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Immersed in weather and we're all experts (expert guessers)

2012 March 2

I'm dating myself here, but I have to get it off my chest: I remember when a modest snowfall was not treated as a national disaster.

There was a time when snow fell in winter, as it is wont to do, and life went on. That was in the quaint age before weather became a 24/7 obsession.

Winter came late to SAILING's home port at latitude 43 north this year and it wasn't until mid-January that there was forecast of measurable snow.

This unleashed the pent-up frustration of the TV weather folk-until then there had been no excuse to warn their viewers to fear "dangerous winter weather"-and the approaching snow got the full doomsday treatment.

I would have been shaking in my boots, but I didn't have to wear them. Doomsday turned out to be a scant four inches of snow.

I probably should be more sympathetic to TV's talking weather heads. They're just trying to make a buck slaking the public's thirst for weather info. People can't get enough of it, and I don't mean just partly cloudy and a 30% chance of rain. They want the full lexicon of unexpurgated meteorological lingo.

Not long ago I was in a supermarket check-out line behind two ladies of the senior citizen persuasion who were discussing weather. One said that an Alberta Clipper was on the way. The other nodded knowingly and said something about an occluded front that I didn't quite catch.

Our fixation on weather has less to do with the atmosphere-it's always been with us and there's certainly nothing novel about it-than with the fact that we are saturated with information about it through a plethora of communication media.

What a beautiful state of affairs for sailors. More than almost anything else humans do, sailing is about weather, and now we know more about it than ever in the history of seafaring.

This is a relatively new development. It wasn't that long ago that marine weather forecasts were available to sailors mainly by radiotelephone broadcast, and that was assuming you were within range of a weather channel. Funny, that didn't seem to bother us much in those simple times before weather obsession.

Not that such nonchalance was a good thing. It led me into a Gulf of Mexico passage that involved enough misery to qualify as character building.

After a long, slow transit to Pensacola, Florida, from Lake Michigan via the Mississippi River and Intracoastal Waterway, under engine power and with the keel frequently plowing a furrow in a muddy bottom or the occasional spoil bank, we were chaffing to get the sails up and the boat offshore and back in its element.

If we had bothered to listen to a weather forecast and it told us to expect two days of 20-foot seas and 45-knot winds, I'm pretty sure we would have stayed ashore to sample the delights of Pensacola. But when the morning dawned crystal clear, without a trace of red as a sailor's warning, we set out with brio for St. Petersburg-and sailed the Morgan 45 into a head-on collision with a weather system so nasty it left us longing for the Big Muddy. Boat and crew were a battered and bedraggled lot when we finally slouched into Tampa Bay.

That would never happen today. Not only would we be well and truly warned by innumerable weather authorities, we would have analyzed, dissected and parsed the weather system, talked about it endlessly and watched it develop on computer screens-all while snug at a dock.

In today's weatherwise word, the navigation station has morphed into a weather station. Real-time Doppler radar delivered by satellite tracks storms and tells you, way before the ugly roll cloud forms over your masthead, when you're going to get clobbered.

A click of the mouse delivers reports from weather buoys and shore stations. Weather data stream in continuously via the Internet connected by satellite telephone. Using marine weather software programs, GRIB files are downloaded to superimpose detailed wind prediction arrows on navigational charts. More weather data come in on smart phones and tablets. And if you're a confirmed Luddite you can still get weather from NOAA the old-fashioned way on VHF radio, even, if you want a real blast from the past, in MAFOR code.

If all of that isn't enough, and many of us think it isn't for long distance races and ocean passages, you can get customized weather analysis with routing advice for a fee from meteorologists who specialize in weather forecasting for sailors.

The aggregate is a tsunami of weather information. Processing it all is almost a full-time job. Good thing our navigator doesn't have to navigate very much any more (thanks to GPS) and has time to be weather officer.

One of the consequences of this surfeit of weather knowledge is that, like the ladies at the supermarket, it makes everyone in the crew a weather expert. Well before the race our experts conduct virtual races using predicted wind speeds and directions. Because they have complete, undiluted faith in the accuracy of the weather gurus, they confidently announce our finish time before the race starts.

Weather talk goes on non-stop during the race. Arguments rage over strategy based on what the weather will do. I've seen crewmembers come near to blows in a disagreement over the precise time and place the sea breeze will give way to the gradient wind.

Yes, it is a brave new weather world for sailors. Except that one thing about it isn't new-for all its dazzling science, weather forecasting is still part art. Which means that weather predictions are still a guess. They're just more educated guesses these days.

As for those virtual races, I've learned to apply a 50% error factor to our experts' predictions.