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A gathering of the pros

Apr 5, 2011

To the editor: Weather forecasting is both an art and a science, and sailors and power cruisers have become major consumers of a wide array of this crucial information. The three big weather questions we face are: 1) how much do you really need to know about atmospheric science, 2) what’s the best way to learn it, and 3) are there any other options? The answers to these questions and a handful of others were topics discussed by a group of meteorologists that gathered at the Annapolis School of Seamanship in Annapolis, Md., this past winter. The group — Lee Chesneau, Ken McKinley, Rick Shema, Dave Feit and myself — kicked off a long overdue dialog that’s of value to both professional and recreational mariners.

Chesneau is an enthusiastic ombudsman for professional weather training and an engaging author and lecturer who has made the case for more formal training. Chesneau’s meteorological career began in the Navy and segued into a career as a weather forecaster at the National Weather Service’s Ocean Prediction Center (OPC). He’s now freelancing and making a full court press to upgrade the curriculum content of marine weather training across the country. One of his favorite topics is the interaction between the mid-level flow in the atmosphere and the intensification of surface lows. In his courses he drives home this vertical interplay and delivers the goods when it comes to the implications of troughs, cut off lows and the influence on storm system intensity caused by surface currents, orographic effects and seasonal climate change. He looks at the anatomy of the atmosphere and looks closely at the basic players, highs, lows, warm and cold fronts. He includes a lesson in the energy transfer that takes place between warm and cold air mass, when they dance their pas-de-deux and twist an invisible air mass wave into a baroclinic low. Chesneau’s goal in his basic course is to teach attendees how to make effective use of all the offerings found in the OPC’s array of forecasts. In short, he encourages voyagers and racers to become amateur practitioners of the isobar art and to grow comfortable with their ability to use this data.

McKinley, the owner of Locus Weather, based in Camden, Maine, has for 20 years provided independent meteorological consulting work to commercial and recreational interests. A significant proportion of his effort goes into forecast services for ocean voyaging yachts worldwide. He’s a USCG certified instructor with gigs at the STAR Center in Dania Beach, Fla., MITAGS (a graduate school for commercial sailors) located in Maryland and the Maine Maritime Academy. He also pens articles for Ocean Navigator. McKinley joined the aforementioned gathering of experts via a Skype link, and voiced his support for the development of standards for both curriculum content and instructor certification.

McKinley is in many ways a biographer of Cape Hatteras storms. Having tracked jaw dropping low-pressure systems, watched them develop, intensify and raise havoc year round, he has a unique perspective on them. The Cape is a sand trap for sailboats, one that can pen a vessel between shoal water and the Gulf Stream with no harbor of refuge nearby. McKinley knows how quickly the weather window can slide shut and gives his clients a balanced perspective on risk at any given moment. In the end, however, the go/no go decision belongs to the skipper and the router’s role is as a valuable consultant. The skipper may caucus the crew, further query the router, or simply choose to flip a coin — but in the end, 100 percent of the responsibility for a safe voyage lies in his or her hands.

Shema has dual degrees in meteorology and oceanography, and he received the long trek award for coming all the way from Hawaii to join in the discussion. His background includes a career as a U.S. Navy meteorology officer prior to starting his consulting business. His website Weatherguy.com summarizes the services he provides to both commercial and recreational clients. The real value in concierge weather guidance is the fine-tuned feature of the products offered. In essence, these forecasts take into consideration your vessel’s capability in a variety of weather conditions, and your crew’s willingness to endure heavy weather.

Another perspective was added by Feit, a meteorologist and local Chesapeake Bay sailor who acted as an unofficial advocate of the OPC. Having recently retired after nearly 20 years as OPC’s chief of operations, he offered insight into what a guild of pro trainers/routers might look like, and what their service to recreational mariners might be. He too showed interest in the development of weather training standards for boaters and a means of identifying the criteria a trainer should possess. Feit holds a Bachelor’s Degree in physics and a Masters in atmospheric science.

The intent of the get together, as seen by John Martino, the owner of the Annapolis School of Seamanship, was to view the status quo and discuss the role of professional meteorologists in weather training and routing. Currently, Standards of Training, Certification and Watchkeeping (STCW) courses are mandated for commercial mariners, but like most recreational boater training, the weather/oceanography curriculum is left up to individual schools or seminar providers to shape. The result is a wide range of approaches ranging from physics lessons to sea stories, neither of which fully answers the needs of most boaters. Martino’s personal preference has been to engage subject matter experts and let these professionals share their wisdom with students. In the realm of weather training, this means a meteorologist, but among these pros there’s a distinct variation between terrestrial and marine practitioners. The value of having small craft awareness can’t be overstated.

Acting as the devils advocate, I alluded to a trans-Atlantic I sailed aboard a 60-foot sloop with a crew of U.S. Naval Academy midshipmen. A progression of lows marched along our route and our weather router confirmed what we saw on the fax charts. During one nasty gale the router told us to sail south two degrees in order to get into less volatile conditions. With the wind out of the south and blowing 45 to 50 knots, and seas equally as cantankerous, the prospect of beating in the wrong direction for 120 miles was both unappealing and impossible. The fact that our well-built, stoutly-rigged sloop was behaving just fine and that we were efficiently marching along toward England under storm sails, had not been factored into the router’s equation. She understood big ship dynamics, but we were a small craft. In this case we disregarded the router’s advice, continued on toward the northeast safely clicking away miles toward our destination.

In the wake of this experience, it became clear why a weather router needs to be a very special kind of meteorologist; one that understands the sea keeping and performance characteristics of the vessels and crews garnering their advice. Even better they need some sea time in small craft and/or aboard the ships sailed or power cruised by their clients. That’s one reason why Shema owns, races and cruises his J-110 and has totaled up plenty of time at sea with friends, clients and the U.S. Navy.

Perhaps the upside of learning the hard way is that you’re likely never to forget. I’ve certainly learned from blundering into a few atmospheric wonders. One I quite vividly recall transpired three decades ago when my enthusiasm way out stripped my experience.

We were surrounded by darkness on a moonless night in the summer of 1976 and were just about clear of the big island of Hawaii and were about to feel the wrath of the Venturi effect turbo-charging the trade winds as they whistle through the Alenuihaha Channel in Hawaii. Our flat water smooth reach came to an abrupt end when I heard a sound that could have been mistaken for a freight train. With just about that much impact, the first gust of the channel tempest jammed us to leeward and Wind Shadow’s port spreaders scratched the sea surface. The ensuing fire drill reached epic proportion and the lesson learned was never forgotten.

Another indelible weather memory was an encounter in the Tasman Sea a couple of years later. We were sailing from New Zealand to Australia and two days prior, a sky full of mare’s tails (cirrostratus) clouds were trying to tell me something about a low in the Great Southern Ocean. At the time, a cloud cover relationship to weather systems was as alien to me as the Maori dialect. What I did know was that the Aussies had clever names for their weather phenomena, terms such as Black Nor’easter and Southerly Buster. The full meaning of these was driven home when a breaking sea tore up the dodger and cracked a port (I carried a fitted cover plate). Fortunately, I valued and was facile with the use of my storm jib, storm trysail and running backstays — plus Wind Shadow had 140-plus degrees of positive stability.

The point here is two fold. First, turn to the experts when you decide to learn as much about weather as possible. Seriously consider some formal training, and if it’s in the budget and you’re of the inclination, hire a router for longer voyages, especially if tricky weather windows or high latitude transits are in play. And secondly, recognize that once you’re at sea, your average velocity made good may be five, six or seven knots, it may be a bit more if you’re a power cruiser, but keep in mind that many weather systems move at 20 or 30 knots. Getting out of harms way may not be doable — so aim for the best, but never forget to prepare for the worst.

—Ralph Naranjo is a sailor and technical marine writer based in Annapolis, Md.