Weather or Not
December 30, 2004
Last month we described our meeting with November Mike November, the voice of the National Weather Service that's transmitted from the CAMSLANT Coast Guard station in Chesapeake, VA (see our November 11, 2004 entry). November Mike November's offshore weather forecasts were our primary source of weather information for the first four or five years we were cruising the eastern seaboard and Caribbean Sea. We'd often get up at five in the morning, turn the HF radio on, and scribble furiously as November Mike November droned on about what was in store for us for the next three days. Sometimes when the radio propagation was poor, it took a little guesswork to decipher what his computer generated voice was telling us ("Did he say we were going to get three-to-five foot seas or thirty-five foot seas?").
We figured we had taken a major leap forward in communications technology when we started receiving weather fax charts about half a dozen years ago. We invested in some software, connected our laptop computer to the radio, and tuned in the Coast Guard communications station in New Orleans, LA, at the appointed time (again, usually when it was still dark outside). Like magic, a weather chart would start scrolling down our computer screen. It was better than November Mike November because we could actually see where weather features like cold fronts were and what implications they had for the winds and waves in our area -- at least, on a good day. On bad days when there was a lot of radio interference, the charts better resembled Rorschach ink blots ("I think there's a gale off the Yucatan coast, or is that Florida? Cape Hatteras, maybe?").
Soon after our introduction to weather faxes, we bought a little black box and got some more software that allowed us to send and receive e-mail over the ship's radio. The modem used a digital mode called Pactor, which had been developed by a group of amateur radio operators in Germany. Together with a computer software programme called Airmail (developed by American HAM radio operator and cruiser Jim Corenman), it translated a bunch of chirps and squawks coming over the radio waves into simple text messages on the computer. Its main drawback was speed: it sometimes took several minutes to receive a single page of text; any large file attachments like photos were out of the question. It took a while to educate our family and friends not to send us forwarded jokes and pictures from the latest class reunion.
Since we bought our first Pactor modem, those German whiz-kids (through a company they formed, Special Communication Systems, or SCS) have developed Pactor-2 and Pactor-3. The Pactor-2 modems are four to six times faster than Pactor-1. Pactor-3 is a software upgrade to a Pactor-2 modem which can increase its speed another fivefold. Radio e-mail with Pactor-3 is still slow even by conventional dial-up phone line standards, but it's fast enough to handle simple graphics like weather charts and satellite photos.
We resisted buying a new modem, despite the fact many of our friends had upgraded and were urging us to get with it. "Getting with it" meant dropping about $850. Finally, at a boat show last fall, we had a booth next to one operated by our friends Steve Bowden and Marti Brown. We first met Steve when we were in the Bay Islands of Honduras in 1998; he now runs a company called SeaTech Systems which, among other things, sells radio modems. We've crossed paths with Marti in Florida and the Bahamas; she's written a popular book titled, "HF Radio E-Mail For 'Idi-Yachts'". Steve was amazed when he heard we still had our Pactor-1 modem. "I've been looking for one of those to put in my museum of obsolete electronic equipment," he said. Steve and Marti offered us special discounts. The pressure was too great. At the end of the boat show, we walked away with a demo Pactor-2 modem, the Pactor-3 upgrade, and Marti's book.
We arrived in Marathon in the Florida Keys a couple of weeks before Christmas. Within hours of anchoring, the wind picked up and the Coast Guard announced a small craft advisory. We weren't going anywhere. David decided to try to figure out all the new computer hardware and software we had acquired earlier but had only just installed. He checked out GRIB files. GRIBs (short for Gridded Binary data) typically contain weather forecast data at a much finer geographic resolution and with a greater choice of time periods than that offered by November Mike November and the weather fax charts. David went on to explore the other weather products we could get over the radio with our new modem. To begin with, we can have the National Weather Service's text forecasts and weather faxes sent to us at any time we specify; and they're crystal clear when we download them. But there's much more available.
"Look," David said excitedly, "We can get coastal ice reports from Alaska, tropical storm tracks for the Indian Ocean, and infra red satellite photos of the coast of Argentina."
"Just what we need," Eileen replied. "How about finding out when we can leave Marathon?"
Although Whitehorse in the Yukon was apparently enjoying unseasonably fine weather, things didn't look good for the Florida Keys and the northwestern Caribbean where we were hoping to go. And they didn't look any better the next day. Or the next.
After a week of high winds and dismal weather reports, Eileen got out our Christmas decorations. "It looks like we're spending Christmas in Marathon. We might as well get into the festive spirit."
Three days before Christmas, David got up early and downloaded the GRIB files he had requested for our part of the world. "Hey," he said, "I think we might have a window starting tomorrow morning. The wind is supposed to drop off for at least a couple of days."
Eileen took down the Christmas decorations and installed the weather cloths on our sea berths in the main saloon. David got out the charts, plotted a course, and entered a bunch of waypoints into the GPS. "It's over 600 miles to Roatan," he announced. "That's definitely more than a two or three day sail; we'd better take another look at that weather info."
The preamble to the GRIB file had the following reassuring caveat:
"This grib file is extracted from a computer forecast model. While such computer data can provide useful guidance for general wind flow, it is not reviewed and the data may not be current or correct .... Grib data should be considered supplemental, and not be relied upon in lieu of professionally-generated charts or forecasts."
We downloaded the text and fax reports from the National Weather Service. "November Mike November says we're going to die if we don't make it to a sheltered harbour by Christmas evening," Eileen observed. The weather fax chart for the morning after Christmas depicted a cold front cutting through the Keys, crossing the Florida Straits, and extending deep into the Bay of Honduras. It was surrounded by multi-barbed wind arrows. It looked ugly.
Eileen took the weather cloths down and put the Christmas decorations back up. David stowed the charts in the nav table. "I really didn't want to be at sea on Christmas, anyway," he said. "And now we have time for all of our holiday baking."
Eileen baked brownies and shortbread cookies. David mixed up a bowl of pastry and baked sausage rolls and mince tarts. We went ashore: David in search of strange animal parts that his Scottish heritage requires at Christmas time; Eileen in search of massive quantities of chocolate that her family tradition requires.
It was almost dead calm on the day before Christmas. "Maybe we should have left after all," David said. In the late afternoon we took the dinghy into the municipal marina, where fellow cruisers had organized an impromptu Christmas eve party. The potluck appetizers were great, only exceeded by the good will and camaraderie of all who were present. As the sun set, a fog bank rolled in. We dashed across the harbour to the Dockside bar to join our friends Dennis and Allayne from "Audrey Paige", and Paul and Mary Ouellette, whom we first met in Annapolis. Paul had told us he was an accomplished piper and he just happened to have his bagpipes with him. "Jingle Bells" played on the bagpipes may sound a bit different, but Paul soon had the crowd clapping and stomping to a mixture of Christmas carols and traditional Scottish tunes. The harbour was socked in solid with fog by the time we clambered into the dinghy to return to our boat -- Rudolph and his red nose were nowhere in sight.
We awoke the next morning to a white Christmas -- white from the lingering fog. As the day progressed, the fog dissipated and the wind increased. That night it was blowing 25 knots. We turned the radio up so we could hear the Christmas music over the hum of our wind-powered generator. The spars and rigging shuddered slightly with each wind shift. The anchor rode groaned as it alternatively stretched and relaxed. David reached for another shortbread cookie. Eileen unwrapped another chocolate truffle. "I'm glad we didn't leave," we said in unison.
Happy New Year,