We were east of the Bahamas on September 27, 2022. Ironically, just 3 weeks earlier, I had been at the NOAA National Hurricane Center (NHC) in Miami, Florida, 180 nautical miles to the west. As an instructor at the Maritime Institute of Technology and Graduate Studies (MITAGS) in Baltimore, Maryland, a number of the courses I am involved with are weather-related. Basic Meteorology for mariners seeking an original operational level license and Advanced Meteorology for those seeking a management level license are of great interest, but my favorite has to be Heavy Weather Avoidance.
Heavy Weather Avoidance courses have been developed at MITAGS for the Atlantic, Pacific and Indian Oceans, but all include sections on tropical storm avoidance. These courses were originally developed by Lee Chesneau, a renowned forecaster for both NOAA and the private sector, in the aftermath of the loss of SS El Faro. That vessel was lost with all 33 onboard, in Hurricane Joaquin on October 01, 2015.
Continuing the irony, on this day, we were 250nm from where El Faro had been lost.
The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) accident report regarding the sinking of El Faro included a number of recommendations. Among them were four weather training-specific items:
“Publish policy guidance to approved maritime training schools offering bridge resource management courses to promote a cohesive team environment and improve the decision-making process, and specifically include navigational and storm-avoidance scenarios. (M-17-31)
Require that all deck officers, at both operational and management levels, take a Coast Guard–approved advanced meteorology course to close the gap for mariners initially credentialed before 1998. (M-17-33)
Publish policy guidance to approved maritime training schools offering management-level training in advanced meteorology, or in an appropriate course, to ensure that the curriculum includes the following topics: characteristics of weather systems including tropical revolving storms; advanced meteorological concepts; importance of sending weather observations; ship maneuvering using advanced simulators in heavy weather; heavy-weather preparations; use of technology to transmit and receive weather forecasts (such as navigational telex or weather-routing providers); ship-routing services (capabilities and limitations); and launching of lifeboats and liferafts in heavy weather. (M-17-34)
Provide policy guidance to approved maritime training schools offering operational-level training in meteorology to ensure that the curriculum includes the following topics: characteristics of weather systems, weather charting and reporting, importance of sending weather observations, sources of weather information, and interpreting weather forecast products. (M-17-35)”
(emphasis added by the author)
So, why were we east of the Bahamas? Well, aside from being an instructor at MITAGS, I am the captain on a U.S.-flagged merchant vessel and we were enroute from an East Coast port to a Gulf Coast port. And there was a hurricane in our way.
In this case, on September 25, Tropical Storm Ian was forecast to develop and move across Cuba, into the Gulf of Mexico and then make landfall somewhere in Northern Florida – perhaps the Panhandle. Our voyage plan and speed required for our ETA would have us crossing ~70nm ahead of the tropical storm force winds (34 knots and higher) associated with Ian. Now, NHC guidance regarding hurricane safety recommends against crossing ahead of a tropical system due to the variability in actual system movement versus the forecasts.
So, we were East of the Bahamas, but why had I been at the National Hurricane Center previously? On an opportune trip to Florida on other business for MITAGS, Dr. Chris Landsea of the NHC Tropical Analysis Forecast Branch (TAFB) graciously agreed to show me around the NHC/TAFB and discuss the latest developments in tropical system forecasting.
One of the topics we discussed were the latest developments of the traditional 1-2-3 rule. Utilizing this rule, the mariner would plot the 34 knot (tropical storm strength) wind field for the current storm position. They would then do the same for each 24-hour forecast period out to 72-hours, but adding 100nm to the wind field for each 24 hours, so 100nm at 24 hours, 200nm at 48 hours and 300nm at 72 hours. In doing so, variability in forecasting would be taken into account. These areas would then be connected in a cone (as above), with the goal to be to stay out of this cone.
There have been proposed changes through NOAA’s Ocean Prediction Center (OPC) to reduce the distance added to the 34 knot wind field to 60nm to account for better forecasting. When I asked Dr. Landsea about this change, he highlighted a new product to take the place of the 1-2-3 rule altogether, the Tropical Cyclone Marine Danger Graphic.
This graphic is linked from the NHC website and provides the no-go cone for the mariner. As we can see from the graphic from September 25, our voyage plan would take us right through the middle of this cone – perhaps not the best plan. As it turned out, an 8-hour delay leaving our East Coast port allowed us no room for doubt – we were in storm avoidance mode.
Our plan was developed in coordination with shoreside weather routers, but our position to the east of the Bahamas allowed us room to maneuver if necessary, allowed for eventualities (Can you imagine having an engineering issue had we attempted to “cross the T” ahead of Ian?) and positioned us to continue our voyage and pass astern of Ian when safe to do so.
Another NHC/TAFB product that Dr. Landsea discussed were the expanded Offshore Forecast Zones. Knowing about this updated product allowed us an easy method of checking the forecasts along our route.
These new smaller zones balance precision and clarity and factored the primary shipping lanes into their design.
By hovering your cursor over the desired forecast zone, the forecast pops up. This allows easy checking of multiple zones.
And in the end? The worst that we encountered was 15-20 knots of wind and 3-4 meter seas as we continued our voyage to the Gulf of Mexico. Compared to the devastation ashore in Florida or the potential damage to or loss of a vessel, tropical cyclone avoidance is quite feasible, once you assess the risks, use the tools available to us from NHC/TFAB and mitigate those risks as best possible.
And if you are tempted to pass close to a tropical cyclone, consider this comparison of the forecasted center of the eye on September 27th, versus the actual center of the eye on a satellite image on September 27th. It’s about 70nm further to the ENE, which is about the same distance our initial voyage plan would have had us passing ahead. In this case, we wouldn’t have made it.
Let’s be safe out there.