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Clash of the weather titans

Best to be wearing brown foulies if you can read this. (Image courtesy of NOAA via John C.)

I have exactly one experience with weather routing at sea. In 2009, while I was part of the delivery crew for Bruce and June on Ainia. a Bristol 45.5, Bruce consulted with the very experienced and highly regarded amateur radio enthusiast and hobbyist marine weather forecaster Herb Hilgenberg. As I related here, my skipper would check in with Herb on a pre-arranged schedule and would provide our local weather conditions, a "micro" take on the "macro" high seas forecasts given by the various governmental and for-hire weather routers, from which Bruce also obtained and pored over data in the form of downloaded GRIB files.

That was the deal: You gave Herb the data points as he requested them, and not before. Think of a queued-up list of widely separated yachts listening to particular frequencies at particular times, and only speaking when requested to do so. I suspect it was the only way for Herb to keep things straight. Herb treated each boat as if it was a mobile weather station, and thereby collected sea state, wind speed and direction readings available only to a small yacht which would often be sailing perhaps hundreds of miles out to sea. In return, he gave back his interpretation of weather trends for each vessel's stated area and intended route, plus his considered suggestions as to the least stormy directions in which you could sail.

All this effort was made for free, since 1987, and with very few days in the year away from the microphone.

Some hobby. Some value. I understand he has taken contributions to offset the cost of his extensive array of equipment and the no-doubt non-trivial amounts of electricity it takes to be a southern Ontario, bungalow-based oceanic radio network.

Not actually Herb's radio shack, but likely a reasonable fascimile.

Basically, the H.H. story is of a man who, having sailed and found the forecasting wanting, turned his retirement hobbies of weather forecasting and ham/SSB radio operation into a public service, even if that public, outside of the offshore sailing community, is largely unaware of his existence near the shores of Lake Ontario. H.H. has been directly involved on the comm side in many rescues and has received praise and citations in equal measure. I have heard that some people will not consider departing on deliveries of yachts from the U.S. coast down into the Caribbean without what they consider to be Herb's sage advice. I met Herb at a Safety at Sea seminar in 2010 in Toronto, and it was slightly surreal to see a rather ordinary looking man of senior years very nearly adored by a small crowd of people wearing clothing usually seen at regattas. Herb's the sort of rock star you become in the cruising community when his is the only voice you can hear over the wind screaming in the rigging and the smell of the crew heaving down the sidedecks.

Yes, you need all these buttons.

Recently, I checked out Herb's very 1994-style webpage to see if there was anything new. He's not a young man, and I wondered if he would still be offering his service when we finally push off for our own adventure. Weather reporting/forecasting, GRIB files and ship-to-shore communication via SailMail or an equivalent service are the reasons I purchased a single-sideband radio (SSB). That particular item will be installed when I restore Alchemy's mast and will no doubt produce some blogging as SSB installation and tuning is a somewhat information-dense and variable process that rarely goes ideally on the first try.

Books have not only been written about SSB/amateur radio installation and operation on seagoing sailboats, they've been written about just this model.

TL Sparks as a name is an inside joke to radioheads.

Now, there has been a move toward the use of satellite phones in the cruising community, particularly the Iridium type, which is considered to have the "largest constellation", i.e. most worldwide coverage. Picture the analogous GPS "constellation": the more satellites in view, the better the confidence in the reported position. Satellite phones work a little differently, and perhaps one day I can get into that. The point here is that they are getting, if not cheap, cheap enough, cheaper than SSB rigs, are familiar in the slightly bulky manner of a circa 1993 cellphone, are portable, and you can speak privately on them AND hook them into a netbook to download weather maps, e-mails and all sorts of data, limited only by your credit limit. There's a whole other level of satellite communications above these phones called IMMARSAT, but that's beyond the scope and budgets of most cruisers. It is a method, however, of keeping up with American Idol 1,000 NM from land. It's more or less the standard on commercial ships these days.

So is SSB on cruising sailboats done, antiquated, superannuated? Is it the "landline" or "dumb phone" of small boat communications? Are there apps for it?

Why, yes, there are, and I doubt SSB is done for those who like a variety of tools to solve, in this case, the problem of distance communication on a boat at sea or on the hook in Random Lagoon, population you.

While it can cost three to four grand to get transceiving, apart from a yearly SSB-to-email service fee, it's pretty well free to yak, network and receive weather faxes. For people cruising with a kid, such as we propose to do, it's a great way to send and receive lessons by email in distant locales (pictures are generally too big and best sent from Internet cafes ashore). Various "cruiser nets" exist and it's a standard method of finding out which seaside facilities are open, which port officials are on the take, and which panga has sunk right at the reef entrance...stuff you won't find in cruiser guides or marked on charts. Yes, it's semi-public, although it can be made pretty private, and yes, propagation and other technical factors can limit its range and function. And let's not forget that offshore, when you yell MAYDAY on an SSB emergency frequency, every SAR/Coastie in range hears you; with a satellite phone, a single phone rings on a single desk, because you are, after all, just capable of calling one phone number at a time.

Still, many fans of SSB consider it indispensable and the sat phone something good for the ditch bag. People who like SSB on boats like weather nets and these familiar voices, who provide important information, after all, for people living on little boats, are generally trusted.

Trusted too much? The marine writer Charles Doane would seem to think so. In an article that seems to be critical of Herb Hilgenberg's forecasting skills,  he cites a few cases suggesting  that Herb's forecasting leans toward the conservative side, pinning his "correspondents" to shore instead of profitably being at sea on passage. The comments on Doane's article range from fairly blunt disagreement and suggestions that Doane is ungrateful, to broad agreement from experienced cruisers that Herb is indeed sometimes wrong or too pessimistic. Herb's reply to Doane on hisown website seems to indicate that this criticism has discouraged him to the point of retirement.

This I would consider a loss to the greater cause of cruising safely.

Frankly, I don't get the criticism of Herb's service. Isn't this akin to saying you don't like the colour of the bookmobile lady's dress and therefore feel disinclined to borrow books? The crossing guard's stupid hat is the reason for your six-block detour? Herb is not a professional, nor does he claim to be. His forecasting is based on careful observation, but he lives down the road from me, near Toronto, some distance from much more than road salt. When he is predicting conditions in Greenland or south of Bermuda, he has the same governmental "macro" charts and forecasts available to him as is available to anyone else through many means. The quality of his "micro" forecasts (the reason sailors have found him useful) is the same for any of his counterparts around the globe: the accuracy and the density of reporting boats is critical. During a race situation such as the ARC or the Caribbean 1500, he would have perhaps a dozen boats reporting in to him: a dozen well-staffed and experienced weather stations in effect who understand his needs and can give him current and accurate conditions from which he can build a plausible forecast.

Damned useful it has been, too. But it is only a forecast. Doane suggests later in his article...and were I the writer, I might have led with this..."Herb probably is more conservative than most other weather-routers, but all weather-routers are--and should be--inherently conservative {italics mine}. Whether they're getting paid or not, they can't help but feel responsible for their clients, and a big part of their job, as they see it, is making sure those clients understand just how bad things might get on any given passage."

A small point: In Herb's case, they aren't clients as Herb is not being paid by them. They are helping a guy with his radio and forecasting hobby. Really, no more. You hear Herb and take his advice or do not. Doane continues: "Routers do provide a useful service, but it is not good when sailors become too dependent on them...Too many sailors these days believe that hiring a weather-router or joining a rally or bringing some professional crew aboard provides some kind of insurance, as though the risk they are taking can be hedged or transferred to others."

Well, now we are getting somewhere. Don't blame the guy who is better at guessing than (perhaps) you. See "don't shout at the GPS for your crappy navigation". Also, "don't blame the cross-wind for your crappy docking." None of those elements, the forecast, the GPS, the wind, for Neptune's sake, has a stake in your successful boating. You, the skipper, do. You, the crew, do. Indifferent of objects and nature in general is something in which I personally take comfort. The sea, if approached unwisely, will kill me without a second thought.

Without a first thought, actually. Ocean water is not sentient and is not capable of malevolence. Attributing motives to "evil black boxes" or "menacing greybeards" or "vanishing tethers" is very poetic, but it's poor seamanship. So is taking your helm instructions uncritically from a guy at a radio ashore as if they arrived on properly buoyed stone tablets or a burning bush on a burning liferaft.

Ultimately, whatever forecaster is being consulted is still only capable of offering an opinion or guess at local sea level about what conditions you will be experiencing in the future. The guesses are based or at least formulated in both science and experience, but they are representations of possibility. This is quite different from the view from the helm. You, the skipper, have that viewpoint. It is the important viewpoint. Listen to other viewpoints, always, but the skipper's judgement must trump all others, and not just in a legally binding sense. Unless one is impaired, disabled or otherwise required to stand down, the skipper has a moral duty to ensure the safety of vessel and crew. You can't blame others or transfer or cede that authority, in my view, nor should you be tempted to do so.

I suspect that what people see as the "conservatism" of Herb or indeed any weather router (including the paid ones, who may be thereby even more dangerously plausible) is simply the process of maturation at work. The weather titan's proclamation become, with the maturation of the crew as experienced mariners, just one more element in the mix.  If Herb learned how to forecast, most skippers eventually can, as well. And they should, because it is them, on the boat at sea, who have to decide the best direction and the soundest methods for staying safe at sea and arriving alive. 

I hope Herb is still working the airwaves when we are out there, and I hope we can consult him as a valued source and in turn, contribute the readings he requires to forecast. But even though I can recognize his voice, I would never assume he was on our boat, nor would I ever assume he had any role or responsibility in either our misfortune or our success. That's on the crew, not the weather guy.

UPDATE, June 14, 2013:  Looks like our wish is denied. reports that Herb H. has put down the mike.

Thank you, sir, for a valuable and selfless service to the cruising community. Enjoy the absence of static in your ears.


Bill Bishop - Parmain said...

Nice perspective Rhys. I think Mr. Doane is being a bit churlish with Herb I think, along with some of the readers who left comments. Think of the Bounty. If Herb had said don't go, would that have been too conservative. Maybe weather forecasters should be graded by the number of people who have died following their forecasts. To paraphrase, there are old sailors, and bold sailors, but there are not any old bold sailors. I appreciate conservative forecasts. The middle of the Atlantic isn't the place to discover conditions are overcoming you.

Rhys said...

Thanks, Bill. The Bounty case saddens me greatly because it was so inexplicable. I've suggested the skipper had a death wish, because none of it makes sense to me.

As for Herb, I believe he and other routers are naturally predisposed to conservatism in their recommendations, because they perceive, rightly, that most cruisers are couples, maybe not so young, and want the easiest, safest passage. Arriving trumps arriving early.

Race crews have utterly different ambitions and will take a rocky ride for a higher net speed or a more direct line to the finish. Owners of "performance cruisers" might be somewhere in-between. I'm not suggestions these points of view are incompatible, but I am suggesting they could strongly influence how one views Herb's record.

And to slag a man who does not, as far as I know, make a profit from his hobby, I do agree seems churlish. SSBs come with off buttons, as far as I can see. If Herb's forecasts, or those of any of the generally well-regarded weather gurus (like Chris Parker) seem disagreeable, skippers are free to tune him, literally, out.

Chuck and Susan; said...

Isn't it very interesting that Charlie Doane had to be rescued by the Coast Guard after being disabled by weather on an untested boat. Perhaps if Herb were advising in his conservative manor, that they wait, this might not be necessary. Of course that is only speculation at this point but I can't help but see the irony. I am very happy that Mr. Doane and the rest of the crew were rescued and unharmed.

Rhys said...

Interesting indeed!

I assume you mean this recent event:

I'd personally be a little wary of taking a cat south in January from NYC, but that's because I've crewed on one from Virginia to USVIs in November, and that was "active" to say the least...and was also routed with help from Herb.

We arrived alive and largely unbusted. Thanks for your comment.

Unknown said...

You article was recently forwarded to me. Yes, I always tended to act on the conservative side.
However, I feel that you and most readers misunderstand why I took Charles Doane's article as unjust, which led to me closing the NET.
My main issue with respect to the NARC fiasco of November 2011 and the comments by Hank Schmitt and Charles Doane, was that there was only a 3 day window before SE storm conditions would develop towards Bermuda. So any yacht that could make it to
Bermuda within 3 to 4 days could just make it, which applied to predominantly larger and faster yachts. (Those who supported Hank Schmidt)
Smaller yacht, especially those below 40 ft would require between 5 to 7 days with favourable conditions to make Bermuda.
Some of the smaller yachts that asked me for help made out OK when they followed my recommendations. One that did not, S/Y ELLE, was abandoned when losing their rudder in storm force winds and the skipper confirmed in writing that he made a serious mistake not following my waypoints. He wanted to, but his crew overruled him.
In addition RCC Norfolk called me to assist two other NARC yachts in trouble, via sat phone patch.

This whole issue had nothing to do with "bad routing" or too much "conservatism".
My routing and advice likely helped save about six NARC yacht, possibly more. The problem was that the race should never have started give the pending weather predictions, especially with some smaller yachts having inexperienced crews or were doing this trip for the first time.
That is what should have been covered in Doane’s article, but Hank Schmidt needed a scapegoat, so things got twisted. I had nothing to do with the NARC and only learned the next day that an Organized Race event had started the evening before, when I had already issued the severe weather warnings to my group of yachts wanting to leave Newport. Some heeded my recommendations and stayed put, some followed my WP's and had a safe passage.

Rhys said...

Thank you for the clarifications, Herb, and for your unstinting service over many years to the cruising community.

I appreciate you taking the time to give your side of the story. What surprises me, however, is that you would ever be considered a good candidate for scapegoating in the first place, as you had no official standing as the event's weather router, nor were you compensated by the NARC people for your weather routing service.

As you point out, it was entirely at the discretion of the skippers involved whether they took your advice or not. Those who did had a safer trip: that I can believe.

Races are by their very nature unconservative. Those in a race, whether in boats large or small, are attempting to beat the clock and their own rating, as well as other boats. I always thought of your service as directed toward those who were prepared to respect the sea and the prevailing conditions, which sometimes require slowing down, heaving to, or even turning around to seek shelter. I suspect if you were being scapegoated for any reason, it's because people tended to heed your advice, based as it was on a strong record of helping boats get to their destination.

Needless to say, that might not have suited people wanting to have an ocean race in a narrow weather window.

What I continue to find inexplicable is why anyone in any situation at sea would blame a weather forecaster or router for how their voyage has turned out. Valuable as your service was to sailors such as myself, it could only ever be one part of the puzzle of arriving alive, and the skipper always must have 100% responsibility for that.

Thank you for taking the time to write me. I am sorry you've stopped, but I feel I understand the reasons better now.

Chuck and Susan; said...

We very much would like to thank Herb for almost two decades of weather advise that, when followed, always got us to our next destination safe and sound. We have talked with Herb about this and we feel bad that another keyboard captain has caused one of the truly selfless contributors to the cruising community to hang it up. Maybe it's just me getting older, but there seems to be a meanness creeping into the boating community that we never experienced when we started 30 or more years ago.

Rhys said...

I share this sentiment entirely, although I only heard Herb *in action* during a lumpy 2009 Atlantic delivery. Talk about hanging on every word.

I think the meanness is part of the greater societal trend toward incivility; I also think that many of today's sailors seem to resent (paradoxically, perhaps) working very hard to *afford* cruising, without necessarily taking the time to learn the skill sets needed. So maybe there's a touch of resentment at play in that "those who can't do, criticize".

But I can't be sure of that. All I know is that our skipper in 2009 did not simply follow Herb's suggestions: he spent time with what weather faxes he could capture, and listened as hard to boats around us (plenty, as it was during the Carribean 1500 race) before making his directional plans.

In other words, he used Herb's guidance *as* guidance, and not as holy writ or as if he was a paid-for guru. In turn, Herb just wanted a dozen or so weather stations in order to refine his forecasting: a mutually symbiotic and reinforcing relationship, I thought at the time, and continue to think today.

Thanks for commenting on this year-old post.