Despite the amount of attention and publicity given to tropical cyclones, mid-latitude low pressure systems generally present more difficult problems to a ship routing agency. This is primarily due to the fact that major ship traffic is sailing in the latitudes of the migrating low pressure systems, and the amount of potential exposure to intense weather systems, especially in winter, is much greater.
Low pressure systems weaker than gale intensity (winds less than 34 knots) are not a severe problem for most ships. However, a relatively weak system may generate prolonged periods of rough seas which may hamper normal work aboard ship. Ship weather routing can frequently limit rough conditions to short periods of time and provide more favorable conditions for most of the transit. Relatively small vessels, tugs with tows, low powered ships, yachts, and ships with sensitive cargoes can be significantly affected by weather systems weaker than gale intensity. Using a routing agency can enhance both safety and efficiency.
Gales (winds 34 to 47 knots) and storms (winds greater than 48 knots) in the open sea can generate very rough or high seas, particularly when an adverse current such as the Gulf Stream is involved. This can force a reduction in speed in order to gain a more comfortable and safe ride. Because of the extensive geographic area covered by a well developed low pressure system, once ship's speed is reduced the ability to improve the ship's situation is severely hampered. Thus, exposure to potential damage and danger is greatly increased. The vessel in such conditions may be forced to slow down just when it is necessary to speed up to avoid even worse conditions.
A recommendation for a diversion by a routing agency well in advance of the intense weather and associated seas will limit the duration of exposure of the vessel. If effective, ship speed will not be reduced and satisfactory progress will be maintained even though the remaining distance to destination is increased. Overall transit time is usually shorter than if no track change had been made and the ship had remained in heavy weather. In some cases diversions are made to avoid adverse weather conditions and shorten the track at the same time. Significant savings in time and costs can result.
In very intense low pressure systems, with high winds and long duration over a long fetch, seas will be generated and propagated as swell over considerable distances. Even on a diversion, it is difficult to effectively avoid all unfavorable conditions. Generally, original routes for transoceanic passages, issued by the U.S. Navy's ship routing service, are equatorward of the 10% frequency isoline for gale force winds for the month of transit, as interpreted from the U.S. Navy's Marine Climatic Atlas of the World. These are shown in Figure A and Figure B for the Pacific. To avoid the area of significant gale activity in the Atlantic from October to April, the latitude of transit is generally in the lower thirties.
The areas, seasons, and the probability of development of tropical cyclones are fairly well defined in climatological publications. In long range planning, considerable benefit can be gained by limiting the exposure to the potential hazards of tropical systems.
In the North Pacific, avoid areas with the greatest probability of tropical cyclone formation. Avoiding existing tropical cyclones with a history of 24 hours or more of 6 hourly warnings is in most cases relatively straight forward. However, when transiting the tropical cyclone generating area, the ship under routing may provide the first report of environmental conditions indicating that a new disturbance is developing. In the eastern North Pacific the generating area for a high percentage of tropical cyclones is relatively compact (Figure C). Remain south of a line from lat. 9°N, long. 90°W to lat. 14°N, long. 115°W. In the western North Pacific it is advisable to hold north of 22°N when no tropical systems are known to exist. See Figure D.
In the Atlantic, sail near the axis of the Bermuda high or northward to avoid the area of formation of tropical cyclones. Of course, avoiding an existing tropical cyclone takes precedence over avoiding a general area of potential development.
It has proven equally beneficial to employ similar considerations for routing in the monsoon areas of the Indian Ocean and the South China Sea. This is accomplished by providing routes and diversions that generally avoid the areas of high frequency of gale force winds and associated heavy seas, as much as feasible. Ships can then remain in satisfactory conditions with limited increases in route distance.
Depending upon the points of departure and destination, there are many combinations of routes that can be used when transiting the northern Indian Ocean (Arabian Sea, Bay of Bengal) and the South China Sea. For example, in the Arabian Sea during the summer monsoon, routes to and from the Red Sea, the western Pacific, and the eastern Indian Ocean should hold equatorward. Ships proceeding to the Persian Gulf during this period are held farther south and west to put the heaviest seas on the quarter or stern when transiting the Arabian Sea. East bound ships departing the Persian Gulf may proceed generally east southeast toward the Indian sub-continent, then south, to pass north and east of the highest south westerly seas in the Arabian Sea. Westbound ships out of the Persian Gulf for the Cape of Good Hope appear to have little choice in routes unless considerable distance is added to the transit by passing east of the highest seas. In the winter monsoon, routes to or from the Red Sea for the western Pacific and the Indian Ocean are held farther north in the Arabian Sea to avoid the highest seas. Ships proceeding to the Persian Gulf from the western Pacific and eastern Indian Ocean may hold more eastward when proceeding north in the Arabian Sea. Ships departing the Persian Gulf area will have considerably less difficulty than during the summer monsoon. Similar considerations can be given when routing ships proceeding to and from the Bay of Bengal.
In the South China Sea, transits via the Palawan Passage are recommended when strong, opposing wind and seas are forecast. This is especially true during the winter monsoon. During periods when the major monsoon flow is slack, ships can use the shortest track as conditions permit.