As I write these words, it’s early in the day. The sky is getting lighter and brighter, but the sun has not yet peeked above the horizon. Looking out the window, I can view a big enough body of water to see that there is not the slightest bit of wind and that the surface is as smooth and motionless as a sheet of ice.
But will it stay that way? Or, as often happens, will the wind come up as the sun climbs in the sky? How windy will it get today? Enough of a cooling breeze to make things comfortable, or so much wind that the whitecaps are blown off the wave tops? These are questions that are undoubtedly being pondered by a bunch of outdoorsmen this morning. And they’re important questions, because the weather plays a huge part in fishing and boating.
We’ve got some tools at our disposal that can help us find answers to our weather questions. For example, a check of NOAA’s marine weather forecast should be a part of everybody’s pre-trip ritual. In the old days, this was done by tuning a VHF radio to a nearby weather station. I’ve spent untold hundreds of hours intently listening to WWG59 out of Venice, “The Voice Of The National Weather Service.”
Few boaters listen to these broadcasts any more. More people, myself included, are checking forecasts from their computers or their mobile devices nowadays. The coastal marine forecast from Bonita Beach to Englewood and out 20 nautical miles can be viewed at http://bit.ly/2GCiumL. There are other versions for north or south or further offshore.
As boaters are painfully aware, weather forecasting is not perfect. I have no statistics to back this up, but it seems like this past winter that there were more than the normal number of days when the wind blew more than we expected — sometimes way more. More information is usually better than less, so I like to also look at the NOAA general forecast for our area by visiting http://bit.ly/2ZsKWig.
There have been quite a few days during the last few months when these two forecasts have not been in good agreement. Sometimes they’ll disagree to a modest extent about the forecast wind speed. When this happens, it seems like the general forecast almost always calls for higher winds than the marine forecast.
But on occasion, they are completely at odds with each other about when the wind will come up, the direction from which it will blow, and how hard. This puts us in a head-scratching dilemma when trying to plan boating activities.
When all else fails, you can look out the window to see what the weather is actually doing. If the trees are whipping and palm fronds are flying, then you’ve got a pretty good clue that a forecast of 10 knots might be off the mark. But the internet allows us to open our figurative window to a much larger world than our backyard.
For example, there is a weather station installed on the Venice fishing pier, and you can look at current and past conditions at the pier by visiting http://bit.ly/2GAwzBd. This can be valuable if you’re headed offshore (though it seems like the weather station at the pier under-reports winds from the northeast or the east for some reason).
By the way, hourly wind readings from the last 24 hours are displayed here and that information can be very helpful. The wind may be calm when you look at the site at daybreak, but if the wind blew all through the night prior, that’s a clue things will be rough offshore.
There is also a weather reporting station on Marker 4 in the Peace River at Punta Gorda, courtesy of the Punta Gorda Boater’s Alliance. You can see what the wind is doing at the mouth of the river by visiting http://bit.ly/2KVOUNq. It takes a little clicking around on the site and it’s a bit clunky, but you can look at past data by going to the “Downloads” feature. This allows you to see how the wind blew overnight and to see if it’s building or dropping.
But back to offshore. There are floating weather buoys out in the Gulf to our west and north. A couple of them have been offline for more than a year, but there are still two functioning buoys that you can see online.
These are especially useful in the winter when we are trying to predict the timing of the arrival of cold fronts. The fronts reach those buoys before they reach us here in Southwest Florida, and the progress of the fronts can be tracked by watching for the winds to shift at the offshore buoys. So I look at http://bit.ly/2ZtK9xx and http://bit.ly/2vevpEY when I’m trying to decide whether it’s a good idea to head offshore in advance of an approaching front.
But still, weather forecasting is far from an exact science and probably never will be perfect. As long as there are boats, there will probably be boaters who will unexpectedly find themselves crashing and banging their way back to port.
Let’s go fishing!
Capt. Ralph Allen runs the King Fisher Fleet of sightseeing and fishing charter boats located at Fishermen’s Village in Punta Gorda. He is an award-winning outdoor writer and photographer, and is a past president of the Florida Outdoor Writers Association. Contact him at 941-639-2628 or Captain@KingFisherFleet.com.