Jeremy, my husband, is an IT man by trade, an engineer by training and by inclination, and a sailor by heart. He started writing computer code on a Commodore 64, way back before there was a computer in everyone’s pocket. He loves nothing better than figuring out solutions to problems.
His latest project, FastSeas, which has been out in the world for a couple of years now, is an elegant solution to a practical problem faced by boaters wanting to travel long distances: How do you get from here to there?
I had the chance to interview him for the podcast this week. There are more details on the episode itself, which airs on Thursday, August 15, but the main bits are right here. (note: Links may be affiliate links. As an Amazon affiliate, I earn through qualified purchases.)
N: Can you tell me a bit about your cruising/sailing background?
J: I started sailing on small boats, then my family moved up to a 28’ Dufour and then a larger Jeanneau while we were living in North Africa. We sailed in the Med, mostly around the Balearics. In college, I sailed in the Bahamas while on Spring Break and then taught sailing at Sail Caribbean, which is a fantastic adventure-style sailing camp for teenagers based in the BVI or the Leewards. Then we bought an older Bristol Channel Cutter which we still own - what was that, 25 years ago? - in Houston and we sailed her through the Bahamas, the Eastern Caribbean and Bonaire, and now have her in the Chesapeake.
N: What made you start this FastSeas project?
J: FastSeas was really scratching my own itch. One day I plan to go cruising again, and I’m really interested in tools that I would want when I go cruising again. I’m an engineer, a software engineer now, and building this kind of stuff comes naturally to me. It’s also very personally satisfying to build tools like this, and it’s doubly satisfying when it’s a technology project that scratches the “need to create” itch AND a sailing product tool that scratches the sailing itch. Plus it ends up being a tool that I plan to use myself when I go sailing again.
N: When you built FastSeas, did you just build it for yourself?
J: From the very beginning, it was for just more than me. I built it so it would be publicly available, trying to hit a budget-friendly spot in the market. We cruise on a limited budget, and weather and safety decisions like that are really hard to contemplate when you’re choosing how to allocate your limited budgetary resources and whether you’re going to pay for a weather data delivery service and how much you’re able to afford. I was servicing our own budgetary constraints but also servicing an unmet part of the market. Some of the other commercially available tools are just out of reach for a lot of cruisers; I felt there was a valuable service to be delivered and shared. When I first started developing FastSeas, it was completely free. It was great to have an engaged group of sailors who were actively using it and providing real-world feedback. As that grew, it quickly outstripped the free hosting service that I had at the time. I needed to put it on a more significant platform that could handle the increased usage and also to make it more reliable. As people start to depend on a service, you want it to be reliably available! You don’t want to wake up in the morning to start your weather routine and find that things are flaky or broken; we’ve been out there as cruisers and know how significant weather is to the daily planning cycle.
N: Can you give us some info on what FastSeas is? Who is it for?
J: FastSeas is a weather routing service. What does that mean? To explain it to people who don’t sail, it’s like Google Maps for sailboats, except where Google Maps has a finite set of roads to deal with, sailing weather routing services like this don’t have roads. You just have open water. To some extent, it’s a much more complicated puzzle; not only are there no roads but the conditions that you encounter on the route will change over time. The service is geared toward giving you routing advice on how to reach a destination you specify from a point of origin you specify. It’s based on the GFS model that gives you forecasts up to 16 days out into the future and it analyzes typically millions of options you could take to get you from your start point to the end point and solves all of them to come up with the one that’s the most efficient. FastSeas gives you ways to fine-tune your definition of efficient.
N: Do people have to buy the service in order to try it out?
J: No. I wanted people to always have an option. There’s a free tier that allows you to run 5 routes a month. All of the routing functionality is exactly the same, including the ability to make requests via email. With any of the paid tiers, you can also make requests via the Garmin InReach, which is kind of like messaging via Tweet.
N: When someone goes onto the site, what will they see and what should they do?
J: When you arrive on the site, you’ll see the current weather displayed by a partner site called Windy.com. Through that partnership, I’m able to use some of the layers as the user interface. If you already use Windy, the FastSeas interface will look very familiar! One of my goals when building FastSeas was to make this as intuitive and easy as possible. You don’t have to input your boat’s polar, which is a graphical representation of how your particular boat will perform given point of sail and windspeed. Instead you can put in the simple data of your boat’s waterline and closest point of sail and FastSeas will calculate a rough polar for your boat that you can then tweak as needed. And then you literally use your mouse to click on the map and specify where you want to start from and where you want to go.
N: Comfort? How do you figure that in?
J: That’s done through a series of questions involving windspeed and sail angle. You might be happy beating into 30 knots of wind, where other people would prefer to not beat into anything higher than 15. You tell FastSeas those kinds of details. As sailors, we all know that wind speed feels really different when you’re running as opposed to beating! It also takes into account average wind speed as well as maximum wind speed; when the forecast is for 15 gusting 20, it often just feels like you’re sailing in 20 knots of wind. Understanding your personal level of maximum windspeed is also important.
N: Is FastSeas only for sailboats? Only for monohulls?
J: No. When I first built it, I had a few users who were very interested in solutions for heavier ocean-going powerboats. The general idea is the same, though for a powerboat the performance data is often upside down; where sailboats will go faster closer to the wind a powerboat will slow down. There’s a place on the site to indicate power or sail. And with catamarans, the very basic “generate for you” polar data will not work particularly well, so you’ll have to input more of your own boat-specific data for it to work more effectively.
N: Do you have plans to build a multihull “easy polar generation” tool into the site or is that too technically difficult?
J: It’s a feature I’m likely to add soon. It wouldn’t be too difficult and would be helpful, even though it’s not one of the most requested new features.
N: Often sailors don’t think about a service like this until they’re ready to make a passage, and then they might listen to Chris Parker or look at a NOAA site or even ask on social media about advice. What do you wish people knew about weather routing in general?
J: Weather routing like this generally is best for longer passages. It’s not ideally suited for say a day sail across the Chesapeake. It’s far more useful for longer term passage making and planning decisions. And weather routing is just another tool. As cruisers we rarely rely on one source of weather information; each source provides a different perspective on the weather. When you see alignment in those perspectives, it may increase your confidence that “hey the weather might actually turn out that way!” The most important thing is to regard FastSeas as another data point. It’s only as good as the information provided to it, from the weather forecast to the data you input as far as your boat’s performance and your comfort criteria.
N: How do I figure out the best time to leave?
J: Departure planning, or finding your weather window. A weather window is looking at how the forecast evolves over time. Rarely are you going to decide today, “Oh, I’m going to do a 4-day passage leaving tomorrow” and you look at one weather forecast and it looks like you’re good to go tomorrow. You might do that, but most people will look at the forecast over a period of days to see how stable or how much variability there is to the forecast over time. And once you do that, you’ll be able to see what are normal conditions and what are opportunities to make that passage. There is some departure planning functionality built into FastSeas which lets you analyze for your chosen passage what the basic metrics of the passage are over the next 15 days. For a departure date on daily cadence. It’ll give you basic metrics of the passage - average wind speed, maximum wind speed, time beating, time beam reaching. It gives you the basic course measure that can help you see if there’s a window approaching and you can continue to track that. The closer the window comes to you the more confidence you can have in the opportunity.
N: Is this a website? An app?
J: It is a website. It is not an app. The line between a website and an app these days is pretty blurred these days - you can place a shortcut on your phone or tablet and FastSeas will behave very much like an app with the caveat that in its current form it does need internet access. You won’t find it in any app store. For situations when you don’t have internet, the way to use it is NOT through the website, obviously! Use it through the email responder or the InReach capability. You’ll run your route before you leave internet access, then get your updates through your email (which you’ll likely have through some kind of satellite communication or your InReach messaging.) There are instructions for the email responder on the website. Generally speaking, you have to send a coded email to the FastSeas service and that coded email will specify what your current GPS location is and your destination. It will respond with a GPX file which has your routing information in it, including waypoints and weather associated with those waypoints.
N: What are the pricing tiers for this incredibly useful tool?
J: There’s a free tier, which limits you to 5 runs a month. Then there are 3 pricing tiers, offering various discounts based on the level of time commitment. The most economical is the annual subscription, which is $60. You can choose a 6-month commitment at $45, or a month-to-month which is $10 a month. The routing capability and the features are the same in each tier.
N: Thanks for all of this information! I’ve learned a lot and I live in the same household as you! There’s a special discount for The Boat Galley Podcast listeners, so be sure to listen there to find out about it.
J: Thanks, Nica. Check out FastSeas and let us know what you like, what you’d like to see there.