Isbjorn Offshore: Tough Decisions, Heavy Weather

Isbjorn is bound for Louisbourg, a small former French outpost on the tip of Cape Breton Island to wait out tomorrow's forecast heavy weather. At one point in history, in the 1700's, Louisbourg was the 4th busiest port city in North America after New York, Boston & Philly. That's something. We plan to go back to sea in the wee hours of Saturday morning, after the worst of the weather has blown itself out but while there is still a favorable breeze. Here's what WRI had to say:

"Latest observations indicate winds have veered to SW'ly along E'rn Nova Scotia, with coastal observations indicating SW'lys ranging from 10-12 kts, with gusts to 17 kts. These SW'lys breezes will strengthen steadily to fresh to strong breezes by this evening. These winds will persist into the 15th while strengthening to strong to near gale breezes, with gale force wind gusts not out of the question late tomorrow when the interaction between the offshore ridging and approaching front will be the greatest. There will be isolated to scattered showers/squalls developing tomorrow night into the 16th, but these would be below severe limits. As for swells, these will continue to build farther east, with moderate period (6-7 second intervals) up to 7-8 ft along your route by tomorrow morning. These swells would peak near 9-10 ft tomorrow night through the early 16th nearing Cape Race. Conditions would then ease quickly after rounding Cape Race. Please note that dense fog will develop along your route by this afternoon and will be widespread onward to Cape Race.

If you are not comfortable with the above conditions, pulling into Louisburg is a good option. A delay there until the 16th would be best to allow the larger swells to abate to 6 ft or less, while keeping generally favorable sailing winds in place. Please keep us advised of your intentions, thank you."

The decision to sit this one out was not particularly easy, nor was it a quick one. I like to wait as long as possible to make weather-related decisions to allow the weather to play out in real-time, as we all know how often reality differs from a forecast, in both the good and bad directions.

We had been getting this forecast since our departure in Lunenburg, but that was Tuesday. As Friday neared, we had the plan to go to Louisbourg in our back pocket so to speak, but didn't want to act on it too soon and limit our options. So we stuck to the rhumb line and have been enjoying absolutely perfect reaching conditions for the past 36 hours after a brief calm period on Tuesday night. We spotted several pods of whales, a few dolphins, lots of sea birds and even a large Leatherback turtle not 50 yards from the boat.

Last night I stuck a waypoint on the passage chart to mark our 'go/no-go' point, the last spot where we could still easily reach back to Louisbourg in daylight today, but which would give us the most time to make the call. We hit that point at 0800 this morning, just as I'd received the latest requested forecast from WRI (above). And that was that, the decision was made, we gybed around and are now about 40 miles SSE of Louisbourg.

It was a tough call because the forecast isn't TOO bad, and we're having such great sailing right now! Of course the boat is prepared for heavy weather, much more even that what's forecast given the kind of sailing we do. The crew yesterday had rigged the inner forestaysail just to be extra prepared, while it was still calm. So the issue wasn't so much safety as comfort. 30 knots, even broad reaching, is a lot of wind; and ten-foot, steep seas piling up on the shoals around the Grand Banks is nothing to scoff at. Add in a layer of thick fog and the potential for squalls and you start to get the picture. It would make for an entirely unnecessary anxious 36 hours.

But that doesn't tell the whole story either. I've gotten very attuned to listening to my gut when it comes to decision-making time. Yesterday afternoon, I stuck my head out the hatch for a look around and observed the classic pre-frontal 'mares tails & mackerel scales' cloud formations coming off the coast and it just gave me a funky feeling. That was the beginning of my planning process to find an alternative port. Until then I hadn't considered NOT going nonstop. But that small gut feeling got me thinking, and I've learned enough times the hard way what can happen when I ignore that feeling.

I'll be the first to admit that making these kinds of calls are even more difficult because my ego gets in the way. It takes real mental control to squash the thoughts of what other people will think in order to make what my gut tells me is the right decision. Then I remind myself it's precisely my ability to make these kinds of difficult, but smart decisions that attracts people to us. Those that don't see that wouldn't do well on our trips anyway. Furthermore, you've got to take emotion out of weather-related decisions. Of course I'd rather go nonstop and am excited about seeing Newfoundland for the first time! But that can't be the primary driver. This mental gymnastics is tough!

Had we been on a deep-ocean passage to Bermuda or across the pond or something, the forecast wouldn't have given me pause. We'd batten down the hatches and enjoy the fast, big seas conditions that so many armchair sailors, my former self included, dream about. But it's irresponsible to go looking for it when a perfectly viable bail-out option exists less than half a day's sail to the north. Mia reminded me of what John & Amanda Neal, mentors of ours who run Mahina Expeditions on their HR 46, said when asked about how they handle heavy weather:

'We hate heavy weather,' they admitted, 'and rarely encounter it. When we do, we're ready for it, but we do whatever we can to simply avoid it.'

That gave me confidence as I planned our route to Louisbourg. So that's where we're headed on this beautiful morning, to drop anchor and let the bad stuff blow through.

To be continued...