Boaters skeptical about bay forecasts

December 24, 1993|By Arthur Hirsch | Arthur Hirsch,Staff Writer

The captain of the El Toro II made news this month when he told a Coast Guard inquiry that he had switched off his weather radio before leaving the dock Dec. 5 and never tuned in again. But some local boaters say Chesapeake Bay forecasts are so unreliable that they generally depend on other boaters and their own experiences.

The National Weather Service says that it often does not have enough information to compile accurate reports on water conditions and that it is asking to nearly double the number of stations gathering bay weather information.

"The forecasters know there are times when the conditions we've got do not reflect what's going on on the bay," says Gary Szatkowski, deputy meteorologist in charge of the National Weather Service office in Sterling, Va., which issues forecasts for Maryland, Virginia and Delaware.

A few experienced boaters put it more harshly.

"Bay forecasting is just terrible," says Bob Spore, an Anne Arundel County charter boat captain. "They never get the wave heights correct."

"They're almost always wrong," says Denny Dorton, a sportfisherman from Pasadena. "We really need something done about that."

Fred Abner, a veteran fishing charter captain in Chesapeake Beach, disagrees. "When they miss, they miss 100 percent," he says, but "for the most part I'd say they're about 75 percent accurate."

Mr. Dorton, who has been fishing and boating on the bay for 24 years, says he was north of the Patuxent River in a 19-foot power boat on Oct. 23 when he encountered 3-foot seas and 15-knot winds. He switched on the radio to find the National Weather Service reporting waves of less than a foot and 7-knot winds.

Late last month, he was dissuaded from going out fishing one day by a small craft advisory, but his buddies told him later that he had missed a fine day.

"My friends were saying, 'You should have been out there. It was great -- flat, calm and smooth.' "

Those were the conditions Capt. Clayton S. Lore said he observed from the dock and heard reported by other boaters on his radio the morning of Dec. 5, when he left St. Jerome Creek in St. Mary's County. He told a Coast Guard inquiry this month that everything looked fine, despite a small craft advisory he heard on his marine radio while preparing the El Toro II for a day on the water.

That afternoon, the 58-foot wooden boat took on water and sank in gale winds and heavy seas, killing three of the 23 people on board.

A preliminary investigation found that three planks on the bottom of the hull had pulled loose, perhaps because of deteriorated nails.

Mr. Szatkowski says the Weather Service is usually right about big weather systems. On the morning of Dec. 5, for example, the service forecast a gale and issued a warning between 8 a.m. and 9 a.m., shortly after the El Toro II left the pier. But Mr. Lore had already switched away from the weather channel, relying on other boaters for weather information.

That's not such an unusual practice, Mr. Dorton says.

"Once I'm out there, I don't listen to it at all" because the forecasts usually are inaccurate, he said of the weather channel. "I usually call on my radio, see if I can get somebody," he says, meaning another boater.

"You have to talk to guys who are already out there," Mr. Spore says.

Elmer Daubert, a waterman who also runs a sporting goods store in Pasadena, says the marine forecasts are not updated often enough "to give you the true picture of what's happening on the bay."

Mr. Szatkowski says he has received such complaints in letters, phone calls and from mariners in person. He is not defensive about it.

"In certain conditions, we do a poor job," he says. The problem is twofold, he says. First, the Weather Service is not getting information from enough places on the bay. Second, regardless of the information, the geography of the Chesapeake makes it a vexing forecasting problem.

The Weather Service gathers information from five land-based stations: Thomas Point, Tilghman Island and Point Lookout in Maryland; and Tangier Island and South Island in Virginia. All of the stations measure wind speed and direction, and some gauge air and water temperature, but none measures wave height.

In some cases, Mr. Szatkowskisays, land conditions "are not representative of what's going on on the bay." The answer, he says, would be weather information buoys to fill in the gaps between land-based stations. There are no weather buoys in the bay now, he says.

Bob Chartuk, spokesman for the National Weather Service Eastern Region, says the 1994 budget request includes four new stations in the bay: two buoys and two sets of weather instruments mounted on platforms in the water. Each station would cost about $70,000 to install and $30,000 a year to maintain.

Frank Lepore, spokesman for the National Weather Service headquarters in Silver Spring, says weather buoy operations cost 4 cents of every dollar spent by the National Weather Service.

Buoys aside, Mr. Szatkowski says, the bay's shape and the influence of tides and currents from the Potomac River can frustrate the marine forecaster.

"There's never enough buoys out there; there's never enough information," he says.

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