Skip to content

Sea Myths and Sayings

Source: Mariner’s Learning System, by Captain Bob Fugler

Until the development of modern meteorology within the last hundred years or so, people relied on their own observations and experience to make weather predictions. In the past it had been known that certain atmospheric conditions were likely to produce different kinds of weather, this knowledge was often put into easy to remember sayings. This month we are going to explore some of these old time rhymes, sayings and proverbs which at times have been found to be more accurate than the weather “experts” we see on the news.

There are literally hundreds of these sayings in this article you will find the ones that I have found to be the most accurate over the years. So here we go back into years gone by…

Rainbow to windward foul fall the day

Rainbow to leeward, rains run away

A windward rainbow indicates that rain may be blown in your direction and soon be in your area. A rainbow behind the wind or to leeward indicates that the rain has probably past and is of little concern.

If fleecy white clouds cover the heavenly way

No rain should mar your plans that day

The fleecy white clouds refer to cumulus clouds that have little vertical development (fair weather cumulus). This proverb is sound as long as the clouds remain flat and do not grow vertically later on in the day.

Mountains in the morning

Fountains in the evening

The mountains refer to high, billowing cumulus clouds. These clouds should warn the mariner of weather instability and the strong possibly of a late afternoon or evening thunderstorm.

When a halo rings the moon or sun

Rains approaching on the run

By seeing a halo around the sun or moon you can expect inclement weather about 65% of the time.

Short notice, soon to pass

Long notice, long will last

The approach of a major storm system with bad weather that will last several hours or more can be determined well in advance if you can see the formation of dark clouds, changing wind direction, falling atmospheric pressure, the arrival of a sea swell, etc. However a brief storm or squall, such as a local thunderstorm, may not give much warning ahead of time.

Seagull, seagull, get out on T’sand

We’ll never have good weather with thee on the land

You will find that during good weather, seagulls scavenge at the waters edge or offshore. During a storm they often fly inland and scavenge at the waste dumps. However, you might want to remember that they usually do not make this move until the storm has arrived! Beware…

When the glass falls low

Look out for a blow

This is sound advice because a steady, persistent fall in atmospheric pressure is often a good indication of foul weather that is on its way. This is particularly true with a wind shift from the west to the east, northeast or southeast.

Red sky at night, sailors delight

Red sky in the morning, sailors take warning

This is probably the most famous of all weather sayings, and is true more often than not. A red sky at sunset or early evening indicates that there are clouds to the east, with clearing on the western horizon; this allows the setting sun to be seen.

A red sky in the morning indicates clouds to the west as the sun is rising. Since most weather systems in North America move from the west to east these clouds may move in bringing foul weather with them.

When the wind before the rain

Let you topsails draw again

When the rain before the wind

Topsail sheets and halyards mend

A weak frontal system will have a narrow band of associated rain. This means that the wind may be greater in force and more noticeable than rain. Stronger fronts and intense depressions are normally surrounded by inclement weather for great distances. If this is the case you will find that the precipitation should be greater than the strongest winds the storm produces.

Mackerel skies and mares’ tails

Make lofty ships carry low sails

The mackerel ski is composed of cirrus and cirrocumulus clouds that resemble the scale patens found on a mackerels back. The mares’ tails refer to trails of ice crystals blown in streaks from cirrus clouds. These clouds may appear ahead of an approaching storm or frontal system and can indicate strong winds. The reference to the low sails is because it takes less sail to navigate in stormy seas.

Sound traveling far and wide

A stormy day will betide

Low dense rain clouds trap the sounds by preventing them from escaping into the atmosphere above. Voices or noise appear louder and travel further when these clouds are present. So if you can hear the crew of a nearby boat you may want to have your foul weather gear close by.

Frost or dew in the morning light

Shows no rain before the night

The formation of frost or dew requires nighttime cooling which usually occurs only on very clear, calm nights. You will usually find such a night followed by fair sunny daytime weather this would indicate that inclement weather would be unlikely. With this saying I need to warn you that a weather system moving very quickly could arrive during the day, thus rendering this proverb inaccurate.

First rise after low

Portends a stronger blow

The strongest, gustiest wind often does not occur until the barometer reaches its lowest value and begins to rise. This is especially true in intense, well-developed storm systems. Pressure gradients behind the low center can be very strong, bringing strong and often dangerous gales.

With one eye on the sky and the other on their barometer the old time sailors could make some amazingly accurate weather predictions.

In today’s world of high tech electronics and gadgets it is easy to believe that these tools will give you all of the answers. The experienced mariner will tell you that to be safe it is best to do your homework and at least take the time to learn the basics when it comes to weather.

I have been 100 miles offshore with an approaching mind blowing thunder and lightning storm. When I instructed the crew to start securing the deck one of the clients on this charter wanted to know what all the fuss was about. In a very short version of Basic Weather 101 I explained what those very large dark anvil-looking clouds were capable of doing to our vessel and crew. He was sure we had nothing to worry about. When I asked what knowledge he had to qualify his beliefs he pulled out an electronic device that would tell him if lightning was in the area. He proudly showed me that the device clearly indicated that I was worried over nothing… Less than 10 minutes later we had wind gusts over 50 knots and the seas rose rapidly. After our butt kicking I think I heard him muttering something about the stores return policy.

The point to this story is that the reports generated by fax, NOAA weather radio, or satellite pictures are best used as a backup to your own observations. If you really want to know the weather conditions in your area of operation take the time to learn the local weather patterns. The only tools required are a barometer, a clear view of the sky and a willingness to observe. With this local knowledge a couple of these old time sayings and your electronics as a back-up you will be well on your way to being safer out on the water.