Strategy: Is a Private Weather Forecast Right for You?

A custom forecast should include a table of predicted windspeed and direction, like the one shown here. In addition, a general overview and a detailed discussion (not shown) of the weather combine to help you formulate a strategy as the day progresses.

The private weather forecast has become an increasingly popular tool for enhancing race strategy. A good, customized weather forecast can give you information that will help you understand the winds you’re likely to face during a race, and may provide you with the edge to catch a race-winning shift. However, engaging a private weather forecaster isn’t for everyone. How can you determine whether or not engaging a private weather forecast service is right for you? Following are some explanations of what a forecaster can and can’t do, which may help you answer this question.

First, let’s consider what you can expect relative to the accuracy of a weather forecast. You may be surprised that I have to say this, but there are people who seem to think they can buy the weather! We know from experience that weather forecasts aren’t always accurate. That’s just asking too much. In the case of a private weather forecast, just because you pay for a forecast doesn’t guarantee it will be accurate.

Weather forecasting has come a long way in the last 50 years. Once more art than science, forecasters began with an understanding of the state of the atmosphere at a particular time, then projected the future based on past experiences with similar weather situations. With the advent of improved tools for observing and simulating atmospheric motions, forecasting now involves considerable data analysis, reviewing not only the current state of the atmosphere, but simulations of the expected atmospheric behavior developed by computer models rooted in well-understood physical relationships. Don’t get me wrong; there’s still a considerable amount of art in making a weather forecast. The mix of science and art, however, has shifted dramatically in favor of science over the last few decades.

The accuracy of a weather forecast is tied to this mix of science and art. So far, computers haven’t quite gotten a grip on the art of weather forecasting. There’s still a need for humans to assimilate all the data, and decide when to believe it or when to ignore or adjust it based on their knowledge of the particular weather situation. Unless you wish to spend thousands of hours studying the intricacies of meteorological data and how to access and interpret it, it really does make sense to work with someone who already has these skills and can boil the information down to what you need to know.

The level of training, experience, and technical capabilities of a particular forecaster will determine how well they’re able to apply the right mix of science and art to the problem of predicting the winds for your race. In reality, it’s a bit of a two-way street. If you want a forecast to work for you, then you need to work at making good use of the information. Even a "bad" forecast can hold useful information. Sometimes it’s just as important to know what won’t happen as it is to know what will.

To be useful, a customized forecast should contain the following information, with a focus on relevance for your particular needs.

General weather overview. A discussion of the weather situation for the area of concern. Avoid forecasts that give you information you don’t need--for example, if you’re racing at Key West, it’s unlikely an Icelandic low will have a significant impact on the wind.

Detailed discussion: Building on the basic information provided in the general overview, a detailed discussion of the weather is a requirement. Here, specific information regarding the weather and your race is typically communicated. Clues to warn you of upcoming weather changes such as clouds or windspeed/direction trends should be discussed. Additional information on the behavior of the wind may also be provided, such as the shift tendency in puffs or a pumping sea breeze. Finally, alternative forecast scenarios can be discussed. Clues that may suggest any alternative scenarios can also be valuable.

Forecast table. A detailed table of predicted windspeed and direction, as well as sea state, is critical. The table should give the expected ranges of windspeed and direction, with some indication of the variability possible during the race. This information may be given for every hour for a day race, or every three to six hours for a distance race.

Graphics: Accompanying weather maps may be important in some cases, but they’re not always necessary. For round-the-buoys races, weather maps aren’t very useful; for long-distance races, where the relative positions of highs, lows, and fronts are important, the maps are more critical.

Now that you know what’s in a private forecast, how do you determine whether or not it will be useful? Ask yourself the following questions:

Is there sufficient data available to make a reasonably good forecast, and is the meteorologist skilled in predicting winds for your particular location? An experienced meteorologist should be able to discuss this beforehand to help set your expectations for forecast accuracy accordingly.

Is there a practical use for the forecast? For example, if you’re sailing in a channel on short, half-mile legs, knowing what the wind is going to do doesn’t give you as much tactical advantage as understanding the currents and watching your competition. On the other hand, if you sail long legs on an offshore course in a distance race, knowing what the wind will do is a huge advantage.

Is the forecaster formally trained? I’m certainly biased; however, I can’t emphasize enough how important it is to use a trained weather forecaster. There are several flavors of meteorologist, so utilizing a forecast from someone schooled in the finer points of coastal and marine weather is most advantageous. In addition, your weather forecaster should have an experience level suitable for what you’re asking of them. Operational weather prediction is all about continuous learning. The more situations your forecaster has faced, the less likely you’ll be surprised. Likewise, the skill set specific to your needs is important. A forecaster who’s great at predicting winds at 35,000 feet for aviation may not be the one you want forecasting the winds at sea level.

Does the forecast provider you’re considering communicate information in a way that you can understand and use? Some users are quite sophisticated, requiring forecasts with detailed, relatively complex information, while others prefer hearing just the facts. Your forecaster should be able to give you the information you need in the format that’s most useful for you. Be aware, however, that the more demands you make on the forecaster, the more that information is going to cost.

As I mentioned before, payment doesn’t guarantee an accurate forecast. Things like frequency of updates, ability to talk to the forecaster, complexity of information required, and duration of forecast all impact the fee. As a guideline, expect to spend between $50 and $75 a day for a once-per-day fax/e-mail and a telephone consultation.

If you’re not sure whether or not a private forecast can have some value for you, try one and see if you find it helpful. You may even want to try more than one forecaster to compare communication styles, and then decide what works for you.