Hurricane uncertainty — Part I

I’ve heard people say that in Florida hurricanes always do this, and in Texas they always do that, or in New England they usually act this way. I’ve heard different versions of these statements from many people, who say them with high degrees of certainty.

These statements are not just from misinformed landlubbers. Professional seafarers, too, are quite prone to reciting broad generalizations about what hurricanes (tropical cyclones) will, won’t or are “supposed to do.”

In the Northeast, most hurricanes that at first appear to be worrisome eventually turn and miss the coast entirely, or they just brush it. The curve-inducing Coriolis effect increases with latitude, and hurricanes tend to get picked up by the prevailing upper-level winds (jet streams) of the mid-latitudes known as the “westerlies.” Thus, the storms often curve away from shore. Picture a right-handed golfer hitting off the tee in the Bahamas aimed straight at North Carolina’s Outer Banks. It starts out straight and true but slices right and out to sea. And that’s usually exactly what happens with Northeast hurricanes — until it doesn’t. Hurricane Sandy is a classic case, but there are plenty of others.

Beyond the actual physical processes involving winds rotating around a central core, a hurricane isn’t obligated to do anything in particular. They’re partially understood forces of nature, governed by partially understood laws of motion and physics. Only a fool believes that humans will ever have a complete understanding of those laws of nature or anything even close to it.

It’s really easy and dangerous to believe that we know more than we actually do. At one point, 2015’s Hurricane Joaquin was forecast to stop heading to the southwest and reverse course. A ship en route to San Juan, Puerto Rico, planned to neatly duck close under it and continue on without delay. The master believed the forecast. Joaquin didn’t do what it was “supposed to do” at the appointed time. The El Faro was lost with all 33 hands.

Be humble, be uncertain, and the life you save might be your own.

About the author

Joel Milton

Joel Milton has worked aboard fishing boats, pilot boats, Coast Guard cutters and small boats, dredge tenders, offshore crewboats and supply boats, towing vessels, a small container ship, and a wide variety of small craft including an inflatable yellow “ducky” The Piker.

1 Comment

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    I would stress the “be humble” part of the last sentence. It is well illustrated by the reports that the master of El Faro was the furthest thing from humble, in fact exhibited such arrogance and hubris that 33 souls lost their lives and families will never be the same. Even in the face of solid advice from his second, he refused to consider anything but his own nose.

    It angers me to this day that these types of personalities are still allowed to roam the bridges of our vessels, placing other lives at risk. Maritime skills and experience are supposed to give us all a fighting chance on the uncertain oceans. But they will never get that chance if rational thought is squelched by a narcissistic master. It is incumbent upon the companies, and yes even on the crews, that this type of behavior be called out and culled out of our mariner ranks.

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