By this time next week I hope to be in Gloucester, Virginia, helping a friend make his CSY 44 ready for our 1500 mile passage to the Virgin Islands. If all goes well, our route will take us out towards Bermuda and then down to the islands.
Making a pleasant passage is one part timing and one part luck. The timing comes in picking a good “weather window” for departure, a window that will let us get out and across the Gulf Stream in good order and well on our way eastward.
To that end there are a variety of very excellent weather resources available on the internet. Where once upon a time 3-7 day predictions were the province of weather gurus and mystics, now a seasoned weather-watcher can look at data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Admininistration (NOAA) and even the US Navy, and make educated guesses as to what the next week’s weather holds. (This time of year the weather is extremely volatile, and anything beyond 48 hours is a guess. In 2009, on our Autumn passage from Montauk to Bermuda, against all predictions we had gale-force winds during our Gulf Stream crossing. Scary!)
One of my very favorite resource is this collection of prediction charts from US Navy’s Fleet Numerical Meteorology and Oceanography Center (FNMOC) The website navigation isn’t very obvious if you don’t already know what you’re looking for, so here’s a direct link to a suite of prediction charts for the North Atlantic.
For a quick all-in-one snap shot I also like PassageWeather.com, but if you compare the various charts from the Navy website to the Passage Weather charts, what Passage Weather does is more about organizing the information for at-a-glance convenience. The heavy lifting of data collection and analysis is done by the US Government.
Also very helpful is this Current velocities of the Gulf Stream charting from a Dutch site that (as best I can tell) compiles and analyses data from European and NASA satellites. Changes in the location, course and speed of the Gulf Stream happen more slowly, so a print out of this page before jumping offshore will be pretty close to the conditions you encounter, and is invaluable.
For weather information once your offshore a single sideband receiver is a must. A full blown send receive transmitter is great, but even an inexpensive “world-band” radio and Blackcat’s Multimode transcoding software will let you pick up NOAA weatherfax transmissions hundreds of miles from land. It’s pretty wild, hearing the fax transmission squall on the headset, and then watching it turn into a weather chart on the computer screen.
Satellite phones have become affordable and there are even companies that rent handsets, but with a SSB transmitter and weatherfax already onboard, we probably won’t take one.
We will be taking SPOT beacon. SPOT combines a GPS receiver with the ability to send out 4 pre-formated messages along with current GPS coordinates via satellite. It’s sort of like an EPIRB that can send out a “Hey! This is where we are and everything is fine” message.
The ability to send present location along with an afirmative “we’re okay” is a real plus for loved ones ashore. Passages don’t always go according to plan, and most delays are not dangerous, just delays. For example, on our 2009 passage from Bermuda to St. Thomas, we ended up making landfall at St. Maarten. A “we’re here and we’re fine” message lets people know that just because things haven’t gone according to plan doesn’t mean things have gone wrong.
And speaking of, our SPOT account is linked to my @CaptDavidRyan twitter account and our Sailing Montauk Facebook account. Through the miracle of modern technology, our SPOT position updates will show up in my twitter-feed and on our Facebook wall. SPOT even offers a page where our location posts are plotted on a Google map so you can see our progress over time. Nifty!
Of course the SPOT thingo only does 7 days of plots, and the trip should take us more like two weeks. That’s where the luck comes in. Even in the Summer I don’t put a lot of faith in forecasts past three days out, and there’s no such thing as a reliable forecast that reaches out 10 days. The best you can do is make sure your boat is ready to take whatever the sea might dish out, keep one eye on the sky and one ear on the shortwave set, and be ready to take what comes.