Caribbean 1500: Analyzing the Weather from the Passage South

20 November 2015

We say this until we’re red in the face, but a passage south from the US East Coast can be brutal. The weather challenges in the fall – with late season hurricanes and early season winter gales – are mighty, and choosing a weather window is a mix of both skill and luck. You’ve got to know what to look for to make a break for it crossing the Gulf Stream. Beyond three or four days though, the forecast accuracy breaks down and it’s somewhat of a crapshoot.

This year was an interesting one weather wise, and highlights a few lessons that any cruiser can take away – some new, some as old as the hills.

Don’t Depart from New England – And Not Too Early

Donald Street, the legendary ocean sailor who’s arguable shaped offshore sailing and Caribbean cruising over the past five decades more than anyone else, has for years spoken of getting south to at least the mouth of the Chesapeake before heading offshore and south, and for good reason.

“Late fall, the conditions between New England and Bermuda are just too unpredictable,” Street says. “Gales tend to form off Hatteras or New Jersey in a hurry, and you can very easily get caught out.”

Despite his sage advice, yachts disregard it every year and reinforce his reasoning, sometimes tragically. In 2011, late-season Hurricane Sean caught out the NARC rally fleet between NE and Bermuda causing all sorts of havoc and the loss of a crewmember on one boat that was swept overboard. This year was no exception. A friend and former colleague of mine was delivering a 42-ketch from New England to Bermuda and literally sailed right through the eye of Hurricane Kate en route to Bermuda, experiencing 70-knot winds and huge seas. They made it unscathed, which is a testament to his ability as a skipper. But the fact they wound up there in the first place makes his judgment rather questionable, in my eyes.

I’d been in touch with WRI days ahead of our planned departure on November 8th (which, you’ll note, was a full week after the traditional departure. The 1500 always leaves, or plans to leave, on the first Sunday of November, mainly because insurance companies won’t allow boats south of Hatteras before that date, the ‘official’ end of hurricane season. We elected long ago to push that back a week since Nov. 1 was cutting it awfully close. As you’ll see, it was good we did). On GRIB files I was analyzing myself, and through correspondence with WRI, we were monitoring an area of thunderstorms and heavy rain over the Virgin Islands that looked like it had a good chance of going ‘cyclonic’ and turning into a Tropical Storm. The challenge was that it was slow to develop, which is frustrating when you’re chomping at the bit to get offshore. And otherwise, the forecast up north looked good for a Nov 8 departure, with a cold front set to pass through on the 7th making for good Gulf Stream conditions. But with any kind of tropical activity, the smart money stays patient.

While the 1500 fleet sat in Portsmouth for days waiting out what would eventually develop into Kate, some yachts further north ignored the signs. The aforementioned skipper sailed from NE when Kate was just a bump in the tropics – as it developed and they got offshore, it sped up and intercepted them just northeast of Bermuda.

Another non-rally Swan 57 departed New England and ran into the remnants of Kate and another gale that formed off New Jersey shortly thereafter (the system that the 1500 departed on the tail of), forcing them to stop in Bermuda to enact repairs. Twice in the short passage out, they experienced winds in the 50s and big seas.

Sail After a Cold Front – But Be Prepared for Wind

The 1500 fleet was getting antsy in Portsmouth, but by Tuesday evening on November 10, Kate had made her predicted turn to the east as another cold front that dumped rain on Portsmouth shoved her offshore. The plan was to depart on the back of this front, when the skies cleared and the wind shifted into the west and northwest.

“We had perfect conditions after the start,” reported Paul Exner, skipper of ‘Isbjorn,’ and a close friend of mine whom I’d hired in my absence to run the boat. “We reached down the coast of Virginia Beach and got into the Gulf Stream just as the wind started to shut down,” Paul said. “We motored for six hours that first night, but then the wind came up again from the southwest as we neared the other side of the Stream. By the next morning, it was touching 40 in the gusts.”

Indeed almost all the rally fleet reported gusts into the 40s from the southwest as the front passed over them and intensified in the Gulf Stream. And therein lies one of the challenges – the fall systems move so fast off the east coast that windows are usually very tight. Plus, though the forecast never called for anything over 25 knots, as the front got out over the warm Gulf Stream waters, it picked up steam.

“We even had some hail on deck at times,” said Paul.

It was short-lived though, and brought more west and northwesterly winds behind it, and the fleet was prepared. They were in a perfect spot to ride the ridge of high pressure that built in behind the front and moved east with the fleet. ‘Big Frisky,’ an Outbound 46 who was delayed leaving Portsmouth due to engine problems, had a good window to cross the Stream, but no wind.

“It was very light when we left, and we had a lot of opportunity to test that new engine!” joked Kurt, the boat’s owner and skipper.

The westerly’s pushed the majority of the fleet south and east, and so far, no boats have reported even having to go close-hauled during the trip. Only a week earlier, yachts that left from Hampton had headwinds for 9 full days.

“It was the longest passage I’ve ever had on ‘Club Carp’,” said skipper Jeff, who annually sails to the BVI, having done so with both the SDR and the 1500 in the past. It took 9 and half days, and it was all to weather. My best passage is 6 days on the boat [a Jeanneau 54], so this was frustrating to say the least!”

Make Your Own Luck

Of course much of this comes down to luck in the long-term forecast. That high-pressure ridge that the fleet rode all the way south could just have easily been oriented slightly differently and given NE-E winds the entire way, as it was in 2014, when the fleet was close-hauled most of the way. But the patience displayed by the fleet at the start and the level of preparedness that each boat undertook made for little drama, despite the one night of heavy weather in the Gulf Stream.

In some sense, you’ve got to make your own luck, and by delaying the trip from the outset by a week, and being patient while weather developed in the tropics, and crucially, by ensuring a level of preparedness and emphasizing that over and over again, you’re going to have a better and more enjoyable trip. The three-day delay in Portsmouth allowed more time for the crews to prepare their boats and come together as a team. Skippers were doing MOB drills on the docks and finishing up last-minute projects to make the most of their time still in port, in an effort to ward off cabin fever.

As a record El Nino was just announced, and as Climate Change continues to disrupt seasonal weather patterns, it’s going to pay to be patient going forward. Perhaps this trip south will in future be better accomplished in late November and December if the tropics stay hurricane-prone given warmer water temperatures. That remains to be seen, but flexibility and preparedness remain as important as ever.