Weather software plays an increasingly important role for the offshore sailor. The options for getting weather information at sea have been proliferating rapidly. As with many other marine technologies, weather software is quickly becoming faster, easier to use, and less expensive.
Most marine weather software can be classified into one of the following categories: weatherfax and satellite weather. Software that handles weather routing will be covered in the article that follows. Weatherfax imagery has been around since the 1950s and is the most widely used type of marine weather software. In the U.S., synoptic weather charts originate at the National Weather Service’s Marine Prediction Center and are disseminated to the Coast Guard for transmission over marine single-sideband frequencies.
The Coast Guard maintains transmitters at Marshfield, Mass. (outside Boston) for North Atlantic weather (see schedule on page 68); Belle Chase, La. (outside New Orleans) for Gulf of Mexico and tropical Atlantic weather; and Point Reyes, Calif. (outside San Francisco) for Pacific weather. There are also transmitting stations in Kodiak, Alaska (for the Gulf of Alaska), and Honolulu, Hawaii (for tropical Pacific waters). Each station transmits weather charts according to a daily schedule.
While there are still a limited number of dedicated units that focus solely on receiving and printing weatherfax charts such as the Furuno Weather Facsimile Receiver/Printer, most people choose instead to interface their single-sideband (SSB) radio with their computer in order to get weather charts. The computer-based option offers a number of advantages over the dedicated receiver/printer. With the dedicated units, you’re limited to seeing the image directly as it arrives off the radio waves. There is no opportunity to clean the image or tweak it to be clearer or more readable. However, by using a computer and software to receive the images, you have the ability to perform many different operations to try to improve the quality of the incoming weather chart. As an example, consider the image in figure 1. This is an image of a chart as it was received on-board from the Belle Chase/New Orleans transmitting station. By using weatherfax software to clear away some of the “snow” or “static” in the image, and re-aligning the image, we can improve the image to look like it does in figure 2.
An off-the-shelf package
While you can try to piece together homegrown hardware and publicly available software to assemble your own weatherfax decoding equipment, most people find it more convenient to buy an off-the-shelf package that includes all the hardware and software necessary to start receiving weatherfax images. You provide the single-sideband radiothe package does all the rest. The most popular commercial weatherfax packages are Coretex’s Weatherfax for Windows (originally made by Xaxero in New Zealand), Software Systems Consulting (SSC) PC HF Facsimile, the Ocean and Coastal Environmental Sensing (OCENS) Weather Station HW, andfor the MacintoshQuintessence Designs’ WeathermaQ.
Coretex and SSC both include a demodulator with cable that connects it to the external speaker (or headphone) jack of your SSB receiver and a spare serial port on your computer. One common problem with these systems is that they require the use of a serial port in order to connect to your single-sideband receiver. If you have a laptop computer on-board, chances are it has only one serial port, and chances are you’re already using this serial port to provide a GPS signal to your electronic charting program. If this is the case, you’ll need to look into buying an extra serial port that can be provided through a PC Card or a USB device.
WeathermaQ avoids the problem entirely by connecting your SSB receiver’s external speaker jack directly to the “audio in” connection on the computer. There is no external demodulator; its functions are handled with a Macintosh’s built-in sound circuitry.
OCENS developed an interesting product called WeatherStation 2000 HW late last year; it allows for weatherfax reception without the need of an extra serial port. Instead it uses a credit card-sized PC (or PCMCIA) card that fits into your laptop (or into your desktop with an adapter) to make the connection to the SSB. While their product is a bit more pricey than Coretex or SSC’s products, it costs about the same when you consider the cost for the extra serial port that’s sometimes needed with the other products.
Any of these systems should provide high-quality weather charts from various stations around the world. In addition to the rapidly changing software, the transmitting stations have also been in a state of flux lately with many going off the air, restricting their transmission to times of military need. The de facto web site standard for finding weatherfax stations is http://www.hffax.de/. The site is maintained privately by Marius Rensen in Hannover, Germany, and contains a wealth of information about weatherfax stations as well as weatherfax equipment. Though not officially sanctioned by any governmental authority as a source for station frequenciesthe U.S. National Weather Service Marine Prediction Center’s web site will send you here if you’re looking for information on overseas weatherfax. For domestic stations, the Weather Service maintains a very informative web site at http://www.mpc.ncep.noaa.gov/radiofax/. This site not only lists the frequencies and schedules for the Coast Guard’s transmitting stations, it also allows you to use your Internet connection to download the same charts that are broadcast over the radio waves. This is great for practicing your weather interpretation skills at home without the need to bring your SSB with you!
In January 2000, the National Weather Service issued a 94-page publication entitled Worldwide Marine Radiofacsimile Broadcast Schedules, which contains information about all known transmitting weatherfax stations. The publication is available for free on the Internet at http://www.nws.noaa.gov/om/marine/radiofax.htm and will prove useful for anyone considering an international voyage. For information on other radio transmissions, consider the British Admiralty’s multi-volume publication, List of Signals, which contains information not only about weatherfax stations, but about all other radio transmissions of interest to the mariner.
The next step up in sophistication for gathering weather information is to use satellite imagery. These images are produced by orbiting weather satellites that are continually photographing the earth. There is some confusion as to what type of satellite imagery is available to mariners. There are two types of weather satellites that scan the earthone is a geostationary type of satellite which is in a very high orbit (23,000 miles high) and stays constantly over one spot on earth’s surface. Due to its high orbit and distance from the earth, it can see almost one third of the globe at any one time. However, because it is so far away, a fairly sophisticated tracking antenna is required to capture the relatively weak signal. These antennas are generally too large for most yachts. The other type of weather satellite is a polar orbiting satellite that circles earth in a much lower orbit (500 miles). Since these satellites are much closer to the surface, their signal can be picked up with a relatively small, non-tracking antenna that will fit on just about any boat. The signal is available anytime the satellite is in view. These polar-orbiting satellites circle the earth about once every 90 minutes, offering several passes a day over any given location.
Each satellite has a number of different sensors used to collect informationthe two most important types for mariners are the sensors used to collect visible and infrared imagery. Visible satellite imagery can show textures in cloud tops that yield significant clues as to the weather in their vicinity. Infrared imagery allows you to measure the temperature for each point in the image. In areas covered in clouds you can measure the temperature of the cloud tops, which in turn signifies how high the clouds reach in the atmosphere and what type of clouds they are.
For example, a dense thundercell is typically composed of cumulonimbus clouds that reach into the upper limits of the atmosphere. As a result of being so high, the tops of these clouds are very cold, and they show up very distinctively in a satellite image that’s been colorized to show cloud top temperatures. The ability to see this detail in an otherwise featureless cold front could prove invaluable to the ocean voyager.
Consider a chart that arrives via weatherfax, showing a long cold front stretching to the southwest off the U.S. east coast. This information alone is worthwhile to any sailor in the vicinity. Now consider an image that was obtained directly from a polar-orbiting weather satellite. This image shows the same cold front, but it has additional detail because it shows the cloud top temperatures. The green area highlighted by the black arrow is significantly colder than the surrounding clouds. This suggests that it is a taller group of clouds, which, in turn, suggest greater convective activity and a greater likelihood of bad weather. This kind of detailed information isn’t available on any weatherfax chart, and can only be found by analyzing satellite imagery.
In areas not covered by clouds, you can measure the temperature of the earth’s surfaceor in our case, the ocean’s surface. These sea-surface temperatures can be colorized to show warmer water traveling in the midst of colder water. This allows you to actually see ocean currents like the Gulf Stream quite clearly on satellite imagery. In figure 3, the Gulf Stream appears as a deep red, while the waters to the north are significantly cooler and show up as mostly yellow and blue. There are two large warm eddies that have spun off the Gulf Streamone eddy is south of Long Island and its clockwise circulation is shown clearly in the red color indicating the warm water. The other eddy is southeast of Nantucket and appears as an orange circular pattern.
In order to receive satellite imagery directly, you’ll need an antenna (preferably with a pre-amplifier), a receiver to tune in to the correct signal, and a demodulator to extract the data from the radio signal. In addition you’ll need to have software that allows you to process the image. Most mariners who choose to have satellite capture equipment on-board wind up getting a complete package that includes all of the hardware, software, and components necessary to get up and running.
Some of the software packages available will also allow you to download satellite imagery from an on-line archive that NOAA maintains on the Internet (http://www.saa.noaa.gov). This is a useful feature as you can practice analyzing imagery at home and compare your analysis with TV meteorologists and other public weather sources. It can also be useful to download several images before departure to get a feel for the current weather patterns.
Another advantage to this approach of downloading imagery from the Internet is that you can get very detailed information on ocean currents which aren’t likely to change very much over the course of a short passageall without the expense of installing direct capture equipment on board.
Some of the more popular packages include SeaStation 2000 from OCENS in Seattle; WeatherTrac from SFWX, Inc., in Allentown, Pa.; Wefax (hardware) and Qfax (software) from Quorum Communications, Inc., in Irving, Texas; and various packages from Systems West, Inc., in Marina, Calif.
Though not technically a category of software, the Internet has rapidly become a primary source of weather information for many mariners, both recreational and professional. It is very common to hear of sailors spending the morning of a departure at their computer downloading the latest weather charts and forecasts to have on file before leaving port. Though the download-before-departure approach has diminishing returns as you’re at sea for longer periods, it is invaluable for short passages.
The information available on the Internet is typically much more detailed than that available while underway, and also offers a great opportunity to get familiar with weather patterns without actually having to sail through them. For instance, if there’s a storm coming, the first thing I usually do is start looking at weather charts from the Internet. Once you get familiar with how “real” weather relates to weather depicted on charts, you’ll be in a better position to route your vessel safely through troubled waters.
Mariners are finding that it is becoming easier to access the Internet in different ways while at sea. While many systems offer the capability to send and receive e-mail messages from the high seas, a few will even allow you to browse the webalbeit at very, very slow speeds. If you have an Inmarsat A, B, Mini-M, or AMSC satellite system, you should be able to connect to a provider that will get you access to the Internet. Be very cautious about this, as the fees can add up rapidly due to the frustratingly slow access times for most of these systems. Here are some tips to help keep costs down if you choose to do this:
· Bookmark the site with the information you actually need. If you usually go to the Marine Prediction Center’s web site, and then click on the “Forecast Products” link, and then click on the “Current High Seas Forecast” link; don’t bother to bookmark the first few pagesjust bookmark the page with the forecast on it. The fewer pages you look at, the less time you’ll spend online, and the lower the costs will be.
· Avoid downloading images. Images take up an exponentially larger amount of space than text. The 48-hour surface forecast for the North Atlantic is anywhere from four to 15 times larger than the text forecast for the same area. Larger files mean longer download times, which mean higher costs. If you do need the charts, be selective about which ones you needmany of the charts are available over the weatherfax. Find sites with smaller images or lots of text information before you leave, and make bookmarks for them.
· Don’t browse aimlessly. The web is a great medium for finding things you didn’t even know you were looking for, but how useful are they to you as a voyager? Do most of your browsing at home, and bookmark the pages that you think will be useful underway. Some sites such as Gocruising.Net cater to boaters looking for no-frills, text-only weather information.
Selecting the right software
Like other software markets, the marine computing market is changing almost daily with new features developed, new versions planned, and new bugs found (and hopefully fixed). Most companies offer evaluation versions of their programs that you can try out for a while to see if the software meets your expectations. You should feel comfortable with the operation of any software you purchase.
Sometimes in an effort to pack in as many features as possible, vendors lose sight of making the product easy to use. A high-quality software vendor will spend some time testing its software for usability, and incorporate the feedback it receives from its user tests. You’ll notice this extra effort when you can easily find out how to accomplish a task as opposed to having to dig out the manual and thumbing through the index in frustration. If a program seems unusually complex even after you’ve spent some time trying to learn it, you might want to try an alternative.
Software training is slowly becoming available. Ocean Navigator’s School of Ocean Seamanship offers a two-day seminar focused on on-board computing. It provides hands-on training with a number of different software packages. Some software vendors are starting to offer their own training courses to help their customers better understand their product’s operation.
While word-of-mouth can be a big help in selecting the right software, be careful of negative opinions from people who didn’t spend the time to learn how to use their software. It’s not uncommon for an opinion such as, “I just spent $500 on this new-fangled software and it doesn’t seem to do anything worthwhile,” to change into something like, “This new software is so useful, I don’t know how I ever got along without it,” once someone makes the effort to understand how to use the program.
Weather software can add a tremendous amount of utility and safety to an offshore passage. Choosing the right software for your needs, and learning how to use it are critical to making effective use of these weather tools.
Daniel Piltch is the founder of Marine Computer Systems in Portland, Maine, offering training, hardware, software, and advice to boaters.