Killing Weather Can Come in Disguise

By Tom Neale, 5/1/2009


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Heading in for a storm

It started out as one of those perfect days. Like today, but not quite. “Today,” as I write this, is only a couple of days later and light years away as far as the weather goes (I hope).  That day, a cold front had passed through. The wind was out of the nor’west, stiff, but about what you’d expect after a cold front.  The air was very dry, with humidity at around 30 percent. The sun was bright and only a few clouds remained from the frontal passage, and those were to the east, out over the ocean, which meant it was past us. All of this was reassuring, as is the usually case after a cold front passage. The weather is settled. There may be too much northerly wind if you’re going north, but you know it’ll clock in due time.  Cold fronts usually mean that life on the water is going to be good for awhile. But not that day.

NOAA and various private weather gurus had been talking about something else going on after the front. Many people ignored this. Perhaps the predictions weren’t clear enough, or perhaps it was just that predisposition that we all have: when it’s a pretty day, we like to think it’ll stay that way.  Some forecasters mentioned a series of “upper level troughs.”  Others talked about “upper level lows.” Still others mentioned “pulses of energy” or just “pulses.”  None of the reports (except two that we were aware of) really mentioned the whole story. And we checked various sources on the internet, local TV reports and, of course, listened to the VHF weather stations.  While many were thinking, “Ah, stable post-frontal weather. Good traveling for awhile,” the stuff was about to hit the fan.

Early indicators were giving suspicious warnings. The wind veered back from the west into the southwest. That said that something was wrong. Southwest is supposed to be prefrontal, not post-frontal.  Clouds started forming up to the west and passing over.  Those who could access the internet (many boats can today, and this helps immeasurably with weather forecasting) could see on long range radar (as with AccuWeather Radar or the radar available on that bands of rain were forming to the west and northwest.  Again, this isn’t supposed to happen after a cold front.

Mel and I weighed anchor and moved on anyway. Chez Nous is a tough strong boat and we were not going to sea with the strange reports we’d heard. We were going to remain in the ICW.  As we left the sheltered waters of Adams Creek and rounded into the long broad Neuse River, we saw that the wind was really picking up.  We’ve been there, done that, with strong wind, on the Neuse River and Pamlico Sound so often that we weren’t overly concerned.  The wind steadily increased, with shrieking killer gusts following quieter lulls. We had to round Maw Point to follow the ICW, and this is one of those wide open spots which you treat with a lot of respect.  As we were off the point, the wind quickly got so high and the short chop so steep that we decided to run off before it out into the Pamlico Sound so that we could keep the waves first astern and then on the bow, rather than on the beam. Seas were huge and confused, as typically occurs in places such as this.  Already we’d heard a catamaran behind us calling for TowboatUS because a sheet line had come loose and caught in his prop as he had tried to shorten sail. Gusts of 40 knots and greater suddenly began sweeping across the waters, throwing waves through the air. To the north, over the Albemarle Sound and then the Cape Hatteras area, a severe thunderstorm formed, with lightning, winds topping 60 knots and nickel-sized hail reported. But our air was still cool; the humidity low.  We continued on until we came to a good sheltered place to anchor and put down the hook. It grabbed instantly in the mucky mud as the gusts knocked our 53 foot ketch motorsailer about.  It was very good to be safe and at anchor. We listened on the VHF as a report came in to the Coast Guard of a fisherman missing in an 18-foot skiff. He was later found safe, but I’m sure that for many anxious hours the worst fears gnawed on the minds of his friends and family.

The next day dawned cool, clear, dry and with very little wind. We weighed anchor and set out again, feeling better about the upcoming day of weather, because the talk now was only of a large high moving in and settling. Some highs can bring a lot of wind, but seldom like what we’d seen the day before. We hastened on, hoping to clear the sometimes treacherous Albemarle Sound that evening. But when we reached the northern end of the Alligator River, the wind was blowing 25 to 30 out of the northwest. Not forecast. Not good. We anchored again in Little Alligator River and waited. Around 5:00 PM the wind abated to almost nothing. We pulled anchor and headed into the sound. It was forecast to blow around 10 to 15 from the northwest that evening, which would have been fine—except that once we got out in the sound it piped up to 25 or more from the east-northeast.  Good Grief!  But the mighty lady “Chez Nous” ploughed through it and we anchored for the night off Broad Creek in the North River on the northern side of the sound.

Safely Docked in a Hail Storm

The weather feature that was a major cause of this was a huge low inland, far to the northwest of the Mid-Atlantic region.  As it circled counter clockwise, it was spinning off bands of low pressure.  The bands were traveling in the upper atmosphere, over the prevailing cooler drier surface air, and they were being flung by the strength of that low into our section of the world.  The mixture of weather features caused the unpredictable winds and storms that gave many people on the waterway (and ashore) some very serious problems that day.  But was it “unpredictable?”

One seasoned local TV forecaster had explained what was happening and, with his explanation, the developments made sense. Another weather guru, Chris Parker, who advises clients of the weather, had warned of possibilities such as this for a couple of days. Typically, he had gone into great detail. He usually covers people cruising from the Caribbean all the way up the Atlantic and along the coastal waters. I’m sure that other weather professionals discussed the scenario also.  NOAA mentioned upper level lows, but, in my opinion, wasn’t very clear as to their origination or the possibilities. The origination was important. It gave more information that required extra care than just “upper level lows” passing.  The large strong low powerfully circling to the northwest, flinging off bands, meant that there was a greater likelihood of trouble.

Tom’s Tips on Survey Boats

1. If the weather doesn’t “feel right,” trust your instincts and be conservative

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As we’ve traveled up and down the coast over the years, we’ve come to look forward to the occasional good forecaster on TV. Most, we feel, are more into looking pretty and talking cute than really explaining the weather. But some are great. The gentleman that I referred to earlier was Skip Waters from Channel 12, (affiliated with ABC) which we get in the Beaufort/Morehead City area. Another we like on that trip is Don Slater from Channel 10 (affiliated with NBC) in the Norfolk area.  We’ve also appreciated the detailed reports from private weather consultant Chris Parker (  Even if you’re in the Bahamas, it’s important to know what’s going on in the Midwest and New England and the waters around Bermuda. In other words, it’s important to get the whole picture because, whether a feature is over you or not, it can drastically affect you, if not today then maybe next week.  I’ve mentioned here three weather professionals—two on TV and another, a private consultant. There are many more, and, if you’re going to be on the water, it’s important to find the good ones and seek their advice. Forecasts that just deal with issues of “whether to take an umbrella to work” or “what kind of hair day is in store” are useless on the water. And weather surprises on the water can do more than ruin your hair. They can kill.

Copyright 2004-2010 Tom Neale

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