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Sea Savvy - Weather the greatest show on earth

Don’t be fooled by the antics of perky TV weather anchors.

There is plenty of good information out there for those who know where to look

Don’t be fooled by the antics of perky TV weather anchors.

There is plenty of good information out there for those who know where to look

It killed at least six people at sea — maybe more. It killed at least 11 people on shore — so far as we know. And at first almost nobody expected it. They were applying rules to hurricanes. They were using computer models and looking at past performances. But they weren’t feeling it.

I was sailing in the British Virgin Islands in November 1999, involved with a group of charter boats full of people who’d come from as far away as Europe to have a good time in the Caribbean. Lenny had formed far to the west. The storm had taken a decently long time to form, giving warning as a low that just wouldn’t go away.

“No problem,” people said. “Hurricanes move from east to west. And if they don’t, they curl up nor’easterly. They don’t go backward.”

But they weren’t feeling what was happening. You could sense something when you watched the sea. You could sense something from the atypical winds and clouds and the unusual squalls. You could sense something from the thickness of the air. It didn’t feel right, and when something doesn’t feel right, you pay attention.

I started telling people what I was feeling and that we should plan for hurricane conditions. That meant getting boats back to port and getting people back home while planes were still flying. It took a while for the realization to set in, but finally it did.

Hurricane Lenny kept on trucking easterly and eventually passed just to the south of the British Virgin Islands, smashing into Saint Martin and other nearby islands. For a short while, gusts were reported at Category 5 strength. The charterers got out on the last flights from Tortola. There was no room on the plane for me, but I was lucky to find shelter on the island in a private home with many other people. It was one of those situations where a good friend knew a good friend, and friends help out. A few hours into the storm we had a rock slide. Soon we could only get water from the swimming pool. Power and most communications were gone. We were very lucky. Elsewhere, Lenny was killing people.

Some weather forecasters had been giving warnings for several days. There are people who have a passion for the weather and dedicate their lives to studying it up close and personal. They look not only at overall patterns and historical data but also at what’s happening at this spot, that spot, and the other. They get reports from boats on scene and mix that into the forecasting brew. Some of these people have paying clients and some simply volunteer services over the single sideband radio. They do this because they are fascinated with the weather and because they care about what can happen to people when things go bad. They care because they’ve been out there themselves.

The “Hurricane Lurch”

And then there are those weather people who spend most of their time inside a TV studio. You’ve seen their pretty faces. Dangerous weather can be good business. It can increase ratings. So the pretty people from television put on their designer foul weather gear and flock to the beaches for what I call, the “Hurricane Lurch.”

Well before the winds come, they talk anxiously about what’s waiting beyond the ripples at the water’s edge. They take the obligatory swipes at the surfers who “shouldn’t be there,” we’re told, as they gracefully ride the break. Then the wind pipes up. Whether it’s the evening onshore breeze or something more sinister, the camera operators start looking for flags flapping, palm fronds waving, or, if they’re lucky, a stop light swinging over an intersection.

The pretty voices raise a notch or two, and the reporters start leaning into the wind. Soon, they begin the Hurricane Lurch. They do whatever they can before the camera to appear as though they can hardly stand against the wind. Sometimes that’s actually the case. When it is, they ought not to be there. You don’t need another lurching pretty face to demonstrate that you can’t stand up against a hurricane. Other times, the wind’s not that bad but they lurch anyway.

The picture shifts to canned footage of a sailboat somewhere tugging on a mooring. Then a pretty face ducking a palm branch. On one “report” I was watching a few years ago, I truly believe that the palm branch had been thrown by a member of the crew. Yet hundreds of thousands of people turn to these “weather forecasts” for information.

There are some great television meteorologists out there — don’t get me wrong — and we owe them immensely for doing a good job. But they are outnumbered by the pretty lurchers.

Weather is serious enough on land. On water, it’s everything. Obtaining good weather information without hype is of life-and-death importance. Good weather information isn’t about bad hair days. It’s so much more. On Chez Nous we use whatever sources we can for information.

Getting good forecasts

As we travel along the coast, we occasionally find a strong local television news meteorologist. We remember to tune in to these people as we reach their area of broadcast. But too often, local stations are telling you what you can learn by looking out the window. Do they really think we don’t have enough sense to know, without being told by them, whether to wear a jacket or raincoat as we go to work?

Good forecasts should include detailed graphics depicting systems across the country, both in real time and projected as radar loops. They should include an intelligent discussion of the systems that are or will be affecting your area, what they might cause and why. Varying scenarios and conflicting theories should be discussed. To say that it’ll be raining the day after tomorrow without talking about the low pressure system or cold front that will cause that rain is to leave out most of the picture.

Learning the weather

Weather is one of the most fascinating things on the planet. Figuring out what it’s going to do is a combination of theory, history and analyzing facts. The facts range from huge systems in motion sometimes a continent or ocean away, to mundane on-the-scene occurrences such as temperature, humidity and even currents in the water. Putting it all together is a matter of science, thorough observation, study of past causes and effects, instinct and even art. When we “get it right,” the consequences are often unnoticed. When we “get it wrong,” we can find ourselves in big trouble.

For people ashore, weather is seldom that big a deal unless it involves dangerous phenomena such as hurricanes, blizzards or tornadoes. We on the water are in a tiny minority compared to the rest of the population. Because of that, we have to go the extra mile to get the information we need about weather, and we must be savvier. The more we know about the weather, the safer we’ll be. The great thing about it all is that the learning is fascinating. It makes good reading and it’s not something learned in the abstract. As you learn, you can follow it from one exciting show to the next. There’s never an intermission.

It helps to start by reading some good books on the weather. We’ve found “Coastal and Offshore Weather, the Essential Handbook,” by Chris Parker, to be helpful. Other solid resources are:

• “The Concise Guide to Caribbean Weather, Second Edition,” by David Jones

• “The Cruiser’s Guide to Hurricane Survival,” by Bradley Glidden

• “Weather Predicting Simplified,” by Michael Carr

• “Mariner’s Weather Handbook,” by Steve and Linda Dashew

• “Sailor’s Weather Guide,” by Jeff Markell

These are all available at Bluewater Books and Charts and Armchair Sailor,, (800) 942-2583.

Gathering data

Learning the theory is important, but so is getting relevant information. The broadcasters who try hard to be cute seldom seem to have time for good forecasting. As I write this we’re traveling south down Florida’s east coast. By tomorrow evening winds are supposed to be northwest clocking to northeast 20 to 30, gusting to gale force, because of a cold front with repeat pulsations of high pressure. I watched a local forecast this morning during which the pretty face said a front was coming but that it would only drop the daytime highs around 10 degrees — and then she switched to a “weather baby” photo. Because of this type of television broadcast we always rely on other sources. Even if there is a good television forecast, it’s good to check out other opinions and look beyond the TV screen.

In the old days, we would spend hours getting weatherfaxes on SSB radio, and we considered this somewhat rough form of information to be a godsend. Now we download weather maps and forecasts from the Internet. Even offshore, we can get all the data we want in a variety of formats. We can even get information far out at sea through the Internet by satellite, SSB or ham radio (with the latter requiring a license). Closer in, we can get it from the Internet by cell phone if we are close enough to a tower transmitting data. “Close enough” can be up to 30 miles out with boosters and antennas by Digital Antenna — , (877) 433-7007 — and others.

Data available

The data you can download to your boat is staggering. It includes weather maps showing systems in current and projected times; (almost) real-time satellite photos of the earth; radar of narrowly defined locations as well as hemispheric coverage; real and future time wind direction and strength; real and future time wave heights; sea buoy data (both on scene and “virtual,” check out ); and in-depth text discussions by professional meteorologists, including those from NOAA and the National Hurricane Center. See for a list of marine weather products and other information available from NOAA. Here are other sites that are helpful: lists specific forecast text products for marine weather: high seas, offshore, NAVTEX, coastal, etc. offers OceanPredictionCenter products (surface maps, wave analysis, loops). gives local weather. We use it for animated radar regionally in the United States, especially for tracking storms. is the NationalDataBuoyCenter. is the NationalHurricaneCenter. is the National Weather Service. offers general and very specific weather information.

When close to shore, we listen, usually three times a day, to the VHF NOAA weather channels. But some of these deliver, in my opinion, poor discussions. We also download text discussions from some of the sources listed here. These should be based on multiple models and comment on conflicting models. We prefer to gather several to see if there are conflicting opinions. The fact that there are different opinions doesn’t mean someone is doing a poor job. It’s simply an indication of the complexity of weather. We always check out NOAA National Weather Service text discussions ( when we’re trying to determine what’s going to happen.

You can also subscribe to professional services to give you forecasts specific to your location and your plans. Staff will discuss the weather with you by SSB, satellite phone or e-mail. (For an example, check Chris Parker’s Marine Weather and Communications, , for the East Coast and Caribbean.) This type of service also enables the professionals to collect your on-scene observations, which may be different from what had been expected and may, in turn, help them better understand what’s going on.

Offshore, where we are not able to spend time surfing weather sites, we use Ocens weather products ( ). With its WeatherNet software, we choose only the products we want (many from the above NOAA sites) for the geographical area we need, then download these directly through whatever wireless connection is available. (We have used GlobalStar satellite phone, available for rental from Ocens and others.) The WeatherNet files are compressed, so even when using a satellite phone, time for downloads to the computer is minimal.

Many offshore cruisers now rely on GRIB files (gridded binary data, output files generated by computer forecasting models) downloaded from various sources, such as Ocens or Global Marine Networks ( ). These files are small (for quick download) in relation to the huge amount of information they contain. GRIB files require a GRIB viewer (the GRIB Explorer from Ocens or WindPlot from Xaxero, for example) to view the products.

Voice reports

Those who don’t have the equipment to collect text and other downloaded data can still listen to the NOAA High Seas and Offshore forecasts on SSB. In years past, Coast Guard NMN in Chesapeake, Va., was our main source of discursive forecasting while out in the islands or at sea (see for current SSB HF voice schedule). However, even that requires some learning.

Ashore we grow accustomed to forecasters talking about storms or systems moving over states or cities or from one county to another. The High Seas and Offshore forecasts refer instead to huge areas of ocean defined by latitude and longitude. If you’re listening to the Perfect Paul computer voice (or even to a real person) as it reads a complex report, you could easily miss important information as you try to visualize the geographical areas covered.

We and others developed the habit of recording these broadcasts on a small cassette player and then replaying them, stopping when needed, with a lat/long chart spread before us (usually of the entire northern Atlantic, or at least the southwest North Atlantic and Caribbean). Ours was a hurricane tracking chart that we had laminated and red-marked off into the forecast quadrants so that we could see exactly where systems were expected to move. Even after we became familiar with this process, we still often used the recorder. Some professional forecasters will contact you each day on the SSB or by other media to discuss your specific situation.

For years, boaters cruising offshore or planning a passage have been tuning in each afternoon to Herb Hilgenberg, who formerly cruised on his boat, South Bound II. He generously helps offshore boaters with regular SSB weather discussions related to areas and often specific boats. Check .

Sometimes SSB transmissions are interrupted by static or crew aboard other vessels talking when they shouldn’t. Sometimes solar disturbances interfere with the transmissions. That’s why we love today’s technology: It offers alternatives in collecting weather data.

Look out the hatch

Figuring out what’s going to be happening where you are doesn’t stop with the forecasts, fancy equipment and tons of data. You’ve got to add local knowledge and observation to the mix. Always pay attention to what’s happening around you with the weather. In my September 2006 Sea Savvy (“Lessons learned from a life on boats”), I described our experience one spring as we headed up the East Coast offshore. A low-pressure system formed just ahead of us. Even as the winds blew, rain fell and lightning bolts zapped the air, the Perfect Paul voice of the NOAA VHF forecast was saying that all was well. We finally got a Coast Guardsman, far to the north, to look out the window and tell us what he was seeing, confirming a sneak attack by a subtropical low that no one had called.

Also, familiarize yourself with local features that may cause deviations in the generalized forecasts. Some years ago we were in Morehead City, N.C., awaiting a strong cold front. On another boat, a solo sailor was feverishly preparing to depart. He’d read some books and magazines, and was going to follow an oft-discussed plan.

It certainly made sense — but not if you factored in local knowledge. He’d wait until it blew through and then take off and “ride the front” down to the Caribbean. He wasn’t taking into consideration the weather forces that come into play in that part of the world when cold winter air sweeps over the warm Gulf Stream.

He left with about 25 knots of northerly breeze upon which to “ride south.” But the front formed a low, and the cold winds and seas kept building. We listened to the VHF as he called for help. He told the Coast Guard that he was lashing himself to the pedestal. That’s the last we heard from him. It was later reported that he died that night.

The greatest show on earth

Learning about the weather and studying it daily does more than just help to keep you safe. It can provide unequaled entertainment on an order that no playwright, novelist or producer could ever dream of. Whatever is happening in your little piece of the world is a part of a huge drama of equally huge forces whirling and moving around the face of the earth. The players are complex and the relationships between them result from a seemingly unlimited set of dynamic variables. These include not only forces of global significance but also things that are going on within the few miles around your boat. There is frequently high mystery as to which of the titanic forces will win and what the consequences will be.

As I watch weather systems develop and move across the continents and the oceans, I am fascinated by and in awe of nature. If I were ashore I’d still feel humbled, but out on the water I know that despite the best rescue assets that our government can muster, we can quickly be overwhelmed if these systems spin out of control.

The more we understand about the weather, the more exciting it makes this waltz of the titans. On your boat you have a ringside seat to the greatest show on earth. Enjoy. And be safe.

Tom Neale is technical editor for Soundings and lives aboard a Gulfstar 53 motorsailer. You can buy his book, “All in the Same Boat,” at