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Weather data from an unexpected quarter

Aug 27, 2015

The ARC Rally to Newport meets a surprise gale and tests a new communications tool

A group of ARC Rally to Newport boats at St. Georges in Bermuda.

A group of ARC Rally to Newport boats at St. Georges in Bermuda.

Editor’s note: When a group of voyagers participating in the ARC Rally to Newport, R.I., departed Bermuda, little did they know that a new way of grabbing weather data would be such an important element of their passage. The following is the first of our practical weather stories in this issue’s special section on weather. It’s a “hands-on” account of how voyagers made unexpected use of satellite communications to obtain a key forecast during the trip.

It looked like a delightful, fair-weather voyage to Newport, R.I., as eight boats departed from Bermuda on Tuesday, May 19. I was the navigator radio net operator and “embedded” journalist aboard Aphrodite, a Swan 46.

Most sailboats over 40 feet can make the 640-mile voyage in four days, but weather forecasts are accurate for only the first two or three days. Then there’s the Gulf Stream, with all its eddies, meanders and countercurrents to deal with. Hit the stream wrong and you can add half a day to your trip; hit it right and you shave off 12 hours. Trying to predict what the wind might be doing as you enter the stream is a crapshoot. Sailing to or from Bermuda is a navigator’s dilemma. 

Add to the uncertainty of the weather and Gulf Stream the fact that once offshore, new information is spotty, expensive or non-existent. Options for offshore weather are limited: Call up a weather router on satphone. If you have an HF SSB radio you can download weather fax or the GRIB files, and/or listen in to Chris Parker on Caribbean Weather Net on 12.350 MHz USB. If you have a modem connected to your SSB, you can wait for a daily weather alert from the ARC Rally Team ashore. 

Our little fleet had a hodge-podge of radios and communications options: SSB, VHF, limited email and text messaging via DeLorme’s inReach tracker. But sailors are resourceful and we managed, through ingenuity, to solve the weather information problem.

 The pre-departure briefing from the ARC Rally staff was favorable. The wind and Gulf Stream charts from PassageWeather.com showed a southwest breeze for a day or so, motoring sailing up to the Gulf Stream, then stronger winds to get us into Newport — four days at the most. “It’s going to be a delightful trip,” I told the crew on Aphrodite. I’ve made this voyage more than two dozen times. 

I should have known better.

We were one of more than 50 boats in the spring ARC Rally. We’d all left Tortola in the BVI on May 9, and had a fast five-day, 860-mile trip straight north to Bermuda. From there, the vast majority of the boats (40 or more) were headed east to the Azores, the Med or Northern Europe. A few headed to Florida, three headed home to the Chesapeake and eight of us, Aphrodite included, were bound for Newport. The boats in this Newport-bound fleet make the trek south and north each year, so the skippers all knew each other.

The ARC Rally to Newport this May included five Swans: Aphrodite (46); Naia (65); Catch 22 (48); Tango (46); and Boonasta (57); as well as JoJo Marie, a Beneteau 50; Mystic, a Shannon 43; and Morning Haze, a Hunter 410, with a Canadian couple and their two young children on board.

Routing planning
Following the arrival of the ARC’s 50-odd boat fleet into St. Georges, Bermuda, on Friday, May 14, crews gathered at the St. Georges Dinghy for a weather briefing. The club and the Yacht Service Center in town both have free Wi-Fi and we were able to download a set of seven-day weather charts from PassageWeather.com and Gulf Stream current predictions.

For the skippers on the north-bound boats, the direct route on the rhumb line to Newport had a lot going for it. It was direct, therefore the shortest route, and there was a north-flowing meander in the Gulf Stream that would push a boat along with 2 knots of current, but next to it was a south-flowing meander with an even stronger south-flowing current. The exact waypoint to enter the north-flowing meander would be elusive. Three boats, Mystic, Catch 22 and Morning Haze, elected this direct route. 

The crew of Aphrodite enjoy dinner in the cockpit before the weather turned. From left, skipper Maurizio Ricchiuto, Tim Walters, Eric Crouch and Matt Johnson.

The other five boats, Aphrodite included, planned to head northwest to a waypoint 300 miles east of Cape Charles, where we’d turn north and enter the stream at its narrowest. Then, if the wind did go northwest, we’d have the wind on the beam heading northeast to Newport.

It didn’t quite work out as planned.

We all departed Bermuda on the morning of Tuesday, May 19. We rounded Mills Breaker marker, passed Kitchen Shoals and were off the Northeast Breaks tower by 1 p.m. Bermuda Weather on the VHF said we could expect light winds all day with southwest winds of 15 to 20 knots on Wednesday. 

We raised the main to steady us and motorsailed in a gentle swell for the rest of that day and into the night. 

Day 2: Wednesday, May 20
By Wednesday morning, winds were SSW to SW, 15 knots. We were heading northwest, wind on the beam. It was overcast and muggy and the seas had become uncomfortable. While listening on the SSB that morning I heard the following conversation between two megayachts still in Bermuda. Our dream of fair winds and a pleasant voyage began to fade.

First Skipper: You get the update from Commander (Commander’s Weather, a routing service)?
Second Skipper: Which one?
First Skipper: There’s a low developing off the Carolinas on Thursday.
Second Skipper: Yes. It’s supposed to turn into a gale center off Hatteras on Friday, but at least it’s a fast mover. Should be out of the way by Saturday.

A gale? There was no indication of a gale in yesterday’s report before leaving Bermuda. JoJo Marie was within sight astern, so I called the skipper, Tania Aebi (author of Maiden Voyage, a young girl’s solo voyage around the world), on the VHF (JoJo had no SSB).

Aphrodite: Just heard two boats still in Bermuda discussing a possible gale off Hatteras on Friday.
JoJo Marie: That’s where we’re headed, isn’t it?
Aphrodite: I think we need some more information. Do we call up Commanders Weather on the satphone and pay for a report?
JoJo Marie: Let’s wait until the 4 p.m. radio net. See if anyone has an update from the ARC office.
Aphrodite: Gotcha.

Later that morning, Tania radioed back with a text message she had received from a savvy friend and sailor in New York State.

Aphrodite: How’d you get a text message? You have no SSB radio. 
JoJo Marie: The inReach tracker has a text function — limited, but it works.
Aphrodite: How, without a short wave link?
JoJo Marie: It up-links to the Iridium satellite system. The message is simply: ‘A low is forming off the Carolinas, passing NE over the GS on Thursday and Friday, wind 18 to 30 kts.’ He recommends we stay below 34° N until it is out of the area.

Later that afternoon on the rally radio net, five yachts checked in. The conversation was about this new bit of information. How serious will the low be when we run into it? Will it develop into a gale? Might it linger for a few days as the last one did a week ago? Should we head west, or southwest or turn back to Bermuda?

A lot of this sailing stuff is about making good decisions and you can’t make those decisions without good information. Five boats, all facing a gale, with no way around it, linked by VHF and SSB, shared the flow of information as it became available.

A chart of the Gulf Stream for May 24, 2015 from PassageWeather.com showing A) the rhumb line from Bermuda to Newport, B) Aphrodite’s intended route and C) actual route.

We were already at 35° N, so our Italian captain Maurizio and I, along with Tania on JoJo half a mile off our starboard quarter, agree: We will continue cautiously west. We had a day and a half before we got close to the low’s center. We proceeded northwest in a southwest wind.

Day 3: Thursday, May 21
At 5:30 a.m., I couldn’t sleep. It was nearly my watch, so I pulled on my foulies and climbed on deck. Things looked better up there. The seas had moderated and the wind was now out of the northeast, on the starboard beam. We were scooting along at 7 knots in 20 knots of wind under half the jib and two reefs in the main, heading toward our waypoint.

That morning’s radio net provided more details. John on Boonasta, reported that the ARC email had warned us to stay south of 34° N to avoid the low. Murray on Naia, reported the same. We were already at 35.5° N so I made the suggestion: “Why don’t we just stop and wait? It’s a pleasant day, sunny, warm and the winds are dropping. We’ll only have to make up all those miles later.”

By noon the wind had gone light. We were parked at 35° 28’ N and 68° 59’ W. JoJo Marie was along side within hailing distance. Tania and I discussed waypoints, the stream and options. “May as well go back to Bermuda,” she said. I could hear the frustration in her voice. Tania wanted to keep moving. 

The 4 p.m. radio net gave us little new data, so Tania volunteered to text her Vermont contact for more information. 

By 5:30, we were back underway, motoring WNW toward our waypoint at 5 knots. At 6:30, ahead of us I saw JoJo Marie change course to the south. 

I called her on the VHF. “What’s up?” 

“I have a new weather report. I’ll read it to you. Are you going to record it? It’s pretty long and detailed.” 

“I’m recording. Go ahead.”

Tania read the six-minute report. It was extensive, full of details on the gale center’s locations, wind direction and speeds. “The one point the router made,” she injected, “is to turn WSW now. Do not go further north. Wait for the gale to move north of you, then turn north toward Newport.”

“How did you manage to get such a detailed report?” I asked Tania. “The inReach text function is limited to 160 characters.”

“My sailor friend ashore knew what we needed to know, so he called up the weather router for a full report and recommendations. He broke down their email into 160 character segments and sent those to us in multiple texts. Jay, our technological wizard on board here has the inReach linked to his iPad. He stitched the texts together and that’s what I just read to you.”
 

Her report was extremely detailed and a useful. Boiled down it came to: 

1. A gale center with winds to 40-plus knots will move up and off the coast on Thursday and Friday. We had the lat/long plots for every few hours. 

2. There is a cold eddy just south of the Gulf Stream at 36.34° N by 68.24’ W.

3. Do not continue northwest. Head southwest to skirt around the back of the gale center. The winds will clock from southwest to west to northwest, and be gone by the time we reach the southern edge of the stream on Saturday.

I penciled in the gale’s track, the north and south walls of the Gulf Stream and the position of a cold eddy on National Defense chart No. 108. To visualize the gale’s wind pattern, I cut out a small square of paper, on which I drew the counter-clockwise wind arrows around the gale’s center. As I moved the slip of paper along the path of the gale I could visualize wind directions as we moved to the southwest, west and evidentially northwest then north.

The cold eddy had me worried. If we turned north too soon we’d wind up sailing into a foul current — with a southerly wind blowing against it. We’d be facing steep, uncomfortable and dangerous seas. I wrote in my journal “Into the Valley of Death ride the 600 . . .” 

I called up the other boats and shared the info and recommendations.

JoJo Marie had access to the weather via the inReach, but no SSB. On Aphrodite we had a SSB and could contact the rest of the fleet. Our VHF range was limited to a handheld (our masthead antenna was not working) so JoJo Marie and Aphrodite agreed to remain within sight of each other through the gale. 

We dined on beef stew in the cockpit as gray storm clouds filled in the western sky ahead of us. By midnight we were in the thick of it. Our green crew of three, Tim, a communications consultant; Matt, owner of personal training gym; and Eric, a college senior, were all making their first serious offshore voyage. They’d come aboard to learn what it’s like to sail offshore. Each appeared excited about the prospect of riding through a gale. They had all been through skipper Maurizio’s training course of watch-standing, steering, sail-setting and line-handling. With more than 1,000 miles behind us as a team, we knew the boat, its limitations and quirks. 

By 11 that night we were under half the jib, full-reefed main, in 18 to 22 knots of wind from the SSW, steering slightly north of west and making 6 knots. Throughout the night the wind increased, gusting to more than 40 knots. We slogged along under a small bit of jib and full-reefed main. It was wet on deck and uncomfortable below. 

Day 4: Friday, May 22
As I came on deck at 7 a.m., bleary-eyed, from another night of bouncing around, JoJo Marie was a quarter of a mile to the east of us. She’d kept station all night, not an easy task given these seas and gale winds. But Tania is a sailor with consummate skills. The seas, on our beam, were huge, some 20 feet and breaking. I grabbed my cameras and photographed the waves. 

JoJo Marie, one of seven boats in this year’s ARC Rally to Newport, under reduced sail following a night of 40+ knot winds 200 miles east of Cape Hatteras.

By 8 a.m., winds were blowing 30 to 35 knots from the southwest. We were steering 340 degrees, making 2 knots; waves were nine to 15 feet. I made a note in my journal. “We must be on the western edge of the cold eddy that is flowing south, against the wind, hence these steep breaking seas and just 2 knots forward over the bottom.”

The Swan 44 is a heavy boat and with much reduced sail she rode well, with little heel and erratic motion. Waves still broke against her sides and bow; sheets of water rattled down on the dodgers and blinded the helmsmen. But overhead the sky was beginning to break up. Slivers of blue sky poked through the gray clouds. We were past the worst of it. But this detour, this gale, eddy and route added two more days to what should have been four-day trip. 

10 a.m.: The wind moved into the northwest and we came over to northeast course to keep the sea on the beam. On the radio net other boats checked in. All were kicked around during the night, but all were safe and moving either northeast or west. Naia was behind us by 60 miles, Boonasta was within 20 miles. JoJo was next door. Mystic and Catch 22, both on the direct route to Newport, were hundreds of miles to the east with NNW winds of 32 to 35 knots.

2:30 p.m.: I pulled up the Gulf Stream chart on my laptop, the one I’d downloaded from PassageWeather in Bermuda. I marked our location and discovered: If we kept heading northeast in this NNW wind, we’d end up running into the Gulf Stream, but it would be 2-plus knots flowing southeast. Better, Maurizio and I concluded, to turn west now, and continue west until we ran into the northeast flowing body of the stream. We called JoJo with our plans, and tacked over a westerly course. Boat speed over the ground leaped from 2 knots to 6, then 7 knots as we exited the effects of the eddy. The boat quieted down, the motion became enjoyable. The sun was out!

Day 5: Saturday, May 23
Winds were light, still northerly at 12 knots. We began the day heading west making 4 knots under full sail. By 10 a.m. we were 240 miles due east of Cape Henry. We altered course as the wind moved into the northeast and began to drop. The morning radio net brought even better news. Boonasta had an email report: winds would be north, then northeast and dropping to light, then filling in on Monday from the southwest, 15 to 20 knots. Ideal!

By this time tomorrow, I told the crew, we’ll be through and past the Gulf Stream.

And we were. We motored over the stream in calm conditions, led by a pod of dolphins. We picked up the southwest breeze on Sunday, lost it mid-day on Monday and motored into Newport Harbor at 8:30 that evening, just as it was getting dark. Six and a half days out of Bermuda.
 
Oh, yes. Catch 22 came in on Sunday ahead of us, but they paid a price. They experienced the full force of the gale on the nose, battling a 40-knot headwind the last day out. Morning Haze, the 40-foot Hunter, had turned back toward Bermuda when they heard of the gale, but came back on the rhumb line course and arrived a few hours after us.

David H. Lyman is a photographer, filmmaker, writer and former college president. He has made the Maine to the Caribbean voyage and back more than two dozen times on his own boats as well as delivery trips. His website is at DHLyman.com.

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