Preparing for a Winter Storm

Preparing for a Winter Storm

This is what we heard on the radio from the Coast Guard station:

Marine forecasts issued by the Pacific Weather Centre of Environment Canada at 4 AM PDT Saturday 9 September for the period ending 4 AM Sunday with an outlook for the following 24 hours. The next scheduled forecast will be issued at 10:30 AM PDT.

A trough of low pressure over Queen Charlotte Sound will slide Over Vancouver Island later today. A cold front just west of Bowie will approach the Charlottes this afternoon. Over northern and central waters strong winds near the trough will rise to strong to gale force southeasterlies as the front approaches. Over southern waters light to moderate northwest winds will shift to moderate to heavy southeast later today as the trough moves to the south. As the front approaches from the west forecast sea state values are combined wind wave and swell height.

Central coast from McInnes Island to Pine Island.
Storm warning issued. Winds southeast 30 to 40 knots this morning then rising to southeasterly 40 to 50 this afternoon. Winds rising to south 50 to 60 this evening then to southeast storm force winds overnight. Overcast. Heavy rain. Seas 1 to 2 metres building to 2 to 3 tonight. Outlook. Winds continuing southeast storm force winds.

See the Beaufort Wind Force Scale to see what effects this has on the sea condition.

This is what we did:

Storm seas on the sheltered side of the island

With a forecast like the above, we always went out and battened down the hatches on the lighthouse. We checked for any loose boards, forgotten garden tools, unclosed doors, or any other thing that could be sailing around in the winds during the night.

I do not know why but it always seemed that these storms hit in the night. I really cannot remember one in the day – just the morning after which usually involved a lot of blowing spray, high seas, and cleanup.

A good Southeasterly wind always brought lots of rain as well, so we made sure all the rain gutters were cleared of debris and all downspout filters were also free. This was our drinking water coming, although sometimes a bit salt-flavoured from the breaking seas. In a good storm the swell1 could rise to 10 metres (30 feet) or more and the winds could add a bit more height to that. We used to watch the tugs and barges motoring past McInnes in a storm. They would completely disappear from sight in the trough of a swell and we were viewing from seventy-five feet (twenty-five metres) above the mean sea level on our island.

All windows and doors in all buildings were closed and/or locked so that the wind would do minimal damage.

All loose materials (wood, shingles, paper or other moveable material) was picked up or nailed down. I remember one storm picked up full 4 x 8 sheets of 1/2″ plywood from a bundle of 25 that had been banded together for slinging. The metal bands had rusted through and the wind blew the sheets right off the top of the pile one after the other. It was pretty dangerous rounding those up in the storm winds. I was worried one would come through the house windows.

Triple Island - Note the hole in the wall from a log at 5 o'clock below the foghorns - photo Larry Golden

If we had boats outside we usually tied them down to the wood decking. The highline hook was tied off so it would not bang around, or it was also lowered and tied to the decking. The carriage would even be tied back to the mast in a heavy blow. If the main highline cable broke the carriage could disappear into the ocean, so tying off all equipment made us feel more secure. In my early years on McInnes the winter storms drove a log into the highline pylon [photo top] and broke it off, thereby downing the highline. If it had not been tied off we could have lost everything. On Triple Island Lighthouse near Prince Rupert, the logs wreck havoc all the time on the cement building. See more photos of Triple Island here.

Beforehand, usually as part of summer maintenance, all roofs were inspected for loose shingles which had to be nailed down and then tarred over (salt spray would eat through a galvanized shingle nail in less than a year!). The tar kept the salt off. These were mostly inter-locked asphalt shingles which could be ripped off in sheets of ten to twenty-five or more in one large sheet when the wind blew hard. if not repaired, the next morning we would find the bare patches of wood on the roofs. In the old days we had cedar shakes or shingles that would tear off one at a time resulting in much less damage. Also, part of summer maintenance was to grease or silicone up any moving parts such as hinges, door handles, window slides, locks and access covers. The salt spray could get into everything!

When the wind rose to certain speeds (30 and 45 knots) then we had to give a Special Weather Report to alert the mariners, so a constant watch was kept on the anemometer2 dial or chart. We either remained in the office or made frequent trips back and forth depending on the sound of the wind outside the house. We got to know the speed pretty well depending on how the wind whistled or rattled the stove pipe damper.

Once the required special weather reports were given and all was tied down on station, then we could settle back and weather the storm as they say at sea.

Dried salt between the thermal windows!

A last check on the main light and then we would close the drapes in the house to cut down on some of the noise from the wind, rain and occassional tree branches, spruce cones and other debris hitting the house or windows. The windows were the worst as they would bend inwards I would swear one inch or more! They were in later years double-glazed thermal windows and because of the constant flexing from the wind, the seals were all broken and salt spray, rain and spruce needles would work their way bewteen the panes. We had our own miniature aquarium in some instances. Later, when the salty water between the panes had evaporated in the sun, we had a nice salt pattern obscuring our view out the windows

If the storm continued throught the night we tried to get some sleep, hoping the windows wouldn’t break and also hoping that some mariner would not require our assistance that stormy night. Radios and alarms were always on so we were prepared to be awakened. If the storm was still blowing first thing in the morning (usually 02:30 or 2:30 AM) our first weather was usually very lengthy. You could see nothing in the dark sky. You could feel and hear the rain and wind blowing on the house and once outside you could hear the wind in the antennas and guy wires.

Inside the office where we had our weather recorders we checked all instruments, entered the starting information for the first weather of the day (date, time, signature, etc.) and then after a brief wait we would head back outside to do our observation. The ceiling projector3 would indicate a very low layer of clouds moving rapidly across the beam in the dark. We read the height of the clouds from the alidade.4 Temperatures (wet bulb, dry bulb, maximum, minimum), rainfall, visibility and any other unusual phenomenon were recorded on our notepads and back into the office, strip off the rain gear, dry the eyeglasses and start to record and code the weather observations. On McInnes this involved three weather reports from the combined observations – local weather for mariners, aviation weather for aircraft, and synoptic weather for world-wide weather forecasters.

Once completed we waited by the radiotelephone for our station name to be called by the nearest Coast Guard Radio (CGR) Station (now Marine Communications and Traffic Sevices MCTS) which in the case of McInnes in later years was Prince Rupert MCTS . (earlier it was Bull Harbour CGR until that was discontinued in December 1988). When called we would transmit our weathers, do a double check on the instruments, engines and light and then return home for a fresh coffee and to await daylight.

In the early daylight hours we toured the station looking for storm damage, collected all the downed tree branches, searched for missing equipment and generally made a thorough inspection of all buildings for damage, leaks, or other things out of order. Once the winds had died down to a workable level, we could then inspect the rain gutters again and clean out all the debris from the trees.

On the west coast of Canada in winter this routine could happen once a week in a bad year. Part of the job!



1 Large smooth waves that do not crest. Swells are formed by wind action over a long distance. (from http://www.terrax.org/sailing/glossary/gs.aspx)

2 anemometer – wind speed measuring device which reported in kilometres per hour

3 ceiling projector – a cloud height measuring device which uses a searchlight to project vertically a narrow beam of light onto the cloud base. The height of the cloud is determined using an alidade (see below) located at a known distance from the ceiling projector, to measure the angle included by the illuminated spot on the cloud, the observer, and the ceiling projector.

4 alidade – stationary instrument, mounted on a stand, that measures the angle subtended at the stand by the horizon and an object in space and used with a ceiling projector (see above) to determine the height of clouds.

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Retired (2001) British Columbia lighthouse keeper after 32 years on the lights.

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