Weather Analysis And Routing Is The Skipper’s Responsibility

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Many times over the years people have said things to me like:

He lost his boat because the weather router screwed up.

We got a real dusting and did a lot of damage because the weather forecast was wrong.

This might sound perfectly logical, but it’s not.

Let’s look at a recent incident in which a weather router sent a boat into a piece of ocean with a substantial current in an attempt to avoid bad weather. The weather deteriorated more than expected and the resulting wind-against-current generated breaking waves that rolled the boat and eventually led to her abandonment. Many people blamed the router. That’s simply wrong. The skipper was at fault.

Why? Because before going offshore a skipper should understand the conditions and risks prevalent in the sea area to be crossed so that he or she can properly decide when to put to sea and how to route the passage. A weather router or forecaster is an adviser only, not a substitute for an experienced and well-informed skipper. It is the skipper’s responsibility to act in a safe manner, which, going back to the example above, would not normally include entering a high current area with heavy weather coming.

Over the years, I have had weather routers advise me to:

  • leave port as I stood in a telephone booth rocked by 60 knot gusts;
  • sail into an area of 5/10 pack ice to get a more favourable wind direction;
  • leave on a crossing with a hurricane tracking up the coast just 400 miles away.

Needless to say, I did none of those things. And, if I had taken their advice and something had gone wrong, it would have been my responsibility alone, not theirs. I’m the master on Morgan’s Cloud, not some meteorologist, who may have never been offshore, sitting in a warm office on dry land looking at a very focused set of data that may miss a vital macro fact or trend.

Now please understand that although we rarely use a weather router these days, we still consult one when faced with a tricky passage, particularly late or early in the sailing season. Weather routers can bring meteorological understanding to a situation that no amateur can hope to match, but most of them are not mariners and they are not the skipper of your boat.

So, how should you go about getting weather information and using it to make the right decisions when offshore, even if you blend that with advice from a weather router? To answer that question, this book details our approach to route planning, weather reception and risk analysis on Morgan’s Cloud.

In this book we will teach you how to evaluate a forecast and assess the probability of it being radically wrong, as well as how to interpret the actual conditions to warn you when the weather is about to deviate from the forecast.

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Frank Singleton

I agree with you regarding the responsibility of the skipper. As a one time forecaster and with some experience of weather routing, I have to doubt the value of routing guidance whilst on passage. Obviously, a long distance sailor will choose the best time of year and best climatological route for an ocean passage. It might be reassuring to take professional advice on that.

Once clear of land, having started with a reasonable weather window, it is my belief that a typical cruising yacht will be too slow, weather systems too large, and forecasting not sufficiently precise to make any significant course changes. If a major storm has your name on it, then it will be almost impossible to avoid. The best use of forecasts will be to get warnings of bad weather and to prepare accordingly. With synoptic charts and, maybe, with GRIBs, the person in the best position to make decisions will be the skipper.

A good example was last year when a friend of mine sailed from Bermuda to the Azores. He made his own decisions informed largely by GRIBs. Two other yachts were using Herb. Despite Herb’s experience, my friend says that he got to Bermuda about two weeks earlier. No doubt Herb had a bad day but the other two boats went a long way north then a long way south of my friend. They got on the wrong side of a depression.

Tristan Mortimer

I can give a similar, but opposite anecdote of a similar voyage. Myself and a similar sized boat sailed by some friends departed North Carolina, I chose to use Herb for routing information and my friends who did not have SSB on board obviously did not. We arrived in the Azores 10 days before them having been routed to towards lighter weather than preferable. However we did not arrive with broken teeth having been caught in continuos gales at 42 north. The point is of course that information is key and early decisions to route one way or another can have significant impact upon comfort and safety. Whilst I can take little credit for that particular success access to information enabled a view of the macro synoptic picture.