Weather and Sailing Conference
Part One: Greenwich
Taking place at the National Maritime Museum at Greenwich the delegates were pleased that they were in an area of the museum which had been, some years ago, covered with a glass roof and were behind a glass wall onto which the rain lashed all day.
The proceedings were opened by Prof. Liz Bentley, Chief Executive of RMetS, who welcomed those attending and dealt with the usual housekeeping arrangements before introducing the line-up of speakers.
First to speak was Jim Galvin, Senior Operations Meteorologist from the Met. Office, giving us the history of the Shipping Forecast. Forecasting goes back to Admiral Fitzroy, the Board of Trade and the invention in 1854 of telegraph which allowed long distance communications and the use of Storm Cones. Moving on to more modern times, Long Wave broadcasting allowed shipping at sea to receive the forecast from 1924. Customers of the forecast were initially the maritime community – now the MCA who own the forecast. It is still broadcast by agreement with the BBC and is now used by many more communities, including rescue organizations like the RNLI.
Forecasts are directly funded from taxation and come as Inshore, Shipping, and High Seas versions. Winds are forecast to come from eight compass points, with a variability of ± 45˚. The speed of the wind is expected to be ± 1 Beaufort strength of that forecast, and wave heights should be ± 1 on the Douglas Sea State scale. The Shipping Forecast is limited by the BBC to 350 (± 20) words, with an increase to 380 words at 2300 to allow the inclusion of sea area Trafalgar, although the Inshore Waters Forecast has no word limitations on it. Because of the limit on the Shipping Forecast some areas will sometimes be grouped together to speed up reading out the information. On occasions some of the larger sea areas are split into two where the forecast is different across the area although this is not encouraged for smaller areas.
The models of the weather used are becoming increasingly good, but it is still the forecaster who adds value by interpreting the numerical forecast. He or she has knowledge of local irregularities and anomalies, and is able to predict thunderstorms and sea fog. The winds only are subject to a process of verification; they must be within ± 1 Beaufort strength and the timing should be within 95% of the forecast time. The numbers of forecasters at the Met. Office is dropping, so what of the future? Will Artificial Intelligence write the forecasts and will there still be broadcasts of the Shipping Forecast in ten years’ time?
Tom Cunliffe entertained us with the title of, “From Long Wave to GRIB and Apps”. With the example of the 350-word limit, Tom told us that, as a journalist he has tried to condense his sailing life into a similar number. Pointing out the changes in both boats and navigation techniques he went on to compare what was available when he started sailing, the Long Wave Shipping Forecast when within reception range with modern methods, including the information on the US weather channels and, more recently, in the Baltic. Much of his sailing is now done in the flat waters of the Baltic, Tom feeling that he has done all the rough weather sailing he needs. Here, the forecast is downloaded to his PC hour by hour for very local areas.
Moving onto training, candidates for Yachtmaster qualifications were expected to plot a synoptic chart from the reports for Coastal Stations, locate any fronts and make a stab at producing their own forecast. Once at sea, well offshore and out of Long Wave range the only weather information came from looking at the sky and from the barometer. Now you can get the PassageWeather forecast almost everywhere. The forecasts, Tom said, were accurate for today, good for tomorrow but were dubious five days out – although better than nothing. Hence his advice before commencing a passage to carefully monitor the forecasts for several days before starting. There is a lot of weather information out there, but how do we access it? Some parts of Scotland have very poor reception, while Scandinavia, which Tom obviously likes, has some 39 transmitting masts and you are usually in range of at least four of them.
Christian Dumard then described the Squid software supplied by Great Circle to several long distance ocean races as well as cruising yachts. The company is a marine weather supplier working with 100 professional sailing yachts, and 1,000 cruising yachts, providing a service both before and during the race. Ensemble forecasts are used with different models produced by altering slightly the observations entered into the equations.
At the end of the morning the three speakers combined to answer questions. Questions from the floor covered things like the accuracy of forecasts, other sources of information, climate change, the jet stream, visual signs and thermals (winds, not underwear).
The afternoon session was opened by Sam Matson talking about the weather and sailing strategy in the Volvo racing fleet. Sam started by showing the route for the 2017 / 18 race. He was one of the Race Officers based at the headquarters in Alicante, where there were four experienced racers on duty 24/7. All the information from the racing fleet arrived here – data sensors on board, angle of heel, keel angle etc. Fifty variables were arriving each second from every boat, with environmental data every ten seconds. All this information was placed into spreadsheets and then graphed to make them understandable.
As well as all this data, photographs from on board cameras were transmitted. These enabled the Control Room team, should they see something untoward in the data, to check if everything was all right on the yacht or if there was a crisis. This all enabled the team to present a comprehensive and understandable story to the Press and the public. One story concerned the strategy for coping with the St. Helena high pressure. This high pressure area, with light winds, lay on the direct course of the fleet so boats needed to decide how to sail around it. Another was the problem of the Southern Ocean lows and the need to keep up speed to try to stay ahead of the fronts. Here, the more experienced crews tended to stay further to the North while the less experienced strayed further to the South. This was complicated by the Antarctic Ice Zone which the yachts were obliged by the rules to avoid. During the event Ice Reports for the area required an extension of this zone to the North, in fact farther North than the positions of some of the competitors.
The next speaker was the RYA’s Director of Training, Richard Falk. Richard gave us a glimpse into the weather and navigation challenges presented by the Sydney - Hobart race. He described this, with his tongue in his cheek I suspect, as 630 relaxing miles starting on Boxing Day. The boats and crews range from downright professional to dedicated amateur. Because of the distances involved there is inadequate Marine Band VHF coverage, so each competitor is obliged to carry SSB H/F radio for the mandatory reporting and for listening to weather forecasts. When he came to the UK Richard was amazed to find that the Fastnet Race, almost as long, was sailed in waters where there was complete VHF coverage. One challenge for the navigator is the East Australian Current, which is part of the South Pacific Gyre. This current wanders and isn’t found in the same position all the time; sometimes it moves offshore, sometimes inshore and occasionally produces back eddies. With a speed of between one and three and a half knots it is important to know where to find it.
Another problem is South Australia’s location, in the march of the Southern Ocean’s lows, which come across every 72 hours or so. The boats are likely to be hit by a Southerly Buster somewhere on the way. In 1998 winds of up to 100 knots met the South Australia Current running at 31/2 knots producing waves greater than100 feet. From this, and some sad deaths, the following came out – the need to carry EPIRBs, the wearing of lifejackets and the requirement for First Aid and Life raft training for all competitors.
Summing up Richard told the audience there are several stages to the race:
Getting out of harbour. There may be an onshore thermal wind necessitating a beat out amongst all the spectator boats. Survive.
Heading South. Remaining inshore shortens the distance, heading offshore often gets a better current.
All down the coast there are regular local reports given of wind speed and direction, almost in real time.
From the SE corner of Australia to the NE corner of Tasmania is 200 miles across the Bass Straight in 50 to 70 metre depths. This is where the Southerly Buster may strike.
At Tasmania the choice is to remain offshore if the current warrants it, or to close the coast and seek blanketing from the wind by the high coast.
Weather resources available:
VHF radio: Yes in coastal waters, No further offshore. Similar to UK
Mobile data: Yes in coastal waters, No further offshore. Shipping Forecast
Weather routing: Yes
Pre-race weather briefing: Yes, x 2
Robert McCabe, Director of Operations and Navigation Services from Commissioners for Irish Lights then gave a run-down of the past services before moving on the future potential of CIL’s assets. We were reminded of the historic importance of Irish information when, in 1944, the weather report from Black Sod gave the first indication of a let up in the winds that would allow D Day to go ahead, albeit one day late. But what of the future? Five years ago all the solar energy on an AtoN was needed to power the light to give it the needed range. With increasingly sophisticated solar panels and LED lights there is now power to spare. The Fastnet light used to have 1 000 watt lamp but has now been re-engineered with a 30 watt LED, still having the required range.
All this means that modern buoys have spare power available which can be used to run weather measuring sensors and to transmit the data. There are currently twelve stations doing this, two lighthouses and ten buoys. The data measured and transmitted includes average wind speed and direction, with additionally gusts and gust direction, and wave heights, barometric pressure, humidity, air and sea temperature and pollution information. Much of this is relayed to Met. Éireann for use in their forecasts.
One can expect to see an increase in these remote sensing techniques, but there are still some challenges. These include the validation and correlation of the data transmitted, and the compromise between payload and power. The platform design may need to be modified and there is the question of how the data is presented to the user, and how it fits in with other sources.
The final speaker was Mervyn King who told us how he came to lose his yacht Tamarind in the 2017 OSTAR. Tamarind was an American design, built in Taiwan, and was both heavy and slow. Trackers were fitted to each participating boat and the Race’s web site showed each yacht’s position, with a coronet above the leading boat in each class.
A call to the boat by a Master Mariner friend warned Mervyn of a low, 964 mb. Because the chart table was occupied by a laptop computer being used for navigation Mervyn decided not to get out from under it a paper chart and pencil to mark the position of the low. The weather deteriorated (we were shown a barograph plot) and eventually Tamarind was knocked down to 160˚. This resulted in a window being stove in and the boat filling with water; the EPIRB was washed aft and set off; the steering cable parted and the wheel nut and the wheel both came off. After several hours of bailing the boat was more or less empty and floating high. Remember, though, the EPIRB had been triggered! Shortly an RAF aircraft arrived, followed by a ship. The weather, by now had started to ease down. What to do? Try to manage the boat in its current state or be rescued? Then another ship turned up – the QE 11 cruise liner – and took over from the first ship.
By now, Mervyn decided that it would be ungracious, and probably unwise, to refuse to be rescued, especially by such a famous vessel. This still left the problem of how to get on board. No difficulty, the QE 11 launched her rescue RIB and picked him up. Before leaving Tamarind Mervyn had cut through a relatively small pipe and opened the sea cock so the boat was slowly scuttled. The rest of the described Mervyn’s subsequent treatment as an honoured guest and the talks he was asked to give during the remainder of the passage to Halifax.
Following a final question and answer session, during which the question of virtual AtoNs was raised, Paul Bryans, Chairman of the Small Craft Group of RIN, thanked all the speakers, the Royal Met. Soc. and the National Maritime Museum for their assistance in putting on this one-day conference. By now the rain had lightened sufficiently to make it possible to get to the pub.
Weather and Sailing Conference
Part Two: W&S Ireland
Delegates were warmly welcomed to the Royal Irish Yacht Club (RIYC) with introductions from Darryl Hughes, Vice Commodore Pat Shannon (RIYC) and Captain Michael McKenna (Dublin Port). Capt. McKenna noted that this event was ideal for Ireland, as it was for all intents and purposes a conversation about the weather.
The first speaker of the day was Jessica Sweeney (Team Ineos UK) who was Skyped in from Melbourne. Much to the conference organisers’ relief, this bold move worked well and we were all captivated by Jessica’s talk on ‘Weather and the America’s Cup’. I can’t speak for all of the audience but I was surprised to learn the accuracy with which these racing teams need to be able to forecast the weather; they’re trying to forecast to within 1 knot, 8 hours ahead, to sail through a box of one-mile by half-a-mile wide.
The weather challenge is to figure out at exactly 1407 that afternoon will it be 13-16 knots or 14-18 knots? They need to make their decisions at 6am, with measurements locked in at 9am. Jessica talked through the timeline of weather-based decisions, ranging from those made years ahead of a race right up to those last minute decisions such as choosing the right crew on the basis of weight.
Evelyn Cusack from Met Éireann was next up to grace the stage with her talk that answered the questions ‘Just how do we forecast the weather?’. Evelyn began with the basics of what drives weather systems – essentially due to the energy imbalance between the solar radiation that reaches the equator vs the poles, and went on to describe the first weather report in 1859 which was inspired by the Royal Charter Storm. The birth of scientific weather forecasting in October 1859 was enabled by progress in communications technology (like the transatlantic cable).
The importance of how we name storms was made clear during Evelyn’s talk. Reach and engagement goes up hugely with named storms, giving an influential and authoritative voice with which to provide warnings to the public. She noted how useful this is in today’s ‘hashtag culture’.
Capt. Colm Newport from the Dublin Port Company gave the final presentation before the Q&A session moderated by Prof. Ray Bates. Colm engaged the audience with a lively talk titled ‘Local Conditions: Weather and the Dublin Port Pilot’. He noted that ships are getting bigger but ports aren’t (can’t!) get any bigger – just busier, making the job of the pilot that bit trickier. Colm talked the audience through a pilotage example in Dublin Port with an inbound vessel from the audience, keeping everyone engaged.
‘Anyone can get the weather to fit from somewhere… but that’s how you fall into trouble’ noted Colm. He encouraged everyone to consider where they source their weather data from and to make sure the source was chosen for quality rather than simply to fit the desired plan. This was echoed in the second session of the day as Christian Dumard noted that when it comes to selecting models for forecasting most people select the model at the top of the list, which isn’t always the best or most appropriate for the job in hand.
The talks in the second session of the day were given by Christian Dumard and Richard Falk, both of whom gave presentations at the Weather and Sailing Conference in Greenwich covered by John Hasslegren above, so I won’t go over old ground. Suffice to say the audience were enthralled.
Speakers after lunch included Libby Greenhalgh, Capt. Robert McCabe, Dag Pike, and Conor Fogarty. Libby, a professional sailor, shared with us her insights into ‘Weather and the 2017/2018 Volvo Race’. Libby spoke about the data limitations and difficulty in knowing how to balance all of the information from forecast data vs satellite imagery etc. to know what decision to make. She noted that you often end up thinking about where you are in terms of the weather rather than the actual destination.
Dag Pike, a Fellow of the RIN, AFRMetSoc and Maritime Consultant, kept the audience entertained with his stories of ‘Weather Forecasting for Breaking Records’. Dag’s first ocean sailing race was in 1948. He recounted tales of record breaking in powerboats. When you’re attempting to break records in powerboats it’s the waves you care about, not the wind. He noted the challenge of translating wind conditions to waves. Dag had many tips for those attempting to break records and for sailing in general, one of which being to go down the lee side of icebergs, as the big iceberg travels ahead of the smaller ‘bogey’ bits.
The final speaker of the day was Conor Fogarty with his presentation on his experience with The Observer Single-Handed Trans-Atlantic Race 2017. He described the trials and tribulations of the lonely race, and the difficult conditions that the competitors found themselves in, including the loss of the Tamarind which was described above. Conor pointed out the high value of local knowledge, noting that it’s important to rely on more than just models and routers.
Closing remarks were given by Declan Murphy (President of the Irish Meteorological Society) and Paul Bryans. The range of personalities and charisma were noted in the closing remarks. The presentations had gone a step above being merely informative – the speakers brought the audience on a journey with them, entertaining as they educated. The atmosphere was friendly throughout the day, and I’d like to thank all of the organisers for hosting such an enjoyable event.