Thursday, December 17, 2009

Weather Windows

Vero Beach

Reader Les P asked the following provocative question. "I'd be interested in hearing your thoughts (and their excuses) on why so many of the residents living aboard there can't find a single "weather window" night to cross over to the Bahamas. I've been on numerous trips from south Florida to Beaufort and I almost can't remember even looking for a weather window. As long as there wasn't a nor'easter we just get in the boat and go. Surely, they could find a single night out of the entire winter to make the fifty mile trek to the Bahamas!"

I'm familiar with Les and his exploits. Les revels getting caught in a storm, and in keeping the Coast Guard and half of the East Coast on pins and needles listening to him on the radio as he attempts to gain safe harbor. Notwithstanding that, there is a grain of truth in his mockery; but only a grain.

Here's the situation. Libby and I, and almost all the fellow cruisers wait for favorable weather before crossing the Gulf Stream to the Bahamas, or crossing westward on the way back. The wait for a suitable weather window can go on for weeks or months, or sometimes and entire season.

Our number one source of information is Chris Parker. Chris runs a custom weather service. Every day on SSB radio at 0630 in the morning, everyone can listen to Chris' forecast. Sponsoring boats pay Chris a subscription fee, and in return they get the privilege of asking specific questions over the radio. Most often the questions are of the form, "I want to get from point A to point B. When is a good time to go?" The rest of us freeloaders listening get to hear the question and the answers. Since there are a limited number of points A and B, it is highly likely that we hear the answer that we wanted to ask ourselves.

The bottom line, almost all of us wait to hear the word of a favorable time. Les, on the other hand, considers all days that don't have hurricanes or nor'easters as favorable. So what's the difference?

First, is a question of comfort and convenience. Most people would rather not go on days when they might get knocked about, or especially suffer from seasickness. Others, especially me, are loath to beat into a stiff headwind. In the worst headwind conditions it might take 40-50-60-70 hours to make a very uncomfortable crossing as opposed to 10-12 hours of pleasant sailing with favorable winds.

Second is the question of safety. The Gulf Stream must be respected. Every year people die out there and boats (sometimes very big boats) vanish without a trace in the Gulf Stream. Problems come when the wind blows in a direction opposite the current flow. In those cases very steep waves build up. The waves can break like they do in the surf. Even if they don't break they are so steep that the walls are vertical. Waves crashing on top of the boats can break the windows, and hatch doors, causing a boat to flood and sink in seconds. A true blue water boat like Tarwathie can take the waves withoug flooding but most boats, power or sail, aren't that sea worthy.

I heard recently that more water flows through the Gulf Stream than all the rivers in the world combined, and more energy than is generated by all the world's power plants. I haven't verified those claims, but I know it is very powerful.

Third is a question of responsibility. Tarwathie is more than a toy to us. It is our home. If this boat sank and we were rescued we would be homeless and devastated. We also consider it irresponsible to take risks where we depend on others to risk their lives to rescue us. Each captain should ask himself the question, "Would I start this passage if no rescue was possible?" If the answer is no, then don't start. A responsible skipper must also be keenly sensitive to the comfort and the fears of crew and passengers as well as their safety.

So Les is partially correct. 99% of the boaters could successfully cross the stream 99% of the days as long as they are somewhat oblivious to comfort, convenience, safety, and responsibility. "Somewhat oblivious," is a very flexible standard. Everyone has a different threshold. Les can I can be friends and respect each other while disagreeing substantially on the proper threshold.

What are your thoughts?


  1. Kudos Dick. All too often adventuresome boaters, spelunkers, climbers, etc. selfishly put rescuers in harms way because they fail to fully grasp the implications of their exploits.

  2. Very well said Dick. I'm curious to know if Les P. is a sailor or a power boater. I'd be surprised to hear such a cavalier attitude toward the weather from a seasoned sailor. Less so from someone who doesn't rely on the weather for his propulsion.

  3. Dick,

    Loved your comments..I always do! I thought this thread would get some interesting feedback. As far as my exploits, I'm actually a very conservative cruiser. First, I wouldn't be offshore in a boat I didn't feel was up to the task. I know your Westsail certainly is. I also would never go without competent crew, the more days offshore, the more crew I would want along. I do watch the forecasts for weather that might be beyond my comfort one wants to get beaten up knowlingly. And, as far as my cruising resume is covers half a century and is certainly longer than many folks. Love to read your posts Dick! do look a lot like Saint Nick. Merry Christmas...Les and Susanne Pendleton


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