How's the Weather?December 13, 2001
got Herb and Misstine
(E. Quinn, "Three Days Out Forty-five Knot Wind Blues")
We've been in Venezuela for almost a month and it's time to head north. The Virgin Islands are about 450 miles away - a four day passage if the conditions are right. And that's the operative word. We've learned not to leave if the conditions are NOT right.
The first time we sailed direct from the Virgins to Venezuela we listened conscientiously to the National Weather Service offshore reports that are broadcast every six hours from Portsmouth, Virginia. The computer generated voice transmissions are affectionately named "November Mike November" because of the station's call sign (NMN). With November Mike's blessing, we left Virgin Gorda under sunny skies on a comfortable beam reach. We arrived in Puerto La Cruz four days later under similar conditions. In between, we went through hell. While being thrown around by what seemed to be an endless series of squalls, we figured November Mike had betrayed us. Now we know that we were at fault for assuming too much from too little information.
The winter weather pattern in the Caribbean is dominated by the prevailing easterly trade winds. Cold fronts originating over the North American continent will disrupt this pattern in the Bahamas and northern portions of the Caribbean, but have little effect further south. Summer weather is a different story. The trades start to weaken and become less reliable in the spring. Around May, "tropical waves" begin marching westward across the Atlantic from the coast of Africa. These are elongated areas of low pressure that typically bring squally conditions as they pass. Under certain circumstances, they can begin circulating and eventually spawn tropical storms or even hurricanes. We ran smack into a tropical wave on that first passage to Venezuela.
November Mike neglected to tell us about the wave not because he didn't know it was there, but because he didn't figure it was significant enough to mention. According to the National Weather Service, "light" winds are up to 20 knots in strength and "moderate" winds are 20 to 34 knots. We probably encountered 25 to 30 knots of wind and a lot of rain, which we thought was pretty miserable, but which wouldn't faze a container ship listening to November Mike's forecasts.
Now before we embark on any passages longer than a day or two we study up on as much weather information as we can receive. Hurricane season is theoretically over, but Hurricane Olga didn't seem to know this as she prowled around the Bermuda Triangle a couple of weeks ago. To ensure that we won't encounter any rude surprises, we have the computer software and modem to download updated weatherfax charts via our short wave radio four times a day. These fill in a lot of the gaps which November Mike may otherwise overlook.
Then there are the various radio nets. At 6:35 am local time we tune in the Caribbean Emergency & Weather ham radio net and listen to amateur weatherman Eric Mackie in Trinidad give his interpretation of the satellite photos and weather charts he receives. At 7:15 am, George in the US Virgins gives his reading of the National Weather Service predictions on another Caribbean ham net. Fifteen minutes later, Alex in Margarita offers his rendition of basically the same information on the Albatross single side band net.
If this rehashing of the NWS data isn't sufficient, you can get personalized weather reports from at least two sources. David Jones, using the call sign "Misstine", operates the Caribbean Weather Centre in Tortola, in the British Virgins. He gives a generalized report every morning at 8:30 followed by individual reports to any cruisers who give him a call and have signed up for his service (for a fee). Probably the most revered weather guru, however, is Herb Hilgenberg, known on the radio as "Southbound II". Some cynics claim there are cruising boats out there that won't cross the harbour unless Herb gives them the go ahead. While Herb doesn't charge for his excellent advice, he does require a commitment from his listeners. Every day, an hour before his 4 pm broadcast, cruisers wanting personalized weather forecasts must sign in with him on the radio.
Most of the time, the various forecasts agree with each other. If there are differences, you can always selectively follow the advice that best suits your itinerary, but be prepared to suffer the consequences if it was the wrong choice. In our case, by the time we had digested half a dozen reports all suggesting there shouldn't be anything too nasty waiting for us out there, the sun was setting off our stern. The sky turned red. We all know what that means for sailors. We're out of here.