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Old 06-04-2016, 10:52   #1
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Weather, Navigation, and Communication Question for a Work of Fiction

As I slog my way through the first draft, finally writing the portion about sailing in the Gulf of Mexico, I have a simple question—or maybe it’s not so simple.
Here are the particulars (probably more info than necessary):

My characters—the skipper, the cook, and the ‘guest’ passenger—are sailing on a wooden, 47’ Bermuda yawl from Lake Pontchartrain, LA to Cayman Brac in mid-April, 1984. I’m planning on an eight- or nine-day voyage with at least a day of no wind and, shortly thereafter, a big storm, perhaps not too far off the coast of Cuba. This is a sound vessel, equipped with a motor (used only under the direst circumstance) and whatever technology was available at the time.

What sort of a storm warning might they receive, both visually and or barometrically? And what sort of communications were available technologically back in the early 1980s?

I welcome any insights or advice!
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Old 06-04-2016, 13:27   #2
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Re: Weather, Navigation, and Communication Question for a Work of Fiction

Also, is there any particular protocol that a skipper would follow when met with seriously bad weather? (I'm being a little vague to keep all my options open.)
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Old 06-04-2016, 13:33   #3
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Re: Weather, Navigation, and Communication Question for a Work of Fiction

If the pressure drops more than a millibar an hour for many hours, you are in for a big storm.
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Old 06-04-2016, 13:55   #4
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Re: Weather, Navigation, and Communication Question for a Work of Fiction

We sailed to the Marquesas from San Diego at the beginning of the hurricane season in 1975. We got our weather from WWV radio, the same place we got our time hacks for celestial navigation. They would report significant weather at a specific time each hour with location of the center of the storm, direction and speed and wind strength.

The hurricanes in the eastern Pacific are generated in the Gulf of Mexico and either head north or west in a narrow band between 10 and 20 degrees N. Latitude. We kept track of storm activity on the way down and there was a low pressure that began to develop as we neared 20N. Plan was to bore holes in the ocean above 20N if there was no danger or beat feet south of 10N if conditions looked good. WWV was still reporting a poorly developed low and it was more than a 1,000nm away when we hit 20N. We were averaging a 150nmpd so thought we would be through the danger zone quickly and continued on south. As luck would have it, the storm developed into a Cat3 hurricane and headed west at a good clip. Meanwhile, our winds began to die and our daily runs decreased till we were barely making a 100nmpd. Tight jaws there for a while. By the time the storm got to within a 150 nm East of us, we were at 9N with eye of storm at 11N. We began getting increased wave action and circular cloud formations. Probably would have only got a slight dusting if the storm had continued it's track and intensity. Fortunately, the storm literally went poof in a matter of a few hours so got virtually no effects from the storm. Don't remember what the barometer did but assume it had begun to decrease which was the pre radio/pre airborne prediction of bad weather in the offing.

If you are expecting a hurricane and running into a sheltered anchorage is not an option. Trying to get as far away from the right front quadrant as possible would be a good plan. The hurricane forces are added to by the forward motion of the storm so winds in that quadrant are 10-30mph stronger.
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Old 06-04-2016, 17:27   #5
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Re: Weather, Navigation, and Communication Question for a Work of Fiction

Were the USCG radio stations broadcasting weatherfax in 1984? I believe they were, but can't find a verification. I think they were in 1991 because in the movie "The Perfect Storm" shows a WFAX receiver (paper printout) aboard the Andrea Gail. How's that for an unimpeachable reference???
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Old 06-04-2016, 17:35   #6
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Re: Weather, Navigation, and Communication Question for a Work of Fiction

Weather was broadcast on WWV and WWVH in 1984 so that would be one option. However the month of April raises questions. Although hurricanes can occur in any month they are extremely unlikely in April. Also April is a bit late for a winter cold front although that is a better possibility than a hurricane

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Old 06-04-2016, 18:15   #7
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Re: Weather, Navigation, and Communication Question for a Work of Fiction

WXFAX was available in 1984. I have an old Swiss Nagra weather fax on the boat which I keep for its antique value and wonderful machining. It uses metalized paper which is almost impossible to find now.


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Old 07-04-2016, 07:19   #8
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Re: Weather, Navigation, and Communication Question for a Work of Fiction

Quote:
Originally Posted by roverhi View Post
We sailed to the Marquesas from San Diego at the beginning of the hurricane season in 1975. We got our weather from WWV radio, the same place we got our time hacks for celestial navigation. They would report significant weather at a specific time each hour with location of the center of the storm, direction and speed and wind strength.

The hurricanes in the eastern Pacific are generated in the Gulf of Mexico and either head north or west in a narrow band between 10 and 20 degrees N. Latitude. We kept track of storm activity on the way down and there was a low pressure that began to develop as we neared 20N. Plan was to bore holes in the ocean above 20N if there was no danger or beat feet south of 10N if conditions looked good. WWV was still reporting a poorly developed low and it was more than a 1,000nm away when we hit 20N. We were averaging a 150nmpd so thought we would be through the danger zone quickly and continued on south. As luck would have it, the storm developed into a Cat3 hurricane and headed west at a good clip. Meanwhile, our winds began to die and our daily runs decreased till we were barely making a 100nmpd. Tight jaws there for a while. By the time the storm got to within a 150 nm East of us, we were at 9N with eye of storm at 11N. We began getting increased wave action and circular cloud formations. Probably would have only got a slight dusting if the storm had continued it's track and intensity. Fortunately, the storm literally went poof in a matter of a few hours so got virtually no effects from the storm. Don't remember what the barometer did but assume it had begun to decrease which was the pre radio/pre airborne prediction of bad weather in the offing.

If you are expecting a hurricane and running into a sheltered anchorage is not an option. Trying to get as far away from the right front quadrant as possible would be a good plan. The hurricane forces are added to by the forward motion of the storm so winds in that quadrant are 10-30mph stronger.
That sounds like a tense journey!
For the purposes of my plot, I don't need anything as severe as a hurricane, but rough enough weather to shift the crew's focus. Above you mention that if they were expecting a hurricane, running into a sheltered anchorage would not an option--Is that because being tied up is worse than being tossed about at sea? Would you care to expound on that?
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Old 07-04-2016, 07:24   #9
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Re: Weather, Navigation, and Communication Question for a Work of Fiction

Quote:
Originally Posted by skipmac View Post
Weather was broadcast on WWV and WWVH in 1984 so that would be one option. However the month of April raises questions. Although hurricanes can occur in any month they are extremely unlikely in April. Also April is a bit late for a winter cold front although that is a better possibility than a hurricane

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I don't necessarily need a hurricane, but surely there are some crazy storms that pop up or move in from...hmmm...where exactly would a storm move in from during mid- to late-April? I'm thinking Southeast, yes?
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Old 07-04-2016, 07:32   #10
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Re: Weather, Navigation, and Communication Question for a Work of Fiction

Quote:
Originally Posted by Paul Elliott View Post
Were the USCG radio stations broadcasting weatherfax in 1984? I believe they were, but can't find a verification. I think they were in 1991 because in the movie "The Perfect Storm" shows a WFAX receiver (paper printout) aboard the Andrea Gail. How's that for an unimpeachable reference???
Ha! I often use movies as points of reference when I begin research (especially when it comes to something I've never done, like sailing on a 47' boat in the Gulf!), but details can be as subject to error as Googling the internet for answers. Frankly, I've received the best research results on forums like this, from people who have firsthand knowledge of a subject!
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Old 07-04-2016, 08:09   #11
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Re: Weather, Navigation, and Communication Question for a Work of Fiction

in the Riding Out a Potential Hurricane in the Bahamas thread, which seems to rule out my boat seeking refuge anywhere on the coast of Cuba (yeah, I know there are a whole lot of other considerations when it comes to Cuba in 1984). So, it looks like my crew will have to ride out the storm. Any suggestions on the basic protocol of getting through very scary weather on a 47' sailboat?
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Old 07-04-2016, 08:42   #12
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Re: Weather, Navigation, and Communication Question for a Work of Fiction

Quote:
Originally Posted by JBChicoine View Post
in the Riding Out a Potential Hurricane in the Bahamas thread, which seems to rule out my boat seeking refuge anywhere on the coast of Cuba (yeah, I know there are a whole lot of other considerations when it comes to Cuba in 1984). So, it looks like my crew will have to ride out the storm. Any suggestions on the basic protocol of getting through very scary weather on a 47' sailboat?
Forty-seven feet is generous enough, if the boat is well-founded and well-run, to ride out a substantial storm.

There have been very few advancements in boat handling since 1984, save for the development of the Jordan Series Drogue, that would change that.

You have to figure out your storm vs. boat direction: would the boat run off or heave to? Heaving to means you drift or crab at 1 or 2 knots boat speed as if you were "parked": it's still, however, a hell of a ride and if close to land (or close to a land you do not wish to approach), you may wish to run off. Some will deploy a "sea anchor".

Running off (again, depending on direction) is purposeful sailing under greatly reduced sail, like a storm staysail and a deeply reefed main or a trysail. As the speeds involved can still exceed either comfort or the ability of the boat to be controlled by the rudder (critical in avoiding a roll or a pitchpole coming off waves), on occasion, drogues are deployed from the stern to slow the boat deliberately. Drogues in '84 would have been warps (loops of heavy line, often weighted, from special strengthened attachments on the stern).

Much depends on number of crew, hull shape (which dictates to a degree an ability to heave to), experience, length of the storm in regards to wave heights (development) and, of course, whether something hard is in your way (sea room/offing).

I recommend reading cruising narratives of the '70s and '80s for ideas. The Hiscocks had a big steel cruiser and faced a few storms, and Hal Roth is always good for these sort of tales.
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Old 07-04-2016, 09:55   #13
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Re: Weather, Navigation, and Communication Question for a Work of Fiction

As for the protocol "Preparing for bad weather":

Prepare the Crew:
Get anyone informed on the options and tactics
Tell them the rules: Lifebelt anytime, always two on deck, Lifejackets on leaving the cockpit and while on helm
Prepare personal safety equipment and change to bad-weather-clothing early
Get everyone well fed and prepare cold meals, you can't cook in heavy weather
Remind everyone on the whereabouts and the proper use of emergency-equipment
With a high probability at least one of the crew will suffer from heavy seasickness
adapt watchplan to shorter watches (2h) and two on deck anytime

Prepare the ship:
close all locks, drawers etc, stuff cupboard
secure everything that is not fastened
close ventilation
most ships of that size had seablinds for larger windows
check liferaft
check battery state evtl. load using main engine
prepare sails and change to smaller, heavier sails
prepare drogue
check cockpit drains
remove anything from deck that is not needed


Prepare navigation
get the best position possible, at that that time loran c was available and widely used,
prepare charts for frequent logging
if HF-equipment on board (rare at that time): report your position and plans to friends or hams
log air pressure and temperature hourly
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Old 07-04-2016, 10:02   #14
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Re: Weather, Navigation, and Communication Question for a Work of Fiction

I was part of a crew of four taking a Passport 40 from Marathon, Fla., to Isla Mujeres off Cancun, Mexico. It was probably in the 80s. It was one of the most uncomfortable passages of my sailing life. Yes, it gets nasty and I don't even think we were in a real storm. It was an over-nighter, so sleep was very difficult -- so much so that I started hallucinating that we were being boarded by Cuban boat people. We also worried about Cuban war boats because you're close enough to see the lights there.

The captain/owner of the boat did not know how to heave to, so we had to sail back and forth from 2 am on since we arrived earlier than we predicted. No one wanted to go forward to take down the jib, so the youngest crew member did and could have easily have fallen off in the dark.

The cruise ships were everywhere near Cancun and really multiplied as we got closer to Isla, totally confusing us as to what boat was going in what direction. So there's some more detail for the "trip."
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Old 07-04-2016, 10:10   #15
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Re: Weather, Navigation, and Communication Question for a Work of Fiction

I'd suggest referring to Lynn and Larry Pardey's

Storm Tactics Handbook ISBN ISBN 978-1-929214-47-1

for very real-life ideas about how to manage a sailboat in a storm.
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