Weather waffling: the passage departure decision

I watched from Totem’s cockpit yesterday as friends sailed out of the La Cruz anchorage. Their next stop: the Marquesas, French Polynesia’s nearest island group to the Americas, around 3,000 miles away. This week’s weather window spawned the first wave of South Pacific-bound departures from our corner of Mexico. When a big passage looms, evaluating options stalls many crews: this one is closing, and the next wave now plays the waiting game. Jamie wrote these observations while we were on weather watch for a significant passage of our own some years ago. 

The last leg of Totem’s Pacific crossing stared back at us in the form of the setting sun. From a calm anchorage in New Caledonia we watched changing colors stain nearby reefs and islets; and we discussed the weather. The core question was simple: were the conditions appropriate for the 900 mile passage to Australia? The dilemma is that the sources for weather forecasting don’t agree, ranging from moderate to rough conditions. So we sat, watched, and waited.

At moments of indecision about uncertain weather forecasts, two phrases get hurled about like cannon shot: weather waffling and analysis paralysis. The meanings of both reside in the shallows between a retreat to the calm anchorage and the bold move to weigh anchor – big seas be damned. Both phrases carry an intrinsic sense of stubborn cowardice as reflected in perhaps the most famous weather waffle in history.

When Captain William Bligh announced his plan to sail Bounty around Cape Horn to reach Tahiti, his otherwise joyous crew became anxious. Upon reaching “the horn” and subsequent month of snow and storm conditions trying to round it, Bligh waffled. After investing so much in one route he ordered the Bounty to turn eastward to begin a journey 4/5ths of the way around the world to anchor at Point Venus in Tahiti. As we know from history, things did not go well for the Captain.

Due to several variables that didn’t exist during Bligh’s time, contemporary use of weather waffle has more to do with pre-departure indecision. With technology and centuries of accumulated knowledge, we easily and accurately know what was previously unknowable. With GPS, a cruising guide, and a VHF radio I know our exact position, how to safely get into a new anchorage, and when the supply ship will be in with fresh produce. Weather forecasting is an amazing discipline of science that accounts for most of the variables most of the time. Unlike a GPS giving latitude and longitude, weather forecasters with the aid of satellites and supercomputers can and do get it wrong. Who hasn’t been out on the boat listening to a NOAA forecast broadcasting sun with light and variable winds, when in reality it’s so windy you’re just trying to keep your ears affixed to your head?

When one experiences an incongruity between forecast and reality, the tendency is to check several sources of weather forecasting. This gets to the heart of the weather waffle. When the sources agree, you can confidently announce to the crew what to expect. When the sources disagree, the next logical step is to seek out more information. Invariably this leads to more confusion and with time a demoralized, and dare I say mutinous, crew. Well, are we going or not?

The frustration of not knowing which path to choose can unhinge novice and salty sailors alike. Our buddy boat apologized in advance of our session of waffling in New Caledonia, saying “I know this week is going to make me grouchy.” The reality is that the accumulated stress of passage prep capped by weather uncertainty can make many people become grouchy. In our particular situation, overlaying the already unsettled weather is the beginning of cyclone season.

Sunset squalls: Grenada, 2017

At this tenuous stage, that is, having downloaded countless GRIB files and text forecasts and reading a weather router’s opinion, two trends emerge. The first is that you want to do something- anything- to avoid further waffling. Often, emotions push the “let’s just go” approach. The supporting logic being we’ve been in worse weather before, and besides, maybe it won’t be as bad as the so called expert weather router says. That is true, but maybe it will be that bad. The second trend is “group think.” This occurs as the crews of various boats with similar routes get together to discuss weather. Everyone present has the same unspoken hope: that someone with unquestionable authority will walk among them and say, “the time has come to go sailing, and we will be safe.” Unfortunately this usually doesn’t happen.

Then, just as despair is creeping up over the swim step, a glimmer of hope comes as the various weather sources begin to agree on wind speed and direction and sea state that fits within your comfort level. A genuine weather window is finally here.

Somewhere between Sri Lanka and Maldives, 2015

Lessons Learned

Although weather waffling carries a negative connotation, it is clearly born out of good intentions for the health and welfare of the crew. Every crew has different abilities and comfort levels. Every boat differs in capability and handling. Every trip brings different demands on both crew and boat. Mismatching what the crew or boat can safely handle with adverse weather is simply poor seamanship. Choosing poorly is the cause of many unfulfilled cruising dreams. When a crewmember experiences discomfort or fear, they naturally don’t want to be in that situation again. When faced with uncertain weather, the captain and crew must make decisions that suit their own needs. If the people anchored next to you choose to “go anyway,” you don’t have follow them out. Weigh anchor only if it is right for you.

We choose to cruise knowing some of the days in paradise may resemble hell. Playing follow the leader can be just as misguided as choosing to never leave the dock because it may be too windy. After nearly two weeks of waiting, we finally had weather conditions that make sense for our departure. Some would say we waffled for nearly two weeks. The uncertainty of when to go was frustrating, but we spent hours of cowardly time swimming with sea turtle, giant trevally, and sharks.

The passage to Australia was mostly uneventful. Here in Banderas Bay, we’ll wait and watch and live vicariously as the next wave of boats waits for their weather window. Mike Danielson (PV Sailing) shares his extensive weather knowledge to help the fleet with departure decisions, Jamie’s been helping coach cruisers on how to use PredictWind and become better at interpreting forecasts for themselves — like the PPJ event pictured below. It’s a great place to base while getting ready to take off! We hope to be lining ourselves up for another run at the South Pacific from here at this time next year. 

Weather prep: Jamie talks the fleet through GRIB interpretation with PredictWind last week. Thanks Flo for the pic!



Morning Glory at anchor, Maldives, 2015

7 Responses

  1. Seems much of the pressure on going or not going traces back to schedule… whether fixed (gotta meet Aunt Mable at the airport in 22 days and six hours) or self imposed 3 years ago at the kitchen table & thereby set in granite. The decision to wait the two weeks was the right decision for Totem uniquely. You had a limber sched. and everyone aboard understood, agreed and were happily occupied in not being bored (I’m guessing). Your successes in cruising the planet and coming back for more seem to have foundation in the countless go, no-go decisions made. Cheers & best to all!

  2. We’ve made some of our best friends for life weather waffling in Bermuda and the Galapagos before hopping across the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans respectively. Although groupthink is a danger, wisdom of the crowd—especially a crowd of experienced cruisers—is valuable. Plus, who doesn’t love grouching about the gribs over a couple dark and stormies with a few mates?

  3. Soooo appreciated reading this. As truly novice sailors, we have truly experienced paralysis via analysis when it comes to weather. Coming to terms that this is normal procedure gives us more leeway to have our stressful response, but then to also be willing to move forward and making decisions from an informed standpoint.

  4. When we took off from La Cruz to do the Puddle Jump a few years ago there was similar weather waffling. It’s probably the nature of the game.

    The big takeaway for us was that the “right” weather depends in part on your boat, your capabilities and your goals. We left before the trades had fully set up, leaving well before the majority of the fleet. Our triip was slow but uneventful. We had an easy passage and read a lot. We made it to the Marquesas in 27 days.

    Some folks that left later, according to guidance from the local weather expert got into some nasty stuff. One boat had to heave to for a couple days, another broke their boom, and a family traveling with five kids had a very rough trip.

    We got a lot of flak from the local expert for pushing off before he recommended it, and got called out on the morning net the day we left. But in the end it proved to be the right decision for us.

    I think group think can be positive where / when you learn and exchange new info. It’s not positive when you put your passage in the hands of someone else who might have different skills, tolerances or passage goals from your own. My advice is to get informed but make your own call.

  5. “Weather window hypochondria” A disease most frequently contracted from others in places like Georgetown (Bahamas) or Luperon DR. Cause: Fear of loss of internet connection and excessive exposure to cruiser’s nets.

    Cure: Eliminate all electronic connections except those which allow access to weather information. Make a rational choice based upon the information available. Prepare the vessel to go to sea. No jerry cans of fuel deck, No dingy on davits, Staysail bagged and on deck ready to go. Rig checked. Every locker secured to retain contents in case of knock down. Glasses packed in foam locker. Floor boards bolted down. Lee cloths rigged. Anchor lashed, hause pipe sealed.

    File your voyage plan with one reliable friend and leave.

    Back in my boat building days I knew a couple who had circumnavigated twice in wooden Atkins boats and were in the process of building another for a third go. They had been schoolteachers and never wealthy, but had wisely bought a small motel in Hilo on their first voyage. They loved to tell a story about the marina they lived at in California prior to their first circumnavigation. Like in many marinas there was a guy who was always preparing to sail around the world,busy installing the latest in new gear and talking with his dockmates about how wonderful it was. When Larry and Twila reached the end of their teaching contracts they cleaned the bottom, stocked up on food, and left for Tahiti. Five years later they sailed back to the same marina and found that their old slip was available again.

    The residents of the marina started giving (Mr. Preparedness) such a hard time that he finally announced that he was leaving on his circumnavigation. One morning he sailed away all the way across the bay and moved into a new marina.

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