Saturday, 5 September 2015

Weather forecasts

Image result for raincloud iconI am back onshore for a while, having spent a lot of the summer so far on board Each Mara, our trusty boat, exploring the shores, anchorages and seas of the Hebrides and the north west coast here. It has been great to become familiar with the 'lie of the land' from the perspective of someone traveling around by boat. Places that seem far apart from a road-user perspective are surprisingly close by sea (North Skye and Gairloch, for example). And vice versa (Gairloch and Poolewe). And a place that is a doddle to get to one day can be impossible to reach the next. A three-day struggle beating into a wind to get from A to B can be an easy morning's passage running with a good breeze behind you, a favourable tide and a reasonable sea. It all depends on the wind.

Hence weather forecasts are essential. Sharing long-term forecasts with other sailors and harbour users is a large part of our social interaction. Tuning into the inshore forecast on the VHF radio every three hours has become as much of a ritual as making tea. And attempting to download the more locally specific forecasts from the Met Office by mobile phone is a full-blown obsession. The inshore forecast is for a 24 hour period and for a large area, and, for example, if it says the wind will be 'variable 3-4' it doesn't give much of a clue as to whether B will be reachable from A, where the more specific forecasts for both A and B may at least let us know from which point of the compass the wind may be expected.

I would like to be able to say that I have spent the entirety of the past two months living an Iron Age lifestyle, out on the sea, and writing my novel set there. I have done a lot of that, but it has been intruded upon by certain features of 21st century life, none more so than weather forecasts.

Of course, in 320BC, Pytheas traveled without any forecasts at all, other than the finger-in-the-air guesses of local people, and although they had huge experience and knowledge of how to read the sky and the sea, they would have been going on guesswork and hope a lot of the time.

And we still are. The forecasts are unreliable, especially more than 48 hours ahead, and this summer I've been frustrated over and over again by making plans based on forecast winds that haven't happened, or staying put to avoid gales that haven't blown, or setting out to discover that the wind is far stronger than predicted and in an entirely different direction.

It's not that anyone's lying (I hope). It's just that the weather is inherently unpredictable, especially in a land- and sea-scape as complex as this one. And in a funny kind of way, frustrating though it might be on a day-to-day basis not to know what the wind will bring, I'm glad that we can't forecast it accurately. It's bigger than we are, certainly bigger and more complex than our models, and I'm strangely comforted to know that there is still chaos and mystery out there, beyond our control.

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