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SOL: How a changing weather forecast destroys a well made plan

April 11, 2012

The first few hours of today’s SOL race is a clear example of how a weather forecast can dramatically change the fortunes of a race strategy. The Gasparilla race is a 1100nm circuit in the Gulf of Mexico, based on a raiding run by the infamous pirate Jose Gaspar. The first few miles of the require navigating narrow channels and leaving the shelter of Peace River. The first mark is some xx nm south of the start and expected to take about 24 hours with these fast 90 foot monohulls.

A high pressure with light winds was forecast to drift over the course. The forecast current at the start of the race suggesting it would drift over the east, opening up a faster passage to the west. Although this would be in headwinds, the stronger wind would compensate the longer course compared to the light winds on the shorter rhumb line course. Therefore, I set up to head west and sail around the high pressure. I was not sure or confident on this approach, as an early forecast suggested sticking to the rhumb line.

After the start, it was clear that there were several different tactical approaches being taken. Most boats headed through some very narrow channels to the east or in the middle on the rhumb line. I was encouraged by several top SOLers going the same way as I had chosen on the west. The tactics were set and off to work I went.

A few hours later I spent a few seconds online to see what was happening. A new forecast completely changed the required tactics. If I carried on with my previous course, then I would end up in the middle of the light winds. Not only was I sailing much further than the boats in the east, but now I would also have light winds and therefore much slower boat speed. To make matters worse, as the high pressure had stalled, the boats in the east now had good pressure forecast. The opposite from what was expected. I had gone from hope of having good tactics to knowing that I had made a very poor choice.

All I could do was change course towards where everyone else was going. In only 4 hours I had lost about 8 hours on the race leaders.  I’ll be following on a long way behind with little chance of getting anywhere near the lead.

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