The W Factor: Meet the Clipper Race’s meteorologistBack to archive
A self-confessed geek, Simon Rowell (as opposed to Cowell) loves weird weather phenomena and always starts his day by checking his favourite websites, the Met Office’s Storm Tracker and then the US Navy’s weather site.
Simon has had a long association with the Clipper Race through his sailing career. He was the winning skipper of Jersey in the 2002-3 Clipper Race, led training for the Clipper 68s and was Assistant Race Director from 2004 until 2007.
As his sailing career progressed, Simon became increasingly interested in the elements and went back to university in 2009 to study meteorology, getting a Master’s degree from the University of Reading.
Now, he provides the daily weather information to the 12 race skippers sending data and weather plots by email while studying for a PhD on how hurricanes form in the North Atlantic.
With the Clipper Race fleet starting its third and final Atlantic crossing, the man who plays an important role behind the scenes describes his job.
“The race allows me to study the elements in places where I would normally never get to look, such as the north coast of Papua New Guinea.
“I love observing weird weather such as water spouts off Papua New Guinea that the fleet experienced on Leg 5. There is so much energy as it is that much hotter there which is why they occur. Henri Lloyd’s skipper (who was a meteorologist for the Canadian Olympic sailing team in the 2012 London Olympics) Eric Holden had a lot of excellent questions so I researched and asked colleagues at the University of Reading and learned from what they experienced.
“The 2013-14 skippers might not be professional meteorologists (apart from Eric) but they have seen a lot of weather and are good at interpreting it. The Southern Ocean gave the fleet a kicking on Leg 3, but the North Pacific was not as bad as it has been in previous editions. The fleet suffered the longest ever Doldrums crossing on Leg 1, Qingdao was struck by lightning in the Pacific Ocean and GREAT Britain endured a sea spout off Singapore.
“The skippers report back to me on what weather they get and if that doesn’t match with the forecast I have given, then I need to try and work out why.”
Simon adds that with modern forecasting techniques and equipment, you can have a much better idea of what’s going on round the world, and is one of the reasons why the Clipper Race can run safely as the fleet can be diverted away from potential hurricanes with around two to three days warning in order to get away from the worst of the weather. This has been particularly important on Legs 5 and 7.
Simon’s PhD studies have allowed him to indulge his geekiness. He has realised, for example, why the North Atlantic High is where it is and learnt more about the jet stream and the physics behind it.
Simon explains that North Atlantic hurricanes often develop from tropical waves, which are mid-level disturbances coming off the Sahara and West Africa about two to three miles up. This mid-level activity has a direct effect on surface weather.
The US National Hurricane Center in Miami has a vast database of hurricane data that Simon studies to increase his knowledge.
Simon provides the skippers with the day’s weather information but as he is also on the Clipper Race Committee it’s very important that he doesn’t give advice on what to do. The skippers can email questions and he can then give everyone the answer.
Simon’s favourite kind of weather to sail in is the Trade Winds, found on either side the Doldrums on the way to Brazil.
“It is good tropical weather in favourable winds - not too strong but warm and steady.
“When things go right and the hard work by the crew on the boat combines with a decent weather choice things can go really well - we got into New York about 24 hours ahead of everyone else in the 2003 Clipper Race because of that. Mind you, the flip side of that can really hurt, and when I managed to put us in the middle of the South Atlantic High after leaving Cape Town that really wasn't much good. From a meteorological point of view though that's quite difficult to do, so I take a certain perverse pride in that!"
A snapshot of Simon’s day
6am Check the Met Office satellite images, including satellite photos and synopsis charts for the UK
6.30am Check for tropical storms round the world on Storm Tracker
7-8.30am Look at data, read reports and then create reports with the next day’s weather forecast
8.30am Send reports to skippers
9.00 Walk the dogs and look at the weather – often while being rained on