Red sky at night.


Everybody complains about it, and, 'tis said, there's nothing we can do about it. But, that's not so --there is something we can do about it -- Avoid It!

Now, that isn't always possible, but there are three steps we can take to minimize the impact of weather on our cruising lives:

1. As Thoreau said, keep an "ample margin in our lives." Don't get tied to a time commitment.

2. Listen to NOAA weather radio or study weather maps on the Internet.

3. Learn the weather signs.



"Don't cuss the climate. It probably doesn't like you any better than you like it" - Don Marquis

"I was born with a chronic case of weather anxiety" - Bill Fiero


-----Grandpa Clark had a weather stick nailed to the wall outside the back door of his Rhode Island Shore House. It was a wonder - when it arced upward, fair weather was due. When the arc was down, the kids would gather their books, board games, and cards - they would be inside for the rainy day.

-----Grandpa was also the family weatherman and his predictions were uncanny. No one bothered listening to the radio or TV weatherman - Grandpa was more accurate and more fun. He had a 'saying' for almost every condition - rhymes passed down through generations of his family. It was a wonderful ritual - kids anxiously listening to Grandpa's 'saying' in the evening before going to bed, so they could plan their next day's activity. There was often an after-breakfast update using the latest observations. We all implicitly believed Grandpa 'made the weather.'

-----There were two observations that were critical to Grandpa's Prediction - wind and clouds. The current wind or cloud was but a point on a continuum for him - it was the change in wind direction or cloud type that was critical for him.


-----The dominant wind along his Rhode Island shore was sou'westerly. Winds from the west or sou'west would bring a nod and a smile from Grandpa. Then there were the frown days, and he would say: "When the wind is in the east, 'tis neither good for man nor beast." Those were days to find a good book.

-----Another of his favorites was, "When the wind follows the sun, fine weather will ne'er be done". The sun tracks from east, through south, to west each day. If, however, the wind moved 'against' the sun, tracking west, south and then east, the frown would return and so would the rain. Grandpa loved the days with northerlies - cold and breezy - but the clarity of the air was burnished to a shine. Standing on the Quarterdeck, he could see the Block Island lighthouse by day and the flash of both the South Point Light and the Montauk Light by night.

-----Grandpa was a sailor and the Commodore of the local Yacht Club. His Grandfather, Ambrose Julius Clark, was a Naval Officer during the Civil War. His Great Grandfather, Captain Isaac Sanford, was the Master of the whaler Champion, out of New Bedford. Weather 'sayings' were part of Grandpa's heritage and life.

-----This one must have been passed down through those generations: "When the rain comes before the wind, look out, and well your topsails mind. But when the wind comes before the rain, then hoist your topsails up again." The topsails are, as their name says, the highest sails set on a square rigger. They are the most sensitive to strong winds, and the first you must furl since a heavy blow with topsails set will heel the vessel hard over. Rain arriving before the wind often presages a major frontal system.

-----Here's a Grandpa 'trick': Put your back to the wind. Look up at the clouds. The direction the clouds are moving shows the direction of the upper wind. If the clouds show the upper wind from your left, it means bad weather is approaching. If the upper wind comes from the right, it means improving weather.


-----Grandpa knew the cloud types and what they indicated for future weather. As boaters, it behooves us to know them as well. There are three major cloud types: cirrus, stratus, and cumulus. They are easy to differentiate. Cirrus clouds are feathery, stratus clouds are gray and streaky, and cumulus clouds are white puff-balls.


------Cirrus ---------------------Stratus------------------------- Cumulus

-----Meteorologists sometimes combine these names for intermediary types. They also add modifiers to further define these cloud types. Alto means high and nimbus means rain. No big deal - altocumulus means high puff-balls, cumulonimbus means a rainy puff-ball (thunderhead), and so on.


Altocumulus and Cumulonimbus

-----One of Grandpa's favorite 'sayings,' was uncannily accurate. Surrounded by young admirers, he would squint at the sky, take a puff on his pipe, and say, "Mare's tails and Mackerel scales make tall ships wear short sails." The mare's tails were the wispy cirrus clouds, feathery trails of ice crystals. The mackerel scales were cirrocumulus, clouds that look like fish scales. Both these clouds mark the lead edge of a frontal system that probably carries strong winds and heavy rain. Sailors reef or shorten their sails in strong winds. Grandpa had a corollary to this 'saying' if only one cloud type was present: "Mares tales, storms and gales" or "Mackerel sky, not 24 hours dry."

Mare's Tails

-----A favorite of the kids was: "If clouds look as if scratched by a hen, Get ready to reef your topsails then."

-----The good weather clouds, cumulus, had their 'saying': "If wooly fleece deck the heavenly way, be sure no rain will mar the day."

-----Cumulus, especially on a hot, humid summer day, might billow upward, in the afternoon, into dark rumbling thunderheads. Grandpa could predict them with: "A round topped cloud, with flattened base, carries rainfall in its face."


-----Except for the 'weather stick' outside the door, Grandpa had only one other instrument to help with his weather predicting - an old, brass barometer that hung beside the door to the deck. On each passing, he would give it a light flick of his finger and watch whether the needle jumped up or down. He had several reliable 'sayings' to repeat to his little crowd of disciples: "When rise begins after low, squalls expect, then a clear blow."

-----"Barometer high -- heave short and away." (pull the hook and go - good weather) "Barometer low -- let the mud hook stay." (keep the anchor down - foul weather) "Barometer shifting -- reef tackles prepare." (get ready to shorten sail - wind coming) "Barometer steady -- set sails without fear." (yee-haa!)

-----One the kids loved to hear: "At sea with a low and falling glass, the green hand sleeps like a careless ass. But only when it is high and rising, will slumber trouble a careful wise one."


-----There were other aphorisms that would be triggered by observations other than wind, clouds, or barometer. These would be Grandpa's 'Weather Updates.'

-----"Red sky in the morning, sailors take warning; Red sky at night, sailor's delight." A red sky in the morning means clouds to the west of the sun. Since weather often advances eastward, those clouds may bring bad weather with them. A red sky at sunset means clear western skies and clouds to the east of the sun - a good sign.


Morning ---------------------------------------------- Evening

-----A halo around the sun or moon would result in an 'instant' forecast, and one that was heeded by all: "A ring around the sun or moon, means rain or snow coming soon." The halo is caused by the ice crystals in cirrus clouds, the indicators of an approaching front. Rain usually fell within a day.

-----"Rain before seven, fine by eleven." The kids liked the promise implicit in this one, but they learned it was not as reliable as most of Grandpa's 'sayings.'

-----"When the dew is on the grass, rain will never come to pass." This one almost always worked. Playing hide-and-seek in the summer twilight, they delighted in showing Grandpa their wet sneakers before heading to bed, knowing tomorrow would be a 'beach day.'

-----"The sharper the blast, the sooner 'tis past," was an old reliable, as was it's corollary: "Long foretold, long will last; short notice, soon to pass." The kids knew if Grandpa predicted a rainy day a few days before it's arrival, they needed a pile of good reading books. When a storm arrived unpredicted by Grandpa, they didn't care, since they knew it would soon be gone.

-----Grandma was an inveterate optimist. During the storms, she would keep squinting at the sky to make the announcement long-awaited by the kids playing their umpteenth game of Parcheesi. "There's enough blue sky to make a pair of Dutchman's Britches," she would finally declare, and the kids would run to the window to see those "britches," give a cheer, fold up the board and find their swim suits.

The Dutchman's Britches


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