Weather prediction has come a long way since the days when your uncle’s corns foretold a cold spell.

Today, fishermen looking for the optimal weather window for steaming out to Georges Bank, weekend boaters looking for the select weekend to go cruising, or blue water ocean racers who want to win have more resources and more accurate forecasting at their disposal than ever before.

Mariners can now access services that will chart a route that offers the most favorable wind and sea conditions, tailor-made for their particular voyage. From a weather standpoint, ocean navigating is safer than it has ever been, thanks to technological innovations and the financial commitment to deploy them.

Armchair cynics will observe that the Farmers’ Almanac boasts a record as accurate as the combined gimmickry of computers and modeling programs used by “modern” forecasters. To the credit of the Almanac and the embarrassment of meteorologists, it’s often true. But the men and women who spend a lot of time at sea are putting their faith and livelihoods in modern forecasting. The Almanac stays back home in the privy.

Balloons and buoys

Weather forecasters have a lot more information to work with than even a decade ago. Twice every day, 800 weather stations all over the world send up a weather balloon loaded with instruments to monitor temperature, humidity, wind direction and speed, and air pressure. As the balloons ascend to altitude about 12 miles above earth, they transmit data to weather stations. Then they burst and the instruments drift back to earth on parachutes (occasionally to be recovered). The method may sound primitive, but balloon data give meteorologists important information about atmospheric conditions.

Sea conditions are monitored using information collected by buoys stationed strategically along the coast. The National Buoy Data Center maintains navigational buoys that report wave height and frequency, temperature and wind speed. When the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) announced it was going to cut funding for the Portland Large Navigation Buoy (LNB) as a cost-saving measure, the ensuing local furor prompted politicians to lobby to keep it. The LNB is still out there, beaming its signal to the National Buoy Data Center

Last year, 10 buoys deployed by the Gulf of Maine Ocean Observing System, or GoMOOS, began reporting meteorological and oceanographic data on an hourly basis. Surface measurements include wind, waves, temperature and fog (which has never been monitored). Subsurface measurements of currents, temperature, salinity, color, turbidity, dissolved oxygen and others provide scientists unprecedented oceanographic detail.

GoMOOS is a national pilot program sponsored by the Office of Naval Research (because the Navy recognizes the many applications of ocean observing to national security). It brings Gulf of Maine oceanographic data to all who need it, including commercial mariners, scientists, search and rescue teams, emergency response teams – even public health officials who may be concerned about harmful algal blooms such as red tide. The originators of GoMOOS have developed the construct for a proposed national system of linked regional buoy networks serving states and Canadian provinces.

This year GoMOOS has added three buoys, bringing to 13 the number positioned between Massachusetts and Yarmouth, NS. “GoMOOS is on everybody’s mind,” says John Cannon of the National Weather Service Office in Gray. “Fishermen are very excited about it, because NOAA’s navigation buoys don’t report meteorological information, only oceanographic.”

Meteorologists rely on data to feed their forecasting models; the more complete and accurate information they possess, the greater confidence they have in their weather predictions. Development of a regional data collection system like GoMOOS has Cannon optimistic for the future of forecasting. “It’s a finer mesh of weather data the likes of which we’ve never seen before,” he says. “There are so many potential applications.” For example, the buoys’ visibility sensors will allow meteorologists to study fog climatology – a major Gulf of Maine phenomenon – for the first time.

Recent advances in computer power and sophistication at the National Weather Service enables forecasters to compare multiple sources of information arriving in different formats. “We haven’t had the computer power to overlay high resolution model data, satellite, and radar in the past,” says Cannon. “We’ve always used large scale models out of Washington, DC. With the advent of AWIPS [Advance Weather Interactive Processing System], we can combine data from government networks and educational institutions and be much more specific.”

At your service

The growth in volume and sophistication of meteorological data has spawned a small industry that offers detailed forecasts tailored to the specific needs of mariners. Whether the clients are commercial ships making long-distance ocean crossings or yachts racing their way between distant ports or around buoys in the bay, mariners worldwide increasingly rely upon these routing services.

“They’re pretty helpful,” says Jim Stanley, a seasoned sailor who uses Commanders’ Weather, a routing service based in New Hampshire. Stanley recounts a recent incident when the service spared him and his boat a lot of misery, if not trouble. The week before the Bermuda race he was headed for Newport, RI. Several weather forecasts looked favorable, but just before departure time it appeared as though the picture might be changing.

Stanley decided to call his contact at Commanders’ Weather. “He laughed, and said ‘You oughtn’t be going tonight or you’ll sail into a weather bomb.’ A storm was beginning to form off the New Jersey coast. We would have had four inches of horizontal rain and 35 to 40 knots wind on the nose. We spent the night here. By the time we got out the next day it was windy but not bad. Most of the weather had cleared out.”

Stanley says he might have paid $60 for that service – a small price to pay considering what he was able to avoid. Weather routing services are more than damage control; they also direct vessels toward favorable sea conditions or to avoid high-pressure cells where they might wallow becalmed for days.

Eyes on the water

Since forecasting accuracy is closely related to the volume of dependable data, the most reliable service is one that takes advantage of real time, on-the-water reporting from vessels at sea. Perhaps the best known and most reliable of these is Herb Hilgenberg. Internationally known by mariners for his forecasting prowess, Hilgenberg tracks vessels’ progress and makes daily broadcasts on single sideband radio from his base in Burlington, Ontario. His professional presence on the airwaves over the years has earned him the respect of private and government weather agencies.

Hilgenberg uses a simple protocol. After analyzing weather data and developing localized forecasts for the regions traveled by vessels he is tracking, Hilgenberg goes on the air. His broadcasts always come up at the same hour and on the same frequency – 20:00 Greenwich Mean Time (4:00 Eastern Standard Time) at a frequency of 12359.0 megahertz. For traffic near the eastern seaboard west of the Gulf Stream he uses a frequency of 8294.0 megahertz. It’s organized so that the boats all check in between 3:30 and 4:30, typically with a simple “This is the vessel X, standing by.” He knows where the boats are, then groups them by location and route: Azores to Gibraltar, Canaries to Caribbean, Bahamas to the Gulf of Mexico. Then he begins his callbacks.

“I call back each boat and get their actual position and current weather conditions. And give the weather for today and the next three or four days. I might make them a waypoint to avoid bad weather or avoid a hole. I use the data I gather from other boats to more accurately predict what’s going on,” says Hilgenberg.

Hilgenberg says that a decade ago, boat reports were the only source of reliable data. Now he says they serve more as confirmation of his analysis of the wealth of information available to him. Which is vast, considering the US Navy and NOAA have approached him to work collaboratively. While living in Bermuda, he gave reports to the US Naval base and NOAA. “In return they gave me backup – equipment and charts. I was making 15,000 reports a year.”

The further out the forecast, the more “static” there is in the long range forecast. Hilgenberg says that part of his forecasting advantage is his contacts out on the water. “I wouldn’t be able to differentiate what’s right and what’s wrong. [Boat reporting] clears out the static, and I try to work the schedule so I know what time the static is least.”

Hilgenberg remembers covering Dodge Morgan’s solo circumnavigation on AMERICAN PROMISE in 1985-86. These days he tracks as many as 90 boats at a time during the peak season in late spring. This time of year, his number hovers around 15 to 20 boats, with current check-ins consisting mostly of commercial vessels – Danish, Swedish and Finnish tugs. In between he gets calls from the Rescue Coordinating Centers (RCC) in Norfolk, VA, covering rescue operations in the North Atlantic, as well as RCCs in Miami, Puerto Rico, Halifax, London and Dublin. They call him requesting information on boats with whom he is in contact. “Last week London called because a boat they were tracking had missed a few scheduled communications.” Hilgenberg reached them via single sideband and was able to report the problem: their satellite phone had broken down.

Between maydays and other marine emergencies in which he has lent assistance over the years, Hilgenberg says of his service, “It’s become a standard that people expect to be there.” Asked whether he plans to keep up his hobby going as a free service, Hilgenberg replies, “As long as I feel there’s some way I can help, I’ll do it. If it becomes repetitive and meaningless, I’ll stop.” Until then, Hilgenberg continues to develop forecasts and generate handmade, value-added forecasts that are used by hundreds of vessel captains.

Part time mariners and weather watchers who get their forecast from a weather radio can expect little more than mechanized voices emanating from their weather box. The National Weather Service even has names for them. First came “Sven” – the stolid voice that introduced us to robotic forecast reporting. The latest improvements have brought us the voices of “Donna” (“partly CLOUdy with SHOWers”) and “Craig” (“seas three to five FEET!”). But don’t throw away the Farmers’ Almanac just yet. Global weather phenomena the likes of El Nino and the North Atlantic Oscillation are proving that the more we know about weather, the more there is to learn.