Trying to predict the weather is no easy task, and on a cruise ship there are many more variables to consider than on land.
Did you know that Royal Caribbean employs its own dedicated meteorologist to guide the fleet with the best advice based on weather conditions?
Royal Caribbean’s chief meteorologist James Van Fleet is a former television meteorologist, but now works solely with Royal Caribbean to give each ship’s captain the best insight into what they are doing now and what they are likely to be up to. do in the near future.
During a recent Presidential cruise to Alaska in June 2022, Mr. Van Fleet gave a presentation on “The Art of Weather Forecasting.”
During the hour-long discussion on the Ovation of the Seas, Mr. Van Fleet talks about his journey to his dream job as well as the challenges of weather forecasting for an international fleet of cruise ships.
Although meteorology is strongly based on science, it guides us through the ambiguities and uncertainties associated with weather forecasting.
With his talent for storytelling, Mr. Van Fleet recounts his journey, how he joined Royal Caribbean and what the future holds.
How it all began
Originally, Van Fleet had ambitions to be a DJ and was lucky enough to get a job at a local radio station at age 18. After a while, looking for a little variety, he tried his hand at weather.
Some time later, an opportunity arose to do the weather forecast on a local television station; Van Fleet was keen to move but was warned his chances were slim. The preferred candidate never showed up for an interview and got the job. Thus began his television career.
Working in hotspots like Oklahoma and Texas, Van Fleet has gained experience in broadcasting severe weather events, including tornadoes that are common in the region. Moving to Florida, he expanded his knowledge by working on hurricanes and storms. This time laid the foundation for his future career in international cruising. Although with the fleet name, it was clearly his destiny.
How he came to work at Royal Caribbean
In 2016, the Anthem of the Seas was caught in unexpected weather at sea while sailing between New Jersey and the Bahamas. After an internal investigation into the disturbing event, the cruise line decided it needed a dedicated internal resource, and Van Fleet was recruited as chief meteorologist. His “dream job” as he describes it.
Hard to believe, but his appointment was an industry first. Previously, cruise lines used external providers to provide them with forecasts. However, it was felt that this was no longer enough.
Speaking of the transition from land-based weather forecasting to a business with international ships, Van Fleet says it used to provide just over 2,000 forecasts a year and is now responsible for 18,950, a momentous task. Not to mention that it’s even more difficult than making predictions on land.
What is a typical day?
Six years later, listening to Van Fleet’s speech, we quickly realize that there is no typical day in his work. He may be in Miami, where he spends at least half the year working during hurricane and typhoon season, or he may be visiting weather experts in Oklahoma. You can even find him flying in a NOAA hurricane hunter plane, looking for the eye of a storm.
According to Van Fleet, he gets criticized by his colleagues about what it’s like to make mistakes and still get paid. Kidding aside, he is very aware of the ramifications of a mistake.
As he describes it, no two days are alike and “even when it’s sunny in Miami…there’s something going on somewhere.”
One of the biggest challenges of marine forecasting is that, unlike land, weather and ships move, creating many more variables to manage.
In addition to this, they monitor the company’s private islands in the Bahamas and Haiti, as well as the ports where they stock up on food and fuel or have shipyards and dry docks.
Van Fleet says it all starts with the current weather, and they go from there. He consults many maps, but predicting the weather on an international scale presents challenges. Speaking of the upcoming world cruise, Van Fleet discusses the specific issues of this type of travel. He notes that the hardest part will be crossing the Drake Passage, the body of water between Cape Hope Horn, Chile and the Antarctic Islands. He will be aboard the Serenade of the Seas for this part of the adventure.
Tools of the trade
Computer models are an invaluable tool for weather forecasting. There are over a dozen weather models, and they don’t always agree, which is why viewers see different forecasts, especially when it comes to hurricane modeling.
Meteorologists also use radar, but Van Fleet warns that infrared radar can have problems because it relies on temperature differences. On a foggy day, you won’t necessarily see it on radar, which can be a problem for a ship.
The other problem with understanding weather, especially at sea, is that there are many data gaps. On land, there are weather sensors everywhere, but there are many places on the sea that don’t. This means, in a way, that you can fly blind.
Why You Can’t Go to Perfect Day at CocoCay
Sometimes ships have to change course and skip a scheduled port call. This may be a big disappointment for Royal Caribbean guests who love the cruise line’s private destination in the Bahamas, Perfect Day at CocoCay.
Van Fleet explains that the weather can be difficult to predict in the Bahamas. He even tapped into a local weather resource, the Bahamas Spotter Network, which uses old-school walkie-talkies to communicate about impending bad weather.
Another variable is ship class. Royal Caribbean has 5, soon to be 6 classes of ships, and their characteristics mean they react differently to weather conditions. The larger ships of the Oasis class are better able to navigate turbulent waters than smaller ships.
It also depends on what happens as dock and pier assignments. It’s fair to say that if you miss a port, it’s because it’s not safe to dock.
Communicating with customers is a big part of Van Fleet’s job at Royal Caribbean. Whether providing information for a cruise compass or on social media.
This is something he is also working on with the ships. He embarked on a campaign to visit the officers of all ships, to get to know them better. He also does a fleet-wide call every week to make sure they’re on the same page. During the pandemic, he designed a course, Marine Meteorology Training, for bridge offices.
Van Fleet acknowledges that the weather industry receives a lot of feedback on hurricane forecasts gone wrong. As he says, the errors increase over time, but he feels there’s room to better explain to viewers why there’s a range of impact zones, especially the further you go in time.
To look forward
Meteorology has improved by leaps and bounds, especially when it comes to forecasting storm surges. According to Van Fleet, the next big challenge is to understand and predict the rapid growth in intensity. What causes a tropical storm to become a Category 3 storm overnight is one of the most pressing challenges in forecasting.
There are also unexpected events, such as the 2021 eruption of the La Soufrière volcano in Saint Vincent and the Grenadines. Van Fleet worked to coordinate the ships’ efforts as Royal Caribbean helped residents leave the islands. He also had to monitor the potential impacts of ash and smoke on the company’s Caribbean cruise ship.
As he closed his presentation, one cannot help but come away with the impression that Van Fleet loves his work and that his passion for it knows no bounds. He sent a special thank you to Royal Caribbean cruisers who are “doing a phenomenal job sharing photos on social media”, a big help for him.