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Weather for hire

Jan 1, 2003
From Ocean Navigator #99
July/August 1999
One solution to the problem of dealing with weather when voyaging is to contract with a professional weather-routing service. Depending on the type of information package you purchase, you can get simple or detailed weather recommendations to help you decipher weather on your trip.

A warm eddy north of the Gulf Stream. This type of imagery is easily available on the Web, but do you know how to interpret it?
   Image Credit: Courtesy NOAA

A variety of companies provide this service. Picking the best one will, to some extent, be a matter of finding the operation that best suits your needs and budget.

The offices of these weather-routing forms are surprisingly simple. They are not temples to technology, rather they pay homage to information. Certainly they have a few computers scattered about, a fax machine, and a few printers. Maybe there's a satellite dish or two so information can be constantly streamed into the office. But much of the necessary data can be secured on the Internet now, or through weather-data wholesalers like Weather Services International (WSI). Infrared satellite imagery of the Gulf Stream, National Weather Service (NWS) marine forecasts, microwave satellite imagery providing near-real-time analysis of wind speeds around the world, five-day and longer forecast models: this information is all available on the Web for anyone to use.

If you can get into the Web, you can pull in your own raw data. Would you like to know what the wind speed was within the last hour or two in any location of the world's oceans? Pull up the derived ocean surface winds at: manati.wwb.noaa.gov/doc.ssmiwinds.html. The microwave imagery from low-Earth-orbiting satellites detects, records, and relays information about surface winds speed. Would you like to correlate that information with actual buoy data? The National Data Buoy Center can be accessed at: seaboard.ndbc.noaa.gov or Florida State's site at: www.nws.fsu.edu/buoy/. If you're interested in remote sensing information on the Gulf Stream, check out Johns Hopkins Ocean Remote Sensing site at: fermi.jhuapl.edu. There you will find the most recent high-resolution infrared satellite imagery as well as composite pictures and archived images of the Gulf Stream and other ocean areas. Some of the actual weather forecast models are even available. The weatherfaxes that are broadcast over HF radio can be accessed over the Web at: weather.noaa.gov/fax/marine.shtml. These sites are only a few of the better sites available.

Can't download experience What's not waiting for you on the Web is many years of experience analyzing that data and providing you with specific answers and solutions to your specific problems. As any voyager who has dealt with weather knows, just because you can get your hands on the raw data doesn't mean you'll be able to use it in an effective way. That's where weather-routing folks come in.

There are a handful of these custom marine forecasters around the world. Bob Rice's Weather Window, Ken McKinley's Locus Weather, and Commanders Weather are a few of the better known in the U.S. They provide a wide range of services for an equally varied client base. The best firms are hired early to consult for America's Cup campaigns, Whitbread Round the World races, or Admiral's Cup programs. You may spot their forecasts around the races in Key West or the TransPac. They'll provide detailed, informed guidance to sailors in the South China Sea and the Great Lakes. And they'll do it for people on dinghies, 120-foot multihulls, or anything in between. Their services aren't limited to sailboats. Commanders Weather has supplied weather information to Queen Elizabeth II and guided 150-foot motor yachts from Europe to Asia. They are now providing all of the weather information to the Around Alone fleet as the singlehanded sailors race around the world.

Forecasts from Weather Window and Commanders Weather are provided in three different formats. First, the information is written out in text format, explaining the various weather systems and how they are expected to evolve over the following five days. The text is augmented with a clear numerical analysis. For a boat moving along a route, the vessel is provided with wind speed, wind direction, and other relevant information in 12- or 24-hour forecast intervals for its expected location along a path towards its destination. And, finally, the information is presented graphically in a series of weather forecast maps for each of the four or five days of the forecast period. Clients are encouraged to call for further explanation if necessary, so there is a knowledgeable individual to address the unique concerns the client may have.

For many of these firms the day's first batch of Atlantic Ocean forecasts are started around 0400 EST as the first run of data begins to filter in. Observations are noted with wind speed, wind direction, and barometric pressure being among the most important pieces of information. From that data, the meteorologists create their own surface analysis charts, interpolating the isobars from the data available. When they have a clear understanding of the current situation, they begin to draw their own conclusions about the forecast weather based on 500-millibar charts, computer-generated models from a variety of sources, satellite atmospheric and oceanographic data, and other available information. Their goal is to add more refinement and critical analysis to the computer-generated models and subjectively add value to those products based on years of experience. The ability to accurately forecast weather in remote areas moves beyond the marine environmentfar beyond. Ken Campbell of Commanders Weather did his master's thesis in meteorology decades ago on forecasting weather on Mars. Since then he has come back to Earth and provides a wide range of services around the world, including Nippon Challenge's America's Cup efforts and forecasting for ski areas and industrial applications for utilities. Bob Rice, specializing more on single projects, has assisted in a number of global balloon attempts as well as the multihull Enza's record-breaking circumnavigation, Team New Zealand's successful America's Cup bid, and the successful 1994 American ascent of Mount Everest.

Vessel knowledge useful The expertise of these weather specialists lies not only in their understanding of remote environments in general and the marine environment in particular, but also in an understanding of what various kinds of craft can do. Knowing the performance characteristics of different kinds of sailing craft is a huge benefit for both the forecaster and the sailing client. The individuals at the above-mentioned companies have been working with sailors and other mariners for decades. They understand what sailboats can and cannot do as well as how long it takes to get out of the way of a storm or how long it takes to get to the north wall of the Gulf Stream. When should you leave Maine in November heading to the Caribbean? The knowledgeable router will try to get you south of the north wall of the Gulf Stream before the next cold front comes across, dumping 45 knot winds on the warm water. Timing is everything, and an experienced marine forecaster and router understands that.

Many meteorologists understand the solution to the question "What is the weather going to do?" But they don't all understand the problems inherent with being offshore. One without the other is of minimal value in making critical decisions.

The information provided to the client in the private sector depends on what the client needs and wants rather than what the forecasting agency has scheduled for distribution. The Marine Branch of NWS is doing a fine job creating forecasts for the public. But by the very nature of their mission, they provide somewhat generalized information suitable for mass consumption. As taxpayers we wouldn't want it any other way.

However, the information needs of a fleet of bulk carriers on the Great Lakes is different from those of a fleet of sailors racing off Key West. And the information needed by a day-racing fleet is different from the information needed by a delivery skipper taking a vessel to the Mediterranean. Timing wind shifts throughout the day, when the next front is blowing through, and how severe that front will be has varying implications for different clients. What may be critically important to one may be of minimal interest to another. Custom forecasters can address those issues and interests and apprise a client of the most important considerations. The client is able to minimize the risks and maximize the benefits most relevant to his or her own particular circumstances.

Services provided to voyagers and delivery skippers include go/no go suggestions and routing discussions to help select the course most appropriate for safety, type of vessel, and other considerations the captain and owner may have.Weather information can be transmitted to the sailor, vessel, or home office by whatever means are available to the client. For land-based operations, fax and phone are the most common means of transmission. Costs are relatively low, and fax allows for the transmission of weather charts. E-mail, of course, is also a possibility. Some companies are more advanced than others in the transmission of graphics by e-mail. Those basic services open up the ability to communicate by HF radio through a coastal radio station for voice or telex communication, via PinOak Digital's e-mail system, or by satellite communication through a commercial Earth station and an Inmarsat signatory such as Comsat.

One of the most interesting recent developments in weather information transmission has taken place with the Around Alone yacht race. Forecasts are created by the meteorologists at Commanders Weather. Then the forecast charts are converted into GRIB format, a digital set of data points that allows for graphical representation in a grid pattern overlay on a digital chart. The GRIB files are only about 5 K in size, allowing for relatively fast and inexpensive transmission over Comsat's Standard C satellite system or any other system that allows for digital transmission of information. When the information has been received, KiwiTech software on board the vessel allows the data to be plotted over Navionics or Maptech electronic charts as a scaled overlay. Barbed arrows indicate wind speed and direction. Isobars, sea temp, current, and other variables can be displayed, and the weather can be animated over the duration of the forecast period. The software can perform a wide range of additional functions such as route optimization, instrument monitoring, and fleet tracking, to name a few. The route optimization is based on vessel performance characteristics and the digitized weather variables presented in GRIB format.

Naturally, there is a cost associated with these services. But such custom services can be surprisingly inexpensive. Transoceanic delivery packages cost between $200 and $250 and include routing suggestions as well as several phone consultations while the vessel is at sea. Communications charges are not included.

Consider for a moment what weather-related damage can cost. Custom weather forecasting could very well be the perfect example to prove the saying: An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.

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