This past February’s Miami International Boat Show marked the third “miracle in my lifetime of messing about in boats. Since I entered the world of yachting after the advent of fiberglass boatbuilding, the other two miracles I witnessed were the arrival of the GPS chart plotter and the introduction of the reverse-osmosis watermaker.
At a news conference on Friday the 13th, I got a glimpse of the third. On-air Weather Channel meteorologist Alexandra Steele lent her star power to the announcement, but the product stole the show. WSI, a sister corporation of The Weather Channel, unveiled The Weather Channel Marine, a system for bringing real-time storm tracking and other live weather information into the pilothouses and nav stations of midsize yachts.
Meanwhile, a few hundred feet away, Alabama company WxWorx, in partnership with XM Satellite Radio, unveiled WxWorx On Water, a system so similar to WSI’s that their differences are more like nuances.
The systems work the same way. High-altitude geo-synchronous satellites beam live weather data to a small onboard antenna. That data is interpreted by a black box and displayed on your onboard PC or chart plotter. Once you’ve purchased the hardware, you enter a fee-for-service contract to begin receiving data.
Let’s take a closer look at how these systems might increase your safety and self-sufficiency at sea.
Imagine a wall of gray between you and your destination. Ship’s radar sees only 24 miles ahead, and your little boat is not particularly speedy. With real-time weather sent from one of these providers to your chart plotter, you can expand your weather window and display the same NEXRAD Doppler-radar feed you see on television, complete with lightning flashes.
The color gradations reveal that behind that wall of gray are two areas of intensity separated by a 3-mile gap big enough to steer your boat through. “Looping the radar shows the storm’s track. This gives you enough information to enter waypoints to navigate the gap, which NEXRAD indicates is growing larger as the storm moves. For good measure, you move your cursor onto a nearby weather buoy to get a current read on wave heights.
Here’s another scenario: Maybe your boat is plenty fast, and the reason you’re offshore is to hunt pelagics. Every eight hours or so, a government satellite passes overhead and takes the ocean’s temperature, which is displayed in bands of color on your chart. You look for the most dramatic contrast in colors and move your cursor along the border between the two, clicking to register the temperature and lat/long of each spot. That’s enough to enter a series of waypoints, so you can drag a line along the temperature divide.
Perhaps you’re bound from Buzzards Bay to Bermuda under sail. The same surface-temperature feature will show you the eastern eddies of the Gulf Stream, empowering you with the information you need to steer to the top of an eddy so it pushes your boat forward by 1 knot, instead of going to an eddy bottom, where the current is against you-the difference between getting to Georgetown for happy hour and just missing last call.
At press time, WSI had partnered with Raymarine and Maptech to integrate The Weather Channel Marine with their hardware. Maptech’s i3 display lets you overlay the weather data directly onto its raster charts. One neat thing about the i3 is that it uses a touch screen, eliminating the need for a mouse or trackball. Raymarine’s H6, an integrated navigational, radar and entertainment system, will include a window for WSI’s data.
WxWorx has teamed with Garmin and Transas, a respected European nav company. Weather data appears as a layer on Garmin’s vector cartography, rather than in a separate window. Garmin lets you control your vessel’s XM satellite radio from the chart plotter, as well. It should be noted that any vessel now using XM radio can use its existing antenna to feed WxWorx data into a PC or plotter, saving $100 on hardware. Transas’ PC-based system displays WxWorx On Water data as an expandable thumbnail on your computer screen.
Another chart-plotter manufacturer considering real-time weather is Furuno. “We are currently studying the various offerings by different (weather data) providers, said Eric R. Kunz, Furuno’s product manager. “We have been approached by others, as well. I would like to offer support for more than just one of these companies, as they compete for a limited market.
The Weather Channel Marine and WxWorx On Water work on a PC touch screen, though WxWorx has designed a big-button display that is easier to use in this mode, since it allows you to control the display with your thumb. WSI says it is redesigning its interface to work better with touch screens.
Both systems, of course, are still evolving. WSI’s David Laubner and WxWorx’s vice president, Mick Gosdin, for example, have promised their services will make better use of the U.S. Navy’s Fleet Numerical Meteorology and Oceanography Center (FNMOC), which has a superb public Web site that graphically displays the height, direction and period of waves at 12-hour intervals for 144 hours into the future.
WSI had not included any FNMOC data as of this writing, but planned to by the time this article is printed. WxWorx displays FNMOC sea-state data for the current day, but does not make use of FNMOC’s six-day forecasting potential. Gosdin said WxWorx plans to extend its FNMOC forecasting.
Both systems deliver the following data to your vessel, mostly from government sources: NEXRAD radar, live buoy reports, live airport reports, sea-surface temperatures, storm tracking, hurricane tracking and visibility forecasts.
Let’s talk about footprints. Footprints are the areas where data is gathered and delivered. NEXRAD radar, which looks about 150 miles out from the coast of the U.S., is a gatherer. So, if your boat is, say, 200 miles out to sea, you won’t have access to live radar for your location. Because the delivery footprint for both services extends farther out, however, you would still be able to receive a host of relevant information.
WxWorx’s two satellites sit above the equator at 85 degrees west and 115 degrees west. Their signals can be received 450 to 600 miles from the U.S. coast. Gosdin said cruisers should be able to receive WxWorx signals as far south as Georgetown, in the Bahamas, and added that WxWorx plans to extend coverage throughout the Caribbean.
WSI’s primary satellite resides over Texas and beams its transmissions 200 miles out from the U.S. coast. By this fall, Laubner said, WSI should be able to send weather data to the tip of South America.
WxWorx’s hardware is less expensive-its receiver, antenna, software and cabling are $929.98, while WSI’s hardcosts $1,995. Gosdin said WxWorx was able to arrive at its pricing by piggybacking on XM Satellite Radio technology and benefiting from XM’s economies of scale.
For service, The Weather Channel Marine costs $695 per year, or $395 for any six-month period. WxWorx On Water costs about $50 a month and requires no extended contract. In other words, you can use WxWorx On Water only during months you use your vessel, but each time you activate the service you must pay $50. If you subscribe to WxWorx for a continuous year, you’ll pay $600.
Laubner said he often receives questions about pricing. “We focus on The Weather Channel and the strength of the company, he said. “You’re not just buying the current system but future improvements. He added that WSI is working on a range of forecasting improvements that will make The Weather Channel Marine the best tool of its kind.
In the meantime, yachtsmen have a lot to think about. If you’re shopping for a new chart plotter, you might want to find out with which weather service your favorite manufacturer is partnered. If the answer is none, maybe you should consider buying a different chart plotter.
If you prefer PC-based navigation, Maptech and Transas are the only choices for integrated real-time weather, but will the same be true in six months? You may want to ask other companies what their plans are. Also, this may be the time to consider investing in a touch-screen PC.
These amazing new weather services are well worth the upgrades.