Friday Column: Don Street & Sailing to the Caribbean

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Street speaking at the 2010 Annapolis Show

I have known Street since the 2010 Annapolis Sailboat Show. I’ve told this story several times in a few of the magazines I write for. Street actually approached me, wondering if he could use an article I’d written about him in All at Sea Caribbean. Well, kind of about him. More about his Imray-Iolaire charts that he created years ago, exploring the waters in his engineless yawl for which the charts are named. He was speaking at the show and ended up passing out copies of the article to people in attendance (myself and Mia included). See it here.

Over the past two years, we’ve kept in email contact now and then. Last fall, upon making our landfall in Crookhaven on Arcturus, we more or less invited ourselves to his house in Glandore, a short daysail down the coast. We had run out of propane only a few days after arriving in Ireland, and on the rural south coast, there was nowhere to get any. Clint had already left by then, so Mia and I survived on tuna salad and cold beans, with no hot coffee in the morning. Donald came to our rescue and invited us in before his day out racing the Dragons just outside the gorgeous little harbor.

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Mia and Arcturus in Street's hometown of Glandore, Ireland

In this month’s Cruising World, there is an article that Street wrote about sailing to the Caribbean. It’s a follow-up to a few stories the magazine ran last month about the havoc that was wreaked on the NARC fleet after they left Newport and got beat up by a few gales en route to Bermuda, a story that’s been beaten to death by the sailing media and does not need to be repeated here. I was involved at the time with the Caribbean 1500. We sat in Hampton, VA for five days waiting out the weather, which included a freak subtropical storm the forecasters named Sean, which had to be one of the few times a named storm actually formed above 23 ½º north. I spent hours formatting and re-formatting the GRIB files we used to show the fleet their weather routing info prior to the start of the event. They changed so often that I think we ended up giving three full weather briefings, a few with information drastically different from what it was only twelve hours earlier.

I touched on the chaotic nature of the weather in a recent article I wrote forYacht Essentials, which will be out in March (look for it in the archives soon). Everyone knows the weather is one of the most unpredictable dynamic systems in our world, and yet everyone seems to try and forecast it anyway.

Street’s article in CW recalls another that he wrote for a different magazine way back in 1964, extolling the virtues of sailing south from Little Creek, VA or Morehead City, NC, bypassing Bermuda altogether in the fall. He made a good point in 1964, and it’s a good point today. My favorite part reads “Sailors heading south to Bermuda in November should stop asking for weather windows, and weather routers should stop providing them: these windows don’t exist except for 90-foot sailing rocketships that can reach Bermuda in three days. US East Coast weather becomes so unstable in November that forecasts are good only up to 48 to 60 hours.” The problem is, and Street alluded to this, that everyone is so accustomed to seeing their seven- and ten-day forecasts on the news everyday that perhaps subconsciously, they take them as fact.

If you’ve ever taken the time to evaluate the accuracy of those long-range forecasts (which the television never does), you'd be shocked. Everyone seems to inherently agree that the weatherman is never really right. They become the butt of a lot of jokes. Yet still people take what they say on faith, particularly sailors, even when they know better (myself included). Try this sometime – download a GRIB forecast and run it out as far as it will go, usually at least seven days. Save that GRIB image. Now, seven days later, download the GRIB again for the same region and see how the picture compares to the forecast from before. Except in areas affected by regular trade winds, the two images will more than likely differ dramatically. Case in point – the GRIBs from that same storm Sean in the fall. One day it’s not there. The next day it is. This is, in a nutshell, what I think Street is trying to say.

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November 9, 2011 GRIB file, advanced from a November 2 Download. No sign of 'Sean.'

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November 9, 2011 GRIB File - Actual. 'Sean' is easily visible just east of Florida.

Note also the differences in the weather way up by Greenland.

Ironically, Street and I had exchanged some emails shortly after the fall season on this very topic, and I’m sure I have on in my inbox somewhere that nearly replicates the CW article. I was wondering then when I read it if he’d get it printed anywhere – Street is old enough now that a few people don’t remember him, and some that do, disregard him as obsolete, especially when he starts quoting himself from fifty years ago. But the fact that he’s been around so long and still gets published has to say something to the effect that he is still relevant.

One of the fascinating things about ocean sailing is that out there, you’re basically sailing the same waters and the same weather patterns as the Vikings, and sometimes it’s wise to heed the ancient advice, even when it comes from Street.

Street’s article (and this essay) could come across as an “I-told-you-so” rant, but I hope that’s not the case. Every year there are examples of the tragedies like those that befell the NARC fleet in 2011, it just so happened that that one was well reported on considering the time of year (the annual migration south). And every year there are different reasons for what went wrong. When it comes to ocean sailing – like any other adventurous pursuit – there doesn’t always have to be someone to blame. Risk is part of the deal, part of what makes it exciting in the first place. I don’t think anyone would admit to be willing to pay the ultimate price to what basically boils down to a form of recreation (despite those of us who see it more as a way of life). It’s not worth the ultimate price to me, which I suppose is why I’m sitting at a desk right now and not out in the North Atlantic. It’s winter – the risk is too high. It’s the same reason we transited the North Atlantic at 50º in August. Historically for that region, the weather is most stable that time of year. Certainly no guarantee - again, 'Sean' is a perfect example of an anomaly that history would not have predicted. The Fastnet Gale is another. But still, less risk. And we weren't not  going to go.

What’s the point? I’m happy that CW published Street’s article, and I’m glad people still take him seriously. There are some things in life and in sailing that are constants, no matter the time or the times. The weather is probably the biggest of all, and I hope his article gives a little bit more insight into understanding and handling it.