Friday, December 23, 2011

Whether the Weather

It seems to me that weather is the earth’s perpetual quest for balance. Take any of gravity, heat, moisture, and air alone and things would be pretty quiet. Put them together into a rotating salad spinner and they feed off of each other like kids at a birthday party. The earth tries to calm things down, diverting and releasing pressure when she sees the party getting carried away but her pursuit is futile. While there can be patterns on a global scale, any of the party goers can change their minds on a whim by tossing firecrackers into the bunch and sending the party into a frenzy. 
Reading weather is a literacy I didn’t pay much attention to at home. In Alberta, we are bothered by weather with icy roads or short summers. We talk about it incessantly but it’s more of a nuisance than a decision breaker. It is never what we want it to be but we can stay home when we need to. There, our “weather parties” tend to come from west to east with a bit of north thrown in. On a boat, weather is everything and ocean weather (actually all weather is ocean weather) is a completely different phenomenon to a prairie girl. I remember kayaking at the west coast of Canada and watching a thunderstorm cell approach from the west. I hunkered down on shore as it roared by with vicious winds, thunder, and lightening and I smugly returned to paddling after it passed. My experience with storms told me it was on its way east. While back in the middle of the bay, I watched in horror as it made a big circle and came back at me again. This time I was not prepared and fought my way back to shore through white caps and horizontal winds.
I am fascinated and awed by the complexity of the balance quest and am at the pre-primer level (teacher term for before first grade) in weather school. Technology today gives me lots of help but weather gurus insist that I still use my closest tools; my eyes, ears, nose, and skin. We watch the clouds as every one tells a story of when and where it is going to storm or whether we are going to have good winds. Subtleties in the colours and movements in the sea also help us catch currents or chase the puffs of wind we need on calm days. I am beginning to recognize slight quivers and ridges in the water that let me know to be patient with our sail choices for the time being. I listen for the wind and find my face is the best sensor to determine its strength and direction. Sitting at the helm, I can feel breezes shift and change speed and am beginning to look at my electronic wind indicator for confirmation rather than giving it all of the power.
The back-to-nature method is important but we are also realistic and rely on many sources for short and long-term information. We would need a PhD in meteorology to claim competence in interpreting the mounds of weather data dumped onto the internet everyday. Thankfully , there are weather gurus who sit in their basements all over the world and feed crazy sailors the latest data that dictates where we go and when. Our meteorologist is Chris Parker ( ) who gathers and analyzes all of the information he can find and, as he states in his philosophy, only promises to try to make sure we are not surprised by inclement weather. We get his daily forecasts through the internet and our SSB (single side band) radio. We can also call him using our satellite telephone or radio for a private consult and we do that when we have a longer passage. When Chris says to leave at 10:00 Tuesday, that’s what we do. We also do our own tracking through software such as WindGuru, Passage Weather and Clearpoint If you are following us on SPOT, you can also track the weather we’re having with any of these websites. Wave direction, swell and frequency (6 second wave intervals are not fun), wind speed and direction, and precipitation are all pieces of the puzzle that help us stay safe and sail well. I laughed when I saw we had signed up for sea ice data on ClearPoint. I’ll know to turn around when we need that one.
What Chris can’t tell us is when a squall is going to hit us. All we get from him is “squally conditions”. The origin of the word squall is Nordic for squeal or cry out, translated to mean, Oh my god, look at that $%^&^% storm!” This is an apt description for the angst brought on by these sudden, localized storms. For Canadian west coasters, another word for squall is squamish. Weather “squeals” are best tracked by sight and our radar, and we can often see the wall of cumulonimbus clouds miles away. Racers go looking for them like Kansas storm chasers but we aren’t as fond of them. For us, sudden high winds and precipitation make for uncomfortable rides and damage to our sails if we don’t get them reefed in or furled by the time they hit us. They can be short lived but are common in the area we’re sailing in now so we are always on the lookout and ready to squeal on this naughty nautical trickster.
In the Caribbean, we see weather phenomena that are new to us like consistent morning rainbows and moonbows (moon set underneath a full arc). 

There is some truth in “Red sky at night, sailor’s delight; red sky in morning, sailor’s warning” (see The best weather readers are salty old sailors who claim that although they can make reasonable predictions, weather still remains elusive. We heed their humility and leave our electronic arrogance parked at the companionway when Squamish shows up.

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