If you check NOAA marine weather prior to leaving the dock, you may be a bit disappointed by the weather reports you get these days. A decade or so ago they were actually more helpful than they are today, since they usually gave wind forecasts in five-knot increments. And they were right most of the time. Today, these reports seem to be correct even more often, but only because they’re regularly given in 10-knot increments. And as any seasoned boater knows, a forecast placing winds at 10 to 20 knots is essentially useless—it’s like saying it might be calm and beautiful, or it might be so rough you bang your teeth out.
Luckily, you have options. Sitting at the computer you can access a number of helpful weather forecasting sites before you go boating. And since NOAA dumbed-down their weather forecasts, these options have become a necessary choice. Here’s the low-down on NOAA and other weather services that provide much more useable forecasts with a high degree of accuracy—and the pitfall of each.
NOAA Marine Weather – As we already said, their day-before wind forecasts are often too generalized to be of any real use. But NOAA’s long range (two to five day) outlook is relatively accurate and can still give you a good feeling for the general state of conditions to come. This is the one to check early in the week, before you even think about making plans for the weekend.
FishWeather – Fishweather has excellent short-term wind forecasting in the 12 to 24 hour range. It breaks down wind speed into two-mph increments, which are color-coded for speed and overlaid on a map of the area you’re viewing. You can zoom in on the map to view an area the size of a one-acre pond, or zoom out to view the entire nation (and then some). It’s most useful to size the map to match the range of the area you’ll be boating in.
Wind direction is indicated by arrows. You can look at forecasts showing wind speed and direction in three-hour increments, out to a week in advance. But remember—this service is at its best when you’re looking at the next day. Beyond 24 hours its reliability quickly slips, as it true of most weather forecasting, of course. The service would be improved if Lat/Long coordinates showed exactly where the cursor was as it moves across the map.
FishWeather also has other forms of weather forecasting, including current conditions, general weather forecasting, Doppler radar and satellite views, sea surface temperatures, and combinations of the above. But none of these particularly stand out above other services. So use FishWeather to get your wind forecast, and go elsewhere for the different forms of weather forecasting.
The Weather Channel – Despite delivering an over-abundance of unrelated data (do you really want to know the top 10 most popular weather headlines of the day, when you’re trying to make your boating plans?) The Weather Channel is still a useful tool for mariners. Like NOAA, its forecasting can be helpful for ascertaining basic patterns well in advance of a trip, particularly those relating to precipitation. The Weather Channel also has a slew of helpful maps, ranging from animated radar to driving conditions. Again, there’s so much info to be had that it can be a bit overwhelming, and the Lifestyle, Social, Videos, and News categories just clog up the pipeline of useful forecasting info you’re trying to get to. That said, the forecasting is about as accurate as you’ll find a week or 10 days out, so visit it when you’re planning well in advance and you need that long-range forecasting edge.
Weather Underground - Weather Underground isn't a marine-based site, but it does offer marine forecasts (along with some handy buoy data). Unfortunately, these marine forecasts are essentially re-caps of NOAA’s marine forecast. But that’s not where this service’s strengths lie; instead, use Weather Underground for near-term precipitation forecasts.
While NOAA rarely offers precipitation or thunderstorm detail beyond “a chance of storms,” even just one day in advance, Weather Underground details it out in hourly increments, including percentage of cloud cover, percentage chance of precipitation, temperature, barometric pressure, and more (including wind speed, though not with the accuracy of FishWeather and not for the marine environment). At 48 hours these hourly forecasts are often correct, and inside of 24 hours, they’re accurate with surprising regularity.
So, which of these weather services should you use? All of them. To get the best long-range feeling for what the conditions will be on the water, look at the NOAA marine forecast and The Weather Channel several days in advance. As your trip draws closer, switch over to Fishweather to get the best possible 12 to 24 hour outlook on wind speed and direction, and Weather Underground to get the best precipitation forecast. By keeping an eye on all of these sources, you’ll have a pretty good idea of what’s likely to come when you shove off the dock. Unless, of course, the weatherman is just plain wrong.
Know another forecasting service that's even better than those mentioned here? Share it with your fellow boaters by posting a comment below.