Tools for Forecasting

Select the weather app that works best for you
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Choosing the right weather app, knowing how to use it and being constantly vigilant could keep you out of trouble.

Choosing the right weather app, knowing how to use it and being constantly vigilant could keep you out of trouble.

There are countless ways to monitor and predict weather online, but for some, wading through the many choices can be daunting. Are you a mariner who enjoys weather analysis and forecasting or the type who wants simple apps with colors and arrows? The key to getting concise user-friendly information is to fine-tune your own device to efficiently deliver the information you need.

Most recreational boaters use a laptop, tablet or smartphone, relying on Wi-Fi or cellular broadband signals. Hopefully, Wi-Fi is available for planning purposes before you depart. Once you’re underway, coastwise at least, you still have a fairly good chance of accessing weather apps and forecasting sites with cellular broadband.

Simple weather forecasting can be done using free apps, which offer straightforward weather research and computer forecasting models that reflect real observed data and/or idealized atmospheric conditions, but keep in mind that you get what you pay for. Premium services, or apps that are purchased, often provide more detailed and customized features without advertisements.

An app’s “about” section is useful to learn the sources of information. Try to use an app with a nearby reporting reference station. A reference station 100 miles away, or one influenced by topographical anomalies, will not match a coastal mariner’s area. Most free apps glean reporting from airports, computer models, weather balloons and personal weather reporters—that means volunteers.

Utilize the features to customize your app’s maps, switch units if desired, and generally make your presentation the best it can be for your own eye. Some people like colors and arrows. Some like numbers and letters. Once you start using a favorite app regularly and fine-tune it, you’ll get your go-to needs fulfilled quickly. Trying to decipher accurate information on a tiny smartphone screen is hard. I like apps on my iPhone for portability, but I do serious contemplations on my iPad or laptop.

Most mariners use a suite of different apps, particularly for toggling back and forth between rain and thundersquall radars. Some of the apps favored by mariners for radar include Storm Radar, the Weather Channel and Dark Sky. These have free future forecasting features. Other popular apps are WeatherBug, Weather Underground and Storm Tracker.

Wind apps get more specific. The Windfinder app allows the user to create a list of favorites, including home port or the nearest reporting station. It also lists the state of the tide, times of sunset and sunrise, the barometer and air temperature and wind direction/speed. It smoothly shifts from past and present conditions to a future view. PredictWind has a good future forecasting feature. Many users like the SailFlow and Windy apps. PocketGrib is my favorite wind app. I love stand-alone GRIB files. The user downloads wind information, which arrives on a customized map and it has a terrific future feature. The ability to match GRIB-file projections with the course ahead makes for confident planning, especially when you have to make the painful decision to find shelter or keep going.

Delivery captains, fishermen and passage-makers often use NOAA weather maps and text analysis to gather the big picture information and create their own forecasts. The NOAA site is jam-packed with information, but it can be a nightmare to navigate cold. Everyone fears getting sucked down the rabbit hole on the NOAA site, but if you take the time to customize a website page, you can rename it and bookmark it, or save it as a home screen icon.

Fishermen have their own specific needs. Many anglers like the website L-36.com because it provides text discussions, weather fax charts, satellite images, tide and current predictions, weather buoy reports and a live radar feed. Users can customize and save the settings so the site always opens to a customized locale and assigned interests. It has web links embedded, including handy non-weather links like AIS Marine Traffic. Best of all, this site has the ability to enter three different reporting zones in the user profile.

Granted, you might need a teenager to show you how to save a website to your home screen, but the more time and thought you put into the set up, the more you’ll get from each page.

On my iPad, I have several tried-and-true apps, plus an array of bookmarks. They include NWS text analysis for several zones, weather buoy observations, the National Hurricane Center, three-day national forecast charts and a detailed local forecast for home port. Most sailors I know have something similar, plus their own suite of favorite apps.

It’s important to constantly monitor the information displayed on your smart devices, but diligence is not always foolproof. If fast developing data isn’t transmitted to the reporting system, it won’t be presented on your device. Last summer I was supporting the captain of a charter yacht, simultaneously monitoring the direction of impending rain squalls with several apps. It looked like we dodged the bullet, as squalls appeared to pass to the north and south of us. When it looked clear on the precipitation radars, the captain started boarding the charter guests, who were all dressed for a summer cocktail party.

I left my screens for just a few minutes and suddenly got a call from the captain. “My app shows a new red and yellow blob almost over us,” she said. Our horizon in the harbor was blocked by a stand of tall trees, so I jumped in my car and sped over to the windward side of our island. A dark and slanted line squall marched toward me over the water, roiling up a wall of whitecaps. Lightning dashed down to complete the full effect.

I phoned the captain. “Get off the boat now!” I said. I sped back and turned into the dock just in time to see the crew and charter guests dashing across the lawn toward shelter, hats flying and summer dresses in need of a reef. When the wind wall slammed us and hailstones started beating on the porch roof, the guests were pumped. They were certain the captain was a prophet, and asked her how she knew that storm would happen. The captain mischievously pointed to her head and said, “Sometimes you just have to rely on your own personal radar.”

Weather apps are wonderfully convenient and a powerful resource to have in your pocket. Yet, we should remain on guard against a complete worship of technology. Just because you have a weather forecast doesn’t mean it’s 100 percent accurate. A weather forecast is a prediction—a highly educated guess. Listen to the VHF radio, too, and be alert to what others are reporting. And watch your surroundings. You may very well be the first to observe hyper-local conditions that haven’t yet been reported. 

This article was originally published in the October 2020 issue.

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