No Sailing Blind: Weather Services Help Avoid Storms

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Published Jul 16, 2016 5:17 PM by Forrest Booth

Now that hurricane season is here again, shipowners and operators have to pay special attention to avoiding these severe storms. Historically, many ships have met an untimely end because they sailed into the path of a hurricane or typhoon (a tropical cyclone). Ships used to blindly plunge ahead on their planned courses, not knowing what lay in front of them. Now, with modern electronics and data transmission, this no longer needs to happen.

Today, current, actionable weather information is available on the bridge of a ship four times a day. Every six hours, the U.S. National Centers for Environmental Prediction (NCEP) makes available to the public a massive amount of data concerning the world’s weather. In addition, in areas of tropical storms there are other sources of information, including the U.S. National Hurricane Center (NHC), the Japanese Meteorological Agency and others.

This information is also made available to commercial weather service providers like Applied Weather Technologies (AWT). AWT takes the government data and merges it with data from other sources, adding fronts, tides and current data, plus input from its proprietary wave model programs. After the data is merged, it is carefully quality checked. Overall, the process takes about four to five hours from time of receipt from the NCEP, and is then sent to the ships. In AWT's Bon Voyage System, the downloaded data, received by subscribing ships every six hours, shows storms in multi-colored representations on the captain’s computer screen. The software also shows the estimated closest point of approach of the storm to the vessel, the highest winds the ship can expect to experience, and the storm’s forecasted maximum winds. Combined with the wind and wave conditions the captain is observing from the ship, this provides the opportunity to select the safest course, offering the smoothest and least damaging ride. He or she may opt to slow down, change course to avoid a storm, or even temporarily anchor and let a storm pass.

Beyond these options, the gold standard of weather services is shore-based weather routing advice. Marine weather services, for a small additional fee, will input the current location and final destination of a vessel into their systems and offer the captain a recommended course and speed to minimize the ship’s exposure to any storms that may lie along her path. Commercial weather service providers of course have no legal authority to tell a ship where to go or not go, or what course to steer. They merely provide advice, based on their processing of data from government sources and elsewhere, and their expertise in predicting sea conditions and storm behavior. It is up to the master to decide on course and speed.

Maritime disasters tend to raise the bar with regard to both safety and technological issues. It seems likely that, going forward, most shipowners will see fit to subscribe to the gold standard of shore-based weather routing advice for all their ships, even those on regional trade routes where time at sea is shorter than on trans-oceanic voyages. While one cannot put a price tag on safety, the cost of shore based routing, with the additional confidence it brings, is trivial compared to the values of ships, their crews and cargoes.

Forrest Booth is a partner with the law firm of Hinshaw & Culbertson LLP based in San Francisco. He can be reached at [email protected], or via the firm’s website athttp://www.hinshawlaw.com.


The opinions expressed herein are the author's and not necessarily those of The Maritime Executive.