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Navigating the Impact of Weather on Maritime Operations - Part 2

Updated: Mar 22, 2023

"Put your life jacket on, it makes it easier to find your body!"...

Fishing boat is out in rough seas or potentially cross a shallow bar. There are birds overhead.
Fishing vessel photographed cross a bar.

Short answer- sooner or later you are going to get caught out by the weather- ‘calm down’! stop making it worse by panicking, exercise your brain and work on the problem. Is the vessel safe and seaworthy, (I can assure you most vessels can handle a lot more than what you think), slow down and ride the sea, stop punching into it, steer a safe course, do not cut corners, give reefs and points of land plenty of leeways. Your actions will affect the crew and passengers, but be practical, if you must call for help do it sooner than later and make your preparations early.

Around the North of NZ, the weather seems balmy, it's usually calm in the morning with the wind picking up towards mid-morning, rising to a peak mid-afternoon with the turn of the tide then dying down as the evening comes on. This generally only applies within limited coastal conditions, once you get clear of the coast the weather stabilises and you normally don’t get these variations. This is good to know because if you are going for a gentle sail, the afternoon breeze can be of assistance for a swift trip home. This is called voyage planning, read the forecast, run upwind and have a pleasant run back home in the afternoon.

Unfortunately, those of us in the commercial world often do not get the same choices. Read or listen to the forecast; how many times do I need to say this? I watched a skipper I was, panicking because it was blowing 40 to 50 knots in the bay, and we were due to dock. I wandered over to the chart table, and read the forecast, which was due to drop to nothing but did not say when looked up the tide tables and saw that the change of tide was about two hours after we were due to dock. I said to the skipper, why don’t we just wait for a couple of hours till the tide turns (we had to dock about two hours on either side of the tide). He was almost relieved someone had made a decision, so he phoned the office and told them it was too windy to berth, and we were going to delay for a couple of hours. When the tide turned; the wind dropped to a mild 10 knots, and we docked without any issues. Patience.

Use your brains as well, if the fisherman is making a run for it, well, it’s not a bad idea to pull the plug as well, don’t wait for the weather to hit, I’ve gone home on charter fishing boats when it was still flat calm and the fish was on, to the moans and groans of the clients, who were screaming blue murder right until we hit the wharf and it suddenly started to blow 30 knots along with the usual torrential rain, “oh” was all they said. (That bloody ‘oh club).

This is where you must take into consideration your customers. To a bunch of hairy-arsed fishermen, “tough, you’ve obviously mistaken me for someone who gives a Damm!”, it’s just another day at the office, but if your customers are tourists, schoolkids or the like, then they are not going to appreciate you bashing back into a howling southerly. Remember, most people lead very secular and safe lives these days, where the most risk they face daily is paper cuts!

The next thing is wind against the tide. Waiheke channel, Tiri Channel and pretty much every headland around the North at some time or other gets wind against tide, whereby the waves will stand up a couple of meters with a very short fetch (distance between waves). I treat these areas like bar Harbours, if I can, I avoid them, or else I slow down and ride my way through. Tiri channel is an excellent example whereby going around the outside of Tiri may seem longer but is quicker in the long run, not only do you get out of the tide (or at least the full force of it) but the wind and sea will be calmer and more consistent. Again, voyage planning can negate this issue altogether.

Speaking of which, Bar Harbours! I have spent my whole life avoiding them. They account for most of the shipwrecks around NZ and I know far too many people who have had nothing but very bad experiences on them. I simply do not work them so I will not presume to give any advice regarding them except unless it is absolutely flat calm. However, if you have no choice, if possible, follow someone else in and listen to the advice from the shore or those who know better. Put your life jacket on, it makes it easier to find your body! But, here’s something you may not know, most of the harbours on the east coast of NZ are bar harbours as well! Watch them in an easterly, especially in a small vessel, they can kick up quite rough and unexpectedly.

Anchor memorial site looking out to sea
A good spot for reflection as we look out to sea and think of seafarers past and present

Now here is some weather information you may not know. They are called ‘Bombs’ or weather bombs. They are intense areas of low pressure that usually form around specific geographical features around NZ. The main two that I know of are the one that forms off East cape and the other is off the Kaikoura peninsula. While I am no weather guru, I think it has something to do with the winds rushing down off the mountains and out to sea. They can form any time of the year, and are very intense but also very localised, so someone further out to sea or fifty miles away may not even know about it. I have bashed my way through the one at East Cape once when we had very little freeboard but I have also avoided these bombs another time by being 20 nm off the coast, whereby I only heard about how rough it had been from another skipper after we got into port.

The one-off Kaikoura was one of the big wake-up calls of my seagoing career. We were on a medium-sized trawler off the peninsular in reasonably rough conditions, nothing the vessel couldn’t handle, it was just another wet, bouncy, and Rolly day on a fishing vessel. Just after we shot away the gear, the wind came away to 50 to 60 knots and the sea picked up another couple of meters, I thought the Skipper, (even though this was his first trip as skipper) would bail on this tow and get me to haul it back onboard. (I was the mate) He didn’t say anything, and I just watched as the net sunk towards to the bottom. I could see the bottom coming up on the net monitor and was waiting for the skipper to put the power on. Nothing happened and even though I prompted him he just sat frozen in his chair. We came fast immediately, and the seas began crashing over the stern. I knew we were in the proverbial immediately, so I shifted control to the winch panel, took the power off and began to recover the gear. It took me over two hours to recover the gear, whereby I would gently ease the vessel back up over each wave, then allow the water to drain from the deck and repeat. Eventually, we got the gear up and it was another hairy hour getting it onboard, let me assure you there were some very unhappy deckhands who thought their last days had come. Of course, this always happens during the deepest, darkest, part of the night, in freezing, driving rain in the middle of winter, such is the life of a fisherman.

Throughout all these three hours though, the skipper of the vessel just sat in his chair, frozen with fear. That was the first time I had ever seen anybody completely frozen in terror. I never forgave him for that and got off that vessel at the end of the trip. It took the company another few months to work out that this guy was a dud but I can never work out why people like this chose this type of life. Sooner or later the proverbial is going to hit the fan and it doesn’t take long for the dreamers to work out that a life at sea is in the majority ‘bloody hard work with a good chance of getting seriously hurt or even killed. People that freeze under stressful conditions, always seem to talk themselves into positions they are entirely unsuited for

Barge in large seas taking on a wave over the deck.
This is what coming fast is like, now imagine it’s night, you are on a vessel half the size of the one shown here, and the skipper is frozen with fear!

The last place I know where these weather bombs form is out along the Chatham rise. I’ve been hit several times by an intense low that forms about 80 nm NE of the Islands several times and while it's exciting it's not as bad as the other ones. We also used to get them down the Southern Ocean, but it was always kind of hard to work out whether it was just a local phenomenon or just the Southern Ocean up to its usual tricks, either way, it just added to the type of fun I could have done without.

The other ‘Weather Bomb’ type formations are those that form anywhere along the east coast from the Bay of Plenty to the Canterbury Bight. These intense depressions are usually predicted by the weather office and are the ones that cause an immense amount of damage along the coast. Sometimes it’s better to be out at sea when these hit, the surge into the harbours, especially those in the South Island, can be intense and I can remember spending a very sleepless night with the engines on standby during one of these storms as we surged up and down the wharf, snapping the odd line now and again. If we could have sailed, I would of!

Fog is one of the other weather conditions which we get a lot of up North, (but also south of the Cook Straight). It’s not unusual to leave your berth first thing in the morning and halfway down the harbour the veil comes down on you. These days, most vessels have radars (you lucky bastards!) and all have chart plotters or apps on phones. Very useful. I grew up with a notebook, with compass course and times written in it from various points around the harbour to other points, upon which we would ‘feel’ our way around the harbour. It's not a particularly accurate way to get around the place and if anyone tells you differently then they are full of it. How we did not run aground more often, or have more collisions, was mainly due to sheer luck and perhaps the fact that there were fewer vessels around the harbour. I was usually towing a barge so all my courses written down were for naught because the deviation from a barge was so great that if you followed the compass then you would just do circles around the harbour, however, we were able usually to get a rough bearing on the way we were going and relied on ignorance and good luck to feel our way through.

Recently I was running as the deckhand on a fishing charter vessel. The owner was driving for the day. I like being a deckhand, I’m a pain in the arse, slack in a knowledgeable way (I know the easiest and quickest way to get things done) and like assuming the deckhand position crashed out somewhere comfortable, dealing to coffee and cigarettes swapping the bull with the customers. On this morning we were running down a channel in a real peasouper and I was being diligent by keeping him company on the flying bridge. He assured me he knew exactly where we were by looking out the window and wasn’t following the chart plotter, after all he assured me, he had been running down this channel for twenty or more years and knew every inch of it. For some reason I glanced at the plotter and sounder, quickly screaming at him to stop the boat. He did stop, or the mud stopped us, and then we backed up off the mud, half a mile off course and headed for the camping grounds. We edged our way back into the channel and then worked our way down it, but still several times I had to steer him back into the channel. I couldn’t work out why he was having so many problems following the plotter until it dawned on me that he was ‘night blind’ (it was very early in the morning and before sunrise) and couldn’t see the plotter.

Finally, there are lots of other weather phenomena around NZ waters that I have experienced and could enlighten you with but most of those are down the Southern Ocean and unless you are incredibly stupid then you should leave those places to us, because that is not the type of place you want to play around in, it is totally unforgiving, vicious but most of uncaring in that if it doesn’t get you this time, well it will the next or the next or the next because that life in the Southern Ocean.

Part 2 of 3 weather-related blogs.

- Captain M Prendeville



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