Few things can top a beautiful day on your boat, with calm water and blue skies. But mother nature is fickle, and we often "pay" for those perfect days. Get a couple of boaters together and the weather-related horror stories can go on all night.
Weather is, or should be, on the mind of every boater. What is it doing now? What is it likely to do in the future? Not only is this necessary for an enjoyable experience, but it can be critical for the safety of your crew and the boat. The trick is to be vigilant and still have a good time, and one way to maintain that balance is to access weather information on your mobile phone.
A mobile phone can play many roles aboard your boat, from a research tool with Internet capabilities to a mobile chartplotter that fits in your pocket. The ability to access high-quality weather information from any location adds greatly to this utility, and most of the best weather sources are now catering to mobile users.
Let's look at NOAA weather, still the most common source of marine weather information for boaters in the U.S. Many boaters turn to the appropriate VHF channel to listen to the forecast. As we know, this is presented as a continuous, pre-recorded loop that runs through predictions for a large geographic area. One must patiently listen to the loop until it arrives at the specific area you are interested in. If you're lucky, you won't be distracted by a conversation or small task and miss it.
Fortunately, there's a better way. The NOAA website carries transcripts of the recordings, posting text versions of what is being read over the VHF. Why sit through a long, pre-recorded presentation, when you can just read it yourself? And if you are reading on your phone, that means you can access weather information everywhere.
The most popular NOAA marine text forecasts can be found at www.nws.noaa.gov/om/marine/marinewxi.htm. You can choose from a variety of forecasts, including bay and coastal, offshore, lakes and even hurricane forecasts. The all-text format displays well on your mobile phone and is easy to read.
We use this service to quickly connect to the forecast we need, first by creating "favorites" to get to sites quickly and then by focusing on the predictions we want. It is true that you can get these same forecasts over the Internet on a laptop. But using the phone allows us to check the marine forecast from anywhere - while walking ashore, eating in a restaurant, or even before getting up in the morning (a nice luxury to have if you are trying to decide whether to leave an anchorage or stay one more day).
We have found that most regions are updated on a fairly predictable schedule. Learn the schedule and you won't be stuck waiting for weather information. And even if you are, the phone allows you to do something while you are waiting.
Another great weather site is the National Weather Service mobile website (mobile.weather.gov). This site provides weather forecasts in a format designed to display on your mobile phone. You can view a wide variety of information, including weather by zip code, satellite images, weather warnings, radar images and marine forecasts.
NATIONAL DATA BUOY CENTER
NOAA's National Data Buoy Center website (www.ndbc.noaa.gov) provides access to current offshore weather and sea conditions around the world. Information provided includes air temperature, atmospheric pressure, wind speed and direction, wave height and more. This data is extremely useful when you need to know offshore conditions immediately.
Additional links can provide weather forecasts for the vicinity of the buoy, local Notice to Mariners, and observations from nearby stations and ships. The data provided for a given buoy varies greatly from place to place, because international data is not controlled by NOAA. And this site does not offer a version formatted for mobile phones, so using their map to locate a buoy can be challenging. However, if you know the Station ID of a particular buoy, you can enter it in the website's search tool to access information about the buoy. This takes you directly to the data and generally works pretty well.
NOAA also provides access to radar loops throughout the U.S. (www.weather.gov/radar_tab.php). Even though the page is not formatted for mobile phones, the images look quite good. The downside is that the site displays as one very large page. This requires that you to scroll extensively to find the region you want. You can reduce this effort by marking a "favorite" for your most common locations.
There are also many non-government websites that we have found useful. Our favorite may be Buoyweather (www.buoyweather.com). Buoyweather takes data from a wide variety of sources and condenses it into a highly usable and extremely accurate weather website. Its real strength lies in its offshore predictions. We don't leave an inlet without checking in and never make plans involving offshore travel without consulting this website.
Buoyweather gives you the information you need in a format that is quick and easy to understand. You can obtain 2-day forecasts at no charge, which is a great way to try out the site. Or you can pay a subscription to obtain 7-day predictions for $9.95 per month. You can access data formatted for a mobile phone under their "Wireless" section, though one drawback is the lack of mobile phone formatting for the wind and wave charts.
Buoyweather has devised some great graphic layouts that present the data in a highly understandable way. With just a glance you have the general feel for conditions, yet it allows you to probe more deeply if you wish. We like their "flag system," which displays one of three flag colors to indicate the weather safety level.
Green indicates "Conditions suitable for most marine activities," yellow is "Caution. Small Craft Advisory," and red warns "Hazardous Conditions. Use Extreme Caution." The chart of wind and wave conditions offers an intuitive way to visualize the predictions. We pay for the 7-day forecasts whenever we are cruising away from home, and find the site invaluable. You can turn your subscription off month to month if you wish. Our experience has been that Buoyweather's forecasts are not only the easiest to interpret, but are also the most accurate. We don't know how they do it; we just hope they don't stop!
How do you use this service on the water? An excerpt from our blog for March 1, 2007 as we waited out some bad weather in New Bern, N.C. provides some insight.
"We use this in our decision about moving the boat. If the flag is green for the duration of the passage, we go. If it's yellow, we usually don't go unless we completely understand the issue and will be well-protected. In addition, sometimes it is yellow before moving to green and we're often willing to put up with slightly more difficult conditions with the knowledge (hope?) that it will probably get better. We never, ever move if there is a red flag. Period."
A good source for weather ashore is the Weather Underground (www.wunderground.com). It provides a 5-day forecast, access to radar images and other weather information. It even has a marine section that provides a rather limited marine forecast. You can select your location from popup lists of more common areas or by entering a zip code. There is an option for displaying the data in a "mobile" or "iPhone" format, which makes the information somewhat easier to access by phone, but it could use additional work to improve the presentation. Still, we find this to be the best general weather website for mobile use.
The University of Wisconsin has developed a mobile specific site called PAW, which stands for PDA Animated Weather (www.ssec.wisc.edu/data/paw/), that has more than 100 animated satellite and radar weather maps, as well as other visual displays such as surface temperature maps. The images are formatted to work with your mobile phone. They provide a variety of ways to select your image, including by city, state, region and country. The site allows you to zoom and pan the map, access weather alerts, and read text-based weather forecasts. It is well worth spending some time with this site.
Many other websites exist including the Weather Channel (www.weather.com). They have tools for mobile phones, some of which are free and some you must pay for. They typically offer a very limited marine forecast, but the data is excellent for onshore predictions. Most other websites are onshore specific, such as the AccuWeather site (www.accuweather.com). You can scroll down on the left side of their website to enter your mobile number and gain access. Both of these sites reformat their pages for mobile phone display.
There are many websites that charge subscription fees for mobile users, such as Weathertap (weathertap.com); Garmin's My-Cast (www.digitalcyclone.com/products/mobile-my-cast), which can send you email alerts for severe weather; and SWIFT Mobile (www.swiftmobileweather.com), to name just a few. These sites primarily focus on land forecasts, with sparse marine information, if any.
SailFlow (www.sailflow.com) is a weather service designed for the needs of the sailor. You can sign up for their free service (which also includes a 30-day trial to their upgraded FX Membership) to obtain wind predictions from public weather stations and forecasts from the National Weather Service. For an additional monthly fee you can add information from SailFlow weather stations, view SailFlow meteorologist forecasts, and access the data in a format that is modified for your mobile phone.
Some of the navigation programs which we discussed in our article Navigating With Your Mobiel Phone also include weather information for your mobile phone. For an additional $9.99 you can add a weather radar companion program from Memory-Map. This will display live National Weather Service doppler radar images and animated loops for the U.S. It works with Windows Mobile devices only. Our own ActiveCaptain will be adding weather markers in the future, which will display directly on nautical charts. Pathaway offers limited weather information through the third party site www.piohandler.com for an annual fee. TomTom Plus offers a variety of additional features, including weather. The weather portion is available for no additional charge.
WEATHER WHEN YOU NEED IT
At no time have we found access to accurate, timely weather forecasts more important than a few years ago when we were dodging Hurricane Isabel on our way south. We used a variety of sources including the National Hurricane Center (www.nhc.noaa.gov) and Hurricane Track (www.hurricanetrack.com). We particularly liked the Weather Channel, discussed above, as it had the most up-to-the-minute coverage. While it was possible to view their continuous coverage via satellite TV, that still required waiting through various stories until they were covering our area. Going to the website let us go directly to the information we needed.
The National Hurricane Center website offers an option for viewing the data on your mobile phone. Simply select "Cell" on the left side of the home page. You can view a text forecast for hurricanes and tropical storms by geographic region, and even look at satellite images, all right on your mobile phone. Hurricane Track is another good site for information. You can access basic information for free or subscribe to their premium services which include streaming video from storm cams, access to their message board and an email alert system for breaking weather news. They do not offer special formatting for your mobile phone, which makes viewing a bit cumbersome.
As with any new tool, you will need to spend a little time with these weather sites on your mobile phone. Each phone has slightly different screen specifications and features. Play around with the screen display tools for your phone to find the optimum options for viewing websites. Some sites offer accommodations for your mobile phone and some do not. And, of course, some accommodations are better than others.
We suggest looking at each of these sites first on your PC to get a feel for what is available and what you might use. You may wish to create shortcuts on your mobile phone, to go directly to the pages you use most often. As boaters we must manage trade-offs. You will quickly find the right trade-off between the large display on your PC, and the mobility and easy access of your mobile phone.
- 01 - Introduction
- 02 - Boost Your Signal
- 03 - Locating Cell Towers
- 04 - Calculating Line Loss
- 05 - Navigation
- 06 - Adding a GPS
- 07 - Memory Cards
- 08 - Weather Forecasts
- 09 - Tides and Currents
- 10 - Other Applications
- 11 - Connecting a Laptop
- 12 - How to Buy a Phone
- 13 - Palm OS
- 14 - Windows Mobile
- 15 - Apple's iPhone
- 16 - Blackberry & Symbian
- 17 - Bluetooth Headsets
- 18 - Power Accessories
- 19 - The Bahamas