Weather or Not
Modern communications and digital data technology make it easier than ever for bluewater sailors to tap into sophisticated weather products while voyaging offshore. With an HF radio, e-mail or sat-phone connection, amateur navigators can now import computer-generated weather data into sophisticated computer programs that project a vessel’s progress across electronic charts overlaid with detailed wind-gradient graphics. Tools like this make picking out the fastest and/or most comfortable route to a destination seem as simple as playing a video game.
Of course, the reality is rarely that easy, which is why even the most sophisticated offshore racing navigators always want input from trained meteorologists when plotting their next move. But can such advice also be useful for poke-along cruisers like me who just want to get where they’re going safely? To find out I sought guidance from a professional weather-router when I sailed my Tanton 39 cutter Lunacy south from Portsmouth, New Hampshire, to the West Indies last November.
Education of a Luddite
Confession number one: I am nowhere near the cutting edge when it comes to accessing weather data at sea. Fifteen years ago, while knocking around the North Atlantic on an old Alberg 35, I bummed synoptic charts off wealthier cruisers with weather- fax receivers to pick departure windows, then listened to NOAA and French Meteo voice broadcasts on a portable SSB receiver while at sea.
Since then I’ve crewed on yachts with satellite domes and fancy navigation computers and have had the odd chance to play with modern weather-routing software. But on Lunacy things are still pretty basic. For long-range communications I carry a handheld Iridium satellite phone. For weather info at sea I usually call up my buddy Phil back in Portsmouth and ask him to tell me what he sees on PassageWeather.com, a useful global marine weather website that publishes free weather data gleaned from a portfolio of hand-picked computer weather models.
For professional advice on this latest voyage south, I got in touch with Rick Shema, a retired U.S. Navy meteorologist and oceanographer who now runs Weatherguy.com, a private weather consulting service based in Hawaii. Rick advises all manner of clients, including private expeditions and commercial shipping operations. He estimates that 30 to 40 percent of his customers are racing and cruising sailors.
My original intention was to depart Portsmouth for Bermuda on Sunday, November 1, so I had Rick prepare a departure report for a passage starting on that date, despite his warning that a low-pressure cell forming off Cape Hatteras would likely track over us as we cleared the southeast end of Cape Cod. The departure report included a text weather synopsis featuring such choice phrases as “cold front stalls over your track and coincidentally over the Gulf Stream;” there were also recommended courses to sail for five days, with detailed wind and sea state forecasts, and wind gradient and Gulf Stream charts.
Faced with both Rick’s gloomy prognosis and a newly published NOAA forecast chart that showed the Hatteras low deepening dramatically as it passed New England, I decided on Sunday morning to postpone my departure for 24 hours. Rick had hoped an attractive window might then present itself, but when we talked Sunday evening he was again pessimistic. Where the current NOAA forecast predicted that the low we were waiting for would zoom out of the way, Rick felt it might instead stall and get deeper. The next morning, his prognosis shifted again but was still pessimistic. He now believed the current low would not stall, but that a new low might form right over us as we approached Bermuda, with potential storm-force winds of 50 to 60 knots.
This put me in a bind. The first 24-hour delay I would have made with or without Rick’s advice. But a further delay of perhaps several days would never have occurred to me. The NOAA charts gave little hint of trouble that far out, and the PassageWeather charts looked great. To my untutored mind a Monday departure looked pretty safe. But did I really want to take a chance that Rick was wrong?
Paths not taken
In the end I punted. I didn’t sail for Bermuda, but I didn’t stay put either. With one crewmember already aboard, I sailed inside through the Cape Cod Canal from New Hampshire to Newport, Rhode Island, and at least made some progress while waiting for a better departure window. We arrived in Newport late Tuesday night, and the next morning met one boat, Nelleke, a Canadian ketch that had departed for Bermuda on Sunday morning. She’d tangled with the first low we’d been worried about, got her sails shredded and had retreated back to Newport.
I had Rick prepare a new report for a departure on Saturday, November 7, and arranged to have our extra crewmember join the boat Friday night. The prognosis for a passage to Bermuda was now much better, with the immediate problem no longer too much wind, but not enough of it. We did a lot of motoring after leaving Newport Saturday afternoon, and on Rick’s advice set a course well east of our rhumbline in anticipation of a strong easterly wind that he expected would fill in as we approached Bermuda. The PassageWeather charts showed the same thing, but predicted lighter easterly winds (maximum 20 knots) than Rick (maximum 35 knots). interestingly, while Rick expected the wind to eventually back to the northeast, which would allow us to ease sheets on our final approach, Pas- sageWeather predicted the wind would stay more easterly, which meant much tighter sailing angles.
I assumed a worst-case scenario—Rick’s wind speed and PassageWeather’s wind direction—and so spent much more time than I otherwise would have motorsailing on a course up to 20 degrees east of our rhumbline after the wind started filling from the southeast late on Monday night. This paid off in spades, as the worst case was exactly what we got. By sunrise on Wednesday it was blowing up to 32 knots from slightly south of east and stayed there all day until we reached Bermuda. Thanks to the extra easting we got in, we were just able to lay the island without tacking.
In St. George’s we met a 52-foot steel cutter named Cha Cha that apparently had been caught in the 50-knot gale Rick was worried about the week before. She saw maximum winds to 58 knots, lost her headsail, mainsail and engine, and ultimately had to be towed into Bermuda. Another gale victim, Idunn, a motorsailer also from New Hampshire, had her saloon windows blown out.
On the next leg south from Bermuda to St. Martin, the one significant feature we had to worry about was the extratropical remnant of Hurricane Ida, which had moseyed east out of the Gulf of Mexico and was now a weak but very large low-pressure cell that seemed to have permanently stalled south of Bermuda. It had blocked the easterly flow of the tradewinds all the way down to the West Indies and promised to make the next part of our passage a slow, tedious affair.
Rick’s advice for this leg was less critical than on the previous one, but it still had a significant impact on how things played out. On the third day of the passage (Tues- day, November 17) he became worried that the anomalous, unpredictable low south of us might suddenly deepen and destabilize. Again, the PassageWeather charts gave no hint of any problem, but Rick’s immediate advice was, in effect, to stop going south— precisely the direction we wanted to go. He said this would be especially important if the wind started blowing hard from the northeast—precisely the breeze that would have helped us to get south the most.
Though I chafed at the notion, we changed course and spent more than a day sailing directly east. The low never did deepen as Rick feared, but the extra easting was useful in the end. As we approached St. Martin almost a week later, I again spent about 20 hours motorsailing when I wouldn’t have otherwise so as not to lose easting before hitting a strong easterly that Rick predicted would finally appear on our last day out. The PassageWeather prediction, amazingly, called for northwest winds instead. This seemed unlikely, so I put my faith in Rick and was not disappointed. The extra easting from before, plus all the motorsailing, made it possible to lay St. Martin easily when, at last, the trades filled in.
In the final analysis, Rick had a huge positive impact on our experience. Though we ended up losing almost a whole week waiting on weather before striking out on the first leg of our trip, this probably saved us from being caught in the ugly gale that mangled Cha Cha and Idunn. Our actual transit times, I am confident, were faster than they would have been without Rick’s advice. On the downside, we ran our engine much more than we otherwise would have. I estimate we had almost 40 extra Rick-inspired engine hours, out of a total of about 120, by the time we reached St. Martin.
Another downside to having professional weather advice was that it caused me to worry a lot more. Better information certainly decreases your chance of getting caught out in uncomfortable or even dangerous conditions. But knowing you might get clobbered by a big breeze in two or three days makes it much harder to enjoy the mild breeze you are sailing in right now. The extra info also made the voyage less of an adventure, less of a dance with chance, and more of a clinical problem to be solved. Even so, I expect I will again be hiring a weather router for advice next time I go offshore.