So, How's the Weather?

"Reporter's Notebook" from our May 9, 2007, CW Reckonings

RNBermudaSt

Beyond a warm, beautiful sunset, clouds ahead presage the cold front that confronted CW associate editor Andrew Burton on a recent passage from Bermuda. For more photos, click here.Andrew Burton

Newport, Rhode Island, May 8, 2007--Early on Wednesday, May 2, I wandered up to Cafe Latte in Saint George, Bermuda, plugged in my laptop, and downloaded the weather from the Bermuda forecasters and the National Weather Service. Conditions looked good for departure; the third of four fronts to come off the US coast during our wait on the island had passed over, and the fourth was stalled and weakening along 34 degrees north, about 100 miles up the rhumbline to Rhode Island. I went back to Emily Martha Kate, the Swan 59 I was delivering from Saint Martin to Newport, and gave my crew the word to get the boat stowed and ready for sea.

While they were working I strolled over to the docks at Ordinance Island to see if our friends aboard Highland Breeze, a magnificent 112-foot Swan, were still there. I expected them to have left already, as they too were itchy to get home to Newport. Instead I found the captain hunkered down with an onboard project; the professional weather routing service they'd hired was forecasting gales and 25-foot seas in the Gulf Stream and he wanted no part of that. I went back to our boat and told the guys to go to the beach-if a Swan 112 was staying at the dock so were we!

That evening I again listened to Herb Hilgenberg on South Bound II, that great cruisers' resource (on SSB frequency 12359.0 at 2200 GMT), he didn't mention any immediate heavy weather on our route. I downloaded all the weather from all the sources I could get my hands on, but couldn't find what the professional weather routers working for Highland Breeze saw. The next day the forecast still looked good: We'd encounter only a little squally stuff from the stalled front the first night, and then a little bit of a blow from the northeast as we approached Newport. The weather router, meantime, still forecast doom and destruction but by that time, we were taking his advice with more than a modicum of salt. The captain on Highland Breeze felt the same way and was off by noon-two hours later we followed him out Town Cut and turned north for home.

As we sailed past Northeast Breaker the breeze was about 15 knots from the southwest and the seas were about two feet, with a four-foot swell from the northwest. The sun shone from a perfectly clear sky. Mike Amelang, my first mate on many passages over the last 25 years, summed up everyone's feelings when he said, "The weather can be like this all the way to Newport." It wasn't.

At 2300 that night the squalls of the stalled front showed up as a broad, bright-green band that stretched across the whole width of the radar screen on 24-mile range. We had a restless, rainy night and day of reefing and unreefing, headwinds, and fluky winds. By Saturday morning the breeze had died and we entered the Gulf Stream under power in the sunshine almost exactly where we'd planned.

The Stream is the biggest factor in the leg between Bermuda and the U.S. east coast. It can breed terrible weather or block weather from moving further south as cold northern fronts hit its warm water. On rare occasions it's a millpond as it was for us on this crossing. We also had a nice meander pushing us northeast at nearly 10 knots over the bottom.

That was all right, but we would have preferred some breeze to push us faster up the rhumbline. The National Weather Service was starting to talk about a low that had been forecast to move off the coast of the Carolinas. Apparently it was deepening, and strong high pressure was building in from the north squishing the isobars to a tight gradient that meant high winds. If we didn't get a move on we could get pasted by storm-force northeasterlies. The good news was that the winds would be lower the farther north we got; we'd also be out of the Stream before the wind started to pick up so we'd avoid the big seas that would build up there.

That night we had a good dinner and talked over the plan if the weather got really snotty. We bent on the storm trysail and made sure any loose gear was well stowed. On Sunday morning we were sailing again. The 15-knot breeze was a little forward of the beam and we close reached along at 8.5 knots well east of the rhumbline so if the breeze finally came up we could crack off to a less stressful angle. If it got really bad we held open the option of putting the breeze well aft of the beam and heading far off course to New York. It didn't get that bad.

The most wind we saw was a steady 32 knots with the occasional gust to 40 knots. With the breeze at 70 degrees apparent we reached along, flying about a third of the main (there was a problem with the track so we couldn't use the trysail), 75 percent of the staysail and a tiny bit of jib. The chili I'd prepared before we left Bermuda was a welcome dinner on our first cold night of the passage. When it got dark we eased sheets and bore off 20 degrees for home.

On Monday, May 7 we motorsailed into Newport Harbor with the "Q" flag flying and the sun shining-all of us glad to have arrived at the end of another passage, looking forward to seeing loved ones, and sad to be leaving Emily Martha Kate and the ocean.

To view photos from the trip, click here.