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Mitigating Weather Risks in Maritime Operations - Part 3

Updated: Mar 22, 2023

"Today, I love storms! I huddle below my duvet, pull the covers up to my chin and nestle down, thanking all the Gods that it is not me getting the crap kicked out of me again." ...

Blurry photo showing how rough it can be out at sea
Typical day down the Southern Ocean, and yes, we were still fishing!

Short answer- If you do not have to be in it, avoid it! Read the weather forecast, work within the limits of both the vessel, your crew and especially your own abilities. We are 200nm SW of Stewart Island. The boys have called me On Shift early, just after sunrise, I can feel the ship getting tossed around like a cork as I make my way to the wheelhouse, so I already know it is bad out there. I get to the wheelhouse and look out the windows, and it is just diabolical. We are at full pitch and hardly making any ‘way’. It takes about two seconds to realise that if we stay here, dodging into the sea, eventually we will fall off one of these humongous waves and go broadside onto this sea, which is a recipe for death. I watch the sea for a short while, then turn the vessel around and begin to run with it. Not that I have a lot of choices, but the Snares Islands are about 70 nm away, right on the only course I can steer safely, directly downwind. We surf down each wave, where the whole vessel, all 43 meters and 1500 tonnes of it, fits easily on the face of each wave. As we crash at the bottom of each wave, we bury the bow but not as far as to ship green water over the bow. We are surfing at 14 knots, almost half as fast as the vessel can steam at full speed. We are here because I was greedy, I stayed, even though the forecast was not just bad, it had been diabolical, but I knew better, “yeah right!"

Ask any fisherman, and they will have stories of the worst storms they have ever been in. This is mine and scattered throughout it I will spread some small inklings of wisdom. There are two ways to learn, by experience and listening to others, I have learnt to listen though it took me a long time for that to sink into my thick skull!

Let us start with weather forecasts. They can be out by up to 50%, which means it can be much rougher out there than forecast or calmer. A weather prediction program provides a range of possibilities; hence the weather office will broadcast the worst-case predictions for that period. This is the official weather forecast. This is what SeaLogs uses, for good reason.

As you know, there are many other weather forecasting services, apps and websites. They all use the same weather forecasting program. There are some subtle differences, though, and this is where the problems start. All weather programs provide a range of predictions, which is where some apps and websites take the best-case scenario, the complete opposite of what the official weather office does.

Rough rocky shoreline of Stewart Island
Photo looking north along the beautiful coast of Stewart Island

It was a 7-hour run up to the Snares Islands. The Snares are about the size of Waiheke Island and about as high. There is a small bay on the eastern side where I intended to hide in, but as we closed the Island, I could see that the sea was washing over most of the Island. This puts the Islands out of contention as a shelter. I have no choice but to continue running up to Stewart Island, another 12 hours away and with the weather getting worse all the time along, and the sea’s getting steeper as we go up onto the Snares shelf.

We would get caught out in stuff like this all the time, there was no choice; we were so far south and so far from anywhere that there is nowhere to run away to. Every skipper I know has numerous stories like mine, usually each worse than the last. What do you do at times like this?

Normal practice for us was to ‘Dodge’ into the sea. We would put the shoulder of the vessel into the sea and wind, keeping just enough way on for steerage, around 3 ½ Knots. The problem is if you run out of power and that only happened to me once. Having the sea on the shoulder may seem a bit more uncomfortable, but it is safer; you do not want to ship seas like this over the bow because that is where a lot of damage can be done. Once you are nicely jogging into the sea there is not a lot else to do except the usual safety checks, deadlights, doors and hatches, water off in the factory etc, but ensure your crew is doing these checks. Then exercise some patience!

At times like this the weather may seem to abate for periods and the temptation is to restart fishing or whatever you are doing but believe me these are just false lulls designed to lure the unwary into a false sense of security. Make sure the weather has abated; logging your barometer is an effective way to see where the storm is in relation to you. That can be the hardest thing ever, making the decision to resume your activity.

There is a cardinal rule around Stewart Island, ‘stay away from the traps in a southerly’. In this case, I did not have a choice, we were going for the eastern side of Stewart Island, and that was it. The traps are a group of rocks about 20nm off the eastern side of the Island. An undersea ridge runs out to the islands, and while it is safe to pass over this ridge, the state of the sea made the waves stand up even more and shortened the ‘fetch’. Fetch is the distance between each wave, so in the deep waters of the Southern Ocean, the fetch can be up to a mile or more between each peak, making a comfortable roller-coaster ride over the seas, but up on top of these coastal shelves, the fetch drops right down to a few hundred meters. Just like running over a bar, this bar lasts for 20 or thirty miles. If I had been scared before now, I had progressed onto the terrifying stage. The run-up to the eastern coast of Stewart Island was not something I ever want to do again but somehow, we made it. As soon as we got past the ‘Traps’ the weather died down to almost nothing. It took me three weeks to stop shaking and go back down south again and let me repeat, every skipper I know of has had similar if not worse experiences.

Chart of the Traps, stay away in any form of a ‘Southerly’

The points you need to take from this ‘3-Part Blog’ is that while I have experienced the very worst this world can throw at you, it was in vessels that are incredibly strong, usually ice-strengthened and that we are all vastly experienced. Yet we still all have been caught out at various times. Most of the commercial vessels around the Harbours of NZ are not even remotely built to handle extreme weather conditions, if you do not sink them, you will cause damage, a lot of damage, and this is where you need to stop and act like a sensible, responsible skipper, is it worth it. No vessel is unsinkable.

Old ship tied up in the doc full of rust
Old rusty sea-going vessel in retirement

As for recreational vessels, well, what can I say? Every year we see people come to grief over the bars and in the harbours for a multitude of avoidable reasons. I was doing my job, it was where I had to be; what is your excuse? Rushing back to work? The fish were biting. I did not think it would be so bad out there.

Today, I love storms! I huddle below my duvet, pull the covers up to my chin and nestle down, thanking all the Gods that it is not me getting the crap kicked out of me again.

This is how I saw the Wahine, standing on the beach at Seatoun in the driving rain.

My brother-in-law was the bosun on this ferry coming into Wellington, they thought they were history.

Here, I would like you all to sit back and think about exactly why you are ‘mucking’ around in Boats. For some of us, commercial it is our job, but even then, think about it for a moment, does it mean your life, or more specifically, the lives of those who are relying on you? For the recreational crowd, my idea of boating is balmy, hot, sunny, flat calm days sipping rum and coke in some picture-perfect anchorage, not battling 50 knots, five-to-ten-meter seas in driving rain, fearing for my life.

- Captain M Prendeville



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