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.
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.
The 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?