Where are the buoys?

Here are they are. Notice something strange?

Here are they are. Notice something strange?

Anyone who has spent more than a couple of months sailing along the Pacific Coast of the Americas (aka the East Pacific) knows that figuring out what the weather is doing can be a complex and time-consuming affair.  We have some terrific volunteer weather “helpers” who spend hours each day going through satellite imagery and downloading charts and GRIBs and perhaps even consulting privately with the weather gods.

But it never seems to be enough.

Now have a look at the graphic above.  Notice something interesting?  Go ahead and click on it for the full impact.

The red and yellow diamonds are sensor buoys operated by NOAA’s National Data Buoy Center. Here’s what they do:

” All stations measure wind speed, direction, and gust; barometric pressure; and air temperature. In addition, all buoy stations, and some C-MAN stations, measure sea surface temperature and wave height and period. Conductivity and water current are measured at selected stations.”

Inset Gulf of California

Inset:  Gulf of California buoys

You’ll notice that on the tropical Atlantic side,  the offshore waters are better covered. There are probably very good reasons for that. Amount of commercial shipping.  Worse weather, and higher population centers, a bad combination. That sort of thing.

But look at the buoys south of the USA proper. There are three buoys in the Gulf of Mexico.  In the Gulf of California?  None. There is a buoy 240 nm southwest of Manzanillo,  in the State of Colima and another one 360 miles offshore of Acapulco.  But both of these are largely tsunami-reporting buoys, which of course are important.

None of this is to suggest that the southern west coast of North America has been purposely disadvantaged. But it is a disadvantage to cruisers in this region.

And another west coast difficulty, pointed out by weatherman Geary Ritchie, who does the forecasts on the Sonrisa Ham Net:  the loss of the QuikSCAT satellite in 2009, which he said was an extremely important tool for him.

Atlantic tropical zones

Atlantic tropical zones

And here’s another important factor that is not revealed by the chart above:  and that is the number of ship observations that are routinely sent in to NOAA. These observations are required of commercial vessels when adverse conditions reach certain threshold values.  But for the most part they are voluntary.

So take a guess at how the two coasts compare in terms of these human observations?

“Regarding observations, with no buoys at all in those zones we would gladly welcome any. Currently we get the occasional ship observation and also satellite altimeter passes, but compared to our Atlantic waters we have maybe 5% of the observations coming in for the Pacific that we do in the Atlantic.”


This is one of the main reasons NOAA has decided to take such a positive and proactive approach to community engagement in the trial period of its new East Pacific Offshore forecasts. Those of us who rely on good weather information need to be a part of its collection.

When net controllers ask for your WX conditions when you are checking into one of the Ham and SSB nets, they know that what you report is of great help to your fellow cruisers. And now these will be of importance to the NOAA forecasters as well.

More about this later.


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