Q&A: Cruising strategies

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Should I “ride a cold front down” when I’m sailing south along the East Coast in the fall?

I recommend against it, except in rare circumstances. In theory, you exit the inlet after the front passes, with the wind from the west. Supposedly, it’ll shift to the northwest and then clock to the northeast, having significantly diminished, so although you’ll have sloppy seas on your quarter, it won’t be bad. And if the nor’east picks up too much, you can always “duck into an inlet.”

If this happens it’s great, but often this plan results in disaster. The cold air sweeping off the coast collides with the warm air over the Gulf Stream. This creates weather that can be very difficult to forecast. The front often will hang up when it meets the stream, forming dangerous lows. These can result in strong, cold northeast winds and huge, breaking seas. Out in the stream, the seas tower and topple like giant skyscrapers in an earthquake as they meet the water rushing north against them.
If you stay close to the coast, much of the early course will be southwesterly. The west wind often funnels up along the coast, and you’ll be plowing close-hauled into head seas. If you make a straight course down, you’ll be bucking the stream and be even more vulnerable to forming storms and seas. You will probably be too far out to duck into an inlet, and many inlets are now dangerous from shoaling and breaking onshore seas. Even “big ship” inlets can be dangerous in bad onshore seas, especially on an outgoing tide. Being wet and in cold wind makes hypothermia another dangerous issue.
There are times when you can have a nice trip. But you, your crew and your boat must be up to the potential challenges, pick your weather very carefully, err on the side of caution and, with each indication of weather change, consider getting to safety.

This article originally appeared in the November 2011 issue.