Web-Assisted Weather And Marine Condition Assessment
Mar 25, 2008
by John Skinner
From the instant I slammed the “Off” button on my alarm clock, I listened for the sound of the maple tree’s branch rubbing the rain gutter outside my bedroom. Ignoring my wife’s numerous requests, I'd left the branch in place because it made just enough noise to let me know when the wind was blowing with significant force from the northeast. At this wee hour of the morning in mid-October, all was quiet. I slid the bedroom window opened and listened, but there was only silence. It seemed the forecasted wind that I had hoped would be the catalyst for a lively morning of fishing at Montauk never materialized. When I made it to the computer downstairs and started running through my usual round of marine condition sites, I saw a different picture than I could see from my house, which was 50 miles from where I intended to fish.
While the western Sound weather buoy at Execution Light and the Central Sound buoy showed little wind, it was gusting over 30 knots at New London's Ledge Light. The real-time reading at Shinnecock Inlet confirmed that the wind was cranking on the Island’s east end. Ninety minutes later, I was in the Montauk surf with a stiff wind in my face and a bent rod. Ten years earlier, I might have made the mistake of going back to sleep.
From wind, to wave profiles, to lightning strikes and tide surges, the Internet has given people with marine interests timely access to information that is vital for trip planning. While website addresses for information sometimes change or disappear, the ones I’ll mention here have been around for some time and probably won’t go away anytime soon. Some of the sites are known to most anglers with Internet connections, while others are a bit harder to find but provide valuable information.
My first stop on the Net is often the “Long Island Buoy”, which is a weather and marine condition buoy located 20 nautical miles south of Fire Island Inlet. While it's been possible to get wind and wave data from this buoy via marine and VHF radios for many years, the buoy’s webpage (Figure 1) provides the advantage of being able to see the recent history of the conditions at a glance. It’s this history that can often help one to predict near-term conditions. For example, a 4-foot wave height reading means one thing if it's been at that height for several hours. It means something entirely different if five hours earlier the waves were 8 feet and they’ve been subsiding steadily. That 4-foot wave reading can also be deceptive without taking the wave direction into account. The buoy’s web page lists the mean wave direction (MWD), but the radio report does not
Figure 1. A portion of the Long Island Buoy web page showing 6 hours of data.
While it's obvious that wave height is important to someone looking to head out to fish the ocean, the wave period can be just as important. The period is the time between waves. You might be able to stand comfortably on a rock on the South Side of Montauk with a wave height average of 3 feet and a relatively normal period of 8 seconds. However, try standing on that rock with a wave height of 3 feet and a period of 14 seconds, and you could spend most of your trip getting knocked down by long powerful rollers that build when they hit the reefs. Boats trying to get in and out of the ocean inlets are faced with the same situation. Both the buoy radio report and website give wave height and period, but you may have to wait more than 15 minutes for the information to come around on the marine radio report loop. It’s always available in an instant online.
Googling “Long Island Buoy” will help you find the buoy's webpage. There is also a link on the page to take you to the marine forecast. You can get to all of the NOAA buoys from www.ndbc.noaa.gov. Another good source of ocean condition data and forecasts is http://www.buoyweather.com.
In the past few years, several Long Island Sound sites have been added to NOAA’s web interface. Most of the Sound stations are run by the University of Connecticut’s Marine Science Center, and I find that their websites provide more information and are easier to use than NOAA’s. You can find the root of their online data at www.mysound.uconn.edu. Most of the UConn sites update their data every five minutes, which is sometimes far more useful than the hourly wind data provided by the ocean buoys.
Figure 2. Water height observations from http://tidesonline.nos.noaa.gov/geographic.html showing the effects of a Nor'easter.
Other sites around Long Island also provide nearly real-time wind and weather readings. www.lishore.org provides real-time weather readings from Shinnecock Inlet, along with webcams at Shinnecock and Point Lookout. The Shinnecock Inlet webcam is very well-positioned and provides a great view of the inlet. Brookhaven Lab runs an excellent real-time weather site that can be found at the rather obscure address of http://wx1.bnl.gov/weather/WxLatest.jsp. It’s probably easiest to find by googling “latest BNL observations”. The BNL webpage has up to the minute data from seven locations, but the stations at Smith’s Point and Orient Point seem the most accurate with respect to the wind you’ll find on the water. If you fish out of the port of Orient Point or on the North Fork beaches, their anemometer mounted atop the Cross Sound Ferry building often gives the best data for that area. The Smith’s Point anemometer is mounted high above the administrative building at Smith’s Point Park, and usually provides very accurate readings.
My fishing often requires wading out to rocks. Whether or not I can reach these rocks sometimes depends not only on the stage of the tide and the phase of the moon, but on the influences of the wind. The time on my watch might coincide with low tide, but if the wind has been blowing out of the east for more than a day, or a coastal storm is approaching, there might be far more water to deal with than under normal circumstances. In some areas, boaters have the same issues to think about when they try to navigate relatively shallow channels. It might be near high tide on the tide calendar, but a strong westerly wind might have blown the water away from the coast, and the water might not be as high as you anticipate. http://tidesonline.nos.noaa.gov/geographic.html will give you an image map that will lead you to graphs of actual vs. predicted water heights. During times of strong easterly or westerly winds, I often use this data when deciding where I want to fish.
Figure 2 shows a snapshot of tide data taken during a storm in the fall of 2006. Note the reading of the water height (line of x’s) at low tide near 6 a.m. on 10/28. The water's observed height at low tide was actually higher than was predicted for the high tides on either side of it. It's as if there never was a low tide. The high tide at noon that day was twice the predicted height. Regardless of wave heights, the tide was so high that there would have been very little beach to fish anywhere. But look ahead to the next high tide, and the water level was actually below what was predicted. This sudden decrease in water height was caused by a shift from an easterly to westerly wind.
A snapshot from http://www.strikestarus.com showing a large area of lightning over Arkansas
Although this tide snapshot was taken under extreme conditions, fluctuations caused by even moderate winds can affect fishing trips. Abnormally high tides can restrict access and put weed in the water, while abnormally low water can expose fishing areas that are sometimes inaccessible. In the case of a boater, low water can result in bottoming out in areas that are normally open to navigation. Current speed is also affected, and this heavily influences my approach to fishing inlets. Looking back on Figure 2, anyone looking to fish outgoing current in the wee hours of 10/28/06 probably found little in the way of ebbing current because of the approaching tide surge. The current would have been screaming out after the next high tide as the bays gave up the residual storm water.
I do a lot of walking when I surfcast, and nothing makes me think more about my safety on these walks than the threat of lightning, which is often a possibility on summer nights. Before I ever undertake a trip that will distance me from my truck, I'll check the radar maps. If it's clear, fine. If there's some green, which indicates light to moderate rain, that's usually safe too. Yellow and red on the maps get me nervous. The maps are usually easy to find from The Weather Channel's www.weather.com site, or from numerous National Weather Service (NWS) sites. One of the more useful NWS sites for the Long Island area is www.weather.gov/nyc. Most of these maps allow you to run an animation loop of the past couple hours. Viewing the animated map is an excellent way to get a feel for what's coming at you. If there's red on the radar map, then lighting is likely, but www.strikestarus.com can show you where lightning strikes have actually been occurring.
Productive fishing often depends on proper planning. Nowadays, most anglers have a computer linked to a high speed Internet connection. It takes little effort to have a collection of vital weather links in your list of "favorites" or "bookmarks". If you make the computer your last stop before leaving the house, you'll put yourself in a better position to anticipate the marine and weather conditions in the area you plan to fish, and that can go a long way toward tilting the odds of success in your favor.
The sky might be clear overhead, but bad weather is heading for the East End.
Fishing conditions check
All Stripers All The Time!!