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Cruising Priorities

Weather has far more effect on our life aboard than it does back home. Most people probably pay at least a little attention to a weather report, and may check the weather channel out of curiosity. To a cruiser, weather is of vital importance. Both safety and ability to move depend on weather.

Ashore, most people can conduct most of their lives inside. Houses, cars, stores, and such things allow people to carry on in nearly any weather. However, boating is a much more outside lifestyle. Although we can close the boat up in rain, our dinghy has no roof and most of our activities are outdoors. Even going from one boat to another one in a rainsquall will soak everybody in the dinghy.

However, weather means far more than the inconvenience of getting cold or wet. Bad weather, especially on boats, can kill. Boats may flip or roll in very heavy seas. Strong winds, especially unexpected gusts, can dismast a boat and potentially destroy it. Strong windstorms such as hurricanes or cyclones can destroy boats and kill people even in harbors; flying debris, pounding waves, and winds strong enough to physically push or knock people can make some ports more dangerous than the open sea. Boats are often destroyed during storms, and even if the crew survive they may be injured and have lost hundreds of thousands of dollars. Even relatively mild conditions like thick fog or blinding rain can obscure visibility so much that boats may collide with reefs or other boats.

However, killing weather is not so common as one might think. While there are places that get windstorms every year, it is possible to prepare for the storms or simply avoid the area during hurricane/cyclone season (6 months out of every year.) A more day-to-day concern is wind direction, usually largely controlled by high or low pressure regions. Knowing which direction the wind will blow from is important when planning where to sail; downwind passages are easiest, cross-wind are faster but less comfortable, and upwind sailing is not fun at all. It is also important to anchor the boat where it is reasonably sheltered from the wind and unlikely to drag, which means choosing a good anchorage based on the current and forecast winds.

Similarly, we are concerned about wind speeds. Light winds (under 10 knots) are great in an anchorage, but we will sail slowly if we go out. However, light wind is more comfortable if we must go to weather (upwind). Winds of about 15 -25 knots are best for sailing, especially across or with the wind. On the other hand, wind over 25 knots (often gusting to 30 or more) can be uncomfortable and potentially dangerous, so we prefer to avoid really strong wind.

Having established that weather information is important to us, how do we get it? We cannot simply switch to the weather channel on TV, and local radio doesn't cover very much area. Instead, we get most of our weather information from e-mails which are automatically sent to the boat. The most common of these are text descriptions of weather patterns in an area (such as the Kingdom of Tonga, or even the entire South Pacific.) We can also get weatherfax, basically weather maps sen*t over the radio, but we prefer to get GRIB files. These are computer-generated weather maps that are sent as attachments in e-mail. A program is necessary to read the GRIB file, but it is much smaller than a picture and both clearer and more useful than most weatherfax.

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