With one eye on the sky and
the other on the fish-oil barometer, the old salts could make some stunningly
accurate weather predictions. Lives and livelihoods depended on it, so it stands
to reason that study of the weather spawned a rich supply of rhymes and tricks
to help with forecasting.
It's easy for modern boaters
to forget the basics as we become more reliant on high-tech sources for weather
forecasting. But if you really want to know what the conditions are likely to be
in your immediate area, there's no substitute for learning the essential skills
of weather reading. All you need to start is a barometer, sight of the sky, and
the habit of observing. Sophisticated reports generated by
fax, NOAA weather radio, and your satellite pictures are best used as a back-up
to your own observations.
Reading the Clouds
There are four basic cloud classifications.
Their names are a little confusing to remember, but understanding what the
different types of clouds portend is a necessary part of good seamanship.
The highest altitude
clouds, cirrus, are your long-range weather forecasters. These clouds come in
various shapes and sizes, including the "mare's tail" variety, but they are
always thin because they are formed by a thin layer of ice crystals. Getting
familiar with cirrus formations is important in forecasting weather. Once you
begin to notice and classify clouds, you'll notice that high-altitude cirrus is
responsible for a blue sky gradually turning into a milky haze and thickening,
or "lowering" weather.
Cirro-cumulus clouds are the "mackerel skies"
which develop from cirrus clouds beginning to lower and clump together. Due to
their relatively high altitude, they have a dappled look, and a silvery sheen.
Cumulus clouds, or "fair-weather clouds," are
the middle range of cloud which are characteristically white, fluffy, and lend
themselves to imaginary shape-shifting. These are the happy-go-lucky clouds of
the trade winds and high-pressure systems. If uncomplicated by further
development, a parade of these simple cumulus against a true blue sky, absent
any cirrus or cirro-cumulus background, is a good indicator of decent or calm
Cumulo-nimbus clouds result when cumulus build
up into the shape of a blacksmith's anvil. The heat of a summer day often causes
morning's innocent cumulus fluff-balls to develop into towering anvils with very
white tops and very dark lower edges (squall lines) by late afternoon. The good
news is that cumulo-nimbus developments (if uncomplicated) tend to be very
localized, though potentially extremely powerful in their vicinity. Because of
their tremendous height from top to bottom, you can spot them a long way off on
You can also estimate the distance to the
cumulo-nimbus by counting the number of seconds between the lightning flash and
the sound of thunder and dividing by 5. An old sailor's rhyme which applies to
most weather moving from west to east (in the northern hemisphere) says:
Beware the bolts from north or west;
in south or east the bolts be best.
In other words, lightning squalls will
probably advance on you from the north or west, and cumulo-nimbus developments
at a distance to the south or east probably won't threaten you. Along the same
lines, a rather obvious rhyme reminds the nervous boater not to struggle into
rain gear unnecessarily:
Rainbow to windward, foul fall the day;
rainbow to leeward, rain runs away.
High and Low Pressure
The reason worsening weather is referred to as
"lowering" is that the lower altitude of clouds is associated with localized
surface conditions, or bad weather here and now, rather than long-range
developments. Since high-pressure systems generally bring clear skies or clumpy
white cumulus, low-pressure systems bring dark, low (in Latin, alto) clouds -
which is really what we experience as fog, rain, and hail.
Let's assume you have a barometer aboard, or
perhaps you're noting the readings given over the radio. A falling barometer
(diurnal differences of up to .15" or 5 millibars notwithstanding) tells you
that a depression, or low-pressure system, is nigh. As far as wind prediction
goes, strong winds are a given. But you can go further yet! You can predict the
directions of your local winds over the next few days if you know where the
center of the depression is, because (in the northern hemisphere) winds "pour"
into the center in a counter-clockwise direction. Expect to see "chaotic" cloud
conditions (a mix of every kind of cloud at different altitudes) before the gray
sets in. High-pressure systems can have fickle or light winds, but they are
generally spiraling in a clockwise direction into the center of the high.
To figure out where you are in relation to a
low, find its center by facing into the wind and visualizing the center as being
to your right and a little behind you. This is also known as Buys Ballot's Law.
Some folks prefer to put their back to the wind and look for the center on their
left hand. Either way, it works.
Keep in mind that lows typically travel at
about 17 miles per hour, and can take two or three days to pass over a
stationary spot. Let's say that you notice in this case that your barometer
suddenly begins to rise again - but don't breathe easy yet:
Quick rise after low
Often portends a stronger blow.
If you're going to see a cranky gale, it'll be
on the quick rise of a low barometer. Expect the fierce and gusty variety of
wind with this reading.
Barometers are moody instruments, and you are
well advised to ignore any advice written around the face such as "Fair" or
"Foul." What's really significant is the change itself, not the numbers. Digital
barometers have built-in change monitors. A rapid and large change in your
barometer usually indicates the same for the weather. It may happen that you'll
diligently watch your barometer for a couple of weeks and find no relationship
to weather reality; in this case, get that barometer calibrated and re-checked.
A properly working barometer is probably your best ally in league with knowing
Putting It All to Work
It's Thursday morning, and you consult the big
blue chart in the sky about your weekend outing. You look up and it's basically
blue. A few little wisps of white high up, which you might recall are cirrus
clouds, don't seem to interfere with the bright sunshine. By the afternoon, the
mare's tail is streaming out of the west, and by late afternoon, you notice the
accumulation of a silvery dappled effect called mackerel skies, or cirro-cumulus.
You can be sure that within a couple of days,
strong surface winds will arrive, probably from the west. Depending on how
quickly the cirrus thickens and lowers, the blow could arrive within 12 hours.
You also notice that the gentle southerly
breeze has gradually moved to the southeast. This is known as a backing wind,
because it's shifting in a counter-clockwise direction. How does this fit with
your observation of the cirrus? There are at least two old sayings to help with
A backing wind says storms are nigh,
Veering winds will clear the sky.
Based on what you've learned about cirrus, you
can safely make a bet with your neighbor about the sunset and sunrise,
remembering that old favorite,
Red skies at night, sailor's delight;
Red sky at morning, sailors take warning.
On this hypothetical Thursday you probably
would be well advised to get your chart out and plan a weekend boating that
gives you plenty of options to run in to shelter from strong, wet winds that
will back through south and east, which will bring clearing when they reach
north. By Friday, you ought to be able to tell whether it'll clear by Sunday!
To learn the fine points of weather
prediction, you need to study the local weather patterns over a period of time.
It's a very complex picture when you consider the contours of the landmass,
shorelines, and water. The particulars of the area interact with larger weather
patterns to produce particular trends. After you've been observing and checking
your educated guesses against reality for a while, you can reach a surprisingly
high level of accuracy. It works, it's fun, and it can have a great impact on
your boating pleasure.