Dear Dr. IT,
My husband wants to make a passage from the Bahamas south to Puerto Rico, which will take us around three to four days in our midsized sailboat. We have never made a passage of this length and generally sail locally in Florida and the Bahamas. We have an old weatherfax machine onboard that prints bad-looking charts WHEN it works. I am very worried about being without current, graphical forecasts while at sea. Help! I may have to fly instead of sail. – Tricia B., S/V Cocktails
Tricia, your question is a very interesting one currently. In the past few years there have been great advances in not only the forecasting accuracy of meteorological models but also in the method that they are presented to the mariner. Today an interactive color graphical user interface is commonplace, whereas a few years back, a mariner had to rely on a black and white weather fax or transcribed voice communications.
Recently, I read that the one to three-day forecast models are around 95% accurate for stable climate locations and around 75% correct for less stable climates. With this in mind, and your passage being within this window, you can relax a bit with the data you will have when leaving port for your short trip. Either of these two rates seem very impressive to me for being able to predict wind, precipitation and temperature well into the future.
If you are still looking for an on-the-water solution, there are a few options. One obviously could spend the money for high speed, bi-directional, satellite communications gear, the end-all be-all solution that allows much more than current weather. But the cost of equipment, cost of usage and footprint needed on the boat for installation is large.
Here are a couple ideas that will not break the bank or sink the boat. The first solution that comes to mind is XM satellite weather integrated into one of the major manufacturer's chart plotter systems. This system will provide you standard weather data and a multitude of information such as local NEXRAD radar, lighting, satellite images, and much more, all seamlessly integrated with your chart plotter while at sea. The catch is that you need a system that integrates with XM satellite weather and need to be in the XM coverage area for this solution to work. Neither of these two caveats sounds good for an active cruiser straying from coastal North American waters, although you should have coverage during most of your trip.
The second option, which is more powerful and does not require an integrated chart plotter system with XM capabilities, is called QuickLink by Baron. Quicklink is a graphical weather data service provided by running WxWorx on your onboard PC; it provides a wealth of information in a standard windows interface. Although still in the beta testing phase, Baron says the solution will be released soon. Unlike XM coverage, this solution provides worldwide weather information – yes, nearly worldwide – via downloads provided by your own data connection. In your case, a satellite phone would be sufficient for the Quicklink downloads necessary on your trip. Baron goes the extra length to make downloads economical, providing compressed targeted downloads based upon your location.
While not a weather forecasting solution, I must also mention the blog of Dr. Jeff Masters from www.wunderground.com. This is one of my favorite sources of weather information, hands down. During the Caribbean tropical weather season, Masters writes daily blog entries about the tropics, discussing a variety of forecast models and of course any active storm systems. In these blogs, Masters not only discusses the forecast, but also explains why this forecast shows what it does and why – or why not – he agrees with the model.
Adding this educational "functional understanding" knowledge – why a storm is tracking the way it is, why a storm is intensifying or why a system will not develop – is not only very educational, but may ease some of your tension understanding how and why weather changes.
Tricia, pay good attention to the forecast while leaving, possibly invest in one of the solutions mentioned here, and enjoy the sail!
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Dustin Norlund has lived aboard his Hylas 49 sailing extensively in the Caribbean and Central America and is presently involved in IT and software solutions at the enterprise level. He has also worked in marine electric and electronics services for yachts. www.nadagato.com or via email at email@example.com.