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October 10, 2018

Hurricane Michael Hits Panhandle

Hurricane Michael has gradually ramped up in strength to a Category 4 storm over the last few days, as it ascended the Gulf of Mexico and veered toward Florida’s Panhandle. With winds up to 150 miles an hour, Michael is making landfall this very moment "with astonishing power," according to the New York Times. "This is the worst storm that our Florida Panhandle has seen in a century," Governor Rick Scott was quoted as saying.

"The eye of Michael [seen here from the International Space Station] is expected to make landfall in the Florida Panhandle on Wednesday afternoon, tracking northeast across Georgia and the Carolinas on Thursday before moving off the Mid-Atlantic coast on Friday," the New York Times reported.

© 2018 International Space Station

We just received this email from Joshua Longbottom, who was sailing a Bayfield 25 from Kansas City to Belize, and witnessed the birth of Hurricane Michael.

"Placencia, Belize, felt like a real sea port, with a mountain range in the background, dark days and bubbling skies. The feeling was all its own, one of a kind, sailing out from under a plate that wanted to spin, just out from under its outer edge where the plane above turned its lip back up to the open sky. A smarter man would never get to see skies like this above him.

"We sailed just from the core of a gathering storm, looking back and watching. A waterspout formed and touched down. Then a second spout, while the first was still running its course. And a third tried to form too, all the same distance from the core. All came out of that flat-plate cloud, emanated out of the storm center like a ring around Saturn. I was grateful we weren’t five hours later, sailing a course right into this monster."

On the left-hand photo, you can just see the red dot of Placencia, Belize, where Josh Longbottom was sailing as several tropical storms tried to take root. After several days, Hurricane Michael finally congealed, and (right-hand photo) headed north, gaining strength over the warm waters of the Gulf of Mexico. 

© 2018 Google Earth/Weather Underground

"All the winds were being sucked toward this thing. And then blowing out the top. I think, ‘What if we got trapped in it?’ Every direction out was a head wind. The ring-cloud started to spin clockwise. The center core tried to twist with it too, but stalled. It wouldn’t quite move — it wanted to, but it couldn’t. Something was still missing.

"An hour later, the sky-covering storm system completely dissipated and disappeared, leaving nothing but blue skies to naked eyes. The conditions were all still right here though, waiting for their next chance at gestation. A moment later, it started over again, seemingly from scratch. It was like this for days — skies bubbling, a rolling boil. Forty-eight hours later, the same thing happened again, only this time it didn’t dissipate; it was assigned a number (13) by NOAA and designated a tropical storm as it headed north of us, out the Yucatan chute and north to Florida, with a 100% chance of cyclonic formation. My dad called to see if I was safe, though the storm is past us already."

This was the first of several infant storms that began to form but ultimately petered out off Belize, before Hurricane Michael finally coalesced and marched north to Florida. Note the waterspouts in the middle-left of the horizon.

© 2018 Josh Longbottom

After ravaging the Caribbean last year, Hurricane Irma hit the Florida Keys, then Naples and Fort Myers on the Gulf Coast, with the eye passing over Tampa. Floridians were forced to do an evacuation shuffle, initially fleeing the east coast for the west, before returning east after Irma shifted directions.

We spoke with several charter businesses last year in both the Keys and Gulf Coast, many of which emerged mostly unscathed. In some cases, the devastation was compartmentalized to ultra-specific areas — boats that came through with minimal damage were just a few miles away from sections of the Keys that were totaled.

We send our best wishes to the Gulf Coast, and hope the people of Florida pull through this terrible storm.

Tales of the Transbac, Part 3

On July 10, Morning Star prepares to anchor in Hanalei Bay. 

© Latitude 38 Media, LLC

Singlehanded TransPacific Yacht Race rookie Lee Johnson sailed a Valiant 32, Morning Star, in the race from Tiburon to Hanalei, Kauai, in July, and he departed from Nawiliwili Harbor, bound for San Francisco, on July 20, rather later than his fellow Transbackers. He was glad he sailed back.

"I like this boat. We’re good," he told a gathering of Singlehanded Sailing Society members. "The weather was weird. I had 42 gallons in the tank plus jerry jugs —not a lot of fuel."

The last to finish, Lee Johnson was awarded the Perseverance Award. The perpetual trophy was donated by former Latitude 38 bookkeeper Kay Rudiger, who found this fishing float in the Pacific High in the 1980s. The inscription reads, "Every sailor finishing this race even in last place is a winner."

© Latitude 38 Media, LLC

Lee’s strategy was to get north to 36° then cut across. But the Pacific High split. "I’m in the cockpit and I realize my mouth is dry. It’s anxiety. It’s my first time, so maybe I don’t know what’s going to happen with the High coming down. I got a Commanders’ Weather report. It said don’t even think about going south."

While on a northbound heading, Morning Star had a close encounter at almost a right angle with a cargo ship, Big Glory, near 30°N and 158°W. The Valiant was traveling at 3.2 knots at the time, while the ship was going 10.9 knots. Lee got a visual on the superstructure, towers and empty decks. This was his first sighting of traffic since a cruise ship off Kauai.

Morning Star
© Latitude 38 Media, LLC

"At the last sunset, my main backwinds and the water paddle for the windvane is waterskiing behind the boat. I hove to and reeled it in." He found a replacement for it in the bag of windvane spares that came with the boat. "I had planned to re-drill the broken one if there hadn’t been a spare. I pulled it apart and put it back together. 

"I thought I was set up for a midday approach, but the wind died. I was motoring on the last of the fuel." He told himself, "If I run out I run out."

Lee sailed into San Francisco Bay on August 13 after 25 days at sea. "I got in at 10 p.m., wind screaming through the Gate, on the south side of the inbound lane. A tug towing a barge was just outside the lane." Lee needed to get the main down. With no autopilot, just a windvane, he couldn’t go head to wind; he had to do it going downwind. "When I filled up at the Oakland Marinas Fuel Dock, it turned out I had all of 6.8 gallons left in the tank."

On August 30, the day after the SSS get-together at Island Yacht Club in Alameda, Lee and Morning Star departed SF Bay for a solo nonstop voyage to their homeport, San Diego.

For additional Tales of the Transbac, see the October issue Sightings and October 5’s ‘Lectronic Latitude. We’ll have more in future ‘Lectronics.

Autonomous Sightings

These days, everything seems to be droning on. What with your self-driving cars, boats, and not far on the horizon . . . ships. That’s right, giant, automated ships. "Spurred in part by the auto industry’s race to build driverless vehicles, marine innovators are building automated ferry boats for Amsterdam canals, cargo ships that can steer themselves through Norwegian fjords and remote-controlled ships to carry containers across the Atlantic and Pacific. The first such autonomous ships could be in operation within three years," the LA Times reported last year.

It’s not just ships, either. In SoCal, long-time reader and part-time contributor Bruce Balan spotted a strange human-less vehicle in Long Beach.

"We’re often docked near the boatyard in Alamitos Bay, and have seen this interesting craft towed in and out several times," wrote Bruce Balan. It won’t be long before we don’t just have to keep an eye out for Saildrones and garbage-patch booms, but autonomous submarines as well.

© 2018 Bruce Balan

The UFO in question was Boeing’s Echo Voyager, a 51-ft unmanned sub (and we don’t mean a sandwich that eats itself) whose exact mission is unclear. "The aerospace company looks to demonstrate the underwater drone’s more sophisticated capabilities for a US Navy contract competition," the LA Times said.

The Echo Voyager "is being designed to glide just beneath the waves or along the ocean floor for months at a time with little to no contact with human operators. Its missions could include surveillance that would be either too mundane or dangerous for human submarine crews to tackle and reconnaissance."

© 2018 Bruce Balan

And as our readers are likely aware, the Bay Area’s own Saildrone is building a fleet of sailing robots that have been circling the globe and collecting scientific data (Saildrones are entirely wind-powered, where the Echo Voyager is a hybrid, running on diesel and batteries). Last week, globetrotting, Figure 8-ing sailor Randall Reeves spotted one of the super-cool, bright-orange, 20-something-ft USVs (Unmanned Surface Vehicles) headed back to the Bay — presumably to Saildrone headquarters in Alameda.

OK, so you kinda got to squint to see it, but once you’re focused, that is the unmistakable hard wing and "trim-tab" (our word) of the famed Saildrone, which Randall Reeves encountered off the Bay Area coast last week.

© 2018 Randall Reeves

What do you think about all these self-driving watercraft? Super cool? A little scary? Does this all feel a bit like act one in a bad ’80s science fiction flick, where the machines are just one algorithm away from taking over? Do any merchant marines out there worry about losing their jobs to automation? We’d like to know.

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