage with rain and wind. The crew cleaned the boat, ate chili and enjoyed a beer or two on Nov. 12. One of the local panga fishermen advised them that they were in for a bigger blow, so they secured the anchor.
The log notes that the next night was rough: “40-knot wind, several inches of rain and strong cross swell. Gary got wet, and not much sleep.”
Despite running over a lobster pot at Turtle Bay and taking time off to disentangle the prop, their post-storm departure proved to be on an idyllic cruising day. The eight-foot seas, following off the starboard quarter, didn’t put a damper on the fishing; the crew caught several bonito and a small California yellowtail and then cruised into calm Ascension Bay at sunset.
Brown-Eyed Girl had a couple of peaceful days, catching dorado (mahimahi) for garlic-butter fish sandwiches and spending a serene morning at a prime fishing area they call “the 23 spot.”
In calm seas, the crew took an hour and a half to transfer fuel from the auxiliary tank to the main tank, and then they cruised on to Man of War Cove at Puerto Magdalena to spend the night. When they departed the next morning at 8, they fixed the inverter. As the log observed: “The freezer now works on the inverter. (But) the Honda generator doesn’t run now.” Fortunately, Bruntsch was able to fix that too.
Even more fortunately, they made their repairs prior to nightfall.
Dark, Stormy Night
Piloting after dark, as the seas kicked up, put the three old salts to the test. It was, Lucore says, a difficult night. The log records 20-plus-knot winds with a heaving west-northwest swell.
“Those were the worst conditions I’ve had,” Lucore comments. “We had six- to seven-foot seas and couldn’t rely on the autopilot, so we had to hand-steer all night. Two guys were up all the time. The guy off would try to sleep, but you’d be surfing, and then the bow would get buried, and wham.
At one point, the boat lost all electrical power. While Hunt held course with a compass, Bruntsch put his headlamp on, headed into the engine compartment and tackled the problem. It turned out to be a blown fuse, which he fixed in roughly 30 minutes. The gremlin? A 12-volt coffeepot.
The Home Stretch
On Nov. 19, Brown-Eyed Girl arrived at Cabo Riviera Marina, and her crew discovered yet another benefit of small-boat cruising. Access.
The log notes a very narrow channel. Only Brown-Eyed Girl and another participating boat got in, while the others cruised on, leaving the handful of boaters ashore to enjoy a party designed for 150 people. “It was a great party, with mariachis, food and drink. We were treated like royalty.”
“A panga driver convinced us to try it, so we ran in,” Bruntsch says. “We got our outdrive up, but we did suck in a little sand.”
“The boat draws just 24 inches, so that’s a big advantage to being small,” Lucore concurs, and then Hunt adds, “You hardly need a tender. You can just back up to a beach and jump off as long as there’s no surf.”
After tightening the oil pan bolts again, the crew left Cabo Riviera on Nov. 20, bound for Bahía de Los Sueños. The log notes, “Blue water, 84 degrees, went swimming … wine, cheese and tuna pate on the poop deck...tropical clouds, smooth water.” A final snafu dogged the crew the day they were due to arrive at CostaBaja Marina on La Paz’s Pichilingue Peninsula. After the engine overheated, they discovered the alternator belts weren’t turning. The pulley brackets were broken. So the water pump wasn’t working either, and they were dead in the water.
“I’m so proud of these guys,” Hunt says, glancing at his mates on the dock. “We didn’t drill for that. But one guy drove while the other two got it fixed.” And Brown-Eyed Girl made it to La Paz, where they are clearly enjoying the destination as much as they did the journey.
Later they would get to enjoy the final benefit of their little cruiser. They would get to drive home. (They had a trailer and tow vehicle waiting for them in La Paz that had been dropped off in advance.)
“It can be a slog going back north,” Hunt says of traveling back by water. “Instead of following seas and wind, you get it on the nose. It’s a huge advantage to trailer the boat back.”
The big lesson in all this: You can do a long-distance, offshore cruise with a small boat. You need all the necessary gear and parts, you need to have experience, and you need to have a reliable (and compatible) crew who has the time; but yes, regular guys can do this. No matter the size of their boat.
Three old friends who like to cruise in a 28-footer.
A primer on the powerboat rally.
What is FUBAR?
FUBAR is an all-powerboat rally that leaves from southern California and travels to La Paz, capital city of Mexico’s Baja California Sur.
What’s the history?
The biennial FUBAR began in 2007, when a Del Rey Yacht Club member organized the first event in conjunction with the California and San Diego yacht clubs. Del Rey hosted the inaugural rally in 2007, with San Diego hosting in 2009 and the Long Beach Yacht Club hosting in 2011. For more information on the 2013 event, go to fubarodyssey.com.
Who can participate?
Members of the host club have first priority, with the remaining slots open to the public. The rally is a powerboat-only event, and it’s limited to approximately 50 boats due to slip availability in some of the ports. All boats must have a minimum range of 450 miles at 8.5 knots. All boats also must pass a comprehensive safety inspection to ensure they are capable of offshore cruising. (Gary Bruntsch of Brown-Eyed Girl said you also must have a four-person crew on board, but FUBAR organizers have made an exception for the Skipjack due to her size.)