Saturday, March 17, 2007

Downloading Weather data-Grib files

I have just discovered a very useful tool for looking at the weather.

It is a free program for downloading Grib weather files. It allows you to download the data very quickly then display the wind directions and speeds with the associated isobars for any area that you chose.

This program is available from at:

This is a tool that any serious sailor will find useful.

Sunday, February 25, 2007

Hidden dangers.

Over the years that I have been involved in teaching outdoor pursuits I have seen many incidents that could have led to serious consequences because people could not see the real danger that was very close to them.

One of these occurred some years ago when I was teaching canoeing on the River Cuckmere in Sussex. This is a great venue to introduce people to the sport as the old route of the river bed oxbows is now a flat water lake, but there is also the running part of the river close by and if the class and conditions are appropriate the beach is also close.

One this particular day, the tide was running out of the river at quite a rate, so as we approached the point where the river crossed the shingle beach and ran out to sea I made sure that my students were all able to pull in to the side before they were swept down the last 30m of channel to the sea. In this last part of the channel the combined effect of the river's flow and the outgoing tide put the current at about 5-6 knots.

As this was the middle of the summer holidays the beach was quite busy. There were hundreds of children along the beach in different groups, it appeared that several youth organisations has brought groups to the beach that day.

As we were sitting eating lunch, one of the leaders of one of these groups came up shouting that there was someone in the water and being washed out to sea. At first I could see no one, but I realised that I could see a head in the water about 300m offshore. I realised straight away what had happened, there were children paddling in the outgoing stream which was less than knee deep and one must have been swept off his feet. The current was so strong that he had been carried out to sea very rapidly.

To make things worse the current offshore was running to the west at about 1-2knots and he was being swept past the end of the beach to the area of cliffs where it would not be possible to land for several miles.

I jumped in my canoe and paddled out as fast as I could, when I arrived I discovered that there were three people in the water, the original boy of about 9 and two men who had seen what happened and had jumped in after him. None of them had been able to make any progress against the current.

We got the young boy on to the front of my canoe as he had been in the cold water for some time by then and was not in too good a condition. In fact, I was sure that if the two men had not been supporting him in the water he would already have drowned. The two in the water were trying to get me to paddle in with the boy, but I felt that if I left them with nothing buoyant to hold on to they would soon be in trouble.

With them holding on the the canoe I was able to make slow progress towards the land but could see that we may end up having to pass the cliff area and aim for the next beach some distance off.

Fortunately at that point another canoe class arrived, as soon as the instructor arrived and realised what was happening, he paddled out to us. With him towing me and me also paddling, we were able to make progress. After some time we reached the beach and were administering first aid and getting the casualties in to the dry clothes out of our emergency kit. Very soon after a Coastguard helicopter arrived, as someone on the cliff top has seen what was happening, and had run off to get to a phone (mobile phones were still in the future!). Once the casualties had been taken by the helicopter to hospital, I went back to make sure my students were all ok. I had briefed them to stay out of the water until I returned, but did not feel comfortable leaving them unsupervised.

Everything was fine when I got back to my class, but I could not believe that there were still many children paddling in the same stream that had just swept the boy out to sea. A major incident had just been avoided and a Sea King helicopter had landed only 100-200m away and people had not noticed all the fuss.

The problem was that because the Sun was out and the air was warm everything looked safe, no one could see that the real danger was the fast moving cold water. Particularly when people are on holiday they seem to switch off and loose all sense of danger.

People who are not involved in risk sports often think that sailors, climbers, canoeists and divers are taking chances. In my experience, most people taking part is sports can see the dangers and take steps to minimise them, the result is that they are far safer than they appear, many of the real dangers in life are the ones that are not so obvious and people do not see coming. When I was doing a lot of rock climbing, we use to say that the most dangerous part was all the extra driving we did at night to get to the climbing area!

My training as an instructor has made me very aware of the likely risks in what I do, and this spills over in to normal life. How many people after they have checked in to a hotel room, go to find the fire escapes and work out how to get out of the building if it is full of smoke? Maybe its a bit over the top, but that type of thinking and preparation for the simple dangers that surround us may save your life one day.

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Navigation in the air.

I regularly drive up and down the M3 and have recently noticed that frequently there are Chinook helicopters following the motorway. The most I have seen at once is 3, which is probably all that we have left in the country at present!

Whilst I can understand that a motorway is a very easy handrail to follow to your destination it seems very strange that in these days when GPS is in such common use, these aircraft do not to fly directly to their destination.

So what is going on? It may be that they are learning natural navigation techniques instead of reliance on electronics, but what ever is happening I hope they are not going to rely of following motorways when they get out to Afganistan or Iraq.

Does anyone know why they do this?

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Winter sailing safety

Last weekend I was running a boat handling course in the Solent. The aim of the course is for the students to be able to handle quite complex and challenging boat handling under power so that they feel confident to take a boat in to a marina or other berthing situation.

During the course we are never more that a 100m from a pontoon or marina berth and you would assume that the situation is very safe.

In the last few years I have made it a habit to wear a lifejacket with built in harness virtually all the time when I am on the water, mainly I started to do this after experimenting with recovering people from the water in situations that were as realistic as possible, I came to realise just how hard it is to recover someone from the water.

Especially when the water is cold, I always encourage my crews to wear lifejackets and harnesses even when the weather is not rough. The consequences of falling in to cold water can be very serious and far more quickly than most people realise. Anyone who sails in cold conditions should try stepping in to a cold shower one morning and try to stay there for a couple of minutes, not only will this wake you up but imagine the same effect when you can not step out of it when you have had enough.

Obviously if you fall in to the sea you will be wearing clothing but the insulation effects will very quickly be lost.

In all the years I have been teaching I have had 5 people fall in the water whilst yachting. In every case we were in harbour or manoeuvring around a marina, one thing I have noticed is that when there is a real risk of going overboard, such as in rough weather or when working on the foredeck most people clip on to the boat and are very careful to hold on.

Last weekend I had a student fall in the water whilst we were bringing the boat alongside to a pontoon in the middle of the river. The cause was the classic situation, with an offshore breeze, the student stepped on to the pontoon then leant back on the boat, the boat moved out leaving the student suspended between the boat and shore. Eventually he fell in.

Not a particularly dangerous situation, but were were not easily able to haul him back on board, although because he had a harness on, we were ready to haul him out using a halyard clipped to his harness. Fortunately he was able to pull himself along a mooring line and was recovered by the rest of the crew who were already on the pontoon.

There were 6 of us on the boat and it took 2 men to recover him from the water. Most yachts I see out have only 3 or four people on board in total. If there had been this few people on board, I think we would have struggled to recover him quickly. In this situation wearing a harness may save the casualties life.

In all the risk activities I have taken part in, most of the serious accidents I have been involved with have occurred when there appears to be relatively little risk. When there is obvious danger most people take precautions that make everything much safer, the trick is learning to see the real risks in a situation.

Monday, February 05, 2007

Lesson Plans

The education authority where I teach navigation classes in the evening have recently been tightening up their paperwork in an effort to improve the standards of teaching.

One of the results has been that tutors have to be able to show written lesson plans for each of their sessions if their class is inspected.

Although I always have a written plan at the start of the courses it is by its nature fairly broad. As the courses last for 20 weeks and you have no idea or the level of experience and formal education of the students before the course starts, it is hard to predict exactly what will be taught on any one week.

I have been creating a lesson plan for each individual lesson that relates more closely to where we are in that course but to borrow from the old military saying: "The plan rarely survives contact with the students."

Sunday, January 14, 2007

Preparation for heavy weather at sea.

Whilst I was on holiday I finally got round to reading Fatal Storm, Rob Mundle's excellent account of the events during the 1998 Sydney-Hobart Race.

The conditions experienced and their effects on the yachts involved are enough to make most people think twice about going to sea in small craft. Whilst the chance that you will ever encounter anything remotely similar is incredibly unlikely I do believe that all people who venture more than a few miles from sheltered waters should read this book.

All yacht owners should consider what they have done in the way of equiping their vessel and crew suitably to enable them to survive the situations described in this book. Unfortunately no yachts are sold with all the extra fittings and equipment that are necessary for surviving an extreme storm in open waters. Even simple things like will the batteries and cooker remain in position is the boat is rolled to an extreme angle are often not suitably addressed.

This book is essential reading before planning any open water trips and the boat should be inspected to see if it will stay in one piece in heavy seas.

Tuesday, January 09, 2007

Weather in the Maldives

I have just returned from two weeks in the Maldives. Despite being told that our original island was overbooked and that we had been moved to another island, when we arrived at the airport we were told that were going to Bandos, the island we originally booked for.

We were incredibly lucky with the weather, apparently it had rained every day for 8 weeks, some people who had been there a week when we arrived had not seen the sun. Our first two days were slightly overcast with sunny spells, then we had one day of quite heavy rain in the afternoon but after that the weather was exactly as you would expect; warm and sunny with hardly a cloud in the sky for the remainder of the trip. Ideal conditions really as the first couple of days allowed us to get used to the sun.

The diving from Bandos was great, the dive centre is well organised with lots of good quality equipment for people who do not take their own gear. The staff are all Maldivian or Japanese, so training and briefings are given in English and Japanese, but there always seemed to be enough people around who could translate in to any of the needed languages. Most people there seemed to speak pretty good english anyway.

I was reminded of the diving instructors joke:

Q. What do you call someone who speaks three languages. A. Trilingual.

Q. What do you call someone who speaks two languages. A. Biligual.

Q. What do you call someone who speaks only one language. A. English!

The diving programme is well organised with a boat leaving every morning to do two dives, then two boats in the afternoon for single dives. The sites were always interesting and had a great variety of life on each of the reefs. Experienced divers are paired up and pretty much allowed to run their own dives once they have been given the briefing on each reef.

In addition to this, the house reef at Bandos is very easy to reach from the beach and some very good corals and plenty of life to observe. I dived on it several times and it was always a very different experience each time.

For divers with their own equipment who do not need a guide, the house reef diving is free, you can just sign out and collect your tank and away you go, you can even dive unaccompanied on the house reef at night, if you wish, provided you are competent. The house reef is populated by many types of corals, fish, sharks and turtles so if you are a keen snokeller you can easily see all these.

One thing I have always though curious in the Maldives is that the dive leaders never know which way the current is running. The procedure is for one of them to jump over the side when over the dive site and observe what the current is doing, they then decide which end of the reef to start the dive.

Previous to this trip I had tried to find information about the current and tidal flow in the Maldives but I came to realise why the locals rely on observation that any published tables. It is not unusual to dive in fairly strong currents, on one dive we entered the water in the channel where the current was about 3-4 knots and were swept rapidly down the reef, only to find that further down the reef the current was heading up or down at 1-2 knots! In seconds it then reversed and carried us back where we had come from. These sort of conditions certainly make for challenging diving!

One thing that I noticed was that the strongest currents we experienced were during the period of neap tides. As most of the current is from the monsoon winds, I could only assume that by chance the tidal effect was acting against the flow of the ocean current through the atolls or that the dive leaders were carefully selecting dives to avoid the strongest currents.

From my sea kyaking days I had realised that the average sea canoeist is more aware of the tides and the need for good planning than the average yachtsman, but diving in tidal waters has made me realise that divers are probably even more aware of the tides and current that any other water user.