A Checklist to Avoid Hurricanes at Sea?

This is from another thread, with regards to the limits of a SMS in the case of hurricane avoidance.

From a certain point of view it does seem like an impossibility, a set of instructions for the captain to use to avoid hurricanes? It would end up being a million pages long, useless in practice.

This is not the approach when giving collision avoidance instructions to new third mates however. We don’t just say “follow the COLREGS”. We also add a trigger point such as, “call the captain if you cannot maintain a CPA or 1 mile” or the like. Bump things up to the next level.

Likewise in the case of avoiding tropical cyclones write up in instructions such that if the problem crosses some predetermined threshold then bump the problem up to the weather experts.

For example if the ship’s schedule can not be maintained without breaking the 1-2-3 / 35 kt rule then automatically trigger a call to a private weather routing company for evaluation.

Checklist to Avoid Hurricanes
Step 1: Avoid Alabama.


Yet another checklist???

Pretty soon, we’ll need a checklist to wipe our ass!!

Hurricane avoidance is pretty simple - DON’T GO THERE!! Stay 200 miles away. Get the f’k out of the way. . . But for some reason, collectively we either choose to ignore common sense, or figure “it won’t happen to us”. Sometimes the Captain just has to strap on his brass ones, (yeah, it’s gender specific-sorry to the PC crowd) and say “NO F’KG WAY, BOSS. AIN’T GONNA DO IT!”.

Back in 2000 something, while master of a TAGOS SWATH, we were directed to proceed from YOKO to the OPAREA during the typhoon season. Man, they were lined up, one after another. It seemed like they were stepping-stones from Guam to Japan. After a “vibrant” discussion with OPCON, they insisted we depart. So, I sent the required LOGREQ for departure, and as I recall, the Navy wanted a 96 hr notice for arrival. So about an hour after sending the departure message, I sent the LOGREQ for arrival SASEBO.

My phone started ringing pretty quickly!! And although I’d explained that we would most likely have to divert by the time we got to the southern end of Japan due to the next inbound typhoon, OPCON wanted nothing of it. They directed me to CANEX the message. Ok. Done. But the mission commander aboard the ship agreed with me that the divert would take place.

So as we approached the southern tip of Kyushu, it was becoming very obvious that OPCON was wrong. So I CANEX’d the CANEX message. They were not amused. So a proper message was drafted.

We sat in Sasebo for several days; I wanted to leave. I knew we had to leave. The mission commander knew we had to go, and OPCON really wanted us to leave, but the wx would not cooperate, and I declined to go. As I recall, we sortied again-only after we’d exhausted our “good-will”, and there was a big enough gap between the storms. I do remember sending a message to OPCON saying that the ship “would not proceed west of XYZ longitude until Typhoon Whatever had passed and cleared”.

Oh, and you know I made certain to send them a plot of our track & the storm’s track showing EXACTLY where and when the storm would have overcome the vessel. They didn’t like it, but I stood my ground, and the ship was not damaged.


Well of course a highly skilled mariner such as yourself would not require instructions of any kind.

However I think in this case the argument was that hurricane avoidance is too complex (simple in your case evidently, only requires large testicles made from metal) to be able to write specific instructions. My argument is that instructions for complex events can in fact be simple. An example is night orders for the mate. It’s not required that every contingency be anticipated as more expertise and assistance is a phone call away.

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Does it need to be 1000 pages? What if this was posted on the bridge of the El Faro? Would it help? I am not big on written procedures. They can dumb down a process and take away flexibility and natural flow. But sometimes you need a reference that gets you back to the basics just to make sure you’re not acting a fool, especially in crisis. (I am sure these words could be refined and improved but you get the idea).

Use Buys-Ballot’s law and all resources to track the storm
Use 1-2-3 rule
Ensure weather sources are up-to-date
Review manuals
Ensure all crew is hyper aware. Encourage them to speak their mind
Check your bias’. Crew changes, monetary issues, usual company expectations checked at the door
Consider the limitations of the vessel, including water-tight spaces, cargo, machinery
Stay aware at all times

His suggestion seemed just as simple as yours:

I didn’t think we were in competition. Thank you for stating the obvious

You’re reply to his post sounded like you thought his proposal was “1,000 pages”. I was just making sure you’d fully read his suggestion.

He suggested a million pages. Sorry for the confusion. And thank you for the very relevant comment. It really added a lot to this topic

It would be relativity simple to put in writing the procedure I’ve seen in place already. A couple ships I was on had the appropriate chart posted under plexiglass. The rule was simple, any tropical system listed on the weather service advisory on the area covered by the chart was plotted each time an update was received.

Beyond that some protocol to determine which systems are threats.

One advantage to having a written procedure is it frames up the discussions between the captain and the mates. For example as captain I don’t have to explain to the mate each time the basics of how I want things done. As second mate sometimes it’s good to limit interactions with the captain. With a set of instructions if the conversation veers into a discussion of the captain’s experience in Alaska or whatever it’s easier to steer it back to more relevant areas.

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I still have some lecture notes on hurricanes to which I have added some notes based on personal experience. The lecture was given by a hurricane expert from the Dutch Weather Office with the nick name ‘Hurricane Peter’ who was the expert there on the subject of hurricanes. He sailed earlier as a mate on ships during which time he developed an interest in hurricanes since he once ended up in one in which he almost died.

The situation in the Atlantic was not difficult, we received the rather accurate hurricane positions via radio weather reports from the USCG stations. It was different when we had to cross the Pacific, information was more scarce and tended to be less accurate. Here it paid off to be on your toes for certain signs as outlined below.

Cloud cover

Tropical cyclones are often preceded by a day with an uncommon brightness and remarkable good visibility. The atmosphere is often oppressive. These conditions are then followed by an extensive cirrus cloud, in the form of converging bands pointing in the direction of the storm center (radiating cirrus). In that direction the cirrus bands then merge closer to the horizon into a smooth cirrostratus deck with flaming sunrise and sunset.


If you are on a westerly course to the Caribbean and you see these clouds behind you at sunrise, then you better be very careful. Ten against one that there is a warning about a tropical storm at hand.

Air pressure

The average air pressure for the hurricane area you are in is found in the pilots and on the pilot charts. If this average air pressure deviates from the standard deviation for the date after interpolation, then there is a chance of a hurricane and you have to pay close attention to the other signs, especially a deviating sea course and swell and above all the clouds. Long before the heavy cloud bank of the hurricane body appears above the horizon, you see apparently radiant cirrus clouds. In my days we didn’t have the luxury of a barograph which is a helpful instrument when sailing in a hurricane area. However, we noted the airpressure every hour, sometimes even more often.

As said one of the surest announcements of an approaching tropical cyclone is a more than normal deviation from the air pressure below normal, for example more than 3 hPa below the normal value for that position (corrected for the daily course). It is then important to keep the barometer reading regularly. If the deviation continues to increase, it is likely that the ship is approaching the cyclone at that rate. If the corrected deviation is more than 5 hPa, the cyclone is probably within a distance of 170 nautical miles.


Any wind that deviates from the normal condition, both in direction and force, may indicate a malfunction. There may be a reinforced or a weakened trade wind.


If swell waves come from a different direction than normal for that position, that may indicate the presence of a cyclone. The seaway, generated by the wind field of the storm, after leaving that wind field changes into swell with longer and lower waves. These waves propagate in all directions at a speed that is greater than the speed of movement of the cyclone in its trajectory. Normally the wave period is 4-7 seconds. If an abnormal swell is observed with a much longer period, e.g. 15-20 seconds, then this is a strong indication of the presence of a tropical cyclone.


On the north latitude, the right front quadrant, and on the south latitude, the left front quadrant, is called the “dangerous quadrant.” In those quadrants, the wind moves the ship towards the orbit of the cyclone, and runs the risk of getting into the center of the hurricane.

Which quadrant

If one knows globally the bearing of the center, an attempt can be made to find out in which quadrant of the tropical cyclone one is. In general, a falling air pressure will be observed in the front half of the cyclone and a rising air pressure in the back half. By now paying attention to changes in wind direction, it is possible to determine which quadrant you are in.

In the right half, a stationary observer, on both the north and south latitude, will experience a veering wind, and in the left half a backing wind (vice versa if the ship moves faster in the trajectory direction than the eye of the cyclone) .

So when (in the northern hemisphere) a falling air pressure is observed together with a veering wind, the ship is in the dangerous quadrant, or the dangerous quadrant is approaching the ship. In the southern hemisphere a falling pressure and a backing wind is observed in the dangerous quadrant.

In the dangerous quadrant the ship is driven by the wind to the orbit of the cyclone and will have to be sailed into the wind. It is best to sail at the highest possible speed with the wind in 2 or 3 regions from the front (in the northern hemisphere on the starboard side, in the southern hemisphere on the port side). In the right half, a stationary observer, on both the north and south latitude, will experience a circulating wind that is therefore broadly blowing, and in the left half a circulating wind will therefore shrink (vice versa if the ship moves faster in the trajectory direction than the eye of the cyclone) .

So when (in the northern hemisphere) a falling air pressure is observed together with a blowing wind, the ship is in the dangerous quadrant, or the dangerous quadrant is approaching the ship. In the southern hemisphere a falling pressure and a shrinking wind is observed in the dangerous quadrant.

In the dangerous quadrant the ship is driven by the wind to the orbit of the cyclone. To escape the ship will have to sail into the wind. It is best to sail at the highest possible speed with the wind in 2 or 3 compass points from the front (in the northern hemisphere on the starboard side, in the southern hemisphere on the port side).

The following is from the NOAA’s Mariner’s Guide For Hurricane Awareness In The North Atlantic Basin.


Vessel at A: put wind at 160° relative to the ship on the starboard side making best course and speed into the left semi-circle of the system. Vessel at RF and RR: put the wind at 045° relative to the ship on the starboard side attempting to make best course & speed to clear the system.

NOTE: Wind and seas in the area of RF and RR may result in drastically reduced forward speeds of a ship attempting to open from the tropical cyclone. Vessel at LF & LR: put the wind at 135° relative to the ship on the starboard side making best course and speed to increase separation between ship and tropical cyclone.


Avoiding tropical cyclones in the open ocean is relativity simple these days given the weather satellites and so forth.

Issue arise on a coastwise however when the vessel has limited options. While it’s easy to say just stay 300 miles away in reality captains are seeking the optimum avoidance solution and huge margins are not a practical answer.

Both the Schooner Fantome and the El Faro losses were instances when the forecasts had much higher forecast errors then average. This fact was known to the forecasters but not well understood at the time by the captains involved.

Here is what TC (tropical cyclone avoidance looks like in actuality. - It’s captains making big bets on the accuracy of the forecasts.



Breakout your maneuvering board here is a avoidance problem:

A few years back I was on the round-the-world run, Had left Singapore, next was a couple ports in China then up to Japan.

There was one of those super typhoons headed for the China coast at the time. Our next port was near the path but we had time to get in and out and still beat the 35 kt wind field by more than 24 hrs according to the forecast.

I had been communicating with the various parties, the plan was to get in late in the afternoon, cargo ops then sail before midnight. This was typical for that trade.

When we got in and all fast however the agent told that the cargo ops schedule had been shifted to the next day. I’m stuck, need port clearance, line handlers, tugs and a pilot to leave.

After quick cargo ops the next day we had another long delay, waiting for a pilot, tugs etc. The typhoon was having better luck, ahead of the forecast.

It was still nice when we cut loose but the weather started changing on our way down the river, big system, center was still a ways off but getting wind gusts, rain bands,.

Getting close to the breakwater at the river mouth, I asked the pilot, “Looks like it might be a little rough at the pilot station?”. Pilot says “no problem captain”. And it wasn’t, a minute later the pilot boat appears, pilot says to rough to disembark outside so he getting off inside.

Outside the weather seemed a bit on the ominous side, dark, threatening, heavy rain at times, winds 30 kts, gusting to 45 kts maybe.

. There was still a lot of traffic as always near China but it was starting to thin a bit. That’s one weather sign I watch on the coast, the volume of traffic. You don’t want to be the last guy out of Dodge.


Typhoon avoidance has to involve the parties that actually control the movements of the ship.

On a coast wise the scheduling is driven by berth availability, When one ship departs a busy terminal it is immediately replaced by the next ship in line.

On a coastwise in China the charterer’s agent is the party who makes arrangements for getting the ship in and out of port. The captain is responsible for the safety of the ship, the agent is not. But the charterer’s agent incentives are not aligned with the captain’s.

In the case of a threat from a typhoon the communication should not be between the agent and the captain only but should move to a higher level; it should be instead between the owner (in communication with the captain) and the charterer (in communication with the terminal, tugs, pilots etc.).

Once the ship gets stuck in port it’s too late to coordinate cargo, tugs, and pilots between parties in different time zones. When it becomes known that a typhoon threatens a port is when the problem should be shifted from agent/captain to charterer/owner.

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Has anyone thought that modern forecasting makes things WORSE? If you think you can track a hurricane to the nearest mile, maybe you don’t have to miss it by all that much compared to the old days when you needed to be a long way away.
Then it goes where it wasn’t forecast to or it is a lot bigger than you thought or…

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No, absolutely no

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Yes and no. Modern forecasting is great and saves a lot of lives but having an unrealistic expectation of the accuracy, and not paying attention to the published error of any given forecast, does occasionally kill. Kennebec Captain has talked about that a lot over the years and here’s what he said about it a few comments ago.


That’s what I was thinking.

This thread ties a couple themes together: Noise: How to Overcome the High, Hidden Cost of Inconsistent Decision Making

From the article liked in that thread:

Some jobs are noise-free. Clerks at a bank or a post office perform complex tasks, but they must follow strict rules that limit subjective judgment and guarantee, by design, that identical cases will be treated identically. In contrast, medical professionals, loan officers, project managers, judges, and executives all make judgment calls, which are guided by informal experience and general principles rather than by rigid rules.

This was the point of the recent thread about the Exxon Valdez with regards to the difference between how a third mate navigates compared to the way a pilot navigates.

The third mate is taught a set of simple rules to follow.

Likewise a the 1-2-3 rule for hurricane avoidance is an attempt to do the same thing for hurricane avoidance. However that rule is obsolete because of changes in technology in how ships receive weather information.

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Are you sure no one has ever been tempted or pressured to make a trip because the hurricane “is over there not over here”?
When NEXRAD became available in airplanes it killed some pilots that did not realize the limitations and delays inherent in the technology and tried to go near weather they NEVER would have gone near before.
I can’t imagine anyone wanting to give up NEXRAD and go back to the old ways, but it took some education for everyone to learn the limits of it.