The year was 2000, the location was Ship Channel Cay in the Exumas, and the issue was what it always is in the Bahamas in winter: weather. Like so many new cruisers, Chris Parker and his partner, Michael Zidziunas, in their Cheoy Lee 30 Dragon Lady, had expected cruising in paradise to be, well, paradise. Except on this particular morning, it wasn’t.
“The weather forecast was for the wind to be southeast when we got up in the morning and to come around to the southwest during the day, and a cold front was coming through,” Parker says. “So we wake up, and it’s blowing southwest at 20, and we’re on a lee shore on the wrong side of the island. Not a good situation.”
It didn’t improve. Eventually, they bailed out and slogged upwind 3 miles in three hours to find cover at Allens Cay, the sort of trip that anyone who has ever been caught out in the Bahamas knows embodies that technical weather term “snotty.”
“So that was one,” he says. “And we had two other situations within a month when a cold front came through that was either completely unpredicted or much stronger than predicted, or much earlier. And I said, ‘I’ve got to be able to do a better job than this.’’’
It was a fitting genesis for a weather forecaster who today is practically a household name among cruising sailors in the Caribbean, Bahamas and East Coast. Born of necessity, a love of sailing and a lifelong passion for meteorology, Chris Parker’s Marine Weather Center is the go-to weather service for thousands of cruising sailors who subscribe or who simply listen in on the net each morning.
As his service has grown, he’s added two full-time meteorologists, hardware that uses directional capability to reach vessels going trans-Atlantic and to every corner of the Caribbean via SSB, and livestreamed internet forecasts that complement emailed forecasts for each region between Maine and Panama.
When we were cruising full time aboard Osprey, we started every day (except Sunday) tuning in to USB 4.045 at 0630, listening for that familiar voice: “Good morning, all stations. This is Chris Parker on Bel Ami with Marine Weather Center, whiskey-charlie-yankee,” and I would settle in with my coffee, notebook and pen, ready to be educated. Since I was inexperienced and uncertain at the start, for me Parker’s steady, patient voice on the other end of the SSB was a comfort and a confidence builder. Listening to him every day, studying his forecasts, and talking with him when needed, my husband, Johnny, and I learned enough to become confident in our own abilities to understand and interpret weather patterns and forecasting tools, making us better cruising sailors.
Still, we never made a big passage without consulting Parker, and remarkably, in five years of steady movement across a lot of different water, he never steered us wrong. Even well offshore, his forecasts were accurate not just to the day, but often to the hour, and if he said we should be seeing 20 to 25 knots of wind and 4- to 6-foot seas, almost invariably that’s what we would be seeing.
It’s this combination of accuracy, breadth of products, local knowledge of the territory he covers, affable professionalism, and an immense well of patience that makes him so valuable an asset for cruising sailors. As someone who knows firsthand how miserable or even dangerous sailing can be when you get the weather wrong, he understands how important it is to get it right—not just for the safety of the boat, but also for the well-being of the boat’s people.
Many of his subscribers are friends and fellow cruisers, so for him, it’s personal. He makes it a point to know his clients, their boats and what they can tolerate, and caters his forecasts to those tolerances.
“Meteorologists with the National Weather Service are graded on whether their forecasts are correct,” he says. “Our goal is not necessarily to be correct; it’s to have you not be surprised by weather that puts you in a bad situation. So, if we have someone going trans-Atlantic in a small sailboat without a lot of fuel, or no engine, if they’re in a light-air situation, we’re going to underpredict the wind so they’re not surprised by being becalmed. And on the other hand, if there’s going to be a lot of wind, we tend to overpredict it so they’re not surprised.”
From a young age, he has been into the weather. In second grade, he had a key to the science lab and examined daily the recording barometer to make a forecast, which he published in the school newspaper. When Parker was 10 years old, his father bought a 27-foot Cruis Along—a classic family runabout built on Chesapeake Bay—and he started boating on the bay’s Sassafras River. By the time he was 12, he was the unofficial tender to the local mooring field, running a 12-foot runabout with a 15 hp Sea King on the back. He fell in love with sailing at summer camp, eventually sailing and racing on Lightnings, Flying Scots, Star boats, Lasers and PHRF boats.
All through high school he kept making forecasts for the school radio station, and meteorology seemed like a no-brainer for college. But two years into a meteorology program, he realized he wasn’t going to make it, so he graduated with a business degree.
For a while, the weather took a back seat to making a living. Then, in 1993, he and Zidzivnas bought Dragon Lady and lived aboard while working in Miami. In 1999, they quit their jobs and went sailing. “The plan was we were going to be out and see as much of the world as we could, and do it until it wasn’t fun anymore.”
They sailed for five years, switching from Dragon Lady to a 1966 Morgan 34 named Bel Ami and traveling the East Coast, and down to the Bahamas and Bermuda. “The joke was, after our second year in the Bahamas, our families said: ‘You said you were going around the world. What happened?’ We said, ‘Well, the Bahamas is part of the world,’ and a pretty good part of the world!”
But it had lousy forecasts, despite the efforts of NOAA and BASRA (Bahamas Air Sea Rescue Association), where sailors got their information. After the back-to-back poorly predicted cold fronts, he started downloading weather fax charts from Coast Guard stations, listening to HF broadcasts, and working with a brand-new tool: GRIB files. He beta-tested OCENS WeatherNet and GRIB Explorer, and started making forecasts for Bel Ami.
Pretty soon, cruising friends wanted to know why and how Bel Ami was making such spot-on weather choices. It wasn’t long before he was creating forecasts for them as well, “and that started growing into a business on its own.”
Like many, Parker also listened to David Jones, who ran Caribbean Weather Center—an SSB-based service out of Tortola—for cruisers in the Eastern Caribbean. He had hoped to be able to apprentice with him, but Jones died in fall 2003. Initially, Jones’ widow didn’t want to continue the business, so on the first Monday in January 2004, Parker started his own marine weather net via SSB.
“On that morning, Bruce Van Sant [author of The Gentleman’s Guide to Passages South] in Luperón heard me on the radio, and he knew David’s widow. And he called her, and he said, ‘You have got to team up with this guy.’’’ So, from 2004 through 2010, Parker was the chief forecaster for Caribbean Weather Center. In 2010, he opened Marine Weather Center, and Caribbean Weather Center simultaneously shut down.
Since 2005, Parker has based his forecasting operations from his home in Lakeland, Florida. With the service steadily growing, three years ago he hired Chris “Stormy” Stickle, and more recently Shawn Rosenthal, both young meteorologists.
“We want us all to be trained in everything,” Parker says. So, for example, Stormy handled all the SSB nets while Parker was in Annapolis for the fall boat shows. “It’s a huge relief. I still work six days a week—and actually I still work Sundays too, because custom forecasts have to go out on Sundays. But it’s enabled us to grow the business.”
Two other upgrades have been the addition of a dedicated building on his property for the forecasting operation (rather than a 6-by-6-foot closet in his house), and a directional Yagi antenna, which he installed with the help of cruising sailor and friend Rick Medero aboard S/V Sea Language. German-based OptiBeam custom-built the antenna for Marine Weather Center’s two bands—8 MHz and 12 MHz—and the 20-by-40-foot array stands 85 feet tall and rotates to better pinpoint accuracy to the recipient.
“It used to be beyond about 1,000 miles we had really difficult propagation,” Parker says. “But now we can talk reliably with boats all the way to and from Europe.”
In addition to emailed regional forecasts, livestreamed webcasts, SSB net forecasts, and individual routing, in September 2017 for Hurricane Irma, and again in September 2018 for Hurricane Florence, Parker added Facebook Live to his repertoire.
One of the great bonuses to his job, he says, is maintaining his friendships in the cruising community. He plans to get back out there eventually, after he retires. Meantime, he sees a continuing need for Marine Weather Center, despite constantly evolving technologies that make it easier than ever to get weather from multiple sources.
“I thought maybe my business was eventually going to have to go away. The more technology there is, the better computer forecasts become, and eventually you might think meteorologists wouldn’t be necessary.” But what he has found has been the opposite.
“We’ve gone from just forecasting the weather to more of helping guide them through what decisions to make based on what might happen with the weather,” he says. “Whether it’s going to be 75 and sunny tomorrow is not really what you need to know. What you really need to know is, what plan of action do I need to deal with what the weather’s going to do? We try to make those suggestions.”
Contributing editor Wendy Mitman Clarke is presently landbound but still listens to Chris Parker’s livestream, as much for the weather as to put her in a cruising state of mind. You can see more of her work at wendymitmanclarke.com.