Planning, communication and flexibility


Weather routers provide services to ocean voyagers for passages all around the globe. These professionals are usually degreed meteorologists who also have expertise in ocean currents, the dynamics of sea state, and local weather phenomena that occur in different areas of the world. Routers also have an understanding of the issues faced by voyagers in many different types of vessels, from large commercial ships like tankers and containerships to much smaller recreational boats. Clients can include oceangoing tugs and barges, commercial fishing vessels, megayachts, cruising and racing sailboats, trawler yachts and even human-powered craft.

While the weather router will contribute their expertise to each routing engagement, each client must come to the engagement with a certain amount of advance preparation in order to get the highest benefit from the service. In the simplest terms, the job of a weather router is to do their best to help their clients make the weather-related decisions needed to have a successful voyage. However, the definition of success can be very different for each client. And there is the first piece of information that the weather router needs from the client: What will constitute a successful passage for your particular situation?

For most commercial vessels, a successful passage involves getting the vessel from the departure port to the arrival port reasonably close to an established schedule with no loss or damage of cargo, no significant damage to the vessel, no injuries to the crew, and with a reasonable efficiency in terms of fuel consumption. The comfort of the crew, or “enjoyment of the passage” is far down the list of importance to the vessel operator.

In the recreational sector, however, the enjoyment of the passage is near the top of the list for most passages, with the possible exception of vessel deliveries. For all passages, the number-one goal is safety.

Let’s concentrate on how recreational voyagers can get the most out of weather routing services. This requires a significant amount of advance preparation, which should begin many months (or even more) ahead of departure with some education. There are many opportunities for ocean voyagers to learn more about meteorology, including utilizing many online resources as well as webinars and in-person seminars.

Learning about the three-dimensional structure of weather systems, and climatological patterns through the seasons in various regions of the oceans, is a great idea. It’s also beneficial to become familiar with publicly available weather analysis and forecast products, particularly those that can be obtained at sea, as these will put the voyager in a stronger position to have a well-informed discussion with the router. A router who knows that their client has more knowledge than the average sailor about ocean weather will be able to engage with that client on a higher level, and the result will be a better service.

Table 1: Classifying conditions that voyagers might face on a passage.

A passage plan
As the voyage planning process advances to the point of selecting and engaging a weather router, one of the first things a router can contribute in the early stages of forming a passage plan is their knowledge of seasonal weather patterns around the world. This can help to determine if the proposed passage is feasible or not. Routers can provide advice to help decide on the best time of year for a given passage. This preliminary advice, while not including specific weather forecast information, can include factors like prevailing seasonal wind and sea state patterns, the possibility of tropical cyclones along the route, and whether or not sea ice or icebergs might impact the passage. The router will advise as to whether the planned schedule or route might need to be altered because of any of these factors.

As discussed above, your weather router will want to know what you will consider to be a successful passage. This is something that needs to be determined even before a router is engaged, and it will depend on many factors. These factors will include the capabilities of the boat, the experience of the crew, and the general time frame or schedule of the passage.

While routers will want to have some defined limits from their clients in terms of wind and sea state conditions that cannot be tolerated, it is also very helpful for the router to have a more subjective idea of how the client would like the passage to proceed.

In terms of objectively defining the limits of these conditions, Table 1 (above) is offered as a method of classifying situations that could be encountered during a voyage. There are six classifications of conditions shown in this table. The conditions at any given time during a voyage will fall into one of these classifications. The definition of these classifications, however, will be different for each voyage, taking into account the vessel, crew abilities and the overall goals of the passage.

It is useful to use a form like Table 2 (below) to define these classifications as carefully as possible prior to each voyage. There is great value in physically putting pencil to paper and writing down your personal limits, rather than just thinking about them and coming up with general thoughts on the subject.

Table 2: A form for clients to define their preferences for a voyage.

When defining limits of wind speeds, differences in wind direction should be noted. For most voyagers, stronger wind speeds can be tolerated if the wind direction is behind the beam. Similarly, sea state limits should take into account the combination of wind waves and swell, as well as swell direction.

This exercise should be completed before contacting a weather router and well in advance of the planned departure date. This allows the limits to be communicated to the router at the start of his or her engagement. It is not necessary to transmit the full table to the router, but the table can be used in conversations concerning your upper limits for the passage.

More subjective criteria
The initial discussion with the router should include not only the objective limits as determined above, but also some more subjective criteria. Working from the table of objective limits, it is helpful to provide the router with an indication of how frequently and for what duration conditions that have been defined as “acceptable” or “marginal” can be tolerated. It is helpful for the router to know who will be on the passage, and whether or not there will be “passengers” on board — meaning individuals who have little to no experience, and who will not be expected to assist in any meaningful way with daily tasks during the passage.

Conveying to the router what type of a passage is desired and a general philosophy of sailing is also very helpful. Any other information that helps the router understand what the situation on board will be during the passage is useful. For example, if a router knows that there is someone on board who is unusually susceptible to seasickness, this can help the router make more appropriate recommendations for the passage.

Information about the boat also needs to be provided to the router ahead of time, including what speed the boat will be making during the passage. In the case of a cruising sailboat, typically one speed will be used for planning with the assumption that the engine will be used when winds are too light to keep the speed up.

For a sailboat race, polar diagrams should be provided so that the router can determine what speed the boat will achieve in different wind conditions. Powerboats may provide an average speed for the passage as well as the ability to attain faster speeds for some period of time, which may be limited due to increased fuel consumption.

Table 3: A hypothetical example of a voyager’s routing preferences.

The method of communication that will be used during the passage must be established ahead of time and tested well in advance of departure while there is still time to make adjustments if needed. Having a backup method of communication is wise. Email addresses and/or satphone numbers need to be in the hands of the router prior to your departure. Voice quality on satphone calls can vary; so, if the phone number is not provided ahead of time and a voyager places a call to the router, reaches voicemail and leaves a message with the number, often one or two digits end up being unintelligible. Many caller ID systems cannot properly display satphone numbers, so this cannot be depended on as a method to get a call back.

Schedule flexibility
It’s also important for the router to be aware of schedule flexibility. If there is a particularly open schedule, then the router may be able to let a voyager know that even though conditions would be acceptable for the passage on the primary departure date, a far superior pattern might be able to be realized by waiting for a few days. If departure plans change, don’t forget to inform the router as soon as the decision is made. Routers get annoyed when they put a great deal of effort into a departure forecast and route plan, only to be told that the plans were changed the day before and the clients can’t depart on schedule.

The bottom line of all of the discussion so far is that comprehensive preparation involving the router will allow the routing service to be much more valuable. Consider your router part of your crew, and know that there is no such thing as providing too much information.

As departure nears and the router provides detailed forecasts and recommendations, clients should feel free to ask questions. If the forecast is less than ideal, the router may recommend a delay in departure or a change in the itinerary or route, but it is perfectly acceptable for the client to float ideas that the router may not have brought up. After all, it is the skipper and their crew that have to make the final call on what to do, and they also have the firmest grasp of the schedule flexibility. Sometimes the ideas brought up by the client end up being better options, and sometimes not — but having a conversation to explore the options allows for a greater benefit from the router’s expertise.

Regular communication
Once the passage is underway, regular communication is critical. Every communication from the boat to the router should include at a minimum your position (lat/long), current wind speed and direction, and sea state. Giving feedback to your router during the passage is extremely helpful — both in terms of the weather and sea state conditions being experienced, but also in terms of how things are going on board with the boat and crew. Information on how the boat is running and how the crew is doing is also valuable to the router.

For example, if a piece of equipment has failed and will impact the performance of the boat, this is critical information for the router to have. Also, if a crewmember becomes ill or is injured, this may limit the ability to make sail changes or accomplish other tasks on board and, again, the router needs to be aware of this. Essentially, any changes in the status of the boat or the crew will effectively change the limits of conditions that were determined prior to departure. These issues could lead the router to suggest a change in route, a different (or intermediate) destination or even a return to the departure port.

Router Ken McKinley advises a client from his Locus Weather office.

It is important to understand that while, technically speaking, a router is engaged as a consultant in order to provide a specific service, thinking of this business engagement as more of a personal relationship will maximize the benefits for the ocean voyager. Routers like to know how their clients are feeling as the voyage unfolds, whether they are satisfied with their boat’s performance, if they are comfortable (or not), if they are running low on provisions or fuel, and any other details of daily shipboard life that can be shared. This information — seemingly unrelated to the weather info that the router is most concerned with — actually does help them understand how things are going on board, which can be factored in to recommendations on routing decisions and possible course changes.

A long conversation
The best routing engagements can be looked at as a long conversation, beginning well ahead of departure during the planning phase, getting more intense around the time of departure and continuing through the passage.

Keeping with the idea of a conversation, when choosing a router it is best to find someone with whom the communication process seems comfortable. The router becomes a de facto crewmember for the duration of the passage, and it is helpful to use some of the same criteria that would be used for crew selection when choosing a router.

The use of a weather routing service can be enormously helpful for ocean voyagers and, with the right amount of time invested in proper preparation, can be even more useful. In fact, the relationship can become very personally rewarding, and many yachtsmen and women develop lifelong friendships with their weather routers.

Contributing editor Ken McKinley is the founder and owner of Locus Weather in Camden, Maine.

By Ocean Navigator