Weather resources for hurricane season

Martinique hurricane shipwreck

pinterest hurricane weather“It’s like you have a bullseye on Totem!” More than one friend has commented along those lines to us recently. It does seem like severe weather systems have pointed directly at Totem a little too frequently. So far, the systems moved or we moved and all’s well. There are probably more weather forecast posts to our Facebook page in the last two months than in the sum total of prior years! That tells you something. The possibility of riding out a storm is one of the big fears and first questions people ask about cruising.

We actually have yet to experience a named storm aboard Totem. That could change soon.

Our primary tactic has been “don’t be there” in a very big picture way, by avoiding the zone of risk for hurricanes during the active season. In the South Pacific, that meant getting to a higher (more southerly) latitude as the season began: we sailed to Australia. In Southeast Asia, like most cruisers we remained equatorial, plus/minus a few degrees; this region is not subject to any cyclones. Crossing the Indian Ocean, we choose a route and timing that worked with the seasons, starting in the northern hemisphere in February (the risk diminishes in December) and arriving in the southern hemisphere by October (cyclones start in December there).

But here in the Caribbean, which doesn’t seem as scary as, say, launching out into the Pacific or Indian Oceans, we have actually placed ourselves at greater risk of severe weather than any time in the last nine years of cruising.

Latest in the series of "here we are near the hurricane" images - this morning's NOAA update

Latest in the series of “here we are near the hurricane” images – this morning’s NOAA update

Tortola, BVIs: car tires, aka hurricane fenders, in the cockpit at Nanny Cay

Tortola, BVIs: car tires, aka hurricane fenders, grace the cockpit of a few boats in Nanny Cay

Only been upon return to North America, where we’ve now been for over a year, has experiencing a hurricane presented a meaningful (probable) risk. For all the well-meaning folks who worry about our exposure to storms at sea, I wonder if knowing that the bigger danger for us is closer to “home” in North America.

NOAA data for monthly incidence of tropical storms and hurricanes. It's peak season NOW.

NOAA data for monthly incidence of tropical storms and hurricanes. It’s peak season NOW.

Staying on top of changes in the weather is always a priority: weather rules our lives. It could be perceived as hubris to be out playing chicken with hurricanes. Against nature, we are the chicken! But WE have resources, truly amazing resources, to help make better decisions. A system forms in the Atlantic, as it did when we were in the BVIs. Our first instinct was to dash south. Taking measure of timing and options lead to a different decision. We stayed put, suffered through 20 knots gusts and almost enough rain rinse the decks.

Here’s a rundown of our go-to resources, and a number of others to check out.

National Hurricane Center / NOAA. NHC is the place to start. They have the resources, the staff, the historical data. They offer depth of tools, from visual snapshots of hurricane advisories to regionalized text forecasts. While we tend to start the day with a look at the Atlantic page, it’s useful for text forecasts.

NOAA Atlantic Tropical Outlook Sept 2

NOAA outlook for this morning – Saturday 2 Sept

PredictWind. Our go-to choice for weather information around the world, not just in the Caribbean. It’s PredictWind’s Offshore app on a laptop that’s currently helping us compare models for the as-yet-unnamed system following Irma; one which sometimes looks to be a bigger risk, depending on the model. It’s very helpful to readily compare four different models (including GFS and ECMWF, and two additional with PredictWind algorithms layered on top) to see how a path is being projected.

It can be significant: below are snapshots of the same time, with Irma’s projected position. Totem’s current location, in Martinique, is the green pin; the red pin is Grenada.We can sail there overnight if necessary. The GFS model (top image) shows nothing following, but European model (bottom) shows a worrisome tag-along-maybe-named-Jose forming.

PredictWind tropical weather

PredictWind gribs showing hurricane

When bigger picture shows a system is brewing, we start looking for details; deeper analysis and information. These sites organize information from a variety of sources and present them in a digestible matter.

Mike’s Weather Page. Mike aggregates a lot of information into a single view. The graphical nature of the page makes it easy to scan to see the latest in model formation and direction. His website name, spaghettimodels.com, reflects the “spaghetti” look from multiple tracks modeled for the path of a weather system – humor always appreciated! OF course, the graphical nature means the website can a little tough to load if you have a sub-par internet connection. Thankfully, we usually have “good enough” internet in the Caribbean… or if we don’t, it’s within close range. His Facebook page often has a good snapshot combining multiple models into one more downloadable graphic, like today’s:

Mike's Weather Page aggregate image sample from 1 September.

Mike’s Weather Page aggregate image sample from 1 September.

Tropical Tidbits. Levi is a graduate meteorology student at Florida State, and shares Atlantic tropical forecast tracks and discussion on his site. If you use Twitter, he offers more prolific and sometimes entertaining commentary—like this two-part tweet yesterday morning:

This made me giggle-snort.

This made me giggle-snort.

It’s nuts how cruisers will spiral into weather analysis. Paying for professional weather information is affordable, smart, and the safest choice you can make when you’re not expert. Relying on the interpretation of the boat next to you isn’t! These two get a nod.

Chris Parker. Justifiably famous in the cruising community, Chris Parker truly understands both the weather AND cruisers. He’s focused on North America/ Atlantic, delivering analysis and guidance over the SSB (free) via newsletter updates (paid). Beyond just weather, he provides weather-based routing services via 1:1 email or text to InReach.

Crown Weather. Rob Lightroom’s service aggregates multi-source information for free on his site, like others listed here; he also offers comprehensive analysis for paying subscribers by email. The summaries of conditions and forecast are impressive, and interesting to read as he shares details that help make your own capabilities better by discussing known behaviors or biases in different models.

We’re not regular subscribers of these—the prior sources are our go-to. But these are the pros we’d recommend, and have had enough exposure to their paid services to appreciate the quality of what they provide, and this summary would feel remiss without a mention.

Meanwhile, here in Martinique, we are busy having a reunion with our good friends: Utopia II last seen in Cape Town, South Africa.

kids SUP beneteau swimming

Sweet reunion with Utopia II

I took a quick poll from other cruising friends in the Caribbean to see what’s useful for them, since everyone gravitates differently.

My friend Carolyn from The Boat Galley has spent many seasons cruising Florida and the Bahamas “in the zone” during hurricane season. Her post on favorite weather apps is a good reference for mobile options and more. Favorites include two I didn’t know, Storm (free), and Hurricane Tracker (paid) – her discussion on those, two others, and why she likes them is an interesting and worthwhile read.

Windy comes up a lot: it’s very pretty, but usually seems to use juuuuust a little bit better bandwidth than beach-bar-quality-wifi provides. Better from the armchair or marina! Several people mentioned Marv’s Weather Service, and the Louisiana Hurricane Center, via Facebook page and www.trackthetropics.com. Friends brought up a couple of sites based on French Antilles islands: I wouldn’t have naturally gravitated to non-English resources but updates on Facebook are conveniently translated automatically! Guadeloupe-based Meteo des Cyclones is quick to post system updates; from Martinique, Météo Tropicale has analysis. Good text forecasts are gold (you’re getting the meteorologist’s interpretation!), and my friend Sue—who is aboard her boat in Puerto Rico—reminded me that the National Weather Service staff in San Juan offer good analysis for PR and the region. (Thank you to Sophie, Wendy, Kimberliegh, Sue and Katia!)

We’re generally spoiled with ‘good enough’ internet service in the Caribbean, but occasionally are limited to our IridiumGO (with SSB/Pactor as backup). Bonniw from Planes, boats and bicycles (SV & RV Odin) has a good post called Tracking Hurricanes that’s all about, well, tracking hurricanes – with a focus on low-bandwidth means. Her Tracking Hurricanes post is both a primer to the approach and a reference to weather products for Caribbean storms to request through Sailmail and Saildocs.

Totem sailboat Martinique

Kids busy playing How Many Teens Can Fit on a SUP? behind Totem

Remember the tweet from Levi near the top of the post? It cracked me up, because of course on Sept. 1 who knows which football team will make the playoffs! And of course a hurricane track which looks awfully convincing when splashed out in deep angry colors on a forecast is tempting to internalize as gospel. But there is one sure thing about the weather: it will change. Even now, what’s looming with Irma varies depending on still-disagreeing models. Expressions of concern are appreciated, truly. So is faith that just because we don’t immediately run from our current position means that we’re stuck in the known path of a major storm: we’re not.

Weather decisions are made cautiously and conservatively, and staying stationary doesn’t mean we’re gambling. It would be safer for us to be in Panama, or back in Saint Helena. Be assured though, this chicken likes to cross the road without risk of getting flattened. Imperfect, and amazingly insightful weather forecasts provided by meteorologist geeks get taken for granted. To the meteorologists and weather geeks of the world, we thank you for showing us when to cross the road.

Sunset Martinique sailboat

Sunset from St Anne, Martinique

Meeting old friends for the first time

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Three weeks in Chesapeake Bay so far. Three weeks with so much smiling and talking with friends that there are days my jaw aches. Old friends, new friends, old friends met for the first time. It started with the spectacular crab feed put on by a blog reader and newfound friend when we arrived in late September.

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Bay crab, done right: outside, table covered with paper, no cutlery – just mallets. SO GOOD.

This came at the end of a sunny afternoon where we had a spontaneous open boat party on Totem, pinging folks who have been in touch here or through our Facebook page and inviting them aboard. It is just plain cool to meet people who we have come to know as names on the screen, and turning those distant contacts into personal encounters and a great time. Good thing we enjoyed that sun, because there was precious little the following two weeks! Wow, they were delicious. Old Bay is now stocked in our pantry. Hello Maryland!

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We shifted south to Camp Quigley, as Mary Marie & Frank call their dock; it’s a frequent host to friends on the southbound migration this time of year, and a great excuse to visit on our the way to the SSCA gam. Who did we hear from, as we tied up? Newly minted circumnavigators Mike and Deanna from R Sea Kat, who we last saw on Ascension Island. Because Mary Marie and Frank have been cruisers, they “get it” and gathered us for an evening of trading stories. We also smelled a lot better after giving the Quigley laundry machines a workout!

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Our anchorage afterwards for the SSCA gam was in the beautiful Rhode River, which is just a few miles from Annapolis but feels far from, well, anything.

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The event was well attended, despite the steady rain. Jamie and I did a presentation that covered our experiences in some spectacular cruising destinations we’ve visited. Pure dream fodder, aiming to inspire, and so much fun to share! Solavore had provided us with an oven to raffle off to attendees – more about them soon, we are big fans of this solar oven. It’s just too bad the weather didn’t cooperate to allow a demonstration. At the gam, again were familiar faces from our near and distant past… as well as those we’d only known through the internet.

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Mark Brownhill, sandwiched between weather dudes Chris Parker (left) and Lee Chesneau (right)

I loved being able to give Lee Chesneau a hug and tell him how much his class about understanding the 500mb chart helped me on the path to better interpreting weather data when I took it many years ago. Actually, I think I had to take it twice, but it was important! More recently we’ve been introduced to Chris Parker and his invaluable services as a weather router for US/Caribbean cruisers. And between those two great guys we have met: another, Mark Brownhill, who I traded many emails with over the last few months (he’s responsible for getting us to the gam and organizes the SSCA’s Seven Seas U educational programs).

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Like so many cruisers of all stripes— the hopefuls, the gonna-go, the been there / done that—I’ve read the magazines published by this highly recognizable couple. I didn’t know what to expect from meeting Bob & Jody in person, but will say this: they are even more wonderful than you think! Their interest in inspiring others to follow the cruising life… something I think can only make the world a better place… is 100% real.

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It was just bad luck that the weather brightened significantly only when the gam had ended…but that made it easier to welcome a few friends on Totem. The family aboard Majestic brought their pretty St Francis 44 down to anchor nearby and hang out for some sunny hours. This family means so much to me: I’ve corresponded with mom Cindy for nearly a decade, since we found each other on a Yahoo group…or was it that Mothering forum first? Regardless, it is SO COOL to make that virtual friendship transition to in-person.

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We were able to do a little cruising-boat-show-n-tell with another local family that intends to cast off next year. Getting to see how people who had actually been cruising set up their boats was really helpful for me before we left: I’m glad to be able to give back.

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We had a few days after the SSCA gam and before the boat show. Jamie and I spent a morning checking out a boat listing in the area on behalf of one of our coaching clients. I added several photos Jamie’s boat yoga (tagged #awkward) to my collection.

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Afterwards, we got to meet another old friend for the first time! Captain Suky, a delivery skipper and generally awesome human who I’ve known through the Women Who Sail forum, recently bought a boat; Jamie checked out the rig for her.

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See “barber pole”-ing on the backstay? No bueno. On close inspection: pitting an even bigger problem.

We relocated for the US Sailboat Show to a private dock near the venue in Annapolis. Hurricane Matthew loomed and we were grateful for a snug location well up the creek….a 20 minute walk, even less by dock-to-dock water taxi!

water taxi annapolis

And thus began a hectic week working the booth for L&L Pardey Books, supporting Lin Pardey to sell books from her publishing house (she’s also behind Voyaging With Kids). The kids were a big help, pitching in on booth setup.

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the alert will notice Siobhan remains barefoot.

We closed a successful first day at the show by hosting Lin along Paul & Sheryl Shard of Distant Shores TV, who we met in St Martin earlier this year, for dinner on Totem. It felt a little surreal to have these cruising luminaries on board- that’s a lot of experience in Totem’s cockpit! There were great stories, and funny coincidences (beware a certain bay in Croatia), but ultimately – just a bunch of cruisers sharing laughs on the water together.

Lin Pardey Paul Sheryl Shard Behan Jamie Gifford on Totem

yeah, I’m wearing an apron. no smart comments

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Photo- Paul Shard

There were some precious reunions, too. We had a great reunion with old friend Brad Baker, who is an owner at Seattle’s Swiftsure Yachts brokerage. We last saw him waving goodbye when our families parted ways in French Polynesia, six years ago: they sailed back to Seattle and we continued across the Pacific. It was also the first time we’d seen Rich Boren since he helped cast off our docklines in 2010, as we departed La Cruz, Mexico for the Marquesas. It’s just great to catch up and feel the years melt away…sweet reunions indeed!

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The show was a whirlwind of first meets with people we actually kinda knew already, as internet shifted to IRL. On site after helping deliver a boat for Swiftsure was Andy Cross from Three Sheets Northwest. After trading email for years, it was great to finally to meet in person.

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Then there was this awesome, who I have co-administrated a women’s sailing forum with for years. We chat just about every day…but we’d never met, or even spoken live. It was amazing to finally get together with Nica Waters! I think Pussers Painkillers…the rum drinks that are obligatory at the Annapolis boat show…may have kicked in by the time we got this pic.

Nica and Behan, together at last!

Nica and Behan, together at last!

Nica and I joined a meetup of the group we admin (with a few accompanying partners & spouses), since many of the Women Who Sail were in town for the show…

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…like Suky (that was her boat above) and Judy Hildebrand, another delivery captain and generally fabulous sailing woman I’ve long connected with digitally, and had a lot of laughs with over a few days in Annapolis. Judy was was one step ahead of us on an extended delivery engagement across much of the Atlantic this year… up until Bermuda, when we pointed to Connecticut and she did a victory leg to the Mediterranean. I’d love to do a passage with her someday!

dsc00391After was a gathering of alt-living bloggers, which Cindy coined the BumTotemJesticPalooza– as we joined the liveaboard Majestic crew and land/sea rambling Bumfuzzles, with future cruisers the Mowerys. More old friends with first meets.

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Photo: Maddy Thomas

The kids weren’t all that excited about the boat show – not their thing. But Cindy wrangled a pile of kids for the day – because boat mamas, we’re a tribe, and look out for each other.

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BumTotemJesticPalooza! Photo: Cindy Wallach

Also looking out for our junior crew was this awesome family (formerly known as the Dafnes), who spirited the Totem kids away to Philly for some fun while Jamie and I were preoccupied. Once a cruiser (or boat kid)… always one! And yet another gonna-go-cruiser helped us get them back, when we neglected to give Niall his passport (turns out, 17 is too old to be an unaccompanied minor on the train and he was not allowed on without ID. Holy paranoia batman!). Grateful for friends who understand, and lend support.

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Escape Room….they were so close!!

The next morning, Jamie and I talked about how there were so many people coming by the booth that we enjoyed talking to, and the conversations always felt too short, like we could have gone on for hours…but there’s a boat show going on and it’s impossible. To try and extend some of those conversations, we decided to throw out a “hey let’s meet for pizza later” to a folks when they came by to talk. I think everyone said yes, and we ended up with a crowd of… 18? 20? at Sammy’s in Eastport. It was a very cool spread across the spectrum: salted sailors, new cruisers, hopeful cruisers, all embracing life on the water.

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So many people came by: Sailing Banyan, OnwardWaves, Sail Loot, more. I loved introducing Lin’s books to people stopping by (because they are not only my dream fodder from our pre-cruising days, but books I keep on Totem and reference). The show was hard work: eight plus hours on our feet, on asphalt, outside. Did I mention the hurricane that threatened? We ended up with just wind and rain, but it was… well. Cold! Notice the multiple layers worn. I even had to break out SOCKS.

By the last day, we were getting a little punchy. Boat kid Naia and I listened for whales in our triton shell / paperweight.

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We cracked up with Lin, Jill and Sheryl over the absurdity of everyone checking their shell–I mean cell–phones all the time.

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We expected the show to wear us out, as it did. We anticipated meeting a lot of people. We just failed to appreciate how much fun it would be meeting up with old friends…some for the first time.

Totem is in Annapolis for about another week: we’re speaking about our travels at 4pm on Sunday, Oct 23, at the Loft above West Marine in Herrington Harbor North. RSVPs to the HH Sailing Association appreciated but not required: contact bev.wright@verizon.net. Oh, and it’s free!

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