Paying Heed to Weather Gods

Even boaters who have spent decades in East End waters get the occasional unpleasant surprise

    Keeping a weather eye can be a challenge in these parts, especially as the seasons change. Anglers who have begun the process of getting rods, reels, boats, and trailers out of mothballs might also think about getting back in touch with the weather gods.
    Even boaters who have spent decades in East End waters get the occasional unpleasant surprise, particularly on the popular fishing grounds that stretch from Gardiner’s Bay through Block Island Sound to Montauk Point and beyond. Tidal currents and wind, especially when they oppose each other, can turn a sea of glass into a maelstrom within minutes.
    On Sept. 1, 1951, the badly overloaded party boat Pelican capsized when a squall with a 30-knot wind out of the northeast collided with an outgoing tide just north of Montauk Point. That day opposing wind and tide created waves estimated at 15 feet in the tidal rips. Forty-five passengers and crew died.
    The catastrophe resulted in closer regulation of recreational fishing boats. Of course since then the science and availability of marine weather forecasts have improved a great deal, but there are risks in placing all of one’s trust in electronic gizmos and only one source for weather forecasts.
    Chief Petty Officer Jason Walter, in command of the Montauk Coast Guard Search and Rescue Station, said there is often a big difference between the wind velocity as forecasted by the National Weather Service for Montauk waters and the wind as experienced when rounding Montauk Point on a spring or summer afternoon.
    Bill Goodman, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Upton, explained that the marine forecasts from NOAA (the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the parent agency of the National Weather Service) for near-shore Montauk were largely based on conditions found at the agency’s offshore buoys, one 25 miles southwest of Montauk, another just west of Fishers Island. During the recreational fishing season they do not take into account the sea breeze.
    “The sea breeze is always stronger near shore. The sun heats up the land. The land is warmer than the ocean water. The heat of the day induces a flow from the cooler sea. It can be significantly stronger than the prevailing wind offshore,” Goodman said. “This is beyond our ability to predict.”
    Because of this, as well as myriad other variables, experienced mariners and the Coast Guard rely on a number of Web sites, each with its own computer modeling systems. “Everyone reports a little differently,” Chief Walter said. “We go to the National Weather Service, wunderground, and others and try to find a happy medium. Sometimes they’re all wrong. The blizzard in February, for instance. The winds out here were stronger than predicted, stronger than Sandy, between 60 and 70 miles per hour.”
    He also reminded boaters that the first 10 channels on their V.H.F. radios transmit marine weather, each channel designed to serve a specific area.
    Michael Potts, captain of the Bluefin IV charter boat with a lifetime of experience navigating the waters around Montauk and Block Island, said he plans his trips using at least three sources. On fishweather.com (or oldfishweather.com) “you can look at the wind at Block Island Airport or Montauk Airport forecast every hour for a week ahead.”
    Captain Potts also recommended wunderground.com and swellinfo.com, a site designed for surfers but which gives detailed information about swell size and direction and wind speed and direction forecast five days into the future.
    “It shows what the surf on the beach is going to be — glassy, semi-glassy, choppy — and then a picture of the ocean a hundred miles offshore, swell size, direction overlaid with wind bars every six hours for a week.”
    The charter captain said he uses the aforementioned sites to fine-tune the standard NOAA marine weather forecast. “A little map comes up. You choose your area, say between Montauk and Rhode Island or south of Montauk to Block Island. Click on a square and it shows you weather for the next five days. What happens is, it says the wind will be gusting to 30 knots, then you go to the other sites and it shows you the wind will be 5 to 10 knots until 1 in the afternoon, so I can get a day’s fishing in.”