Whether the weather is what we want . . .

According to some people Mark Twain said, ‘Everybody talks of the weather, but nobody does anything about it.’, but he didn’t make this comment, it was his friend Charles Dudley Warner who said Twain’s famous comment first.

When I was at sea in the 1960’s we tried to do something about the weather. We didn’t have the luxury of satellite communications which supplies immediate weather information. Nor did we gain information from floating sensor buoys radioing weather information back to base. They hadn’t been invented.

What we did have was a network of ocean going cargo and passenger ships reporting their local weather along with a set of climate readings every six hours to a meteorological station ashore. The shore based station would collate all the readings from various vessels and hopefully they would be able to forecast the local weather a few hours or a day or so ahead.

On most ships at set times, the officer of the watch would take the temperature of the sea water, temperature of the air, barometer reading for air pressure, estimate the wind force by comparing what he saw from the wing of the ship’s bridge to a photographic chart of the waves.


The chart above gives an idea of the state of the sea linked to the force of the wind. The chart that we used in the 60’s was not as well presented as the one above. The watching keeping officer would then record his estimate of the wind’s speed.

Once the wind’s speed had been decided he would check the clouds and use a ‘cloud chart’ to estimate the height of the clouds and the type of cloud.

cloudchart (1)

Again the chart above is far more detailed than the cloud chart that we had in the 60’s.

There are ten types of cloud and twenty seven sub types, depending on the height of the cloud above sea level.

The various types of cloud have Latin names – a few examples are

Stratus, which means, flat or layered and smooth

Cumulus, which means heaped up, or puffy like a cauliflower (sometimes called cauliflower heads.)

Cirrus, these are very high clouds and wispy in looks,

Alto, medium to high level

Nimbus,  a mass of cloud that can be jagged in shape, which can be a sign of rain or snow.

Once he had decided on the height and type of cloud, the wind direction, the force of the wind, and the sea temperature, the air temperature and the barometer reading he would then estimated his vessel’s position. All being well he would have known the exact spot at noon with a sun sight or early evening with a star sight and from that position he would have estimated his position for his report by dead reckoning. In the 60’s we found our way around the world much the same way as Columbus or Cooke. We used a sextant to ‘shoot’ the sun at noon, and we took star sights at dusk.
The one thing that Captain Bligh (of HMS Bounty fame) had in 1789 during his epic 3600 mile forty day open boat voyage, after the mutiny, was a good sextant.

sextantThe above picture shows a sextant – I had two when I was at sea – one I bought on passing my exams, and later sold when I got married (we needed the money), and the other (dated early 1930’s and similar to the one shown) given to me by an old sea captain, which I have kept as a memento of my time at sea.

Once all of the information had been gathered it would be radioed to the local meteorological office, as well as London – by Morse code, not by speech.


Other ships would be doing the same so with the help of Sparks (Radio officer) the officer of the watch could estimate the weather ahead of his own vessel.

Times have changed, but I doubt that being at sea today is as much ‘fun’ as it was fifty years ago, before containerisation. I feel sorry for ship’s captains today – head office is only an e-mail away or a mobile call during his night, because someone at H/O doesn’t have the ability to work out time zones.

I’ve sailed in tramp ships that once we left a port we didn’t hear from H/O until the next port, and then only via the agent – sending messages, via the radio or telex (fax was still a little futuristic) was expensive, so bothering the captain half way around the world had to be justified to the profit and loss account!

On a recent cruise I asked the Captain if he, or his officers, still used a sextant in case of emergency. I was told that if there was an emergency, and he (the Captain) had to abandon ship, he would make sure that his phone was fully charged, so that he would find his positon via Google maps.

I wasn’t sure if I found this funny or not, and wondered if the coxswain of the lifeboat that my wife and I would be in, who might well be one of the hotel staff, be able to steer the boat by reading an old fashioned compass, or would the coxswain also be contacting Google for advice about which way is north?






Author: 1944april

Traveled a great deal - about 80 countries - first foreign country I suppose was Wales, which was only 80 miles away from where I was born. Visited each Continent, except Antarctica, and I doubt that it is on my bucket list - too cold. I love Asian food, Australian wine & British beer & trying to entertain by writing.

2 thoughts on “Whether the weather is what we want . . .”

  1. I stumbled onto this item of yours, Geoff, and so many memories of Conway came back, along with things learnt but not put to use in my life. Wholesale Grocery has no requirement of Morse, Norie’s Nautical Tables and Sextants ! Sometimes I wonder how much of a mess my little brain must be in, with so much taken aboard, but never used, like the Rules for prevention of collision at sea, although Rule 17 was useful with sailing. I was able to quote that rule in total at an investigation, held by a Race Committee on the Isle of Wight. The owner of the Flying 15 that I crewed for was accused of an infraction of race rules, which at that time was pure Rule 17. Having his crewman quote the rule verbatim, gave a moment of total silence, and the Committee found for us !
    I’m sure you remember O/IC Maintop, Hutchinson. He did his best to teach me Navigation, with everyone. He was an interesting guy. A heavy Gin and Tonic drinker and had a little problem with the local Police and his motorbike. Yet he never, in my memory, brought that problem into his classes. For me, Navigation was part understood and part Black Arts. Right at the end of our QB term, when all exams had been done, three or four of us were cheeky enough to ask if we could see what Special Studies did. Pug Bayliss was in charge, and they were using a star globe only for mathematical possibilities. – I left muttering ” Know your place Mike ” – It took me fifteen minutes of my twenty minutes there, to understand what the blazes they were talking about !
    The changes that have taken place with Seagoing trade in the last fifty years, are mind blowing. My parents took a cruise to mark their retirement, and I drove them to Southampton. They used the Union Castle line, and I saw the ship. It had a sharp end and a blunt end with a funnel, in other words it looked like a proper ship. Judging the comments made on their return, it was shear opulence with Father saying ” Worth every penny ” and from him, that counted as praise indeed. These days it would appear that size is everything, but they don’t look like ships any more, rather like floating blocks of flats, that would worry me if there was high wind to the side !
    Kind Regards to you and yours. Mike.


    1. Morning Mike,
      Nice surprise to hear from you – how did you find Silverfox?? I started the blog to try and push the book, but ended up with a following of people wishing to read my posts instead! Did you scroll back in time and see the post on Conway climbing Snowden for the 50th reunion in 2012?
      Funny but I was thinking only the other day about rule 15 (give way to starboard – I think). Like you much of what we were told at Conway only dawned on me years later . . . it is a pity that some of the stuff didn’t click just before taking an exam :-o)
      You should try a blog and write of the cross over between boss and union rep (I had a similar experience – union rep in the UK and regional manager in Oz – I was able to use by union experience to fix a small problem with the Oz unions). You must have had quite a few funny experiences in the wholesale business – blog these and you’ll be surprised at people’s reaction.
      Currently in mid winter (damn cold for us) and tomorrow we have a christening for our latest g’child (Jake) and the celebration is being held in the local park. This will allow other children to play in the sand and on the swings etc and adults to partake of a drop or two without worry about breakages . . . .
      Next Conway is Canada again, but doubt that we’ll go – too far and too expensive – cheaper to go to the UK than Canada.
      Talking of cruises have you seen the earlier blogs of our recent cruise? Earlier this year we sailed to Singapore on a nineteen day cruise – it was cheaper than a single ticket by air! We were flying home using frequent flyer points and only wanted a one way to SIN. Stayed in SIN for four nights and caught another cruise to Dubai via India (always wanted to show Maureen India) – this one was sixteen night – we ended up being away for 50 nights and we only planned originally for about 20 nights. Anyway it was very good and now we are sold on cruising. Sara & Matt asked us to join them and the g’kids on cruise to New Caledonia in November. Should be a lot warmer by then . .
      I a about to upgrade the blog site (from free to paid) so if it works out well I’ll let you know, but in the meantime try the free one.
      Maureen send her best and hopes that things are working well (health wise)
      all the best
      Bone , Maureen & tribe . . .:-o)


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