A very fine October day


Begin with a bit of regret, because after all, oncoming winter will not wait. Days like this one will become scarcer. Soon, we will take such sweet, sunny sailing trips in memory only.

Add building anticipation, as we postponed our plans for several weekends while wild easterly wind and heavy rain oppressed us. And, because it is sailing we’re discussing here, not power boating, one has to be patient, to accept that the moment, if it arrives at all, will be the moment chosen by other forces, not by us. The moon, the stars, the sun, the jet stream, and the climate — to name just a few of the actual decision makers —had to align, and they did.

Sailors have learned their lessons, though it has taken a couple of thousand years, that downwind is the way to go. They want the wind at their backs. Upwind is hard, wet, slow, indirect. It means you’re not clever. Downwind is quicker, smooth, dry, easy, a straight line. That’s when you know you’re shrewd.

In the interest of getting where they’re going, sailors have also mastered currents. They’ve learned that it’s best to have the current with you, along with the wind. Every good sailboat should be able to work its way upwind handily. And, it should be able to sail quickly enough to defeat an oncoming current. But, every good sailor knows that neither of these approaches to getting somewhere compares to waiting patiently for a following wind and current.

Sailors also know that the best weather is friendly and benign. Despite the lessons of so many millennia, despite all that we’ve learned, sailors have not mastered the weather, or even forecasting it. And, is it any wonder?

Here’s the NOAA description of winter weather to come in several regions of the nation, released October 21. It’s headlined “Another Winter of Extremes in Store for U.S. as La Niñ;a Strengthens.” Sounds informative, doesn’t it? NOAA says extreme weather will rule in the U.S. this winter.

And here, in the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic, the detailed forecast promises, “Equal chances for above-, near-, or below-normal temperatures and precipitation. Winter weather for these regions is often driven not by La Niñ;a but by weather patterns over the northern Atlantic Ocean and Arctic. These are often more short-term, and are generally predictable only a week or so in advance. If enough cold air and moisture are in place, areas north of the Ohio Valley and into the Northeast could see above-average snow …”

Huh? How is this more helpful than “Red sky in the morning, sailors take warning”? What’s a sailor to think?

But NOAA can discuss oncoming weather in the most complacent terms, appearing to say something, I suppose, but really, they’ve got nothing. They putter through the science and meteorology behind the, er, forecast.

For instance: “The Pacific Northwest should brace for a colder and wetter-than-average winter, while most of the South and Southeast will be warmer and drier than average through February 2011, according to the annual Winter Outlook released today by NOAA’s Climate Prediction Center. A moderate to strong La Niñ;a will be the dominant climate factor influencing weather across most of the U.S. this winter.

“La Niñ;a is associated with cooler-than-normal water temperatures in the Equatorial Pacific Ocean, unlike El Niñ;o, which is associated with warmer-than-normal water temperatures. Both of these climate phenomena, which typically occur every 2-5 years, influence weather patterns throughout the world and often lead to extreme weather events. Last winter’s El Niñ;o contributed to record-breaking rain and snowfall leading to severe flooding in some parts of the country, with record heat and drought in other parts of the country. Although La Niñ;a is the opposite of El Niñ;o, it also has the potential to bring weather extremes to parts of the nation.”

“‘La Niñ;a is in place and will strengthen and persist through the winter months, giving us a better understanding of what to expect between December and February,’ said Mike Halpert, deputy director of the Climate Prediction Center — a division of the National Weather Service. ‘This is a good time for people to review the outlook and begin preparing for what winter may have in store.'”

Huh? How do we prepare?

“‘Other climate factors will play a role in the winter weather at times across the country,’ added Halpert. ‘Some of these factors, such as the North Atlantic Oscillation, are difficult to predict more than one to two weeks in advance. The NAO adds uncertainty to the forecast in the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic portions of the country.'”

But if sailors have learned to live with the vagaries of stars, moon, wind, currents, tides, and the uncertainties of the North Atlantic Oscillation, then the perplexing unhelpfulness of NOAA’s annual winter outlook cannot unsettle them.

So, off we went. In Hadley Harbor, there was the schooner Charlotte, with Nat and Pam Benjamin and family aboard. There was a cousin down for the weekend at Uncatena, and Allen and Lynne Whiting arriving for a painter’s week-long retreat with other painters in a big house on Naushon. And there was the young mother, down to close up the Nonamesset house. Our son had looked after her children one long-ago summer week.

It was a sun-drenched reunion at the Upper Wharf. The wind was light and westerly, and a good thing too, because the engine wouldn’t start, so we needed a fair breeze to get through Woods Hole, and we needed to cut short the cocktail-less cocktail party on the wharf and get underway. (Balky engines, like the moon and the tides and the currents and the weather forecasts, are influences with which sailors have learned to contend patiently.)

And, after all, it was a splendid sail with the westerly on the quarter, the temperature in the 60s, Matthew and Martha Stackpole and Duke Smith laughing and chatting and telling stories in the cockpit as we reached across Vineyard Sound and then beat up the harbor to a mooring. After all, it was a very fine October day when patience was rewarded and the forces we could not command — and NOAA could not predict — relented. It was a splendid sail.