The Bard of Hibbing

By Douglas Bernon
August 30, 2000
Skillings River, Frenchman Bay, Lamoine, Maine
N 44 29.290 W 068 15.970

Photo of Douglas with laundry and food waiting for tide The Schlepper: Douglas with laundry and vittles, waiting for the 4 knot Skillings River tide to become more friendly before rowing home to Ithaka.

Today we're at a mooring in the Skillings River, visiting our friends Kathy Massimini and Steve Callahan. Looking astern into Frenchman Bay, we can see the outline of Mt. Desert's mountains. Looking ahead there are ledges with seals. Looking above, there are ospreys and cormorants, and looking around our galley there are two pails of mussels from the nearby shores. We have a new moon, and the current right now is almost four knots. Although we're tied to a heavy mooring, Ithaka is still bouncing, waiting for slack tide in another two hours. The weather is glorious today and leads to a question from Curt Smith, which we received by email last week.

On board, we have a low-to-high-tech continuum of weather information collection systems. On the simpler end there are a barometer, hygrometer, thermometer and my left knee, which invariably aches when it’s raining heavily. This last source yields only after-the-fact data.

Photo of Bernadette picking mussels Bernadette: picking mussels for dinner.

Moving up the technological food chain, we have a Meteoliner by Vetus, which is a very cool little electronic barograph that presents the air pressure data digitally (on both three-hour and twenty-four hour graphs) and keeps it in memory for seven days. At the high-tech end, we're learning and using a software program called Weather Station 2000, which is put out by OCENS, Inc. (Ocean and Coastal Environmental Sensing, Inc.; in Seattle. It's a satellite data processing and imaging system for 32-bit Windows platforms that runs on either Windows 95 or 98. Incredibly, it provides real-time or near-real-time weather and ocean information (weather faxes) that you can collect on your computer, either through your SSB or over the WWW. This program blows my mind.

How we learned about it and why we chose this one may be as useful to readers as the program itself, which I'll describe in greater detail. Dan Piltch of Marine Computer Systems in Portland, Maine, is the key to all this (Reach him at 207-871-1575).

Dan is a marine computer and electronics consultant who was recommended to us by the weather maven himself, Michael Carr, author of the very readable and enormously useful book Weather Predicting Simplified (International Marine/McGraw Hill: ISBN 0-07-012031-5.) We took a fantastic class taught in tag-team style by Michael Carr and Lee Chesneau, lead marine meteorologist at the Marine Prediction Center of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

Their five-day "Heavy Weather Avoidance" class, taught at MITAGS in Linthicum Heights, Maryland, was wonderful. Being a residential student there was sometimes intimidating, but well worth it. We were the only students in a class of eight who were NOT driving tankers, and while our fellow students at first wondered precisely what sort of dorks we were, we made some good friends who still email us with hurricane horror stories. Michael and Lee had referred to a number of software packages during the class, some of which were more or less appropriate for our needs and abilities. We do not yet drive the big ships, although My Commodore came out of that experience wanting to.

Photo of Dan Piltch Dan Piltch of Marine Computer Consultants, aboard Ithaka giving us a hands-on tutorial for Weather Station 2000 .

When Bernadette called Michael several months ago with some questions about marine electronics and computer technology, he referred us to Dan, whose company fills a unique niche. Dan is a grand combination of computer and software wizard, consultant, needs-assessor, trainer and lastly, purveyor of software. He doesn't install hardware (although he'll recommend people to you who can accomplish this.) Rather, he operates as professional consultant, selling his time and counsel and, if appropriate, various software. And he's a terrific trainer who knows how to use what he recommends.

Repeatedly last spring, we talked to Dan on the phone and he queried us about our wants and abilities to help us decide what we needed, and what we could handle, for computers, telephones, email, telecommunications gear and software. When a friend and I installed Ithaka's Inmarsat-C, Dan was thoroughly helpful by phone, answering questions and getting me up to speed on the software. One of the things we liked best about him was that he talked us out of far more things than he tried to sell us. We knew we were going to be cruising in Maine this summer, so we stopped in Portland and sat down with him for two invaluable days — half to talk about our needs on Ithaka, half for Bernadette to help set up an article by Dan for a future electronics issue of Cruising World.

Photo of the four-masted schooner Margaret Todd The Margaret Todd, a four-masted schooner, with Long Stave Island behind her in Frenchman Bay.

Before establishing his marine computer consulting business, Dan was a high-level computer guy in New York City, working for a large corporation and living YEAR ROUND in New York City aboard Kristina, his custom, mahogany-over-oak, 33-foot sloop that had been built for the 1956 Fastnet race. His photos of the snow-mounded decks of Kristina, with the Manhattan skyline in the background, are chilling. A lover of sailing and computers, he left the rat race and relocated to Portland, where he still lives on Kristina. He's the perfect combination of cruiser and techie, as the books on office shelves attest: Eric Hiscock's classics are next to Hal Roth's adventures, next to tech manuals, next to the Bluewater Handbook, The New New Thing, and another shelf is dedicated to a complete collection of Tristan Jones. Dan understands cruisers.

In determining what we might use for weather software, Dan interviewed us in person the same way he had earlier over the phone. He asked us questions about where we wanted to go, how deeply we wanted to get into our own weather predicting, our experience, our interests, and our technical sophistication. Then he went over our current gear and, based on all that, presented us options and made recommendations.

We decided on something called Weather Station 2000. The software lets you download satellite imagery via direct satellite links, or from the internet and weather charts (analysis, forecast, surface and 500mb charts for current conditions and 24-, 48- and 96 hours) for all regions of the world. With a simple cable between the computer and the SSB jack, you're set. Setting the time schedule on the software and the frequency on the SSB allows for automatic capture of the weather fax as it emerges, or it can all be done manually each time.

Once captured in the computer, the charts can be massaged in a million ways, yielding mountains of interpretive data along with sea state, ice, wave height, wind speed and direction, likely tracks, and a greater overall picture. In addition, coupled to your GPS, the charts can be geo-referenced so that you can place yourself squarely on the weather fax and see precisely where you are in relation to yet more forces of nature that are just waiting to clobber you or speed you on your way. There are ways of drawing on, writing on and enlarging segments of the chart for easier use and contrast with other charts you've already captured or will download later. You can mark waypoints, routes and alternate routes. Even for a computer doofus like me, this is an infinitely tweakable and powerful piece of software that tantalizes me always and confuses me sometimes. It's one of those programs that I have to keep plugging at, and gradually, lights emerge in various tunnels. While it has far more capabilities than either Bernadette or I will ever master, it's relatively friendly, fun to play with and offers up yet another element of independence. When there are things I don't understand, which is to say each time I use it, I check Michael's book as a reference.

To paraphrase the Bard of Hibbing, you don't need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows.