Whether sailing up and down the coast, motoring up and down the Intracoastal Waterway, or making a crossing to the Bahamas and back, the speed and comfort of your journey will be totally dependent on the weather. You will move more slowly, less pleasantly and more anxiously than you expect 90% of the time and enjoy perfect sailing 10% of the time.
Weather is not a single thing, a static state, which you plan through or around. Weather is a shape shifter with a multiple variables that change constantly, interacting with ground and water surfaces, tides and currents as it moves, often within just miles of where you are going, have been or across the passage you are making. Cloud formations, wind direction, wind speed, precipitation estimates, humidity, and visibility are always on your mind. We’ve been caught in storms that we weren’t supposed to encounter. We’ve been delayed anywhere from a few hours to days because of weather. We’ve been in storms that tested our capabilities.
Even good weather can delay you, because you will want to linger at an anchorage or in a beautiful harbor to enjoy an extra perfect day or two when you should be moving on to avoid oncoming disrupting weather.
When weather combines with mechanical and electronic problems you can find yourself in very serious trouble. We lost our marine electronics (GPS navigation, radar and Automated Identification System (AIS)) and auto-helm all at the same time in a night of unexpected winds that blew against the Gulf Stream current to create a mix-master of 35 knot winds and 12 foot seas. Luckily we had ‘old skills’, an extra GPS handheld radio, a good pair of binoculars and paper charts. Then as the winds settled, we lost the engine, having to put up reefed sails to continue our crossing causing us to be six hours late making landfall in a busy harbor just as daylight faded.
Lesson Learned: Do not be in a hurry. Weather will delay you. It could hurt you.
Don’t set dates when you have to be somewhere. It will cause flaws in your decision making, forcing you to leave too early or too late. Our most difficult times on the water occurred when we were trying to get somewhere by a date certain. Never set a schedule you can’t change by a few days to a week. Be prepared to seek the safety of an anchorage you had not planned on.
Lesson Learned: Use multiple sources for weather information. None are perfect.
We subscribed to a daily weather and crossing service as well as used multiple weather apps on our phones. The weather service was good, but still missed the timing of a weather window to cross the gulf. The apps that allow you to pinpoint your current location or a designated location, displaying wind direction, speed, precipitation, tides and currents for up to 48 hours we found to be most helpful. Learn to read weather charts to understand high and low pressures.
Reading and planning around weather is a morning, noon and night exercise. You do not want to end up in an emergency situation in a storm as we did because we needed to ‘make a date’.
Lessons Learned: Be prepared for whatever the weather may be. Safety first.
Most of us don’t like wearing life vests, locking ourselves into Jack-lines inside and outside of the cockpit and keeping our foul weather gear fully at the ready with lights, alerts and automatic locators. We don’t want to keep helm schedules and be forced to sleep when our bodies don’t want to. We don’t want to put down the cockpit curtains to block the breeze. Do not be a fool. Don’t put your crew at risk. The first inklings of weather changes unexpected or expected- a dampness, a quickening or shifting wind are blow horns to ‘wear the safety gear now before you need it. Prepare for battle.’
Obviously, the more experience you have with weather, the more you will respect it, know what to expect — the unexpected.