Weather routing makes shipping cheaper and safer

“One master might be almost too compliant while another won’t have anything to do with us and works it out all by himself.” René Snoek and Remko Vermeer, two of the eighteen former seafarers employed in the continuous shift service at MeteoGroup in Wageningen, are more than familiar with weather information and weather routing. From experience.

by Sander Klos, freelance maritime journalist and editor of SWZ|Maritime where this article was published

Snoek (62) once sailed with the Koninklijke Java-China-Paketvaart Lijnen service but, following mergers in the shipping industry, ended up under the Nedlloyd flag, which in turn became Maersk. After a reorganization in that company, he left to join Meteo Consult in 2013, which was renamed MeteoGroup in 2014. Vermeer, who joined the weather room in Wageningen some time before Snoek, was first mate for Spliethoff but decided to turn down a master’s position due to the administrative workload and serious responsibility that job entails.

MeteoGroup has certainly benefited from the views of such experienced people. Snoek: “Our maps did not always have enough detail in the past. Masters would say things like: ‘Your advice guides me past an island, but there’s a big sandbank in front of it; what do I do?’ – ample reason to improve our maps and buy Ecdis.”

A world view

Vermeer is in the weather room; in front of him, there are three screens presenting views of the global weather. For a moment, I’m speechless. The screens show air pressures, wind trajectories and wind forces, currents and all sorts of information about waves and swells. To see 12, 24, 48 or 72 hours and, if necessary, as much 9 and a half days ahead, he only needs to press a few keys.

I came here because I wanted to write about Hurricane Irma and her sisters, so it’s convenient for me that Vermeer discovers “TD96S” in the Sunda Strait. It is a very new stratum, but the screen predicts that it will develop wind speeds of 55 knots over the next few days. The screen displays the expected trajectory (80 to 180 degrees) and the speed (7 to 11 knots). TD96S will probably not reach the 63 knots, or 117 km/h, required for a hurricane, but last year, Irma and her siblings grew out of similar systems over warm water. “Breeding grounds for hurricanes include the ocean between Africa and the Caribbean, the area of ocean west of Panama and the region of sea between Japan and Papua New Guinea. We can recognize those systems because they don’t have fronts like normal strata do. They are drains, sucking in everything”, Vermeer tells me.

Former Seafarers at the helm at MeteoGroup

René Snoek: “A true shipowner knows how far he can push his ship.”
A safe distance of 300 miles

Routing according to such tropical systems assumes, first of all, a safe distance of 300 miles to the eye of the storm. “We need to consider the type of ship when recommending a route, because our advice depends on the mutual velocities and the ship’s destination. We might advise sailing dead slow for half a day, to stop sailing completely or, the exact opposite, to shift from ecospeed to a greater velocity. In the first or second case, a ship may be delayed for days; in the last case, it will reach its port sooner but will have used up more fuel. The client’s response depends on the sort of ship. For some ships, stopping for a short while might be an option, but it’s a different story for ships with a tight ETA.”

Although an average five-day forecast in normal circumstances can be reasonably correct, Vermeer and Snoek stick to 48 to 72 hours when dealing with hurricanes. “You can’t always predict what such systems will do the next day, so we send the masters extra updates every six to twelve hours”, Vermeer explains.

What is the best option?

“Many shipping companies use SPOS, but not all ships buy our route advice”, Vermeer continues. “However, the most recent data might not always be available to them, due to the limitations of their on-board satellite communications. Our product RouteGuard always uses the most up-to-date datasets.”

Both men are fully aware that the advantages of routing – particularly lower fuel consumption – are difficult to prove. “Try and prove that a certain loxodrome or a different passage is better or worse. There are so many variables, which makes it hard to compare two journeys and the choice of route can make a huge difference on an ocean crossing. If the ship arrives at a point earlier, or later, on a route, how will the wind and swell be then?”

However, masters passing Skagerrak on their way to the east coast of the United States sometimes ask for advice for the next part of the route. “They can pass just above the British Isles, or sail through the English Channel”, Vermeer adds. In theory, a master can knock 35 hours off his journey if he doesn’t go through the English Channel, but the weather can be worse on the alternative route, so we expect a slower speed, cutting the time saved down to sixteen hours.”

Snoek has an even taller story. “Once, we sailed from Seattle to Hong Kong with two Nedlloyd ships. The ships left eight hours apart. Our colleague went south immediately, via Hawaii, while we chose the Bering Sea and arrived five days sooner. Sometimes, we encountered thick fog, but the other ship ran into lots of head winds and often had to drop from 21-22 knots to 5-6 knots.”

Work it our yourself or take advice

MeteoGroup’s basic product is the Ship Performance Optimization System (SPOS), which masters can use to collect weather information themselves. The shipowners decide which functions are available on board. MeteoGroup has over 5,000 daily users for that product. “World-wide, there are several sources for weather information throughout and MeteoGroup combines them in our own model”, Vermeer reports. “We give a certain weight to areas in which separate models perform better after verification. It involves a few percentage points of difference. 

Other products are RouteGuard, onshore weather routing and FleetGuard, with the ships reporting to the shipping companies’ and charterers’ headquarters via a website. “All the data is recorded and used in their own performance systems, if they have them, to optimize the ship's operation costs; it helps them decide when a hull needs cleaning, or a propeller needs a polish, for instance. To do that, a ship’s performance must be gauged in calm weather. Nonetheless, theory and reality don’t often match, because the weather is always a major variable.”

Pennywise and pound foolish?

Further investigation reveals that the most important aspects of weather routing seem to be connected to money, such as ETA, laycan and fuel consumption. “Shipowners believe in the importance of safety, but everything is becoming more and more competitive”, Snoek explains. “A true shipowner knows how far he can push his ship. Charterers are more inclined to rely on our advice.”

However, competition still affects their choices, particularly in the bulk carrier market. Only marginal bits of marginal sources of weather information are available. “Sometimes, there is only a facsimile on board, and the master is fully dependent on us. It’s at times like that when we wonder why the charterer doesn’t ask the shipping company for an SPOS, so that the master can do his own routing. A subscription costs around 2,400 dollars a year, so, at current prices, it will have paid for itself by saving ten tons of heavy oil. A ship of that kind will use 15 to 25 tons a day, at around 350 dollars a ton.”

Those calculations are based on seven days for container ships that sail at more than 20 knots to fourteen or fifteen days at a cruising speed of 10-11 knots on an ocean crossing from Rotterdam to New York. “The ocean-going tugs only do 5 knots at most and make huge detours for the sake of the tow’s safety. A strong tail wind might be favorable for a freighter, but a tug captain can’t allow his tow to overtake him.”

Agencies like MeteoGroup check their weather forecasts retrospectively. In the hall, there is a screen on which colors reveal the accuracy of onshore-weather reports. “We add that information to our historic data, so we can improve our weather models.” Using the term “improve” implies that there is still work to be done on the forecasts. All over the world, there are plenty of data buoys that pass on details; the centers of the oceans are watched by satellites and offshore constructions and ships are often equipped with automatic weather stations. Masters also still send weather information to the KNMI. But even so, there are still large parts of the oceans that are not covered.

Measuring and reporting at two heights

In response to questions from masters like: “Why we are measuring stronger winds here than the forces you mentioned?”, MeteoGroup has started presenting wind forecasts in a new way. “We only used to report wind at ten meters up, the average for ten minutes, but often on board, the wind sensors are installed much higher, so now we make forecasts for fifty meters up too”, Vermeer explains. “Wind to a height of up to ten meters has the most impact on the condition of the sea, but fifty meters is more recognizable for SPOS users and gives a more detailed picture. Moreover, we can also forecast gusts at ten and fifty meters up and produce risk predictions.”

The forecasts are even more specific if the orographic effects are taken into account. “At the Strait of Gibraltar, the Strait of Dover and in the Norwegian fjords, winds accelerate due to geographic narrows. The effect is not as obvious in model data, so if force seven or eight is predicted for Gibraltar, we add: bear in mind it could be eight or nine.”

There are scarcely any clients who ask for forecasts for the Polar regions. “Very occasionally, someone will ask for a route, but in reality, the Russian pilots and government decide on the routes, and they are more or less fixed. We can supply weather data to latitudes of 85 degrees north and south in SPOS, but actually, the market does not usually want anything farther north than the north of Norway, or sometimes Hudson Bay or the Bering Sea. The behavior of ice is very hard to incorporate into models too; local authorities, such as port authorities and pilot agencies, have much better information about the current situation and the condition of the passages. Weather agencies tend to stay away from that sort of thing.”

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"A subscription to SPOS costs around 2,400 dollars a year, so, at current prices, it will have paid for itself by saving ten tons of heavy oil. A ship of that kind will use 15 to 25 tons a day, at around 350 dollars a ton.”