The Perfect Forecast?

Early morning day 3 of a perfect passage
Early morning day 3 of a perfect passage

There are few more soul-destroying or pointless pastimes than wishing the weather would get better. Constantly scanning all of the available weather information (GRIBs, web, SSB, etc.), looking for the faintest glimmer of an improvement, it can easily get to you.

Too much information is almost worse than too little, and can badly delay or even de-rail your plans if you let it get on top of you. You can end up only seeing the most negative information (Gusting Force 8 at 10 a.m. on Tuesday! Waves at 6 seconds!) and not the bigger picture, which might actually be more benign.

Worrying and waiting until everything is absolutely perfect is a loser’s game, that saps confidence and can ultimately lead to missed opportunities for some great passagemaking.

Now, nobody wants to go out and get a battering (unless they have got latent masochistic tendencies) but if you’ve got a good, solid, well maintained boat and you’ve seen this stuff before, you’re in good shape. If so, you know that while you might not like it when the weather is at its worst, you also know that the boat will look after you.

Knowing that it’s doable within the skills of the crew is perhaps the more important factor here, and that’s where pushing yourselves a little to make passages when the forecast is less than perfect can be a good training regime, building confidence and teamwork to new heights.

“Time spent in reconnaissance is seldom wasted.”*

With an open water passage coming, we’ll start to look at the weather at least a week beforehand, to begin to get a ‘feel’ for present and future patterns. We don’t expect much from this beyond a rough guide.

A few days before we hope to depart we’ll begin to look in more depth, especially at GRIBs, to get a sense of the bigger picture of highs and lows, and how they might develop and influence each other.

We find web-based sites such as Passageweather and Windguru very useful at this stage, containing a lot of information in an accessible format.

Once we’ve settled on a likely departure date, we’ll check developments a couple of times a day to assess the stability of the pattern and make sure that no real nasties like secondary lows are lurking in the wings.

Once the moment to go arrives and all is looking good, we’ll get as much last minute information as possible and then head out, at which point we reckon that we can probably rely on what information we have for the next 48 hours.

If the passage is going to be longer than that, then we accept that to a greater or lesser degree we’re in the realm of no more than informed guesswork weather-wise, and that what comes next, comes next, and we’ll deal with it accordingly.

We often plan a route on a laptop, using Open CPN software, and overlay GRIB data on to the charts together with possible routes, waypoints and distances to safe havens. We then save the pages for later reference (or in case the plotter goes down). It makes for a useful, quick review of likely conditions and escape routes.

What’s the likely wind direction?

This is a major factor. It’s one thing to head off with a strong following breeze, quite another to slam head on into the same wind from ahead—beating into 25 knots will mean an apparent wind approaching gale force over the deck, whilst the same wind over the stern will feel like an easily manageable Force 5 (15-21 knots).

Going upwind in those conditions will be wet, uncomfortable and hard on the boat and crew. We wouldn’t willingly depart in such conditions unless we had to, and even then we’d try to wait for a lull or wind shift to clear the land, where most problems will manifest themselves due to shipping, fishing gear, shallow water, strong currents and the wind effects off headlands.

Strong winds over the stern are easier to cope with
Strong winds over the stern are easier to cope with

More or less wind?

We’d always choose a forecast with more wind than less (within reason). It’s a fact that overall you’ll spend more time in light winds than strong winds when ocean passagemaking, and it’s a shame to waste a fair wind, even if there’s a little more of it than you’d normally sail with.

Reef down, sail conservatively, and don’t miss the chance to build your confidence and skills.

When reading web forecasts:

  • Remember that they are smoothed and that gusts can be much higher.
  • The choice of model employed to interpret the same raw data can present those data very differently.
  • Average wind speeds in open water nearly always seem (to us) to be higher than forecast.
  • Look at the associated weather—some sources don’t give much detail—like thunderstorms, for example. Use a range of sources.
  • Don’t use them in isolation, use them in conjunction with charts and pilot books to look for potential land effects that might generate adverse conditions and currents that can drastically alter sea state, as these can often affect progress far out to sea.

An Actual Passage On Pèlerin

Having spent many days at Fajardo, at the eastern end of Puerto Rico, exploring ashore, we were champing at the bit to set off for the Bahamas.

Our original plan had been to head around the north of the island with the Turks and Caicos as a first stop, but with the forecast for the week showing a constant procession of winds of Force 6 to 7 (21-33 knots), that didn’t look like a comfortable option, so we decided to head along the south coast, daysailing between anchorages.

We weren’t delayed enough that we had to go, so we’d get to see some more of an island we liked, we were still going in the right direction, and hopefully by the end of the week the weather would improve. We did the sensible thing and rolled with the punches.

By the time we reached the western end of Puerto Rico, the forecast was far more favourable, with east and southeast winds of Force 5 to 6 (15-27 knots) predicted for the next few days before dropping lighter later. Perfect conditions for fast passagemaking, and we set about getting ready to go and clearing out.

Our Passage Plan

IMG_0092-Edit

We followed our usual practice and sketched out a passage plan, based on weather conditions, breakdowns, crew comfort and fatigue.

Departing from Puerto Real on the west coast of Puerto Rico, we knew we’d have at least a few hours of motoring in the wind shadow of the island before the wind would fill in.

Ports of Refuge

If we had any problems after that, the first possible port of refuge would be Semana in the Dominican Republic (c. 30 hours), followed by Luperon (c. 48 hours), then Grand Turk or Providenciales in the Turks and Caicos (c. 72 hours). If we were going well and not too tired, we’d keep going to Georgetown in the Bahamas (c. 96 hours).

The first three options were less than ideal for a number of reasons:

  • Semana is in a large bay open to the east, and looked like a hard place to get back out of in the prevailing winds and conditions;
  • Luperon seemed to have a permanent strong onshore wind feature, and that didn’t appeal;
  • None of the easily accessible anchorages in the Turks and Caicos looked very sheltered in the conditions we expected, although with our shallow draft we knew we’d get in somewhere safe, even if not comfortable.

So all of them were simply ports of refuge, not useful tactical stops.

Day one

Motoring is a good time to get the washing done!
Motoring is a good time to get the washing done!

Up at first light and out into the Mona Passage, flat calm and no wind, so a good time to do our washing! Gradually, the wind filled in from the northeast, bending around the west end of Puerto Rico and accelerating down the Mona Passage. Full sail, fast two sail reaching, putting a reef in the main later in the day as the wind continued to increase.

At nightfall, as always, we reefed further, putting a reef in the yankee for safety, making life easy for the on watch crew member, and more comfortable for the one sleeping below.

By now the wind was occasionally reaching Force 5 (15-21 knots) over the quarter, so boat speed was still high, with precise steering control via the Windpilot.

During the night the wind got up further at times, necessitating further reefing to keep everything well within safe and comfortable parameters.

Nightfall day one
Nightfall day one

Day two

Began with perfect conditions, with the wind now a steady east Force 5 (15-21 knots), occasionally 6 (21-27 knots), over the quarter and 2 m following seas. Two reefs in the main and one in the yankee, as it was now daylight.

With a further increase in the wind expected later in the day, together with a wind shift more to the southeast that would bring the wind round almost dead over the stern, we expected to be poling out well before nightfall, and did so just before the start of watches at 1800.

By now the wind was an altogether more robust Force 6, and the sea had got up, too. With night falling we had two reefs in the main and with the yankee strapped down tight on the pole with two reefs, we were under complete control.

During the night, we had yet a little more wind and took a third reef in the main and also the yankee to keep things smooth and calm, which proved the right move when the occasional squall came through.

Day three

Rounding Castle rock, Acklins island
Rounding Castle Rock, Acklins Island

Another beautiful morning, and in the daylight we unfurled a little more yankee to keep her trucking along. By now all of the ports of refuge were behind us, having never been given serious thought.

By afternoon we expected to round the southern end of Acklins Island, at which stage we could decide whether to head up into the lee of the island to anchor and clear in at Spring Point, or carry on for a further night to Georgetown.

Approaching Castle Rock, the wind was still around Force 6, so we gybed the yankee and stowed the pole before hardening up on the new course to the north.

As we’d have to motor for 15-odd miles across very shallow banks, sometimes straight into the wind, to reach Simons Point, it wasn’t a hard decision to make to keep going, even though we knew we’d have to slow down to make a dawn arrival at the entrance to Georgetown.

Stowing the pole
Stowing the pole

Day four

We steered a conservative distance off Cape Santa Maria to avoid any fishing activity (although we didn’t see any) and turned south around midnight, reaching slowly down to the entrance to Elizabeth Harbour, where we arrived at our waypoint in the early morning light after 96 hours and five minutes on passage.

A Perfect Passage

It was a fantastic sail, one of the very best. Both of us were fresh and had slept well (apart from the first night—and who sleeps well on the first night?). We had cooked and eaten good food throughout the passage.

Total breakages: two telltales on the mainsail that got mangled during reefing.

Three hours motoring in total, just as we left Puerto Rico.

We had covered 636 miles, at an average speed of nearly 6.6 knots, with no real effort on our part.

Maximum wind speed observed was 30 knots during a squall. We hadn’t taken any risks, had taken our chances when required, and Pèlerin and a good forecast had done the rest.

Our reward – morning day four
Our reward – morning day four

What was in our favour?

Pèlerin positively revels in these downwind conditions. With the centreboard pumped into the up position, she is surefooted, controllable and easy on the helm.

As usual, our Windpilot Pacific performed its magic, but we generally hand steered during the squalls, more as a precaution than a necessity, as the wind was shifting in the squalls.

The only time we used the autopilot was when motoring at the start and late on day three approaching Acklins Island, when a combination of wind and current created a shorter, unruly wave train that had us occasionally surfing, which upsets the vane due to the rapid shifts in apparent wind speed and direction.

We had hardly any shipping or fishing boat activity throughout the passage, which always reduces stress when on watch alone.

Did we push the boat hard?

No, we carried a little more sail by day, but we still sailed the boat well within safe limits at all times. She is such an easily driven boat in any case that it isn’t necessary to hammer her.

We changed gear in tune with the conditions, and weren’t lazy when the wind eased, shaking out reefs when necessary to keep her stable, fast and comfortable.

The average wind speeds were higher than the forecasts, but we’d anticipated that and weren’t surprised or fazed as a result. As always, we used all of the tricks that I recently outlined in my posts on reaching and poling out, to good effect. No heroics, no anxiety, just textbook easy sailing.

Most squalls don’t last
Most squalls don’t last

When on watch alone we have pre-arranged wind speed parameters according to the sail plan and wind direction.

If the wind speed rises and settles above, say, 20 knots apparent, the watch keeper will call the off watch crew to help put in the reef to suit the new regime.

The only exception to this is in a short squall, when the wind should soon return to normal levels.

We both stick to this religiously and it keeps us safe and sound, and means we can rest better when off watch knowing that the other can be trusted to watch the conditions carefully and call when necessary.

Combine that with precautionary reefing for the night watches, and you have a recipe for safety and sound sleep. Similarly, if the wind drops light, we can power up, perhaps at the change of watch to avoid disturbing the off watch crewmember.

We keep a visual and radar watch by day and night to track squalls, and judge their intensity and whether they are going to hit us, which gives plenty of time to call the off watch crew member if necessary.

What To Watch Out For

I’m a great adherent of Adlard Coles’ dictum that you shouldn’t carry any more sail when going downwind than you would upwind in the same conditions. One of the easiest ways to get into trouble is to keep trucking along downwind as the wind steadily rises without reefing.

It all seems like great fun until suddenly the boat is over the limit and then it’s no fun at all—that’s when accidents can happen. And if someone should go over the side and you’ve way too much canvas up, what then?

Knowing when enough is enough is a vastly underrated skill in any cruising skipper, and is well worth cultivating. Don’t push your luck too far going downwind—you’re cruising, not racing.

Other Thoughts

Choosing to depart with a forecast when there is a little more wind than you’d usually go with is a calculated risk, but in this case it paid off handsomely. Having said that, there’s no doubt that it can go the other way, as has happened to me on a few occasions, but far, far fewer times than when it has panned out well.

We did our best to sail a good boat well, and as a result have even more confidence in our personal abilities, trust in each other and in Pèlerin.

Successful offshore cruising is about expanding our comfort zone and improving our skills constantly.

Exploring our boundaries and pushing our limits within reason makes sense, and has an additional dividend in that the next time we’re out there and get caught out in unexpected bad weather (as we inevitably will), we’ll know that we can trust the boat and we’ve more experience of strong conditions and how to handle them. As a result we should be a better and safer crew.

And the perfect forecast? There’s no such thing, but there are plenty of really good ones that come very close if you learn to handle them!

Further Reading

* John Marsden
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Colin, European Correspondent here at AAC, is a deeply experienced offshore sailor who holds a Yachtmaster licence, and a gifted photographer and talented writer who has added a whole new dimension to Attainable Adventure Cruising. In addition, since Colin and Louise are from England and had their OVNI 435, Pèlerin built in France, they bring a European perspective to our site. You can read more about Colin and Louise and their business at their website.

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