Imagine this: It's a beautiful morning, the tops of the trees near your house are swaying gently in the breeze, the sky is clear, and you're thinking of heading out onto the bay for a day of cruising or windsurfing.
But from where you are inland, or even from the sheltered creek where your boat is docked, it's hard to gauge exactly what the conditions are going to be out on the open bay, on the other side of the Bay Bridge or over along the Eastern Shore.
You crank up your PC, sit down with a cup of coffee, autodial a toll-free number with your modem, and presto!
Within moments your monitor is displaying high-quality, full-color charts and graphics, giving finely detailed weather conditions and forecasts anywhere on thewater you might like to go. You can even find out where the breeze is likely to be best, so you can plan your day's destination accordingly.
A futuristic fantasy? Not any more. The day you can do that ishere.
Windsight, a privately held weather service run by Micro Forecasts of Portland, Ore., is already in place on the bay, offering weather information from a combination of valuable sources.
But atthe present time the reporting stations and geographic breakdowns onwhich the information is based are no more detailed or closely spaced than the current sources of weather information that go into the newspaper, radio and television reports we routinely check out on our way to the water.
Over the next few months, however, Windsight hopes to open a local forecasting office and staff it with professional meteorologists.
After studying the bay's weather patterns to determine the best locations, it will install new reporting station/sensorsacross the bay to support an expanded system offering small-grid, close-up wind and weather detail all over the Chesapeake.
These additional wind hot line sensors will augment the already available data from NOAA, National Weather Service station reports, Coast Guard station reports and buoys, real-time satellite imagery, radar maps and numerical model outputs currently in use in the base system as it's running today.
The system already provides textual weather reports and forecasts, relative atmospheric pressure profiles, wind speeds and directions, gust information, temperature reports and cloud cover at each specific sensor/reporting station, updated every hour. The additional sensors will fine-tune its focus and detail for many more locations.
The service was developed in the Columbia River Gorge, a popular area for serious windsurfing, and was an immediate hit among board sailors whose routines had included a lot of driving up and down the river looking for the best wind and perfect spot for the day.
Today those same sailors hook up their computers, make a quick call to their local Windsight and know right away where they're headed for a day of great windsurfing air, without wasting gas and time looking for the best conditions.
In addition to the Columbia River, other areas already covered by Micro Forecasts include the San Francisco Bay, New England and Puget Sound.
It works like this: After an initial investment of $89.95 for the Windsight software and accompanying user's guide, a user can phone in and collect computer reports for 50 cents apiece. Away from the PC, there also may be a phone-in service for voice reports and forecasts, using an account number like a phonecredit card.
Racers, I know what you're thinking. No, this won't necessarily tell you which side of the course is favored, or turn youinto a wind-wizard during August doldrums.
And unless you want tobring along a cellular phone and deluxe VGA-display laptop computer -- and spare a crewman off the rail every hour or so to use it -- it won't do much good once you leave the dock.
In fact, it might not even be legal to use such a system during a race, on the grounds thatit's outside help.
But that morning pre-race check-in with a service like Windsight can be helpful for providing information for making your own onboard predictions and strategies.
You still will haveto base your strategies carefully on your own observations, experience, intuition and a few rules of thumb -- or even the seat of your pants -- as well as whatever knowledge you can glean from other available sources.
No sensible sailor would think of making an offshore passage without the backup of a sextant and the knowledge of how to use it, regardless of how many sophisticated pieces of electronic navigational equipment he had on board. No weather forecast from aremote source is a fail-safe replacement for on-the-spot observations and understanding, especially in summer squall season.
Obviously, however, the more information one has to work from in making choices for safety, speed or just plain fun, the better. The Windsight system looks as if it will fit neatly into this more-is-better category once it's fully operational.