Weaning Us Off the Warm Front

It looked like the meteorologists were not exactly sure what to call it. On one weather chart it was drawn like a simple trough line, which meant they had classified it as an elongated area of low pressure emanating from a small disturbance up north. The following day the line had grown little back-slanted flags alternating on its sides. I had to do some research to find out exactly what that was supposed to mean. It turned out to symbolize a line of conversion, a little cousin maybe of the permanent South Pacific Conversion Zone that always lingers somewhere around the latitude of the Fiji Islands, where the giant expanses of moist and warm tropical air collide on a global scaled with the colder and drier air masses from the higher, temperate latitudes. Yet another day later it had mutated into a simple warm front, but now it was associated with a shallow center of low pressure to the south of us. By the time we had finally made our way underneath it all to its other side, it had turned into a stationary front and after one more day it had disappeared from the weathermen’s radar screen altogether and had vanished into thin air. Whatever it was, it clearly liked our company from the very day we had lost sight of Fijian land.

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While still navigating the perils of that nation’s reef-struck coastlines, smirks of cirrus feathers were seen painted high above the puffy trade wind clouds. On the morning after having left Kadavu abaft our beams, those had thickened up, stratified and lowered considerably, which had me lean towards the interpretation of a warm front slowly approaching us from the west. This assumption was soon reinforced by the arrival of a slow drizzly rain at noon on the third full day of our voyage. Warm fronts are the gentle cousins of cold fronts. While the latter always boast a good degree of violence in their bellies churned up by the unstable air and faster forward motion, in a warm front the wind shifts are usually gradual and the transition into the warmer air mass done under mostly diminishing winds.

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So theoretically at least there was no need for great worrying and tranquil contemplation of the trans-morphing atmospheric phenomena above was the most urgent occupation on the order of the days. A couple of sizable squalls had to be dealt with while still in the unstable air on the cool side of the front. But their mischief is a familiar one to us, having had the opportunity to study their dramatic life cycles over and over while sailing the tropical waters over the last couple of years. When the conditions are just right, and here you could listen to the scientists babble endlessly in search of a satisfactory answer to what exactly that means, with elaborate formulas for dew point, wind sheer, relative humidity, temperature inversion, barometric pressure gradients and many more categories of rational gymnastics to make the world around us seem subdued to measurable quantifications inside our self-centered brains. But if you are a notorious dreamer such as myself, and you constantly discipline yourself to reach the holy grail of understanding through immersion instead of measurements and quantifications, you may content yourself with an almost pagan sounding simplification to the tune of: Whenever the weather gods fancy to amuse us with their spectacular displays of cosmic turmoil, a giant blob of warm air congregates and begins a glorious ascent up into the heavens. Its turbulent motion is now visualized by its condensing water vapor in bulging shades of white and grey similar to a cauliflower head having grown furiously out of control. That motion however is just a tad too slow to be perceived by the human eye, unless you train yourself to dedicated contemplation and stare at the spectacle for a very good while. This glorious ascension’s voracious appetite creates an area of lower pressure underneath its belly and air rushes in from the surrounding in nature’s ever-vivacious urge to equalize and smoothen things out. Like blossoming flowers and in fact like all living things this exuberant demonstration of our planet’s monstrous forces is limited in time and it’s growth and development leads in a very linear line towards decay and extinction. The water contained in the rising air is squeezed out of it like from a soaking wet sponge squeezed by some invisible hands of a giant the higher it climbs. It then succumbs to the unyielding forces of gravity, which make it return to the surface of the earth as a sparkling myriad of raindrops. First a little curtain of rain starts to descend here and there from the dark feet of the cloud. Soon it turns into a continuous sheet of slanted streaks, and if you happen to find yourself underneath it all, you’ll be drenched with astonishing amounts of water befalling you in a violent tropical downpour. Towards this spectacular ending of a convective squall cold air from aloft begins to race downwards along the perimeter of the towering cumulus cloud, and those violent downdrafts can cause havoc with your exposed rigging should it happen to catch you unprepared. When in the vicinity of these meteorological monsters of the tropics you better be staying on your toes, observing their every minute mood shift and anticipating their evolving state of development with appropriate changes in course and/or shortening of your sails. The two or three we encountered while warm air aloft slowly squeezed the life out of the cooler air below were relatively benign, in fact amicably helping us advance southward in the slowly diminishing winds. A long, tunnel-like rise in the cloud ceiling stretching vividly from South to North marked the actual passing of the front, which I guess by that time must have occluded, as there was no noticeable change in temperature down where we were on the surface of the water. A short bout of light head winds bugged us for the rest of the afternoon, but by nightfall it had backed enough to the East to make headway again towards our destination to the South. About a third of the total distance of some 1,100 nautical miles was by that time behind us.

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Within a day once again lofty cirrus clouds begun their fanciful crystallization high up in the atmosphere, while we were enjoying a day or two of relative peace within our miniature existence on the vast expanses of the open ocean. That evening we had been munching our way through the last portion of those delicious smoked mahimahi we had purchased vacuum-packed from the Fiji Meat store in Savusavu just after checking out of the country with the friendly officers at the Fiji Revenue and Customs Authority. Those little chunks of high-protein snacks had nurtured us well throughout the entire first week of our trip, and that’s aside from tasting heavenly and absolutely yummy with zero preparation effort. It was simply put the most perfect passage food we ever had aboard Aluna!

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But those cirrus clouds above were ominous forbearers of darker days to come. The weather maps of those last days of November chirping their way in through the shortwave radio told the tale of a low pressure system forming in the Tasman sea, south of New Caledonia in fact at about the same latitude as ours. The long range predictions before departing had predicted something of the sorts and had assured us that the system would sail south and disintegrate to the West of New Zealand’s North Island. By the evening of December first the winds had started picking up and a definite nervousness was hovering around us in the air.

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Towards the wee hours of the second Aluna’s big main sail was feeling the strain. The GPS revealed sustained speeds of eight knots with peaks hitting the lower double digits. I was weary to go through the physical contortions of changing sails in the dark of the moonless night. But that meant I had to hold on white-knuckled to the seat of my pants for the rest of the night. Whenever you find yourself living on the edge with some danger lurking, time slows down and the minutes trickle by stickily and slowly as a fat-faced garden slug. When the first light of dawn had finally crept up over the eastern horizon it revealed an eerie sight. There honestly cannot exist a more in-your-face illustration for what might be the most widespread snippet of mnemonic seafarer’s weather lore than what had appeared there out of the darkness. ‘Red sky at night’, that one sets out innocently enough, ‘is a sailor’s delight.’ But then in the well-worn fashion of the trivial ‘good news/bad news’ dichotomy, it double-backs onto its very own tail with its antimatter echo: ‘Red sky in the morning is a sailor’s warning!’ Red sky it was! Deep blood red, furious fire orange, crust-burned purple, hyper-inflamed magenta, ruffled raging rose and fiery pink were all desperately fighting for their very own spot on the heavenly dome, flowing freely into each other’s temporary territories just before the gleaming fireball of our planetary godmother burst onto the scene with blinding rays of splendidly radiant luminescence. On its opposite side a veil of thick grey advertised the approaching front and provided a dramatic backdrop for one of the most spectacular rainbows I had ever seen. It hadn’t touched the surface of the ocean but it’s semi circle was at the maximum possible expansion, spanning the full 180˚ and a faint second arch with the inverted color sequence shone outside of it. Quite obviously though we were not in Captain Noah’s shoes and this heavenly phenomena did not announce the end of the global deluge, but that our very own bout of heavy weather was about to be unleashed.

Camera

Camera

The tentacles of the deepening low-pressure system had clearly started to lick at Aluna’s hulls. Was it going to stay put? Was it going to play nice and follow its predicted course? Or did it have some nasty surprises up its sleeve to throw our way? Only time could tell. And time was about to be stretched out long by some exhilarating sailing. Here’s my skipper’s report from the morning of December 2nd, which includes a sweeping pan to capture the spectacular scenery. Did I already mention the rainbow?

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One Response to “Weaning Us Off the Warm Front”

  1. Beatriz Restrepo Says:

    I love this sentence in your writing “But if you are a notorious dreamer such as myself, and you constantly discipline yourself to reach the holy grail of understanding through immersion instead of measurements and quantifications…

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