Cold Fronts

By Tom Neale, 10/20/2005


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They found his boat ravaged. It’d been rolled and dismasted and swept bare of all, including the owner. We heard the first brief call on the VHF apparently when he began to realize what was happening. Then no more. The guy had been across the pier from us in the marina that we’d ducked into for shelter from the approaching strong cold front. We’d watched him, eager and happy, working to get everything ready to take off to sea, and “ride the front down to the Caribbean.” Like the front was a horse that could be tamed. The front had indeed passed through and continued south. But then it quickly tripped over the warm water and warm air of the Gulf Stream south of Hatteras and it had turned in on itself and turned around on its tail until it became a huge circling low pressure system, cold dry air boiling with warm moist air, howling over the waves.

Cold fronts can be killers. What happened that night was one extreme. Often the killing is of a much more benign nature. It involves the killing of the summer and the ending of the warm pleasant days when we can go out on the water in our boats. The cold fronts are killing, at least for a while, the living of a life style that we love. But at least we know our boats will be waiting for us in the spring, if we take care of them for the winter.

I’ve been in many anchorages as cold fronts blow through fleets of boats. I’ve watched as boats that weren’t well anchored took off dragging their hooks, heading to reef or shore or other boats anchored downwind. These fronts, coupled with the carelessness of some skippers, killed the cruising dreams of the owners of the damaged boats.

About Cold Fronts

1. In the Bahamas and other islands offshore, a cold front may come through like a fast moving brick wall of wind. One hour you may be swinging from the southwest on pre-frontal winds. Then the frontal winds may hit you from the north or north west at 40 knots or more, ripping up anchors.

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I’ve seen cold fronts sweep across tropical waters turning warm air into blowing rain, killing good visibility and sometimes killing boats that were out when they shouldn’t have been and, all of a sudden, could no longer read the waters—could no longer see the reefs.

I’ve seen cold fronts spawn wicked squalls with winds much higher than the winds that had been forecast to settle in behind the front. I’ve watched as fronts spawned water spouts snaking down from the sky, killer devils exploding the surface of the water. I’ve seen the same thing happen in the high pressure behind the fronts, when the warmth of the waters and the dryness of the high pressure air mix it up and turn crazy together.

I’ve seen cold fronts stall half way between “here” and “there,” which to us in the early fall means half way between the middle Atlantic coast and the Caribbean. I’ve watched in slo-mo horrific fascination as the stalled frontal trough provided a vast pathway for a huge low or even a hurricane, which had formerly been heading elsewhere. Now it would follow the new pathway in toward the coast to where I sailed, frantically seeking safe harbor.

But I’ve also seen cold fronts racing to the rescue, to head out threatening hurricanes like a cosmic cavalry heading out a thundering herd of buffalo. I’ve seen cold fronts clear up tropical messes that were bound and determined to form into dangerous lows, or at the very least, were ruining every day with squalls, thunder and lightning, and ruining every night with sheets moist from humidity and sweat.

Cold fronts mean oystering is back in season in the Chesapeake and skipjacks can have wind for their sails. They mean that harvest time has come and that hunting season begins and that stripers will start running—and it’ll be legal to catch them in the lower Bay. Cold fronts mean that rains will come and hard earth will turn moist and grass will grow. They mean change, and change brings life.

The first cold front that comes through the Chesapeake Bay is both a welcome and a sad sign. It tells us that the season is changing. I’ve lived aboard where the seasons don’t change much—it’s tropical all the time. We like the changes, even though we follow the warm weather and don’t stay up north for the winter. That first front also tells us that there’s an end in sight to the hurricane season because, as the fronts march over the coast and out into the Atlantic, increasing in number and strength as the fall advances, they cool the waters and dry the air and establish high pressure systems strong and consistent enough to block the marauding monsters. These things are killers of hurricanes.

I know it’s the cold fronts that bring the wild geese flying south in formation. But sometimes I think they bring the fronts. They seem to know so much as they talk among themselves up there. They remind me of my watermen friends coming in to the dock to get fuel and offload fish or clams at the end of a long day. Even on a hot sticky day in August, they can feel the weather and tell me that, like the geese, the first “norther’s coming soon.”

Cold fronts are a mixed bag for us. They’re a sad happening because they mean we’ll soon be leaving our friends in the harbor where we are, to be moving on south down the coast. But they’re also an exciting happening because being under way is exciting and fun and we look forward to seeing our old friends in harbors that we’ll be visiting again, and making new friends in new harbors. They mean we’ll be bustin’ down the Bay and sounds and broad rivers and out into the Atlantic on nor’westerly winds, heading to palm trees and white beaches and deep blue waters where you can stare down and see 50 feet or more beneath the surface.

We live with cold fronts, sometimes liking them, sometimes hating them, but always trying to deal with them. We never assume that the pretty face on TV knows what it’s really talking about when it says a cold front’s coming and is going to pass on through bringing this, that or the other. We never take them for granted. The guy who took off into the ocean to “ride one down” was following a weatherman’s plan, sound in theory, but out of touch with the reality of the sea and the weather. Cold fronts are like everything else about going to sea, whether you’re on a small lake or in the ocean. You go with the good, deal with the bad, and be happy for the experience—but you never take it for granted.


Copyright 2004-2008 Tom Neale