Why are there so many storms in the tropics?

Why are there so many storms in the tropics

We’ve been sailing in the tropics since 2013 and reckon the most significant hazard to cruising is the weather. Storms, squalls, and unpredictable winds often made navigating SY Esper challenging.

We can divide the weather (we are talking wind direction here) north of the equator into three main categories:

  • the north-east monsoon
  • the south-west monsoon
  • the transitional period when winds can be either erratic or non-existent

But, as we approached the equator, we discovered that the unforgiving northern coastline of Sulawesi during the transitional period is not as easy as we would have hoped…

Why are there so many storms in the tropics


Agriculture is a large part of Sulawesi’s economy. Cacao, sugar and rice form the bulk of southern Sulawesi’s farming, where the land is flatter. In the highest altitudes, you’ll find delicious Sulawesi coffee beans. But here in the hilly north they produce tree crops like those we saw in Tolitoli: cloves, nutmeg and coconut.

We identified coconut palm plantations all the way along this coastline. In fact, Indonesia is the number one coconut producing country in the world, and North Sulawesi is the biggest exporter of crude coconut oil in Indonesia (as we can attest to by the pervading smell of coconut processing in almost every anchorage).

Plots for these crops are often family-run, so the trees on one of these mountainsides we’re looking at are likely to be owned by numerous families.

Daily storms and squalls

Like clockwork, the daily afternoon squalls came in.

There are three ingredients needed for these squalls to develop: moisture, an unstable atmosphere and a trigger.

The lush mountainscapes across Sulawesi combined with the warm ocean currents provide the moisture. Squalls are common around bodies of water because the air moving over water can change quickly in behaviour. It rises rapidly moving from the warm surface into the cooler sky. This trigger creates cumulonimbus clouds, holding precipitation and, eventually, lightning.

Because they happen so quickly they are difficult to forecast, but we were getting used to them coming in at around 1 o’clock from the south-west to west. Providing we knew this, we could be prepared.

And we all know that preparation is key.

Finding Safe Anchorages

Safe anchorages along the northern Sulawesi coast aren’t always obvious to spot, but not impossible to find. As we discovered after pouring over charts and satellite images, there is safe anchorage from squalls every 30 to 50 miles.

The spots marked on our charts from sailors who had travelled in the north east monsoon were for the most part not useful because we were sailing in the transition. But look hard and you’ll find enough nooks and crannies to protect you from those horrible south westerly squalls.

You can watch the episode here…

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