Wind and Weather and some Baja Rules
Wind reports and computer forecasting for Baja now available. Click here.
Text & photos by Mike Godsey
Experienced Baja sailors and kiters understand the nature of Baja winds and plan accordingly.
There are 3 basic winter time wind patterns in Sea of Cortez shore line of Baja Sur.
1. Local sea breeze pattern: There are frequent local sea breezes in the 10-15 knot range at locations like Los Barriles and especially La Ventana where a large valley downwind heats up in the afternoon. As parcels of hot air rise in the afternoon they create a low pressure area. As this low pressure increases the wind offshore begins to ramp up and head towards shore.
Often in this pattern the Sea of Cortez will be glassy calm in the AM then mid day you will see see a wind line in the distance. Shortly there after very steady but mild winds reach the shore. As you head further away from shore the wind will gradually weaken. Expect very small swell in this pattern. At sites like LA bay that lack a large valley down wind local sea breezes are uncommon.
2. Strong El Norte wind pattern: These gusty winds in the 20-30 knot range occur every several weeks. These winds occur after a storm passes over California and high pressure that follows the storm settles for a day or two in the 4 corners (where all the square states meet). This creates a strong pressure gradient from the 4 corners to low pressure south of Baja. This high pressure is strongest at night when the frigid airs of the 4 corners strengthen the high pressure. So typically you will first notice huge blasts of wind in the middle of the night that announce the arrival of El Norte. These winds roar down the middle of the Sea of Cortez so you will notice huge lumps on the eastern horizon at dawn. The key to getting these winds to move to the shore is inland heating. If the sky to the west is mostly clear then expect the wind to ramp up between 8 and 11AM.
A lot of the force of El Norte is from winds just aloft that make the surface wind UP AND DOWN. Sometimes the wind just aloft is NNW which tends to blow the El Norte surface wind away from shore. This often means on and off wind at the beaches. Typically Los Barriles has the strongest El Norte winds because it stick further out into the Sea of Cortez than La Ventana. The further outside you sail the stronger the wind and the bigger the huge swell.
3. Local sea breeze pattern + Weak El Norte wind: This is the most common wind on Baja's East Cape with winds in the 18-24 knot range. This occurs when there is a weak low pressure in the 4 corners which creates wind that slides down the Sea of Cortez as 5-10 knot winds. Once it arrives it combines with the 10-15 knot local sea breezes. This brings you wind in the 15 to 25 knot range with small swell.
The wind blows in cycles as high pressure areas move across the USA. So you have several days of good wind and then several days of modest to no wind. And every season there are periods of a week or more without wind. So sailors and kiters in the know stuff every possible toy into their caravan that space and budget allow. The most useful toys are mountain bikes, surfboards, dirt bikes, ATVs and kayaks.
The camping sites are also littered with ATVs, fishing gear, diving gear and some of the most pessimistic folks even bring water skis and wakeboards.
Then there are the short timers and newcomers. You see them at every sailing site. They came for wind and wind alone. And when the windless Baja Blues set in they wander the beaches aimlessly watching their vacation time tick by.
If you are planning a Baja excursion this winter, let me give you a few weather tips. In Baja, you are sailing the famed El Norte. El Norte is a strong wind that periodically gallops down the coastline of the Sea of Cortez like a runaway bull. El Norte is a synoptic scale wind generated by distant events.
Unlike the thermal winds in The Gorge or the San Francisco Bay, the events that produce El Norte are far removed from the sailing sites and the wind is hard to forecast unless you have internet access and can use the forecast link to the left.
It is the same wind that is streaming across all of Baja’s sailing sites. Unlike The Gorge where the pressure gradient can be steeper just a few miles away, El Norte either blows or it doesn't. However some sites especially Los Barriles and especially La Ventana have local thermal winds that can help a limp El Norte wind.
For El Norte winds to develop several conditions must conspire. First a High must pass over the 4 corners area of the USA. (this is the area where all the rectangular states intersect.) For this to happen the U.S. must be in a winter weather pattern with a succession of lows and highs marching across the country. In a typical year January and February are the prime months for this pattern but if the winter is early, December can produce good sailing conditions in Baja. As the time of year for Baja departure approaches, watch the weather maps. If the weather seems mild with few storms crossing the coast over California, delay your trip.
The second factor producing El Norte is a persistent thermal low off the Mexican mainland south of Baja. Each time a High passes over the U.S. Southwest, there is a pressure gradient between the High to the north and the thermal Low to the south. Since the air moving from the north is relatively cool, it is dense and tends to stay close to the water.
Before you leave, get in the habit of watching the satellite photos on the internet or weather channel or your local station. Watch the land mass of Baja California very carefully. Ignore the thin layer of fast moving clouds streaming from the west over Baja, these are upper level clouds of the subtropical jet stream. Watch carefully in late December and you will sometimes see tiny patches of cumulus clouds shooting straight down the gullet of the Sea of Cortez from north to south carried by El Norte. Once you start seeing these, it means El Norte is roaring. If the weather people are talking about a succession of Lows lined up in the Gulf of Alaska and the satellite photos look good, hit the road. Remember to bring lots of other toys besides your boards since El Norte blows in only when the Lows and Highs are positioned right.
Once you are in Baja, here are some other weather hints. The best sailing sites have a valley or a large point downwind where local heating can accelerate the incoming winds by creating a local thermal wind. Never head too far out into the Sea of Cortez. The mountain walls behind the beach create a venturi effect accelerating the wind along the shore. If you go far enough out the winds will weaken leaving you unable to water start!
El Norte typically starts in northern Baja and fills in southward. If the sea is covered with white when you drop down the pass into Santa Rosalia, stop at Punta Chivato. Then when it dies at Punta Chivato drive during the dead period to southern sites. If you are at a more southern site and you can see large swell on the eastern horizon you know there is wind to the north and it is likely to get to your location if there is a major El Norte developing.
For everyone, toys or not, after a week without wind the question becomes ... what to do? Some just hang around on the beach and while away the time. You could try another site. You could head to the Pacific coast and try that new surfboard. You could explore those incredible pools and waterfalls at Santiago or play tourist in La Paz. But inevitably every time you return from an excursion your friends will taunt you about the great wind you missed while you were gone. If only you had a way to know in advance when it was likely to blow. Thanks to some research done by iWindsurf.com, there is a way you can do your own crude wind forecasting from the beach if you can not access the live forecast link on this page.
Several seasons ago, Weatherman Tom and I coodinated setting up primitive weather stations at four Baja sites. The goal was to find a correlation between the weather, winds, and barometric pressure in Baja and the southwestern USA. The data analyses shows a pattern. When the pressure was dropping or low and stable for a long period there was either no wind or only light local thermal winds.
The pattern that proceeded a significant increase in wind was a rising barometer. Typically on days with winds in the 4.6 to 5.0 range, the barometer had climbed the day before and stabilized at this higher pressure. In Baja there is a unusual daily cycle of rising pressure from morning to afternoon but this is minor compared to the rise you are watching for. Preceeding this rise of pressure were typically several days of scattered high cirrus clouds. Then as the pressure rose, the skies would clear and the next day brought wind. Don't waste money on an expensive barometer. Absolute accuracy is not critical -- you just need to know when the pressure is going up.
For the most part, El Norte is not a local wind. It is created by the passage of Lows and Highs over the USA. So what is causing this rise in barometric pressure that you are watching for? The iWindsurf.com observations seem to indicate that El Norte is triggered by a storm Low passing over California and swinging down over the Great Basin and Texas.
A High pressure ridge following the Low causes a rising barometer and northerly winds. Since Lows and Highs take time to pass north of Baja, the wind will tend to go in cycles with several days of high winds alternating with several days of light or no wind. The most reliable sites are those with a hot valley down wind creating a local thermal wind to boost El Norte.
Baja Wind Rules!
Wind reports and forecasting for Baja now available on iWindsurf. Click here.
It is always hard to make hard and fast rules but after having spent a total of 40 months in Baja over 30 years I'll stick my neck out.
Most years the winds are most reliable from December to mid-Feburary. If California is having an early winter then Baja winds can start in November. If it is an extraordinarily mild winter in California then you better hope that the fishing is good in Baja. The best pattern is when there are well spaced storms coming over the west coast wiht clear spells between each storm. For example in Nov. 2001 an undending series of storms hit the west coast and there was little wind in Baja.
When El Norte blows, all the sites from Punta Chivato to Cabo Pulmo have wind. Don't switch sites if it is dead at your site... all the sites are probably dead. The only exceptionsto this rule are Cabo Pulmo and La Ventana. Sometimes Pulmo just dones not get wind. While La Ventana can have a very light sailabale wind when the other sites are dead.
Most reliable winds (from most consistent to least consistent):
1. La Ventana
2. Los Barilles
3. Punta Chivato
4. L.A. Bay
5. Punta Arena
6. Cabo Pulmo
Strongest winds and most radical conditions (locations with typically the strongest winds and the most radical locations are mentioned higher on the list):
1. Cabo Pulmo
2. Los Barilles
3. La Ventana
4. L.A. Bay
5. Punta Chivato
6. Punta Arena
Don't confuse the wave sailing at San Carlos and the other spots on the Baja Pacific coast with East Cape sailing. Different season, different crowd, and no wavesailing except when big swell and wind offer backside wave riding.
So how long should your Baja excursion be? If you are flying to a resort for a week, think of it as a vacation at a beautiful location with lots of recreational opportunities and a good chance of some spectacular sailing. With this attitude, you are guaranteed a great time.
If you are driving down, you are going to spend between four to six long days driving round trip. If you only have 2 weeks off, that leaves you only about a week on the beach. And, El Norte winds sometimes do not blow for a week or so. Personally, I will not make the drive unless I have at least 3 weeks free. If you are a short-timer, pick a site with reliable winds. Don't go to Cabo Pulmo if you have only a week to sail.