Mastering the weather

01 Jun 2019 The Navigator

Captain Nikos Chalaris AFNI, an experienced Master, reveals some of the basic checks and practices that help him forecast heavy weather ahead and act accordingly to maintain a safe and efficient passage for ship, cargo and crew

Despite the introduction of complex technology and increasing automation at sea, the weather is and will remain a factor of vital importance for safe passage. You cannot command the weather, but you can control how you manage it – and that is directly connected to the care and caution of the Master and the bridge team. Weather evaluation, planning and monitoring is of major importance. This is a vast and complex subject, but I will try to outline some of the basics that help me, as Master, in dealing with it.

The weather changes constantly and we cannot control it. Nevertheless, we can monitor and forecast it to quite a wide extent. This allows us to prepare accordingly to ensure a safe passage – the main reason for our presence onboard as crew. My favourite mantra on the matter can be summed up as, ‘Isn’t it better to be welcomed in the next port of call, rather than asked, ‘How did this happen to you?’ ’

So, what considerations should the Master bear in mind? First, the ship and its capabilities. The starting point should be that no ship is unsinkable and no human or machine can battle nature. A prudent Master should understand the strength and behaviour of their ship at sea, along with its limitations – both from their own experience and from what is stated in the manuals and certificates.

Then comes the cargo – for example containers, vehicles, dry or liquid bulk and so forth. Humans are said to be the most difficult type of ‘cargo’ to transport, for obvious reasons. The preservation of their intact state and wellbeing is of paramount importance, but unlike containers, they cannot be secured in fixed positions. Once the condition of the ship and the state of the cargo have been taken into account, the prudent Master must bear in mind the terms of the charterparty, the commercial impact of any extra fuel consumption, physical restrictions that may prevent the ship from entering various geographical areas and time limitations.

Weather warnings
The weather itself is a tremendously broad field of knowledge. I doubt if anyone can fully master it, so caution has to prevail when considering weather and its consequences to the ship on passage. Weather patterns vary between different geographical areas and can be affected by seasonal or daily phases, long-term phenomena, specific local characteristics and much more.

Fortunately, there are resources on hand to help us. Historic data of almost every kind is available for careful study. Weather charts consolidate years of observation and provide a useful source of information in terms of statistics. Weather forecast providers can inform us about area statistics, as well as give a huge range of information that may help us to understand the patterns better.

Actual observations on the spot are vital too, as they can indicate upcoming changes, even if only in the short term. Sea temperature compared to air temperature can warn us of upcoming fog, while a sudden barometer drop will warn us of deterioration in the weather. Heavy or low cloud cover can foretell an imminent squall. Of course, all of that comes long after the actual forecast for the time and place, and the more reliable resources we can access, the better it is for our decisions and plans.

Know your enemy
Once we know our capabilities and limitations, we can proceed in plan-execute-monitor mode, considering the weather element in finer detail. For longer-term planning, such as crossing an ocean, we should be aware that no-one can guarantee that all will go to plan. We cannot know what will happen in two weeks time when we will be in the middle of the ocean. What we can bear in mind, however, is that seasonally there are high chances of encountering certain weather conditions in wider areas. Winter in the North Pacific and Atlantic will produce storms, while trade winds prevail around the equator. The roaring forties will not make passage easy for a low-powered vessel in the Southern Ocean around Cape Horn, and Mistral season will definitely build high seas in the middle to south of the Gulf of Lion. Again, consolidated knowledge is available and careful study in advance will pay dividends. Where possible, it is good practice to observe what the locals are doing and better still to discuss it with them; they probably know far more than we do as visitors.

Our long-term planning should bear in mind how strong, fast, reliable and vulnerable our ship and cargo are (ourselves as well) and where we are heading.

An observant eye
It is accepted military wisdom that no plan survives first contact with the enemy. Once underway, it is highly likely that our plan will not meet reality. Consequently, we have to evaluate the facts and adjust our intentions accordingly. The decision whether to remain on passage or deviate if heavy weather seems inevitable is a difficult one. Sometimes it is of vital importance in terms of survivability or maintaining an intact vessel.

An efficient bridge team should deal with the weather element just as it does with its other tasks. Communication in advance and a common understanding of the factors that will affect the passage assist the whole team. When the Master is not on the bridge, the team should keep an observant eye on actual, anticipated and forecasted weather conditions. Like elsewhere, you should never be afraid to speak up and express your concerns – generally to the Master – if something obviously doesn’t match with what should be happening.

When encountering severe weather, precaution and preparation will definitely have an effect on the overall outcome. However, decisions based on good seamanship, vigilance and the ability to adjust to actual conditions will decide whether the voyage will end in yet another accident report or a successful passage that will remain a story to share with your fellow seafarers on your own terms.