Cordova Chronicles: Weather forecasting by thumb

Use your thumb, forefinger, and cell phone instead

After a bright sunny day, the flag in front of our home on Odiak Slough droops quietly, while beginning to shift to the southeast. By the next day, it was raining and blowing. Dick Shellhorn photo

Living in a seafaring community, weather is always foremost on our minds.  Commercial and pleasure craft of all sizes routinely depart the safe confines of the Cordova harbor to encounter wind and waves that vary dramatically.

In doing so they pass the U.S. Coast Guard’s Sycamore, which is stationed here for good reason. The Coast Guard also has airborne rescue personnel and assets available at its Mile 13 Station.  Dedicated, well trained, and much appreciated, hopefully they do not have to be called upon, as fortunately, the fine art of predicating weather has vastly improved, giving mariners much better information to avoid predicaments.

Meteorologists have been making weather forecasts for centuries, some with world shaping consequences.  Another June 6 recently passed, and on this day in 1944, forever known as D-Day, Supreme Allied Commander Dwight D. Eisenhower made the decision to launch the biggest armada in the history of mankind to begin the invasion of Europe in WWII.

It was based on a weather forecast.

Perhaps forgotten over the years is British Group Captain James Martin Stagg, who persuaded Eisenhower to change the date of the invasion from the 5th of June to the 6th of June, based on his predication of high seas that would diminish on the following day.

Can you imagine the pressure on Stagg, and Eisenhower, dealing with calling back an armada of 6,939 vessels, including 1,213 combat ships, 4,126 land ships, 736 support craft, and 864 merchant vessels?


Fortunately, Stagg was right, even though his forecast 74 years ago was based on instruments and observation techniques that seem primitive by today’s standards.

Recently much of Cordova’s 400 vessel gill-net fleet faced the tough decision of staying or going fishing during a particularly bad forecast spanning a Copper River 12-hour opener on May 22.  Many went as far as Whitshed and then waited out the weather, which turned out to be as stormy as predicated.

Yet even with all the modern technology available, forecasts have sometimes been amiss. Among its various duties, the National Weather Service, which began predicting weather in 1870, offers marine forecasts, which can be accessed directly by several methods, including phone.

Theirs is daunting task. While every Alaskan knows we are the biggest state, I bet not many know that Alaska has 6,640 miles of coastline, which is more than all the other state’s combined. Including islands, inlets, sounds, and bays, the length jumps to an astounding 47,300 miles, which is almost twice the distance around the earth.

My 14-foot riverboat after a calm cruise up Alaganik. The size of the seas seems to vary in direct proportion to the length of the craft. Dick Shellhorn photo

My two-vessel armada consists of a 14-foot river boat for navigating Alaganik Slough to access our duck cabin at Pete Dahl, and a 19 foot Hewescraft for halibut or subsistence fishing on nearby seas. Prior to launching either I always dial 1-800-472-0391, and listen to the forecast for Cape Sucking to Cape Cleare, as well as Southeast Prince William Sound.

Cape Suckling to Cape Cleare covers 300 miles of coastline. For reference, it is 150 miles from here to Anchorage. So, in defense of the oft-maligned Weather Service, giving a 24-hour prediction in such rapidly changing conditions over such a broad area is an unenviably task.  How could it possibly be the same conditions throughout all that notoriously wild Gulf of Alaska stretch?

Anyone who has lived in Cordova very long can tell you that the weather just over the Heney Range out on the Delta can be vastly different than what it is right here in town. It’s a good idea to do something besides sticking your thumb out the window before heading in that direction.  Yet imbedded in local experience is a very simple rule of thumb:  winds from the south or east mean rain and bad weather; winds from the north and west translate into sunshine and good conditions.

In fact, D-Day, June 6, 2018, was an absolute gorgeous blue sky day, and the U.S. flag on the pole in front of our home on Odiak Slough was snapping in a stiff afternoon westerly.  By late that day, the flag had spun around to the southeast; and sure enough, the next morning, it was raining sideways.

Fortunately, a number of new weather Apps accessible by computer or Iphone have vastly refined the analysis and forecasting of weather.  It has also revolutionized the thinking of more than a few oldtimers.  For me, using the term “Apps” itself is quite a leap.  Just ask Ellie, my nine-year old granddaughter/computer-technology teacher and advisor.  With a swipe of her fingers, she adroitly resolves my most complex questions.

The “Windy” weather app shows the wind speed at the mouth of Pete Dahl Slough at 6:30 am on June 18, 2018 to be 28 kph, which translates to 17 mph. One could “zoom in” to find the speed at our cabin. Dick Shellhorn photo

Here is a pair of my favorite weather Apps. One, simply titled “weather”, gives forecasts for an entire week; but more amazingly, hourly predications that are surprisingly accurate. Why, I even trusted it to go ahead and do some outside painting on our house, given there would be a 12-hour break without rain.

And then there is an app titled “windy”. How wind speeds at the current moment can be accurately described anywhere in the world at any moment is beyond me, but this app can show that the wind is blowing 23 mph from the southeast at the entrance to the Home Channel just beyond Whitshed when it is blowing 7 mph here in town.

The wind speeds are displayed digitally as well as by moving directional arrows on a map, with forecasts for the next 48 hours also included. A simple movement of hand and thumb will expand the map to a bigger scale that can zero right down to our duck shack at Pete Dahl.  More than once while at the cabin, I have decided not to head to town in my river boat because the wind was gusting to 30 mph down Alaganik, while it was a mere 15 mph at our cabin, only 5 miles away.

So forget sticking your thump out the window to analyze the weather.

Use your thumb, forefinger, and cell phone instead. And give a nod of thanks to U.S. weathermeisters who, beginning when U.S. Grant was President, have been predicting the unpredictable for almost 150 years.

The flag in our yard on Odiak Slough flutters from the west, with predictable sunny skies visible out on Orca Inlet and beyond. Dick Shellhorn photo
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Dick Shellhorn
Dick Shellhorn is a lifelong Cordovan. He has been writing sports stories for the Cordova Times for over 50 years. In his Cordova Chronicles features, he writes about the history and characters of this Alaska town. Alaska Press Club awarded Shellhorn first place for Best Humor column in 2016 and 2020, and third place in 2017 and 2019. He also received second place for Best Editorial Commentary in 2019. Shellhorn has written two books about Alaska adventures: Time and Tide and Balls and Stripes. Reach him at [email protected].