On the Harbor: Sailing down the coast during the Baja Ha Ha rally...magical


Over the end of October and the first part of November, I joined Chris Killian aboard his Lagoon 41 Derive for the 25th running of the Baja Ha Ha cruisers rally down the Baja coast. The Ha Ha starts in San Diego with a party and ends in Cabo San Lucas with a party. In between, there are two stops: one at Turtle Bay and the other in Bahia Santa Marina, and yes, the Ha Ha is no friend of your liver – it’s a “RALLY.” That was the battle cry aboard “Derive” for the next 10 days...“It’s a Rally.”

When I first stepped aboard Derive, the skipper Killian was very concerned that I would have difficulty with the concept of cruising and that we wouldn’t be racing. Killian would repeatedly remind me, “We are cruising, leaving the rat race behind us.” I just kept thinking, we are sailing down to Baja and I am going to see what this cruising catamaran can do. As we provisioned the boat, I started to look at the weather closely, and we would be cruising because there was no forecasted wind down the Baja coast.

On the Harbor Sailing down the coast Turtle Bay

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Photos by Richard “Grand Poobah” Spindler

The Baja Ha Ha fleet in Turtle Bay

I then shifted into plan B, which was “while cruising, do as the cruisers do.” Killian and I headed to the sendoff party that was located in the parking lot of the San Diego West Marine. During our walk, Killian explained that the organizing authority of this rally is the Grand Poobah and his many helpers. We were headed to a Halloween costume send-off party, so I started looking for a person with a tall blue furry hat on with water buffalo horns coming out the sides that said, yabba-dabba-doo. What I found was a 6’4”+ surfer with a tall black top hat, black jacket with tails, short pants and flip-flops.

I knew he was the original publisher of the sailing magazine Latitude 38, which he had sold a couple years earlier, and owned one badass looking catamaran that appears to be doing 20 knots just at anchorage by the name of Profligate. The next day, the rally started with the Poobah breaking the silence on VHF channel 69 to start the rally. We are cruising, so we were running a little late and turned the corner around the Shelter Island Customs dock into the main San Diego channel and that’s when it hit me...all 156 boats were lined up in the parade with crews in costumes and large smiles. We were off to see the wizard and start our 800-mile tour and powered out the channel. By the time most of the fleet was just outside of Point Loma, the Grand Poobah informed us it was a rolling start and wished us all good luck in our cruise and fair winds. He and his crew were heading offshore in search of more breeze aboard Derive, while I was moving around the boat like a big dog locked in a small house, as the skipper turned off one engine and cut the boat RPMs by half. Killian laughed and said, “We are cruising Len and we have 320 miles to go and just enough fuel to make it at this speed.” I looked back out to sea and decided that our 5-knot VMG straight at the make made more sense than heading out 50 miles looking for wind.

The night was pitch black with every star in the universe looking down on us, with a light show of shooting stars racing across the sky by the minute. All 156 boats had their running lights and steaming lights on, and it looked like a long string of white lights reaching across the horizon behind us and in front of us. The white lights in front of us were the ones bothering me, and I kept wondering how they got so far in front. I am a strict believer in no alcohol while underway at sea, and each time I looked down at the chart plotter and noticed our 5 knots speed over ground, I would rub my face and felt like I was going through rehab.

I took a deep breath and convinced myself there were more lights behind us. By the time the rally had reached Cabo San Lucas, I realized that if I was racing, we would have turned around halfway through the first night. As I became one with the cruising lifestyle, I was pondering the thought that this was the 25th Ha Ha with more than 3,000 boats entering this cruise and 10,000 souls completing this pilgrimage.

This Poobah dude has done as much for our sport of boating, than Hobie Alter or Roger MacGregor. While in Cabo, I walked up to Richard Spindler, the Poobah himself, and asked for an interview. Spindler is constantly being surrounded by the cruisers and his volunteers with questions just as if he was working on the floor of a stock exchange during the rally. I was extremely surprised when he said “Yes, let’s meet at the party in a couple of hours and walk off to where it is quiet, whatever it takes.”

Spindler was born in Berkeley and went to school at UC Santa Barbara and UC Berkeley. “At first I was a surfer, then I developed a hole in my eardrum and it was recommended to me that I stay out of the water. Well, that really did not work for me, so I started sailing a Flying Dutchman in the estuary. The first time I saw God was when four of us took the Dutchman into the Bay while it was blowing 25 knots and the water was at 55 degrees. The mast broke when we flipped the boat.” Putting his head down and shaking it as if he was still counting his blessings. I never found out how they made it back to shore. He just said yep, clicked his head to the side and moved on to the next question.

Spindler has been very successful at observing things in the marine business, then tweaking them and making them better. He started with the “Sea of Cortez” sailing week and had 150 boats entered in 1982 which lasted for five years. “Then a Mexican fellow decided to commercialize it and it all went to pot. That’s what happened when I could only work one week into the event each year while running Lat. 38,” he said.

In 1990, Spindler had noticed the Long Beach Yacht Club’s cruise down Baja and felt that it was a little too complex for the vast majority of the cruisers. “What was needed, was the antithesis of a yacht club event. Cruisers do not need a large formal dinner banquet or race committee at a finish line. Just keep it simple, with a few rules, yet keep it safe,” he said. It also helped to have the largest distribution of any other sailing magazine on the planet and Spindler sold the event from his heart. “My whole thing in life is to watch people have fun with their boats,” he said. I have been selling in the marine industry for 28 years, and I’ve admired and respected his love for our sport.

On the Harbor Sailing down the coast Grand Poobah

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The Grand Poobah Richard Spindler at the Turtle Bay softball game

When I asked Spindler what was his favorite part of the rally, he replied, “Love the party on the Bahia Santa Maria hill...it’s so surreal. The fabulous sailing moments and all the people using their boats. I’m very, very proud of the Ha Ha.”

Another feature to the Ha Ha that sticks in your mind is the VHF & SSB Net or broadcasts that occur throughout the day. How Spindler keeps his cool through all the traffic is beyond me, while orchestrating the organizational part of the broadcast. While in Turtle Bay, a cruiser asked if he should buy fuel there. In his typically blunt yet good-natured style, he replied, “Well I am not sure how to answer that, do you need fuel? There are not a lot of choices here, I’m not sure how to answer this.” Another one was this lady with a deep Norwegian accent that came on the radio, with panic in her voice, to find out where everyone had gone on the second night. “Ha Ha cruise. Ha Ha cruise, where did everyone go? I didn’t see anyone on my A.I.S., so what happened? Where is everyone? Over.” Fortunately, a voice came down from the stars and calmed the panicked boater by explaining how the fleet spreads out and your A.I.S only goes out so many miles. My favorite was an elderly voice asking the Poobah if she can bring the dog to the beach. The Poobah replied that there really is no enforcement on the beach, and if she kept the dog on a leash and it didn’t bite anyone it would be okay. In which she replied, “He’s an old dog and doesn’t have any teeth.” The Poobah came back with a deep laugh and said, “It kind of sounds like me; we should be fine on the beach.” The radio net is a huge part of this rally that gives people a source of insurance that’s easy to understand and comforting enough to sleep through the night after a problem is solved.

When asked why boaters should do the Ha Ha? Spindler said that there is safety in numbers, yet the bottom line is to have fun with your boat.

I then asked how he replies to the questions of safety in Mexico? “You have people that do the Ha Ha that tell me they feel safer in Mexico than many of our inner cities. Mexican people are so nice and so warm, yes, there are troubled places, but we know where they are.”

How does the rally help the locals? “We don’t change their lives, but I have such good friends watching the kids grow up in Turtle Bay and Mag Bay that I meet for one or two days for the last 25 years. Those big burly guys running the pongas, we have known them from when they were in diapers and they know we have known them since then. It’s just really special. It’s kind of like New Year’s Day or the Fourth of July for them.”

Spindler sells boating better than anyone I have ever met, and if you’ve never cruised Mexico, sign up for the Baja Ha Ha next year. Power and sailboats are welcome, and then you can say you did it. It’s a memory you will keep for as long as you live. Have fun, enjoy your boat and check out of the rat race. I strongly recommend it! Also, should this story make it to someone from the National Sailing Hall of Fame, I nominate Richard Spindler for the class of 2019. In my opinion, he has earned the recognition.

Sea ya 


Len Bose is a yachting enthusiast, yacht broker and harbor columnist for StuNewsNewport.