Editorial November 1, 2004 Issue

Hurricane Alley Hello

When the National Weather Service's Climate Prediction Center issued its Atlantic Hurricane Season Outlook in May, the organization announced a 50 percent chance that we'd have above average activity. In August, that body revised its predictions downward, indicating a 45 percent chance of above average activity. Despite the good news that revision implied, thus far this season we've experienced 12 named storms in the Atlantic alone, with four very damaging hurricanes among them. Hurricane Ivan killed over 70 people in the Caribbean and 40 in the U.S. Sadly, as we go to press, the death toll from Hurricane Jeanne in Haiti has surpassed 1,000.

Hurricanes, as everyone knows, are not to be trifled with. These phenomena possess incredibly destructive power. And no matter how much scientific expertise we amass to analyze their behavior, we still can't accurately predict exactly where they'll hit, nor the strength they will attain. Admittedly this science has improved over the years, but it's far from perfect. The fact that NOAA's scientists revised their predictions toward a more rosy picture in August should be proof enough that boat owners in the hurricane region should leave little to chance.

However, that's just the thing about hurricanes—they're riddled with chance. Seasoned sailors say that the best you can do is make all the proper preparations—check your insurance, relocate the boat if possible, or triple-up your holding tackle, dock lines, lashings, and chafe gear— and then hope for the best.

That's just what PS subscriber Bill Blalock of northeastern Florida did this summer as Hurricane Frances loomed to the south. Blalock (whose letter appears in the Mailport section of this issue on pg. 4), had two vessels to secure. The boat he presumed to be the safest—the one hauled and securely tied down in the boat yard—is the one that fared the worst. The one he left moored in a nearby lagoon came through "without a scratch."

Another reader tried to ride out the same storm on Florida's West Coast. Despite a hefty and newly rebuilt mooring system, his boat ended up miles away, thrashed into oblivion on a seawall in Sarasota Bay. Such are the vagaries of boat ownership in Hurricane Alley.

Yet despite the seemingly whimsical nature of these storms, it's still possible for us to reach a useful level of understanding regarding their behavior. For anyone living in coastal regions—but especially boat owners—it's vital to develop a familiarity with hurricanes, and we have a lot of good tools available to us for doing this. Serious sailors know to go beyond simple sources like the Weather Channel and utilize more sophisticated resources like the Internet websites: www.nhc.noaa.gov and www.weatherunderground.com, where you can view real time satellite imagery of these storms, and analyze path predictions based on well established meteorological models. And for-fee services like those from www.weathertap.com offer the advantage of a micro view via regional radar, which can help immensely the final day before a storm arrives.

The three most important elements to concentrate on for hurricane tracking are size, intensity, and direction. Using the animated satellite imagery available on the above-named websites, we can better understand a storm's recent direction. And by looking at its intensity—extrapolating from the millibars of pressure—it's possible to refine the notion of its future direction. Size will often dictate the duration of a storm. Understanding these aspects can help sailors be better prepared, which is great news. The bad news, however, is that the current season is giving us so much opportunity to do so.

-Dan Dickison

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