Weather Watching and Forecasting

I keep telling you that we watch the weather; what does that really mean to someone cruising? Off to the right you see an actual GRIB weather file from May 14, 2010, overlaid onto a large scale chart from our MaxSea navigation program. As you gain experience with weather forecasting and reading the raw weather data, you begin to be able to sort out your own weather forecast and from all that information you can plan your departure and estimate arrival at various points along your route. In addition to the GRIB files that I obtain via our Globalstar satellite phone, I listen to SSB reports from the National Weather Service and also to local weather nets, such as BASRA (Bahamas Air Sea Rescue Association), the Caribbean Weather Net, and others where available. Some are much better than others, but between the GRIB files and the NWS offshore reports, I can obtain a pretty accurate forecast for my intended cruise. This process takes a fair amount of time every day in advance of a departure, sometimes 2 or 3 hours over the course of the day.  

Grib Weather File Display
Grib Weather File Display

Why so much emphasis on the weather, you say? 2 to 3 hours a day? Let me tell you 2 true stories that took place April 25 and 26, 2010. We knew the weather would be a little dicey on the 26th, based on our GRIB file from the 25th, so we rose early wanting to be sure to hear the morning reports, to listen for any changes from the night before, and to take necessary precautions. The report foretold severe weather in the Northern Bahamas moving to the south- east (our direction) with possible waterspouts, hail, lightning, and Northwest winds to 50 knots; serious weather. I began looking for options, fast, as protection from the northwest is scarce in the Exuma Cays. We felt that if we tried to head up to the popular safe weather holes in the Big Majors area, by the time we got there, all the good spots might be taken. Just 7 miles to our north was Farmer’s Cay, an anchorage protected from all directions. We headed for Farmer’s. On the way in we heard another boat asking about the moorings at the Farmers Cay Yacht Club, so we followed their VHF call to see if there was another mooring available for a deep draft vessel, and there was, or there would be, when we got there. Huh? Actually, when we pulled in, the club had to send a diver out to retrieve the last deep water mooring pennant as the prior occupant had lost the ball, and the pennant sunk. No big deal as it was worth the wait for a brand new pennant in deep water. So, here we are to the left, in 15 feet, tucked in safe. We wrapped the mainsail cover, doubled up lines here and there, and hunkered down to wait. About 1600 hours, I was sitting in the cockpit when I felt the temperature drop like a rock. Expecting NW winds, I was somewhat surprised when the wind started to howl peaking at about 40 knots from the northeast. Had we chosen an anchorage protected only from the northwest, we would have been totally exposed. The Captain made a good decision.

Backing up a few hours, before we left Cave Cay, another boat called to ask if I had been able to hear any weather, not the first time this has happened to us. I relayed the severe weather report, and they seemed nonchalant, but thanked me anyway. Who should show up at Farmers around 1600? Sure enough, the nonchalant cruisers who now discovered there was altogether too much wind to snag a mooring or to get an anchor to grab on the hard scoured bottom. With visibility limited to about 100 yards, they wandered in circles for about two hours until the wind slacked off enough for them to anchor. They were lucky.

Angel safely Moored at Farmers
Angel safely Moored at Farmers

When I see those red wind barbs on my MaxSea weather files, I pay attention. Those barbs are just what they look like- serious stuff with minimum winds of 25 knots-big deal you say? Let me tell you another story of “Gangway” a 37 foot Irwin sloop with two young strong men aboard who failed to understand the potential impact of the April 26 morning weather warnings and left Georgetown, late in the morning, headed north, right into the oncoming weather. At around 5 or 6PM that evening we heard a “Mayday” call on VHF 16, a hair raising, nerve wracking call. Gangway was calling from Exuma Sound with serious problems. Seas were huge; winds were severe; while trying to reef their Genoa (reduce its size), the gear jammed, and they tried to take the sail down. The sail tore out of the roller furler jamming further and violently flogging, shaking the rig and the boat. Next, the bowsprit gave way taking with it the headstay, the anchor, and all the running rigging. The anchor and sprit were slamming into the side of the hull threatening to gouge a hole in the side potentially sinking the boat. Things were rapidly going from bad.

The Morning After at Farmers Cay
The Morning After at Farmers Cay

With wind and waves hammering the hull, sails and rigging over the side, the twisted wreckage soon managed to wrap its way around the prop and shaft. The engine proved useless; the mast was swaying and creaking like a drunken sailor. The boat began drifting rapidly off to the southwest, heading towards the reefs and the shore. One look at their rate and direction of drift told me they were in serious trouble. Fortunately a commercial towing company was not too far away with an 84 foot dark blue hulled sailboat available for rescue. You saw her earlier anchored near us in Georgetown, “Sea Hawk”, part of the Amazing Grace team. Finally, with sunset and the reefs approaching, Gangway agreed to a tow, and Sea Hawk with her professional crew got underway. At around 2100 hours, just as night fell, Sea Hawk had eyes on the disabled vessel. I remember hearing Sea Hawk’s captain, Marcus, say to Gangway,” We have to get this right the first time; we may not get another chance”. The crew laid the tow line directly on Gangway’s bow on the very first try. Gangway and her crew were rescued, less than a mile from the reefs, less than 50 feet of water under her keel. I met Gangway’s captain later at Staniel Cay and spent quite a while talking to him, hearing his story first hand. I think his name was Ryan; when I spoke to him, days after the rescue, he was still somewhat in a state of shock, thankful to be alive, thankful for so much help that night. So, what do you think about a 25 knot wind forecast now? You must pay attention to the weather; it can change with little warning, and you had better be prepared. 

If you're prepared, things go OK
If you’re prepared, things go OK

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