Adventures of s/v WILD HAIR


Our land life took on form, solidity, routine. We had mastery of a limited set of skills. We had habitual expectations of others and ourselves. Going sailing, we let go of our attachments to our roles, views, and rituals. We persist because we are growing in this shapeless and dynamic world.

Friday, June 25, 2010

Deck Level Forecasting

Sitting happily on anchor in George Town, on a beautiful sunny day, I decided to try my hand at deck-level forecasting. Weather faxes and broadcast reports coming to WILD HAIR through our VHF and SSB radios indicated that a significant cold front was moving toward us. But I knew seasoned sailors do more than depend upon regional reports. The most accurate information comes to a sailor from personal observations of wind, sea, clouds, and barometric pressure. So, I decided to get a little “seasoning” and weigh the regional predictions against my own deck level observations. I pulled out all the weather books we had on the boat and got serious about studying the clues.

Weather shapes everything we do on WILD HAIR. Prior to going anywhere we wait for favorable winds and moderate conditions to give us a good start toward our destination. If we don’t have them we simply don’t go. Some days, the weather tells us where to go because a stiff breeze on the nose is a miserable slog but the same conditions from behind make a gloriously ride. Weather informs our anchoring decisions, including: where we anchor, the number of anchors we use, the anchor type, and whether or not we can leave the boat untended to go to shore.

My task that day was to find at least three indicators of potential change. Weather, being an especially complex system, will give one symptom of change nearly all the time. If you see two indicators, you should take notice. With three symptoms you can nearly bank on the fact that something is going to happen. This time, I found four clues: the barometer had fallen over a few hours to 1009 mb, the sky was covered by a whitish film, cloud layers were moving in different directions and at different speeds, and the night before—due to low level clouds—the sun set “high.“ These indicators, plus the fact that local boaters were organizing a gag prize for the first boat to slip its grip, prompted us to set a second anchor.

Then, stupidly, came my disconnect. Earlier in the day Dave and I had agreed to buy the last few groceries we needed at 16:00. Our plans were to sail to a new location the next day after the front blew through. Dutifully at 16:00, I re-stowed my weather forecasting books, Dave put away his studies on electrical systems, and we dinghied to shore leaving (uncharacteristically) all the port lights and hatches open.

Stepping out of the grocery store at 17:10 under a foreboding, black, and rolling sky, I knew we were in trouble. We scrambled to the dinghy, loaded the groceries, and took off on the half-mile ride back to the boat. I stood in the bow of our 10-foot-long dinghy in a feeble attempt not to get drenched by the now three foot waves kicked up by the wind. The buckets of warm salt water that smacked hard over the bow were humorous until they knocked $17 into the harbor from the pocket of my dress. We arrived back to the boat just before the torrential downpour broke lose. We were incredibly lucky that WILD HAIR’s interior wasn’t flooded.

Sitting inside the protection of our enclosed Bimini with the engine armed, we monitored WILD HAIR and the vessels around us. We could see fellow sailors on their boats doing the same. Cautionary conversations buzzed on the local VHF channel as we saw or heard six boats break lose in the high winds and seas. It was comforting to note that the entire sailing community was engaged in safety patrol.

The winds had been predicted to clock from south/southwest to west/northwest. But as we watched, we experienced free-frontal activity. The wind (and boats in the anchorage) clocked 360 degrees. This happened not once but twice during the storm resulting in an enormous tangle in our two anchor lines—the downside of added security. Through it all, WILD HAIR stayed put.
By 19:30, the barometric pressure had climbed to 1012 mb. The front had passed. It was then that I realized I could be a cracker-jack deck level forecaster. There was only one problem. As in the rest of life, I needed to—without fail—let what I know inform what I do. Damn.

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