Thursday, July 3, 2014

Weather to go? and the herd instinct...

Pondering the weather?
I think we have all been there, in that anchorage or port - pouring over forecasts , grib files and weather maps, trying to decide whether to go or not. Somehow the perfect weather window always seems to have just gone or to be another week away. Our options seem to contain many uncertainties, despite (or maybe because) of the much more accurate long range forecasts available these days. The decision to go is often complicated by other boats all thinking about heading of as well.

The Herd Instinct

It always slightly amuses me how much sheep thinking is coded into our DNA's (or is it human thinking by the sheep?) and I realise I'm not immune to this either. You get 2 or three boats in an anchorage waiting to depart, and everybody starts in subtle ways to find out what the other boats are thinking, and when they are going, there is much at stake in these discussions, ego, fear and respect... This doesn't only apply to other vessels, a similar dynamic can happen between individual crew on a boat.

Ego, comes into it because people don't like to be thought of as wimps, so (typically) the blokes like to make light of the forecast... 25-35 knots, no problems, been in much worse than that many times, we'll be right.. Another factor with the whole ego thing is that it can trap you, if you have stated loudly that you plan to go tomorrow- to other people who thought the following day might be better, it can be hard to then change your mind to agree with them when they are right...

Fear, it’s funny how travelling in groups somehow makes us feel less fearful, watch a group of penguins about to jump into water that may contain a hidden leopard seal to see the same type of reactions... Be careful that you are not leaving against your better judgement because you are afraid of being left behind... Or not leaving on a good forecast because no one else is...

Respect, saying we are going to do something different from others is like saying you think they are wrong... once we are locked into group discussions this becomes a powerful factor, it can be hard to say no.

The factors to consider between different boats
Factors to be brutally honest about are our boat, our crew and our rush factor.
Our boat- Is it bigger, smaller, faster, slower, well found or dodgy
Our crew - it is the hardest one to be objective about; we all like others to think we have heaps of experience, it's that ego thing. And they may be playing the same game, the blind leading the blind…

The rush factor - How much of a rush are we in, have we got pressing deadlines, have we been waiting for weeks already. How much do we motor vs. slop around in light air? Are we ready to go yet or do we actually want to spent a few more days in this place....
Ultimately the decision to leave should be an individual one, and one that you are comfortable with. Don't let that Gung-Ho delivery crew make you feel like you are cowards. Or that boat that has been waiting for 4 weeks for a perfect patch of weather make you feel worried about the conditions as long as you are confident the weather is OK for the boat and for you. Also try not to put pressure on other boats to follow your lead; they need to make up their own mind...

In saying all this there can often be advantages to discussing things with others, such as

  •          local knowledge
  •          A bit of a reality check
  •          other boats may have better or different weather information
  •          It is social and you get to know the crew from other boats.
You may even end up sailing at the same time and this can be fun (or a nuisance as they call you up every half hour to give you a position report and then expect you to slow down and wait!) If you are lucky you can get some good photos of each boat sailing…

Getting it wrong

I stuffed it up badly once (actually more than once but this one sticks most in my mind). I knew I was making a mistake at the time (Stupid hey...) I had a deadline, impatient crew and a bad forecast. Another boat was going, they reckoned it would be fine, and they had no engine - my ego didn't like that... My crew were starting to think I was a wimp and were really keen to go. I knew I could handle the conditions ok and I had faith in the boat, but I really thought the next day was a much better idea... It looked very unpleasant out there and the clouds were racing overhead. With a sense of foreboding we sailed. The crew got greener and greener as we left the lee of the land but their insistence on sailing meant they couldn't really bottle out, I should have taken the initiative and pulled the pin - it’s the skipper’s job, but I didn't want to be the one to bottle first. 

To windward the sky got darker and then without warning (actually there was good warning, I just ignored it) a solid squall came through flattening the boat. The seas rapidly built, steep and nasty, one throwing us well over and making me think the windows should have popped out. It didn't ease up any, so after a good struggle I clawed down the spitfire jib (we already had the third reef in) and we slogged our way back to the anchorage, motorsailing, arriving very wet and tired at midnight with our tails between our legs. The other boat ended up being towed in...
The next day the wind had eased somewhat and it looked much healthier but the crew were now very wary, they took some convincing before we headed out… We ended up having a great crossing, why I had headed out the day before with that forecast I don't know (actually I do, It was my ego, and I should stop listening to it.)  Now I must say that despite this incident they were a fantastic crew, and I enjoyed sailing with them. It was my error and ego that led to a miserable night.

Doesn't look so bad? Don't take the red arrows lightly...

Getting it right

I remember sitting at the Melchior Islands in Antarctica. We had a shocking system coming though the Drake Passage; the Grib files had it intensifying rapidly into 50 knots or so of southerly. It is about a 3-4 day passage and the trick is to try to time it to avoid a nasty westerly at Cape Horn, it's not normally too hard but in this case the timing would have to be perfect. Too early and the southerly could be dangerous, too late and the next westerly could make it difficult to lay the shelter under the lee of the horn... To make matters more complex five crew had flights from Ushuaia in the next week - And the new crew were to join shortly after...
I was pretty happy with when I had to leave, but I wanted to talk to Eric from Vaihere, he was heading off soon and had much more experience in the area than me. Vaihere is a bigger and faster boat than us and he was planning to leave 6 hours after me. 

It was good to talk to him, because it showed me that he didn't much like the situation either (very bad...) so there was some justification for my nerves... But we were both pretty confident that we could time it right for our respective vessels, and cope with the situation if it didn't pan out how we thought. He waited and I left. He arrived at the horn 2 hours after me, and I was probably an hour or so later than I should have been (because it was starting to get very nasty); it blew like stink that night. Vaihere kept going and looked magnificent sailing past in 50 or so knots of westerly. But I was glad we were tucked up in a safe anchorage.

What worked well about talking to Eric is that we had both dropped our ego's, he admitted that it looked nasty, and he was worried about it, as was I, we weren't trying to impress each other. We both had a pressing need to get away, but we were prepared to wait if needed. And we were aware of the different speeds and capabilities of our boats. My plan was to head out, and assess the situation in 12-24 hours, if I thought I couldn't reach the horn before the westerly’s started to crank up I would head back to Antarctica and cancel the flights... I had not used Eric to prop up my decision, but I wanted the benefit of his local knowledge of the Gribs and their relationship to the local weather systems near the horn.

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