WIND, WAVES, WHEN TO GO

        If you have experienced the incredible joy and excitement of cruising to far away places, then you know how frustrating it can be when you are ready to move on to a new destination and new adventures, only to be delayed by weather.  For those of you who may be anticipating your first long range cruise, we have some informative suggestions on weather, and decisions on when to weigh anchor.  Lynn and I have had the frustrations of being held up many times, but feel one of the most important aspects of cruising is: Never leave an anchorage or port unless the weather outlook is favorable.  This has made our cruising safe and enjoyable.  Yes, you will get caught by Mother Nature at times, as She does not always send her forecast updates to NOAA in time for us to benefit.  But for the most part, if you plan, and stick to your rules of not going out if the forecast says otherwise, the changes in weather will be tolerable.  Now if it is really blowing and the waves are huge, or if it is calm and the forecast for continued calm, the decision is easy.  But we found that this is many times not the case, and the decision a little more difficult.

 OUR EXPERIENCE

     But what constitutes a delay, and what is acceptable for moving when reading the weather reports?  Before we started our 15,000 mile voyage through Central America, the Caribbean, and around the Great American Loop, we researched extensively on what was acceptable weather criterion.  After reading several weather books and taking weather classes, we thought we knew enough.  Wrong!  For the most part, what we did learn was how to avoid storms, characteristics of low and high pressures, and their effect on wind and waves.  Which is good, and necessary, but when we asked, "What is an acceptable forecast when it comes to wind and waves?", the advice we received was, “It depends on your boat and your tolerance”.  Duh!  So when we were faced with a decision of whether to go or not, it was mostly based on if a storm was approaching or not.  As it turns out, we found this only one aspect of weather that is needed in order to make the decision as to whether to move on or stay put.  What we really wanted to know was, other than storms, what is the right criterion for us, "to know when to weigh anchor?"

     Let me first tell you that before I met Lynn in 1997, the only boat I had been aboard was one trip at the age of 10 aboard the big ship that used to ferry passengers to Catalina on the Southern California coast.  I was actually raised on a ranch, with horses and cattle and chickens.  My expertise was training horses.  Although I left this behind when I got married and went into Electronics Manufacturing, for the most part, horses was my expertise.  But when I met Lynn and knew my life was going to change because I had met the woman of my dreams, I wanted to find an interest that we both could commit to each other and enjoy together for many years.  When I learned of her trips to Catalina with friends and her love for it, I knew we had to try it.  Our first boat was a twin gas engine 29 foot Bayliner coastal cruiser.  We enjoyed taking this to Catalina for several years before deciding to move up to a full displacement Trawler.  But that is another story.

OUR FIRST MISTAKES

     When we first picked up our 'Coastal Cruiser' in San Diego, we had to sail it up the coast about 120 miles from San Diego to Dana Point Harbor.  And yes we were green and relied upon advice about when to make the passage north.  We had not yet taken Advanced Coastal Navigation or a course on weather but figured we couldn’t get lost keeping the coast 'in sight', and the weather in California never changes much anyway.  Wrong!  What was aggravating looking back, and with our current experience, is that many of our questions of the locals could have been answered much better than they were.  Today we would advise new boaters to seek out those who ‘Cruise’ and ask the questions.  These boaters we have found are an entirely different breed than the boaters who mostly motor or sail around port or for sport.  And the answers we get when we ask questions of cruisers are insightful and usually very complete.  And even more rewarding is that these people we find tend to be more than happy to take the time to help, unlike our experiences with the marina locals.

     So when we asked the locals in San Diego how long it would take to get to Oceanside from San Diego, we were told, “It depends…”, but never a real substantial answer.  This contributed to us leaving mid day after all our repairs were completed, wrong, and against a building wind, the southerly current, and southerly waves, all which were not mentioned to us ‘newcomers’ as a no no.  “You’ll be all right”, we were told.  Well, a small cruiser  designed for 'planing', and making this trip north against these conditions, is a real problem because the boat doesn’t plane.  Therefore our expected speed dropped from 15-20 knots, to 6.  This left us in the dark before reaching Oceanside, no moon, no stars, no visibility.  We couldn’t see the coastline, let alone the harbor entrance. Lynn was reading the Radar manual, Depth Finder manual, and GPS manual to me as we cruised along in a very choppy sea.  Our first experience in a boat of our own was not a great beginning.  Well, we made it just fine, and our ability to take on more adventure was probably strengthened by our ability to manage this scenario.  This also prepared us for the lack of information when in the future we were to be ‘without’ satisfactory answers to our questions.

THE TASK AT HAND

    During our long voyage we often got together with other boaters to confer and decide on when to leave based on an aggregate of experience.  Eventually, we developed a feel for what was acceptable for us.  So, the task for the would-be cruiser is to define a guideline for, "when to leave the marina or anchorage for parts unknown based on a weather forecast."  What do you look for? How big should the waves be forecast before you decide you should stay and wait for better weather?  Yes, we did find that it does depend on the size of your boat, the type of boat, and your tolerance for roller coaster rides.  But everyone who cruises should also be aware that small boats that cruise, 30-70 feet in length, basically are safe in the same weather.  Larger boats have a different tolerance for weather, and smaller boats probably shouldn’t leave the day trip area.  So, with safety first as one decision, and comfort as the second, we wanted to establish not only what was safe for us, but what was reasonably comfortable.  Sometimes Lynn and I make decisions based on what will easily be comfortable, and then there are other occasions when we look at each other and say, “Let’s go”, knowing it may get a little bouncy, but we are anxious to get on to our next adventure, but still knowing that we were choosing a set of conditions that were still safe.

WEIGHING ANCHOR

    This piece is by no means intended to be a bible, or even a reliable source for advice on weather.  We just feel that some knowledge for the cruiser is better than no knowledge at all.  And we did not find good advice on this topic before becoming cruisers.  We are not sailors, and we suspect that those who sail will have some adjustments to make regarding wind and waves compared to that for trawlers, but here are some simple guidelines that we established for us.   You should be able to adjust and follow these until you determine your exact criteria for when you can weigh anchor.

    Lynn and I made our recent 15,000 mile cruise in our 46 foot, 25 ton DeFever Alaskan Trawler.  So this should be taken into some consideration when evaluating these 'rules'.   We found that for us, if our intended route was with or against the wind and current, we would expect a reasonably comfortable passage when wind was forecast to stay below 20 knots, and waves 4 feet or less.  This kept the rocking and pitching to a minimum and the Dramamine dosage small.  If we were to be traveling in a direction across these conditions, we wanted 5 knots less than this, as the rolling effect can be very uncomfortable.  Our trawler has active stabilizers which minimizes a lot of the roll, but when you get even 3-4 foot waves or rollers broadside, it can still be paper bag time. 

    We did make many passages where we experienced greater than 3-4 foot waves, but we would not plan on leaving if the forecast was greater than 3-4 feet, regardless of direction.  Again, from experience, waves greater than this are very uncomfortable for small power boats, and some variation from forecast can be expected.  So if it was higher, we generally would not go.  Remember to always consider the direction of the wind, ergo the wave direction, as angling conditions are much worse to tolerate than going with the wind and waves, or even against wind and waves.  And there is always a variation to be expected from a forecast.  A forecast is presented as averages over a wide area and the variation where you are plotted can be significant. 

     We had our worst experience traveling across the Gulf Stream from Isla Mujeres, the small island just off the coast of Cancun, Mexico, to Key West Florida.  With our 7 knot cruise speed in our full displacement vessel, we expected the passage to take approximately 45 hours. This was one of our four 'overnighter' legs that was necessary in our entire cruise.  We had waited for the NOAA forecast to be favorable for a Gulf crossing for two weeks before getting a good one.  The forecast was for 4-5 ft waves from SW, decreasing to 2-3 feet in the afternoon and staying in that range for the next two days. We felt we could tolerate the 4-5 for several hours, so we weighted anchor.  However, Mother Nature had plans She didn't share with NOAA.  They started out 3-4 feet, went to 4-5 as we left the coastal area, then continued to increase, sometimes as high as around 7-8 feet for the entire trip.  By the way, 7-8 feet feels like 10-12, and cruisers will swear they are 10-12!  We landed in Key West exhausted and with our anchor chain completely entangled and unusable.  But that is also another story.  Lynn and I both had several hours of sea sickness.  Thankfully, Howard Kay, our third crewmember on this leg of the passage, never got sick and spelled us at our shifts when Lynn or I felt too bad.  Our DeFever on the other hand just shrugged and said, "No big deal", even though the crew thought otherwise.  The point is that things can get worse.  So start within your boundaries so if they do get worse, you are still safe, even if not totally comfortable.  This was our only truly uncomfortable experience.  We found that when we stuck to our rules the passage was safe and most of the time quite comfortable. 

     Another significant forecast criteria that we felt was very helpful is wave period, or time between swells or waves.  This is a very important indicator of comfort on the sea.  If we found a forecast of 4-5 foot waves or swells at 12 seconds, we would select this forecast to leave rather than 3-4 feet at 4 seconds.  The short time between the swells or waves can really make a difference in the ride.  And even an 8-10 swell at 10-12 seconds is not bad compared to smaller waves at 4 second periods.  The problem with using wave period is that finding the information can sometimes be a challenge.

WEATHER SOURCES

    There are many sources for weather, and many criteria where the ocean is concerned. We did learn that we could safely rely on NOAA weather reports, but there are other sources such as HAM NETs and Internet web sites, if you have the ability to access them, that give you this additional period information regarding wind and waves.  And other than thunderstorms, wind and waves are what you are concerned about because they determine the comfort and safety of your trip.  We found that when the Internet was available, we would use a weather site that would give us wave period as additional information to determine our departure.  During our two year voyage these Internet sources kept changing. I hope that at least one of them sticks so we can count on it because we really feel this information is valuable.  Also, we found when we could raise a local HAM volunteer or HAM NET, these sources could usually relay wave period forecasts.  We finished our voyage using a subscription to Buoyweather.com, which allowed us to download GRIB files, digital files, through our HAM radio, enabling us to receive 3-7 day wave 'period' forecasts along with the wind and waves.

    We hope our experiences are helpful, and "We wish all of you who cruise, fair weather, and may the wind always be at your back.  But we know better, and that's just part of the adventure."©  However, you don't want to fool with Mother Nature.

Les and Lynn Cotton
2006
www.cottonharbor.com

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