Rallies and weather

I recently become aware of a blog post by John Harries on his Attainable Adventure Cruising website, and thought I should contribute to what has been an excellent and spirited discussion about sailing rallies in the fall. Here is the link

The post suggests that fall rallies carry an inherent danger, and the author makes some excellent points. This newsletter will carry my contribution to this discussion. It is a little long to include as a comment on the blog, but I encourage readers to read the original post along with all of the discussion.

So here goes:

The blog post covers many excellent points, and I agree with most of what has been written. The subsequent discussion has also been very useful, and I would suggest that the whole package would make excellent reading for offshore voyagers, whether seasoned veterans with decades of experience, or relative newcomers with less sea time and less diversity of experience in terms of weather conditions.

I am a professional meteorologist, and spend much of my time providing forecasts for oceangoing yachts. In other words, a weather router in the parlance of the post, although one commenter referred to “controlling weather routers,” and I don’t for a minute pretend that I have control (or should have control) over the decisions that are made by sailors or rally organizers.

I would like to address the section of the post titled “Weather Routing Delusions.” The author correctly notes that the ability to accurately predict weather has improved significantly in recent decades. However, it is dangerous to state that forecasts are reliable up through a certain time period, and then less reliable after that. The situation is much more complex than this. In certain weather patterns, the reliability of a forecast  can still be questionable within a 48-hour time frame today, but at other times with a different pattern, a forecast that extends to five, six, or even seven days can be very reliable. It is part of my job as a weather router to not only provide the best forecast I can for my clients, but to also advise them of my confidence level in my forecast. In other words, I need to tell them how the weather pattern could evolve differently, and what the ramifications could be for the passage, and to make sure they understand this.

The idea that weather routers have “aided and abetted” the notion that sailors can go voyaging without ever facing a gale at sea is mildly offensive to me. Certainly part of my job is to help voyagers to avoid gales, but sometimes that is not possible, and in those cases, I work with them to minimize the duration of encounter of adverse conditions, and also to put their yacht into a position where the gale conditions can be best dealt with (e.g. not in the Gulf Stream with wind against current, not when the wind is well forward of the beam on the intended route, etc.). Also, most of my clients do not “blindly do exactly what I tell them to do,” and I would not expect them to. In fact, I expect my clients to use the information and recommendations I give them as only one tool to help them make prudent decisions both prior to departure and during the voyage.

The recent advent of more convenient, reliable, and affordable communications while offshore (think SailMail, satellite communication systems, etc.) has dramatically changed what weather routers can provide to their clients, and in fact, I might argue that this communication revolution has done more to help voyagers than the actual improvements in forecasts. With these communication systems it is now much easier for me to receive a timely condition report from a yacht, and also to send timely updates to the yacht. This allows me to continually re-evaluate the weather situation with respect to a given voyage, and to suggest changes to the voyage plan if needed.

Let me specifically address the fall rallies. Through the years, I have advised several clients in rallies, including the ARC and the Caribbean 1500, and for the last two seasons, I have served as the “official router” for the NARC. When I have individual clients in rallies, my recommendations to them pay only scant attention to the scheduled departure date and time of the rally. This is not to say that I ignore the rally timing completely, but my departure and routing recommendations will always be based on weather conditions and safety, and I have no problem with advising clients to delay departure beyond the rally start time, or to leave early. I have done this many times. To their credit, the clients I have had in these situations are always very receptive to these types of recommendations. In the case of this year’s NARC, I advised a delay in the start of the rally, and the organizers concurred. Even given the delay, I expected conditions to be moderately difficult, and included the following statement in my forecast:

“Recommendation is to depart tomorrow morning, as long as the expected conditions in the Gulf Stream are not a concern. The Gulf Stream crossing is likely to be rather boisterous, and some squally activity will likely occur. Wind gusts over gale force are likely with seas above normal. These conditions will stress yachts and crew. Once through the stream, rigorous sailing conditions are likely for the remainder of the passage, but with favorable wind direction. Wind speeds will remain below gale force, and seas will remain above normal. If the projected Gulf Stream conditions are not acceptable, then the recommendation would be to delay…”

I think this type of situation illustrates very well what the post is all about, and that is that a North Atlantic voyage at this time of year is likely to require superior preparation and nearly flawless execution to be successful. The decision to undertake such a voyage rests with the skipper, and while there are many resources to aid in the decision making process, ultimately only the skipper can make that decision, and therefore shoulders that responsibility.

One more comment on the fall North Atlantic rallies, and this is an issue I have not seen discussed yet. The rallies all begin in November primarily due to the marine insurance industry. Most insurance policies will not allow yachts to move south of a certain latitude until the official end of the Atlantic hurricane season. While I understand the general reason behind this, using the Nov. 1 date as an absolute indicator without consideration of the actual weather pattern in a given year does not make much sense. I had a situation with a client several years ago where the yacht was ready for departure from New England for the Caribbean in late October, and the weather pattern was nearly ideal (or as ideal as it can get at that time of year) but they were being held up by their insurance company. The problem was that by the time Nov. 1 arrived that year, it appeared that the favorable weather window would be gone, and that conditions were then likely to remain quite unfavorable, and at times rather dangerous for a period of a couple of weeks. It was only after my conversation with a representative from my client’s insurance company that I was able to convince them to allow the departure in late October as it would offer the safest passage. Somehow, this situation needs to be addressed, or at some point, something bad is going to happen to someone who was forced to delay a departure until Nov. 1 in order to please an insurance bureaucrat.

To sum up, I totally agree with the main point of the blog post, which is that those who undertake an oceanic passage must be aware of and prepared for adverse conditions which frequently arise during these passages. From a weather forecasting standpoint, voyagers should utilize information generated by a professional meteorologist to help make decisions, and should have the ability to fully understand what that information means and what the confidence levels are. This information can be obtained from a private meteorological consultant, or from forecasts generated by the meteorologists at NOAA. A very important fact to understand is that widely available GRIB data has had no analysis by a professional meteorologist and it should not be the sole resource used for voyage planning.

By Ocean Navigator