Times are tough economically and everyone is looking to cut expenses. The yachting industry is no exception. In this day and age more and more superyacht captains seem to have not only the knowledge, but also the means to access a number of online weather sources when trying to decide on a departure and how they will reach their destinations. Another option is for these captains to use a private weather forecasting/routing service to assist in making their plans. With that in mind, let’s take a look at the benefits and disadvantages of using an online weather service versus using a professional weather routing company.
For those captains who prefer to research the weather online, there are cost-effective solutions. There is an abundance of weather information to be found online and a majority of these sources are free. The downside of this is that many of these websites cover limited areas of the world and in order to access that data you may need to visit multiple web pages. One way to avoid this would be to use a subscription online weather service. Even then, one must be careful that this service will cover all geographical areas of interest. Another significant problem with online services is that if you lose the internet, or do not have access to the internet while at sea, then you are left without access to the site. Of course, downloading data via satellite can be expensive to begin with, not to mention even if only downloading GRIB data, prior to departure installation of software is required.
Websites can be a great source for mariners who are experienced in reading weather charts. However, there are times when there can be some confusion with these reports. The forecasts are based on different models and while these models are fairly accurate, there are times that the models will diverge, particularly in the long range. One model may depict good weather, while another will hint a gale developing offshore. Be aware that many of these websites may only be showing a single run of one computer model.
Another aspect to be cognizant of is that while there have been drastic improvements over the years; computer models are still far from perfect. While models do take into account topography and sometimes show areas prone to funneling winds and larger swells; these localized wind events are often predicted too low. Also, in situations where a gale or tropical cyclone may be developing, the model may be too slow to increase winds and swells in that region. It is always important before leaving port to check the local conditions of your departure and destination and compare it to the model before getting underway or you may encounter rougher weather than expected.
There are some mariners who may not be comfortable navigating weather sources online or there are discrepancies with the data that makes finding a solid window to depart challenging. A weather routing service will be able to provide you with a “personalized” forecast that is specifically geared toward your itinerary, while also keeping in mind the comfort level of winds and seas. Also, for a trip that may be several months away, it may be difficult to determine whether it is a good time to go or not. In this case, contacting a private meteorologist or private company will offer the best solution based on a climatology report. Of course, this is usually not available for free, so cost may be a prohibitive factor for those with limited budgets.
Upon contacting a private meteorologist or company, you will provide them with your planned itinerary and they will assist in determining if it is safe to depart at your preferred time or if there is a better time to depart. On longer transits, these forecasters will also determine the safest route possible. While you are underway, daily position reports are recommended. This will allow the meteorologists to constantly monitor your weather while enroute and immediately notify you of any changes, sometimes as much as several days in advance. This review of the weather is more difficult for those using online sources as it would require monitoring by the captain themselves.
A professional routing service employs degreed meteorologists who know the ins and outs of each computer model, including the strengths, weaknesses and known biases. Furthermore, a good meteorologist will also be looking at current observations, as well as radar and satellite trends to uncover disparities/errors within computer models. They will understand how this is likely to affect a given scenario and adjust the forecast accordingly. In short, a human forecaster incorporates their own knowledge and experience in pattern recognition to create a better forecast than a computer model can on its own.
Of course, even within good data there may be significantly different weather due to “localized effects”. How many times have you been surprised by how large seas were within the Gulfstream? Those who have transited in the Eastern Pacific, have you been caught off guard by high winds crossing the Gulfs of Tehuantepec, Fonseca, Papagayo and/or Nicoya? In the Mediterranean, mariners are aware of what can happen due to funneling near the Gulf du Lion or in and near any of the multitude of straits and valleys. A professional service will foresee these events and work with you in avoiding or minimizing them, thus eliminating such surprises.
Have you ever had guests or an owner who doubted a forecast? An unbiased forecast from a consulting firm can be shown to the guests/owner to confirm that conditions will not be favorable in reaching their destination. This can be much more difficult when showing them a computer screen, especially when a localized feature is occurring, and at times not recognized by online sources.
To be sure, there are pros and cons to using either type of service. The message cannot be stressed enough: use online sources with caution. While online sources have their value, nothing will beat the watchful and ever vigilant eyes of a professional meteorologist…someone who constantly monitors the conditions in your area and along your route, to keep you safe and informed, wherever your travels take you.