Tri-Cities Voice Newspaper - What's Happening - Fremont, Union City, Newark California

May 17, 2005 > Weather or knot

Weather or knot

by Ceri Hitchcock-Hodgson

In his office, the detective pours over facts, examining forensic evidence that will corroborate the stories told. Determined to find the truth, he will go back through months, even years of data to find out if the event in question did indeed take place on a dark and stormy night. Meet Jim Sigafoose - avid jogger, would-be tornado chaser and certified Meteorologist.

Sigafoose works for Applied Weather Technology, a company specializing in developing and delivering marine products and services ranging from ship routing to onboard weather information and route guidance systems. Sigafoose concentrates on marine operations, expert testimony and marine science engineering applications. In a nutshell, his job is to try and keep the shipping industry honest.

Chartering a vessel can be likened to renting a car, said Sigafoose. In the shipping industry there is a ship owner and a ship charter. The charter rents the vessel from the owner to ship goods. The owner wants the best price and the renter wants the best deal. And when someone rents a supposed Mustang of shipping vessels and it performs like a Pinto, the renter wants a break in price.

This is where our meteorologist comes in. It is his job to decide if the ship did perform as was intended or if it failed to meet its specifications. He does this by examining past occurrences along the ship's route, figuring out if the ship charters' claims are accurate.

Ship owners want to get the best price for their vessels and there can be a tendency to embellish the ship's performance, particularly its speed, Sigafoose noted. Ship owners may claim that their vessel can do 15 knots (a nautical mile per hour) while on the open seas it really only does 13. Therefore, like rental cars, faster, bigger ships command more money.

An average sized merchant ship can run as high as $60,000 per day to operate, not including fuel. That is why it is essential that the vessels be as efficient as possible. An accurate representation of a ship's performance is essential to the inner workings of the shipping industry in order to keep things running smoothly. Often, in order to save money, either the ship's renter (charter) or its owner will make claims against the other party. To settle these claims, the shipping industry turns to companies like Applied Weather Technology where information, research and evidence can easily resolve these disputes by looking at the weather.

Sigafoose spends half of his day sorting through the new claims that come his way. An example may be a ship's captain claiming that it rained so hard on July 17 in the Baltic Sea that they couldn't get to their destination on time.

"That's when we start trotting out our forensic evidence. In the form of satellite observations and pictures, actual ship weather observations - whatever it might take to convince the owners we have the evidence to prove that their captain is misrepresenting the weather conditions," said the dedicated meteorologist.

Sigafoose takes his job quite seriously. Examining two to three claims a day; he is primed to sniff out a charter that is misrepresenting the conditions of its journey. One case in particular stands out in his mind.

A vessel making its way through the Eastern Mediterranean was right on course; however, once it got past Italy, it took a very long time for the ship to get to the Suez Canal. The ship's master claimed the 18-hour delay was due to inclement weather and Sigafoose and his coworkers looked at the forensic evidence to see if this was in fact true.

It turned out there wasn't any storm and the ship had detoured at the Greek island of Pilos so that it could switch crews. The company produced a report that said the so-called storm never occurred and alerted the ship's charter.

"There was no storm there!" Sigafoose exclaimed. "We produced a report that said it didn't happen. The ship either broken down, sailed at reduced speeds, had mechanical trouble, or it had had a deviated course, which turned out to be the case."

The real-life weatherman looks at the forensic history of the route that the ship has taken using technology such as satellite observations. By examining, the weather history of the ship's route, he can tell when and how often it rained, and how strong and when winds blew during the ship's journey.

Like a postal worker, neither rain nor sleet nor snow is a challenge for the Fremont resident, who can be found jogging around Lake Elizabeth in what others would consider "nasty" conditions. Weather of any kind is good weather to Sigafoose who sees something valuable in all types of climates. He particularly enjoys extreme conditions. In fact, one of his dreams is to go tornado chasing, getting as close to an actual twister without becoming a part of it.

Natural phenomena have always fascinated Sigafoose. As a kid growing up in Southern California where "if it rained it made the front page," he created his own weather station with a rain gauge, thermometer and anemometer his parents bought for him.
"I was a real weather nerd," he admitted.

Sometimes weather watching can be a guilty pleasure. Sigafoose was so fascinated and moved by the recent tsunami in Southeast Asia that he ended up giving a large donation to the Red Cross.

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