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

Offshore Communications: Satellite or SSB?

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Cruisers anchored off a small beach in the Exumas dinghy in for cocktails and chat while the sun sinks behind a distant cay. Most evenings in this idyllic spot new cruisers and old salts alike meet over plans to go fishing in the sound, the best time to avoid day-trippers in the Thunderball grotto, when the mail/grocery ship is due in this week, or just talk story.

Decaying government dock, Staniel Cay

Decaying government dock, Staniel Cay

We picked this location for the kids and I to hang out while Jamie was away based on the trifecta of people, provisions, and connectivity. Well, theoretical connectivity. We have line of sight to the Staniel Cay cell tower, but it’s been so dysfunctional I used our IridiumGO to load offshore GRIBs via PredictWind three out of the last four days!

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Weather conditions warrant monitoring, like the volatility that set up this little weather bomb a couple of days ago; I do not want to skip a day because I couldn’t connect.

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At beach sundowners the other night, one of the new cruisers commented that he “needed an SSB before cruising farther.” Thinking how I’d been using our Iridium in our near-shore location this week, it prompted me to ask why he expected to add radio and not satellite comms on board. Totem has both, but if we were starting from scratch, we’d pick IridiumGO over the SSB: no question. He seemed genuinely surprised by this, and unfamiliar with the pros/cons and trends in the cruising community. These are reasons I see for the shift (and our preference).pinterest satellite or ssb

With the Iridium, we can update weather any time—offshore, or in the shadow of an uncooperative Bahamian cell tower. With our SSB, it depends on the timing for good propagation , which is generally two windows per day. Even then, it may still be tricky: I tried, but couldn’t hear all of Chris Parker’s forecast yesterday morning. To download a weather product requires a good connection to a land-based station for the internet handshake. Is “any time” such a big deal? I think so.

Setup costs for an SSB run $4-5,000 for radio, tuner, grounding, cables, and pactor modem with DIY installation. An IridiumGO with the couple of extras (an external antenna and quality cable—PredictWind bundles this, and it’s worth every penny) is only about $1,200.

There are ongoing costs, and radio users will tell you theirs is $0, but most cruisers still subscribe to Sailmail (annual fee). It’s cheaper than satellite airtime, but that’s coming down. When you buy an Iridium GO kit from PredictWind, the airtime service partner is SatPhoneStore. We continue to get our airtime from them today: unlike others, you’re not locked in a lengthy contract and it’s possible to change service levels from one month to the next to help contain costs (pay as you go, “unlimited data”, different levels of talk time, etc.). Manage it well, and it’s reasonable to have years of use from an IridiumGO before it exceeds the cost of an SSB kit. Seeing signs of coming volatility in the forecast: priceless. (SatPhoneStore has a discount for Totem readers: skip to bottom of the post for details!)

European model rain wind forecast

Getting a radio install right is a topic of extensive discussion that I won’t touch except to say—it can be complicated. Installing a satellite is only complicated by the fact that getting the cable to the external antenna may feel like wrestling an uncooperative python. Ask Jamie how he feels about this.

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What’s also not complicated about a satellite device vs. radio setup? Using it! Whether that means it gets used more often, or better, this translates to SAFETY. Easier to understand, easier to use, more familiar mode of communication, arcane knowledge not required.

Radio nets were heralded for building cruiser community and providing a safety net. Their ability for 1:many reach (vs satellite’s 1:1) helps. I value the radio conversations with boats in loose company on a passage and in remote areas, but there are fewer voices now. A family who has crossed the Atlantic a several times over the last five years noted the trend: “it was quiet this last trip.” The overwhelming majority of Atlantic Rally for Cruisers (ARC) boats do not use HF radio. We had our radio sked with other cruisers, and texted with boats that used sat systems.

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Looking right…

The Garmin InReach offers an interesting, affordable alternative for getting weather and sending position updates from offshore. Back in Florida, we had a great visit with Dave & Carolyn (“The Boat Galley”) Shearlock. Previously SSB users, I knew they relied on a Garmin InReach for much of their Caribbean cruising, and asked her to give me a demo. Paired with a smartphone to improve the user interface, it is an affordable alternative for weather and texting—weather routers like Chris Parker can fit weather updates into the text limitations to send subscribers their customized route guidance. Read more about InReach on her informative site.

phone weather InReach Garmin

Carolyn demonstrates the InReach on her linked smartphone

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…and left. Even the wide angle couldn’t fit it all in!

Discussion and marketing materials tout value all of the above options for offshore comms in an emergency (although that’s fading with HF, because you need people to be out there listening if you want to be heard), but none is a substitute for having an EPIRB on board. In fact: we have TWO on Totem—and recently added a PLB as well! Our older EPIRB is installed on the bulkhead, and a new ACR unit is in the ditch kit.

girl boat epirb beacon safety

Mairen reads off the UID to register our new EPIRB from ACR. 10 year battery!

To be clear, Jamie and I have amateur radio licenses and Totem has always had a marine SSB. I used to fall solidly in the “HF is best” camp, but after two oceans / 2.5 years with the Iridium it’s a no-brainer. Here in the Exumas, the mail/grocery boat may not have shown up this last week (Bahamian national elections interrupting service) and the internet may be mostly down, but pretty Big Majors has delivered with people, and I’m doing just fine staying on top of weather without ‘normal’ internet.

I’m a fan of SatPhoneStore service and asked if they’d consider passing a discount to readers, and they said yes! Now through July 31, use SAILINGTOTEM in their shopping cart for 5% off your order. Our IridiumGo airtime is through SPS; they carry the full spectrum of satellite devices from a handheld InReach tracker to KVH domes for the truly bandwidth addicted.

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Efficient Sailing: passage routing

3- asymmetric starboard

There’s a problem: many cruisers think that sailing performance isn’t important. Hey, cruising is about slowing down, right?! But dismissing performance is poor seamanship. Part two in a series.

Efficient sailing is partly about sail trim and sail handling (that’s covered here), and partly about routing. With a few rules, routing from A to B can be faster (and safer).

dsc_3791Big picture routing—should we take the northern or southern route across the Indian Ocean?—is fun and easy. String together an efficient and safe path to the places that you want to visit. Take into account big considerations: seasonal weather patterns, time limitations, access to fuel/food/etc. The scientific formula for big picture routing is: fun – harm = intentions. What you actually do depends on a millions variables that happen as you step along the path.

Zoom in on details of sailing to the next place and you’re into A to B routing. Sometimes this is easy; a straight path without complicating factors. Often subtle variables can cost you time or diesel, and elevate risk.

Going from Seattle to Friday Harbor, you look at the weather and the tide for when you expect to be at Cattle Pass. This is A to B routing. Practical experience from attempting Cattle Pass on the wrong tide (as we once did) indelibly marks this detail as one not to forget. There are many “Cattle Pass” lessons that you learn to incorporate in A to B routing. This is local knowledge and it saves time, money, and lowers risk. Venture to a new area and local knowledge is gone.

Fortunately, wherever you’re going, somebody went there and wrote about it. Many blue water cruisers reference Jimmy Cornell’s World Cruising Routes. It’s a fine book for big picture routing and guidance on A to B routing, but it’s not a roadmap.

Our passage in April from Ascension Island to Barbados was 3,100 miles long. The small group of boats doing this passage referenced Cornell, and set out with the author’s advice on crossing the equator between 28 and 30 degrees west longitude. Crossing further west into northeast trade winds can make the Caribbean upwind and hard to reach. This advice has the downside of being into a wider band of ITCZ, meaning more squalls. Off the boats went, one by one, aimed at 28 degrees west. We chose a different route.

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Landfall: Ascension Island

In A to B routing, the longer or more complicated the route, the more days in advance I study weather and variables. For weeks I studied several different GRIB models. Day after day, trade winds were not northeast as Cornell said, but east north east and just fine for getting to the Caribbean. Investigating a route along the coast of Brazil, 900 miles west of Cornell’s route, I found reference to a strong current flowing northward along the coast. Fine wind, less lightning (narrower band of ITCZ), and positive current was too good to ignore. PredictWind’s routing algorithms (that’s our track in their viewer below, automatically generated with pings from our Iridium GO underway) in the Offshore app concurred, and bingo, we were off to the Brazilian coast. It was beautiful sailing with very few squalls, averaging 180 NM per day over 17.2 days. The “book route” took boats 5 to 7 days longer, experienced more squalls, and burned a lot more diesel. Budget sailors can get similar routing through FastSeas, a free/donation tool based on NOAA data for GFS and ocean currents.

pw path

After this passage I happened to reread Slocum’s Sailing Alone Around the World. In 1898, Slocum sailed Spray on the same route along the coast of Brazil to reach the Caribbean in good time, noting, “the current, now at its height, amounted to forty miles a day.” Eighty-nine years later, Jimmy Cornell missed or disregarded this current. His book is still a great resource, but scenarios like this are a good reminder that it’s only one static resource.

From this lesson and others, here are six rules for A to B routing.

  1. Use multiple data sources.
  2. Schedules are inconvenient.
  3. When weather sources disagree, don’t pick one as best.
  4. Consider tidal and current flow.
  5. “Group think” weather analysis is always one opinion to many.
  6. Forecast accuracy varies regionally; compare forecasted and actual weather over time.

Efficient sailing will get you there faster, safer, and with less wear and tear. Just don’t confuse it with performance sailing! That can lead to soggy spinnaker and sour party mood.

This post was contributed by Jamie, who shares his more technical sailing experience from time to time. It’s really two legs on a three-legged stool, because routing is as important to efficient passagemaking as sail trim and sail handling…that post will have to come later.

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