An ocean voyager reflects on weather routing


Peter Stoops, doing a transatlantic this summer abourd the Swan 40 Chase, reflects below on what he sees as the pros and cons of weather routing.

I am of mixed feelings about weather routing.  One is that the service is a valuable tool for offshore comfort and safety.  The other is that it’s diluting the sense of adventure one gets from offshore sailing, while at the same time undermining the overall skill level of passage makers.
As with seatbelts, there appears to be no good rationale for not using routing when it comes to an argument on the subject of boating safety.  Weather routing allows the voyager to sit at home or on his boat and wait for the weather pattern that best suits them to arise before leaving.  So, what could besafer than a voyage designed around non-threatening winds and comfortable seas?
And I have to admit: I do the same thing!  I use a weather routing service before venturing offshore, and I often wait for the vaunted “Weather Window” to appear before leaving.  In fact, in the hectic days just before a big offshore trip, it’s nice to have someone else worrying about the weather, while you simply cross your fingers and hope for a green light that fits your departure date.  It’s truly seductive in its ability to lay the decision-making off on an outside resource.
But there is a flip-side to that coin: almost every router I’ve talked to is reticent to send a sailor out into any weather that is the least bit threatening.  The result?  One sits in port waiting for the “bad weather” to pass, while looking out days in advance for the potential of more “bad weather”, which will also stall the departure.  On one trip from Cape Cod to the Caribbean, I fell into this frustrating pattern, and it was two weeks before we left.  On the week we did leave, we stayed on shore while a gale (at the standard 35 knots) played itself out, and then were given the green light – after which we motored for the next 4 days with no wind at all.  In some ways, a “perfect” weather routing outcome!
I find that even if I take their advice on departure days, once I get out there, I am far, far less inclined to take it on a wholesale basis while underway. That’s because I feel their definition of routing is, again, to avoid anything uncomfortable.  One gets advice to slow down, go around, take shelter – anything to avoid winds that are generally over 25 knots.  Even the legendary Herb Hilgenberg of Southbound II fame (who is a resource I use, and who – in my opinion – is seldom wrong in his prognoses), now seems to define “gale” as high 20’s to mid 30’s, and “storm “ as anything above.   The very drama of describing higher velocity winds has increased.
Don’t get me wrong: there’s nothing wrong with sailing down a degree to lessen the effects of a real storm, or to get better winds.
But it seems to me that we’ve lost confidence in the capabilities of our boats to withstand gale or strong gale force (and sometimes storm force) conditions, and in our own abilities to do so as well.
Indeed, I wonder if weather routing is raising a new generation of sailors who don’t understand heavy weather, who don’t have boats that have experienced (or are capable of!) heavy weather, and who are becoming less voyager than voyeur.  Certainly the tool is available – weather routing – that will allow almost any given sailor to remain in that category if they so choose.
On my last trip to the Azores, we got the “green light” to leave Portland, Maine, with the warning that heavier weather was due later that week, and that we should head south to avoid the worst of it.  Since I was happy to get the go-ahead, we left, and dutifully went straight south, past Cape Cod.  Once there, a significant low pressure system came off the Mid Atlantic states, and the advice changed: the oncoming weather would produce winds in the high 40’s, with gusts into the high 50’s; the recommendation was to seek shelter immediately in Nantucket.   Indeed, Herb admonished us for being out there in the first place, given the forecast had been known for at least a week.
After conferring with the crew, and discussing with them the pros (comfort, safety, less strain on the boat) and cons (potential seasickness, discomfort from large waves and high wind, the possibility of boat repair in bad conditions, loss of time) of carrying on, their predominant questions were: are we standing foolishly into danger, and can the boat take it?
To me, the latter part of the question mostly answers the first.  We were on a well-equipped, well built Swan 40.  That, coupled with the experience my crew brought to the equation, allowed me to confidently say that we were not foolishly standing into danger.  But that, yes, we were taking a riskier route, and that we were making a decision that was – in many ways – “less safe” if we decided to continue.  To a person, they voted to keep going.
What happened?  We got pounded.  Like we knew we would.  All but one of us experienced some degree of seasickness, and we had some gear breakage.  We had to heave-to for four hours.
But what also happened was that by coldly calculating the situation as we willingly ventured into it (made possible by our understanding of what would occur given our collective experience), we emerged from the other side of the storm with increased confidence, increased experience, and an increased ability to handle that kind of weather again – particularly if the choice to do so was not voluntary.
So, in a way, it’s arguable that keeping oneself safe from the elements of the ocean when voyaging really isn’t safe: moving from one place to another under the protection of weather routing – if one chooses to follow it at its most comfortable level – never allows the fair-weather sailor to gain the experience needed to handle his vessel and crew safely, if and when they find themselves in a blow that they did not choose to be in.
Weather routing continues, for me, to be a two-edged sword.  I truly believe that modern navigational electronics and threat-minimizing weather routing are putting more and more people on the ocean – but with less and less overall seafaring skill.  On the other hand, I’d be a hypocrite to say it doesn’t have its place in sailing today as another tool or resource – because I use it too!

By Ocean Navigator