Fair Winds & Frolicking Seas
It’s a rare day that there isn’t some wind blowing across our part of Florida,” says Robert Van Winkle, senior chief meteorologist for the NBC-2 Weather Team. And for those who live, work and play along Southwest Florida’s coast, the wind can be a major factor in their daily lives. It can control the weather. It can control the seas. Ask anyone who works near or on the water about the wind. They know about the wind. They have to.
The winds play a major role in determining our weather. “If you want to forecast the weather in Southwest Florida, you have to forecast the wind right first,” emphasizes Van Winkle. “In the winter we track north winds coming down the peninsula as fronts move in.” These north winds bring in drier air and the occasional cold snaps. In summer, easterly winds are common and mean a hot afternoon. Showers and thunderstorms develop in the afternoon over the inland areas. With a westerly wind in the morning, showers that typically develop over the Gulf overnight will often affect the islands and even make it to the coastal towns.
“The importance of wind cannot be overstated when it comes to fishing and boating,” declares Capt. Noah Stewart of Captain Noah’s Sanibel Fishing Charters. “Fishermen develop a relationship with the wind,” says Stewart. “Savvy fishermen have their favorite wind conditions.”
No one is more dependent on the wind than a sailor. “Always get a weather forecast before you go out,” advises Steve Colgate, founder and chairman of the Offshore Sailing School, located at the South Seas Island Resort on Captiva Island. According to Colgate, sailboats run best with wind speeds between 10 and 15 knots. “With winds 20 to 30 knots, you’d need to reduce sail area,” Colgate points out.
Sailboat racing is the epitome of sailing and is one of the things Colgate teaches. “A good wind forecast is essential,” he says. “The best sailors can even use nearly calm winds.” And there is even a strategy (called tacking) for when winds are blowing away from your destination.
To get a good wind forecast especially if you are a mariner turn to the Marine Forecast Office of the National Weather Service (NWS) in Ruskin, which handles all of Lee County. Forecasts are made to cover up to 60 nautical miles off shore. Safety is a major concern. “If venturing offshore, strong winds are a definite deterrent and can be downright dangerous,”
THE IMPORTANCE OF WIND CANNOT BE OVERSTATED WHEN IT COMES TO FISHING AND BOATING. FISHERMEN DEVELOP A RELATIONSHIP WITH THE WIND. SAVVY FISHERMEN HAVE THEIR FAVORITE WIND CONDITIONS.”
—CAPT. NOAH STEWART, CAPTAIN NOAH’S SANIBEL FISHING CHARTERS
stresses Stewart. The threat from winds has been long recognized by mariners. The Beaufort scale was developed in 1805 and related winds to sea conditions, from calm winds and smooth seas to hurricane winds and waves over 45 feet.
For many years, all Coast Guard stations would indicate expected sea conditions by flying the familiar red-and-black pennants. But according to Daniel Eaton of the Fort Myers Coast Guard station, “With the availability of NWS broadcasts and the Coast Guard Local Notice to Mariners on the VHF radio, our station does not use the storm flag program.” However, some stations still fly the warning flags.
Although the Beaufort scale is not officially used anymore, its legacy lives on in the official Marine Advisories issued by the NWS. “Gale, storm, hurricane, etc. are all defined the same via Beaufort scale and our products,” says Nicole Carlisle, marine program leader for the NWS Ruskin office. Thunderstorms are the most common marine threat in Southwest Florida. The strong winds that can come out of the base of a thunderstorm can even capsize a boat. With over 100 thunderstorms recorded each year in this part of the world, it is fortunate that most thunderstorms don’t produce winds that damaging.
IF YOU WANT TO FORECAST THE WEATHER IN SOUTHWEST FLORIDA, YOU HAVE TO FORECAST THE WIND RIGHT FIRST.”
—ROBERT VAN WINKLE, NBC-2 WEATHER TEAM
True hurricane warnings are reserved for powerful tropical systems. Fortunately, strong hurricanes such as Hurricane Charley in 2004 seldom affect the Southwest Florida coast. A Category 4 storm, Charley had winds well over 100 mph.
Wind can even affect how we feel outside. The sea breeze is one of the advantages of living along the coast. “In the summer months the sea breeze kicks in every afternoon,” says Van Winkle. During the day, the land heats up much faster than the water under the strong summer sun. The lower pressure over the hot land literally pulls in air off the water. Although the water is warm, the land is hotter and the breeze is refreshing. It’s just like Seals & Crofts sang, “summer breeze makes me feel fine.” Freelance writer Ed Brotak is a retired meteorology professor turned stay-at-home dad. He and his family live in western North Carolina but frequently vacation in Florida.
Students at the Offshore Sailing School on Captiva Island learn how to use the wind’s power to their advantage.
Senior chief meteorologist Robert Van Winkle of the NBC-2 Weather Team in Fort Myers tracks the weather before going on the air.