Saturday, August 27, 2011

At the mercy of the weather

I’ve been following the TV and internet news for information about Hurricane Irene and when she will hit the east coast of the USA and New York City. Predictions are for tonight and tomorrow morning in New York. I am hearing from friends who live in NYC, who are evacuating the city as I write this. My friend Gisele, who lives on Long Beach on Long Island, left for the ‘mainland’ yesterday. New York City may close down its subway system (historic) and hundreds of thousands of people have been urged to evacuate. As I wrote to my friend Bernadette, it’s heartening to see the preparedness on the part of city officials—they are taking the hurricane warnings seriously and in doing so, have probably saved some lives. And even if the hurricane gets degraded yet again to a storm, it is still good that everyone took the warnings seriously. Because you can never know how intense a storm it might end up as.

There have been some intense storms in Norway of hurricane-like intensity, but they occur mostly on the west coast of Norway, a part of Norway that faces out toward the open sea (Atlantic Ocean). I cannot remember a really intense storm in Oslo since I moved here; by intense I mean over 100 mph winds combined with sheeting torrential rain. In recent years, we’ve had more torrential rainstorms (a result of global warming?), that’s for sure. We’ve also had a few severe hailstorms in the summertime, with accompanying drastic drops in temperature. We have been out on our boat during summer storms that suddenly come out of nowhere and turned the fjord into a black churning mess of froth and high waves that scared the dickens out of me. That has happened to us twice; one time we managed to find safe refuge ‘behind’ an island that bore the brunt of the storm from the front side. The other time we made it back to port in the nick of time. I am insistent during such times that we don’t try to make it back to port unless we are so close that we can manage it within five minutes or so. That is what happened to us the last time we got caught in a storm; we made it back to port and then all hell broke loose. It was cozy to be inside the boat, I’ll give you that, but only because I knew the alternative would be to be out fighting the wind and waves and that is not a good feeling.

I like calm oceans and peaceful skies—glassy water surfaces, few waves, no storms, clear blue skies, a gentle warm breeze. In other words, I am not a real sailor. I only want to be on the water when it’s behaving. I have no desire to cross an ocean in a boat unless it is the size of a cruise ship. Boats do sink, just like planes do crash. Rogue waves do exist and can cause problems for boats. But it is the unpredictability of the weather in the world that gives me pause. I must say that I am amazed at how many people traveled to and from Europe (to the USA for example) by boat years ago before plane travel took over. They endured storms and winds, seasickness and all the rest. I don’t get seasick as a rule, although there have been several times when on board an ocean ferry on the way to Denmark that the long slow rolling waves got to me. I found myself a Coke to settle my stomach and the trip went on. There was no way I could get off the ferry if I had wanted to. I remember being on the Oslo fjord (west side) off the coast of Stavern (http://maps.google.com/maps?hl=en&q=oslo+fjord+map&gs_upl=4104l4587l0l4896l4l4l0l0l0l0l221l662l0.3.1l4l0&bav=on.2,or.r_gc.r_pw.r_cp.&biw=1440&bih=775&um=1&ie=UTF-8&hq=&hnear=0x464148f14761d749:0x35b0a920dd1737fd,Oslofjord&ei=RuZYTvqsHofvsgaf0vXICg&sa=X&oi=geocode_result&ct=title&resnum=1&ved=0CB0Q8gEwAA) back in 1999, and there is a part of the ocean there that is just wild—huge waves, choppy water, in short, very unpredictable and very scary to navigate in a small boat (even a 35-foot long boat like we have). I have to say that I was of no help on that trip; the waves terrified me and panic set in. Luckily my husband is a seasoned sailor and copes with situations like that. I just did as I was told—battened down the hatches and then found myself a small space on the floor of the boat and prayed as the waves washed over the top of the boat. I prayed that the boat would not lose power. Motor stops are the worst thing that can happen to a boat, just like in a plane, because then the wind and waves will move the boat toward land and then you can end up smashed upon the rocky shore. This year, my husband and his friends returned by boat from a blues festival in Notodden, and they had to navigate through the same area off the coast of Stavern. And this year they had intense waves to deal with, as they sailed through the area shortly before a storm was predicted for that area. That is the thing I don’t like about being out on the ocean. What happens if you get caught in a storm?

This year on my annual trip to the USA, the plane from Oslo to Newark was delayed by four hours due to a tornado watch along the northeast coast of the USA the previous evening that delayed all planes leaving for Europe that particular evening. As it turned out, they found another plane to get us to Newark, but it made me think how fragile and inconsequential our lives really are in the context of the weather. How dependent we are upon the weather to travel, to get where we’re going, especially if we are traveling long distances. Commercial passenger planes have enough to deal with in terms of turbulence without adding tornadoes and hurricanes to the mix. Boats have storms, high winds and high waves to contend with. Both are dependent upon accurate reporting of weather systems, turbulence, wind strength and so much more. I am thankful for modern transportation that gets us where we want to go, but it’s not without its perils. Luckily, the perils are infrequent, but when they happen, they make me remember the past and consider how many people probably lost their lives years ago due to the lack of such systems. We have come a long way, but we need to come even longer in our constant battle with the elements. Because I have a gut feeling that global warming is only going to lead to more storms, more flooding, stronger winds, higher waves and more turbulence. And since we probably won’t let those things stop us, we’ll just have to learn to better navigate around them. 

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