Online weather resources
Navigators are blessed with numerous helpful online weather sites. Here is a sampling:
National Data Buoy Center: (www.ndbc.noaa.gov/)
You’ve just got to bookmark some of the offshore buoys and lights near where you do your boating. I routinely monitor what is happening at the Buzzards Tower, located in the mouth of Buzzards Bay, Massachusetts. The main page of the website provides a map of the world with links to both navigational and environmental buoys, with the coasts of the U.S. particularly well covered.
National Weather Service: (www.weather.gov/)
The main weather page provides a map of the USA where you can gradually click down to your local area, or more conveniently just enter a city or zip code in the box in the upper left corner. The general forecast information is great to have, but I often quickly scroll down to the right to get to the “Radar & Satellite Image.” The sat image provides a really big picture of what is happening, which can be great when dealing with major systems and hurricanes, but usually I’m focusing on the local weather radar.
Even if you have radar on board, there is nothing like viewing NOAA’s big-picture weather radar to get an idea of what is coming your way. I use it routinely in the summer when there are thunderstorms around and many times it has given me a much better warning than listening to the marine radio. The radio warnings will be vague in nature and generally not specific to your location, but on the radar you can see quickly if the storms are likely to hit your chosen anchorage.
Again, there are numerous phone apps available. One of my favorites is:
NOAA Hi-Def Radar from WeatherSphere (weathersphere.com/products/noaa-hi-def-radar)
This app is available for Android, iOS and Windows Phone. This app is one of the single biggest reasons to have a smartphone! I use it often when ashore to check out upcoming weather specific to my location.
Ocean Weather Services: (oceanweatherservices.com/weather_updates)
This private weather service and routing company is based in Florida and always has a fascinating article on their “Weather Updates” page concerning tropical systems and other major weather events. They not only give you the satellite images, but also their own location maps, weather maps and other useful stuff like projected tracks and positions for these big systems. The nice thing is it is all from a mariner’s perspective, so you will feel right at home and you know they know what you are looking for.
They also provide lots of links to particularly useful NOAA weather pages and other great stuff.
Historical Hurricane Tracks: (coast.noaa.gov/hurricanes/)
Go to the link and you can select your spot to see all the hurricane tracks that have crossed the area. You can click on each track to see more about that storm in the list to the left, including the name of the storm and the dates. It is a fun tool to use, and it can also be informative in your hurricane planning. I suggest adjusting the search area radius to larger than the default 10 nautical miles — that is too small an area to be meaningful. Try something like 50 nautical miles in order to get a better idea of the storms that have impacted a particular area.
Of course, you can’t use this tool to predict the course of the next storm, but it is useful to indicate trends. For example, I lived in Beaufort, S.C., for several years and the local wisdom is that they get very few direct hits from hurricanes there, and not many close brushes either. I just checked it out on the hurricane track map and the local wisdom is true. Historically, most storms stay well offshore there or track well inland.
On the other hand, check out the area from Newport to Cape Cod! There must be a hurricane bull’s-eye painted on the area.
Earth: A Global Map of Wind, Weather, Ocean Conditions: (earth.nullschool.net)
This map is so cool I saved it for last. It is an interactive pilot chart, showing current conditions around the world. When you first open the page you see the entire globe, but then you can zoom in to see smaller regions. Click on “Earth” in the lower left to get a menu of choices as to what you see. You can choose to see the world’s current wind or current patterns, or ocean waves, all with animation. The current charts for the Caribbean are really interesting if you are planning a passage say from Key West down to Panama. The images are simply hypnotic to watch, but really informative.