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Old 10-22-2000
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Tom Wood is on a distinguished road
FlyTec Alti-Windwatch

By now, I’m sure that many of you know that I’m a bit of a weather freak. Although I’ve studied it most of my life from the viewpoint of a deck-level forecaster, I’ve found that I’m right about as often as I am about the stock market—which is to say not very often. Usually, I’m better off taking expert advice from the SSB. But I have been right often enough to avoid some potentially dangerous situations that the weather gurus missed.

I’m also much less than what most people would call a performance cruiser. Once the sails are set reasonably well and the autopilot is steering Sojourner in the general direction of our next port of call, it makes little difference to me whether we’re making 6.6 or 6.8 knots. It’s not that I don’t know how to get that last tenth or two, but the extra work involved seems to pass my personal line of diminished returns.

Combine this love of weather with lack of performance orientation and what you get is a sailor who has a great interest in having weather information sources, but not very much interest in spending lots of dough on delicate equipment requiring maintenance and replacement. Having a $1,000 anemometer at the masthead makes no sense for my purposes—I don’t need a quantifiable wind speed to know when it’s time to reef. The only thing for which I would use a full-time wind meter would be to enter an exact number in the log rather than a guess, and for bragging rights after a big storm.

For these two purposes I have always carried a portable wind meter. Over the years I have managed to break, drown, or wear out nearly every model on the market, and consequently found most of them lacking. For one thing, most only provide one piece of information—wind speed—making them pretty limited. Others have been too delicate for my rough approach to sailing or too expensive to fit my pocketbook. A few are simply huge.

Enter Flytec’s Alti-Windwatch, which I’ve used for the last year. It’s given me new justification for parting with my hard-earned dollars for an item that is infrequently used on board. The first thing that caught my attention about the Alti-WindWatch was its size—not exactly the size of a watch (and no Dick Tracy strap either) but a compact, torpedo-shaped piece that fits my hand nicely. At less than four inches long, two inches wide, and a mere 3/4 inch thick, the Flytec is barely noticeable in my pocket. With its puny 1.6 ounces including the battery, it is so light that it floats.

The second thing that intrigued me was the way in which the tiny wind turbine was protected by the housing in a way that allowed free airflow through its aperture. It would be hard to damage the delicate impeller of the Flytec. In fact, the water-resistant Flytec has a two-year warranty (oddly, the length of life of the three-volt lithium battery, which is included).

But it was the versatility of the Alti-WindWatch that made me carry one down to the boat. It provides wind speed, of course, and like most other digital gizmos these days, the Flytec does this in a choice of five scales including miles per hour, knots, kilometers per hour, and meters per second. Since many coastal forecasts are in miles per hour, and some foreign broadcasts are metric, the conversion to knots saves some of head-scratching time with pencil and paper. For us who are memory challenged, it also converts to Beaufort scale. I particularly like the ability to select the wind speed averaging rate (from five to 60 seconds) which helps to eliminate misreadings due to puffs or misdirection.

The Alti-Windwatch has a number of miscellaneous features, the most important of which is temperature. I don’t use it often, but it is occasionally nice to know how hot or cold it is, or to convert Fahrenheit to Celsius. One thing I can tell you is that the temperature of my jacket pocket is usually comfortable—I have to remember to let it cool down before I read it. Combining wind and temperature readings, the Alti-Windwatch also provides a windchill value which I have used only a few times—I normally don’t need a windchill meter to verify that I’m cold. The Flytec also has the obligatory digital clock and an altimeter that has dubious value because it constantly seems to read seven feet above sea level on Sojourner.

There was one last feature, though, that clinched my need to own a Flytec. A barometer with graphic and digital displays tracks air pressure every 15 minutes and stores the past readings for 16 hours. One thing I’ve learned about predicting the weather at a remote location (as opposed to swallowing a forecast from a windowless office in Kansas City) is to follow trends. The barometric pressure is not really important; it’s whether it is rising or falling and the rate of that change that are significant. Wind speed and direction are less important than whether the wind is increasing or decreasing, backing or veering, and how fast such changes are occurring. Cloudiness is less critical than type of cloud coverage and the rate of any apparent changes. Ditto for temperature.

To me, the Flytec represents a mini weather station—very mini indeed. If I forget to record the barometric pressure in the log, it remembers it for me. Combined with compass readings and visual observations, I can quantify almost every change in air pressure, wind speed, wind direction, and temperature—all the main ingredients of a homemade forecast. And when the wind really is strong enough to blow me off the foredeck, I can still show up at the next cruiser’s gam and exclaim, "It was blowing 53 knots at our boat last week," just like I had a $1,000 masthead unit instead of a $130 pocket model.

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