Q&A: Risk Management, Hurricanes

Question [received July 11, 2008]: We’re in St. John’s, Newfoundland, waiting to cross to Scotland. We’re just about ready to go and the weather forcast is good for leaving. However, Hurricane Bertha is just south of Bermuda. The current forecast is for her to weaken to 55 knots within four to five days, and stay well south of Nova Scotia and Newfoundland.

It seems possible for us to go now and if Bertha speeds up and heads northeast we could head for the Labrador Sea to get out of her way. Would you consider leaving a stupid choice to make?

Answer [with some changes and additions after the fact]: This is a tough decision, particularly since the weather, aside from Bertha, looks very good to head east and the summer is marching on with an ever-increasing chance of hurricanes. If I was in St. John’s in Morgan’s Cloud and absolutely had to get to Europe this year would I risk going? Perhaps, but as a general rule I don’t run with the bulls and I don’t go to sea in the same ocean as a hurricane. To me, the downside risks of both activities outweigh any benefits.

If I was heading for Greenland I would go but watch Bertha very carefully and divert for Labrador if she did something unexpected. However, on a course for Scotland you won’t realistically have that option after the first day or so.

Hurricane prediction is an inexact science at best. There is always a chance that a hurricane will do something completely unpredicted, particularly when it goes extra-tropical as it moves north past Nova Scotia. It, or an extra-tropical storm it spawns, could also easily accelerate to 25 or even 40 knots and overtake you no matter what you do. Admittedly, with the current jet stream position I’m guessing that Bertha will probably eventually die out north of Bermuda, but can you afford to take the risk of that being wrong? Only you can say. And before deciding, you need to ask yourself if you, your crew, and your boat are capable of surviving storm force winds for several days.

Additional Thoughts

As hurricane seasons have got longer with more frequent and intense storms that come further north earlier, it is getting more and more difficult to completely avoid going to sea with a hurricane around and still make voyages.

However, there are two things voyagers can do:

  1. Leave for west to east Atlantic crossings by the end of June.
  2. Be prepared to scrap the entire plan of making the crossing if stopped from leaving by a series of hurricanes, and go the next year, but earlier.

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Meet the Author

John

John was born and brought up in Bermuda and started sailing as a child, racing locally and offshore before turning to cruising. He has sailed over 100,000 miles, most of it on his McCurdy & Rhodes 56, Morgan's Cloud, including eight ocean races to Bermuda, culminating in winning his class twice in the Newport Bermuda Race. He has skippered a series of voyages in the North Atlantic, the majority of which have been to the high latitudes. John has been helping others go voyaging by sharing his experience for twenty years, first in yachting magazines and, for the last 12 years, as co-editor/publisher of AAC.

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