You can’t live aboard a 40-foot sailboat, sailing everything from the NW tip of Vancouver Island to Mexico (except for the middle part of Oregon, due to trucking the boat from Seattle to Alameda…) without learning a few things about “the weather.”
More than once, weather knowledge has paid-off many times over.
Yet, most wannabe survival sites, there’s not nearly enough attention paid to the weather, except by a few “real deal” guys like Bear Grylls. Even Grylls, by the way, had a life-threatening “learning experience” delivered by bee strings last month.
The weather, in a sense of Grylls’ bee-stings, is also in a special category of “What you don’t know can kill you.”
I’ve only had a brush with exposure, but it was very educational to say the least. Let me tell you about it…
It began with a late-in-the-day decision one winter afternoon to my 40-foot sailboat from Seattle (Shilshole Marina, M dock) over to Poulsbo, Washington. It was cold, about 38F, but with just the big jib flying, I made pretty good time westbound on a broad reach, coming to weather a bit at the entrance to Agate Pass.
There, the wind died, so on goes the diesel, in furls the sail, and oh, gosh, a good 3+ knot current was running against me, so there was only one choice, really: Keep going to Poulsbo, understanding that the next 90-minutes would be spent at the helm doing the break-neck speed of 3-knots to the mark. (turning point where the water was deep enough to head up to the northwest)
While the wind was down, the temperature kept dropping. By the time I rounded the mark to head up toward Liberty Bay, the air temp was about 34F and occasional sleet was bouncing off the brightwork now and then.
All this time I had been standing at the wheel since I didn’t trust the autopilot in the current. Kevlar ocean jacket, layers under, but damn I was cold. By the time I pulled into the Poulsbo Marina, I was thoroughly cooled to the core. Dangerously.
How cold only became apparent when I started “pushing the boat around” for docking. Not to brag, but I could usually spin the boat in a 50-foot wide fairway – which when you’re dealing with 40-feet of boat is good boat-handling. (I’ve seen people drop their jaws when I’ve done it in tight places full of furniture boats, like Victoria, BC is mid-summer…)
This time, as I began to set up for docking (remember, I’m all alone and it’s now almost dark and there’s no one else stupid enough to be out boating in sleet and cold…) I noticed my body wasn’t reacting quite right. Everything felt…well…heavy. What’s more, there was what can only be described as serious brain-fog, too.
As I got the boat lined up, into a slip and jumped from the deck down onto the dock, that’s when I almost went in the drink. The sleet was now thick-enough that it was slippery. As ice tends to be. I recovered, cleated-down the boat, plugged in shore power in a flash and got below decks where the heating system had things at a toasty 75F.
It’s typical of a dedicated sailor not to have gone in for some heat on the way up to Poulsbo. Puget Sound is known fod “dead-heads” and debris, so you keep a sharp eye ahead all the time. Breaking sailboats is expensive business.
Looking back, I had been snookered by my own self-confidence. I knew how to do all these baby-steps in the dark. What I didn’t know or fully appreciate was how quickly old “personal limits” moved when the brain gets cold enough and the body core temp drops. Suddenly what was once a piece of cake becomes something to be carefully thought through, step-wise, or there would not be a “happy ending.”
As a reporter I’d seen other people make plenty of weather-related judgement errors. Usually, on lakes in summer when a thunderstorm rolls through, it isn’t that bad. Even if the boat sinks, if the water is 70F, you still have about 3-hours, or longer of water survival time before hypothermia (or exhaustion) sets in.
In Puget Sound waters, winter, and in my late 40’s, a passable floater but weighed down by sailing gear, I figured my survival time would be about 30-minutes in the 48-degree water. Up at the north end of the Sound, toward the Strait of Juan de Fuca, survival times in winter drop to 15-20 minutes.
Against that backdrop, you choose your sailing companions more carefully and make sure they learn to reverse course on the boat and how to use the LifeSling – one of the best safety devices ever. (I had one of the first when they were introduced. Here’s a 2011 video showing how to use one. My other innovation was putting a radar reflector on the boat’s “overboard pole” so I could find the MOB spot in the dark using radar.)
That said, there are a number of overboard turns that can be made sailboat to start recovery. Which one depends on sea-state, level of crew training, body strength, windspeed, and boat-handling ability of the person on the helm. At all times, the captain has to call-out which emergency turn to use every time conditions change. LifeSling training was one of the fundamental pre-voyage checks. As was tossing in a seat cushion and having everyone take a turn at boat-handling to pick it up using the boat hook.
Motor running? Different deal. But when sails are up, oh boy. You might be able to yell out “Let go the main sheet!” with a mouthful of water and 150-feet distant to someone standing over a running engine, but good luck with that…
Left Hand Rule
When you are on inland waters, turn your back directly to the wind and then point straight outfrom your side with your left-hand. That’s where the center of whatever low pressure system is likely to be (generally the source of precip, wiond, lightning, and such) roughly.
On Wednesday, I happened to be up on the shop roof sweeping off deadfall and pine needles ahead of the rain. Wind was from about due east. My back to it, pointing left told me the center of the low from this week’s storm were still (more or less) down in the Houston area.
As it passed, the wind would “back” (go counterclockwise) as the low worked its way north and east of us.
Now, there are lot of other “rules of storms” – and a simple Google search will net you so many videos of right and left hand rules that your head will spin. For survival, simple. Back to wind, stick left arm out to the side, that’s where the low should be. Good (or at least bettrer) weather is generally to the right.
Back to the East, Houston/Galveston to the left-hand, Dallas was what the right-hand suggested would be a better picnic location.
Offshore sailing is more complex than this, of course. Here, you need other rules in order not to sail into the wrong quadrant of a typhoon (Pacific) or hurricane (Atlantic). One rule says get on a starboard reach as soon as possible. (Starboard being the right side of the boat when facing forward.)
A reach is 90-degrees to the wind, so a starboard reach with wind from the east, would have sailed us toward Dallas. As the low moved northward, and the wind backed to northerly, the starboard reach would head us toward El Paso. Though VMG (velocity made good to the mark) works better with water and a sailboat, not a double-wide and outbuildings on heavsily timbered land. But you figured that out without help, I hope.
Daily Wind Changes
A “mental weather log” is useful, though most people don’t do it. Begin to notice the weather around you. Then correlate it to what comes next. In Seattle, rain comes from the southwest. In Texas, the rain comes from the south/southeast where we live. And cold, clear weather comes from the north/northwest. Sure, it came come from any point on the compass, but direction of surface winds, especially when they pipe up a bit, is a big clue. Only if you understand it and that only comes from awareness. Most places, rain follows wind from one direction in particular.
Flying and boating are usually best early in the early morning around dawn, or as the light is fading fast at night. Because the wind dies down overnight, as a general rule. A NOAA article for The Front, offers a lot more details, but here’s the key part outlined by meteorologist Jeff Halblaub.:
“During the night, the loss of the sun’s radiation causes the earth’s surface to lose the heat it builds up during the day. This cooling creates a shallow, stable layer of air near the ground, resulting in a temperature inversion. In an inversion, the temperature in the layer above the ground is actually warmer than it is near the surface. The increased stability limits the transfer of temperature, humidity, and wind down to the surface from the rest of the atmosphere above. The term for this is called decoupling, where this layer is no longer “aware” of what is occurring above it. The winds above the inversion can be strong while in the stable layer below, winds are calm or light.”
If you’re camping in the summer, you may find cooler nights in a valley. Or (since my son G2 in a snow-camper and reads avalanche conditions like a book) sometimes, higher up can be warmer due to the inversion effect. Granularity of the snow, temperatures up-slope all change avalanche risk.
Ananbatic winds are common in the Spokane and Idaho area. They “run up” the western slopes of the rockies and result in afternoon clouds at the warm moist air is tossed up over places like Mullan Pass, ID.
Katabactic winds are compressed down-canyon winds in the mountains. All part of a system of geotropic winds which are related to the ground’s friction.
Depends on the terrain you’re hiking, but you can actually hold a fair course by understanding prevailing winds in a region. Start by going to the NOAA Digital Forecast page here and selecting winds.
The government’s use of wind barb symbols is exactly counter-intuitive. The end of a wind-barb points INTO THE WIND. Which is totally illogical, but once you have the decoder ring…like so….
The barbs above are all showing a wind from the West…and why they barbs would lean into the wind is just nuts. But, not my wheelhouse, not my steamboat. (These people believe in “climate change” too, one could cynically note.)
If you know what the usual winds are in an area (northwest or southwest winds up Put Sound in Seattle, north-northwest or south-southeast for arriving weather in this part of Texas) you can make some educated guesses about overlanding (hiking) by just watching clouds, if they are low enough.
Nature is the Best Forecaster
If you ever get off the phone and out into reality again, you’ll find there’s a great deal to be learned from animals. When cattle are lying down, for example, notice their direction and the wind. Animals usually point into the wind. Keeps the bugs at the other end, or some-such. If you had a cow butt, would you want “bad air from that” headed near your face?
Some areas (*like here) see movement of turtles a day to three before big rain events. Or, certain trees, like our tamarinds, will turn their leaves out to the wind prior to rain arriving. Cats will suddenly become interested in companionship, and get real interested in going inside. Zeus hears lightning at about 20-miles and does a personality shift.
Lightning is a Prepping Risk, too.
In the event of a SHTF event, things like lightning need to be considered, especially if you’re forced to overland. As a NOAA website advices:
“When a Safe Location is not Nearby
“If you absolutely cannot get to safety, you can slightly lessen the threat of being struck with the following tips. But don’t kid yourself–you are NOT safe outside. Know the weather patterns of the area you plan to visit. For example, in mountainous areas, thunderstorms typically develop in the early afternoon, so plan to hike early in the day and be down the mountain by noon. Listen to the weather forecast for the outdoor area you plan to visit. The forecast may be very different from the one near your home. If there is a high chance of thunderstorms, stay inside.
- Avoid open fields, the top of a hill or a ridge top.
- Stay away from tall, isolated trees or other tall objects. If you are in a forest, stay near a lower stand of trees.
- If you are in a group, spread out to avoid the current traveling between group members.
- If you are camping in an open area, set up camp in a valley, ravine or other low area. Remember, a tent offers NO protection from lighting.
- Stay away from water, wet items, such as ropes, and metal objects, such as fences and poles. Water and metal do not attract lightning but they are excellent conductors of electricity. The current from a lightning flash will easily travel for long distances.
For more, see NOAA’s page Lightning Risk Management for Backcountry Campers and Hikers.
Sound is about 1,100 feet per second so you can estimate lightning distance as 5-second per mile. Likely on the edges of heavy precip bands…but it’s all “risky busines” being ourside in storms.
Some things to study…or at least become a more aware observer when you can.
Some survivalists like to get deep into a cave system, if one’s handy. (They’re usually not.) With the caveats of “Way in from the opening and don’t touch the top and bottom of the cave at the same time…” it might seem like an option.
But I just can’t trust caves any more than I trust Fords or government.
Write when you get rich,