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Careers on the water

Marine forecaster: keep an eye over the horizon

By Jim Flannery / Senior Writer

Ken Campbell always wanted to be a weather forecaster, and he has always enjoyed the adrenalin rush of sports competition. One of the biggest thrills of his career was calling the weather for Peter Gilmour during the 2002-03 Louis Vuitton Cup, the run-up to the America’s Cup, off Auckland, New Zealand.

Salary range: $30,000 to start with a Bachelor of Science, $60,000 to $100,000 with graduate degree
Future employment prospects: tough market
Training and education: graduate degree in meteorology
For information: American Meteorological Society, Boston. Phone: (617) 227-2425. www.ametsoc.org

“I really like the starts of America’s Cup races,” says Campbell, 53, a partner in Commander’s Weather, a marine forecasting service in Nashua, N.H.

Using computer analyses of wind and other data gathered by an onshore weather station and five weather boats, Campbell updated wind forecasts for Gilmour as the races unfolded. More than a forecaster, he also advised the skipper of OneWorld Challenge on how to come off the start line and how long to hold a tack. Working from a weather boat, he assessed course conditions and helped make decisions. “It’s very stressful, but also a lot of fun,” he says.

Campbell, an alumnus of the pioneering private forecasting firm Weather Services Corp., and seven other meteorologists customize forecasts for racers and cruisers, yacht clubs and race committees. Their clients are a who’s-who of yachting: solo sailor and around-the-world record-holder Ellen MacArthur; the late Steve Fossett, who broke the trans-Atlantic sailing record in 2001 on PlayStation; and ocean racer Assa Abloy, runner-up in the 2002 Volvo Ocean Race. This summer, Campbell will be at the Olympics in Qingdao, China, calling the weather for the British Olympic sailing team.

But his clients aren’t all high-profile. Family cruisers also use his services. He tells them when it’s a good time for casting off, gives them a five- to eight-day forecast, offers routing suggestions, and updates forecasts as storms threaten.

Campbell and his meteorologists normally forecast from their Nashua offices, where they tap into data from satellites, national weather services and weather stations worldwide. He tries to keep staff on a 5 a.m. to 5 p.m. schedule, but on one recent day he went into the office at 11 p.m. to author three forecasts by midnight and another four by 7 a.m. for clients racing in Europe that day.

Campbell, who holds a master’s degree in meteorology from Florida State University, says the road to where he is now was a long and bumpy one. The academic training is very math-intensive, very theoretical and very tough. Of the 75 or so students who started with him as undergraduate meteorology majors, 20 graduated in their discipline. “There’s pretty heavy attrition,” he says.

He entered the workforce in 1979 at an annual salary of $10,600, and 18 years later he was earning annual pay of $24,000. Today, as a partner in his own business, he makes more than $100,000, but Campbell says that’s unusual. There aren’t that many openings in the field, and most private marine forecasters like himself are self-employed as singletons. He receives 150 resumes a year, most from applicants who can’t find work.

For the specialized, volume work that Commander’s does (more than 5,000 clients), Campbell hires only meteorologists with experience. Campbell is not a sailor, but he has learned enough about sailing to give his sailing clients the forecasts and tactical advice they are looking for.

Like the weather, every day at Commander’s is different, and that’s a two-edged sword. Campbell says it makes work interesting — but also stressful.




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