Early Dutch and English marines travelling to Australia cut their teeth sailing in the middle and high latitudes of the northern hemisphere. Apart from all its other oddities, Australia would have been a region of unfamiliar weather patterns and currents. In particular, in the northern hemisphere winds blow anticlockwise around lows and cold weather comes from the north, the opposite of conditions in Australia.
A 1770 sailor in the north Atlantic experiencing a strengthening south-south-westerly wind in combination with a rapidly falling barometer would, from experience, know the likely weather. He would expect rain and storms with falling temperatures and a few days of strong north-westerly winds that would slowly moderate as the pressure rose. In other words, this is the passage of a cold front, although the concept of cold fronts and different air masses would not be understood for another 140 years.
European sailors' weather lore was developed in much higher latitudes than Australia
In southern Australian areas, the only real way you can get a similar set of conditions is to have a stationary low-pressure system forming in situ to the east of you. These were the conditions you would have experienced if you were south of Wilsons Promontory, Victoria, when a catastrophic low was forming during the 1998 Sydney to Hobart yacht race.
Hereward on Maroubra Beach, 1898, William James Hall. The 77-metre iron clipper Hereward encountered a large storm off Sydney on 5 Mary 1898. Winds of up to 76 km/h destroyed its sails and forced it onto the northern end of Maroubra beach. All 25 crew were safely brought ashore and the wreck attracted crowds of tourists. ANMM Collection 00002278. Gift from Bruce Stannard.
European sailors brought with them the weather lore that worked to some degree around the British Islands and Europe. However, these weather sayings were developed in much higher latitudes than Australia. For instance, Whitby – the port where an 18-year-old James Cook first put to sea – is at 54° north. A similar latitude in the southern hemisphere is Macquarie Island (54° south), located 1,500 kilometres south of Tasmania. So, many of these sayings apply to areas that Australians would call sub-Antarctic.
European sailors would have been familiar with the saying ‘red sky at night, sailor’s delight; red sky in the morning, sailor’s warning’. Cold fronts usually move from west to east. When a cold front is to the west of your location, the morning sun is reflected in the cloud to the west and shows the cloud to be red, due to the angle of the sun’s rays hitting the cloud. This means that there is a system to your west that may come your way, bringing bad weather.
Conversely, red sky at night means that the sun’s rays coming from the west are turning the sky to the east red. The cloud (and associated weather system) has passed over your location and you can anticipate moderating weather. While this is sometimes true, it does not apply in the case of successive fronts that follow each other by 10 or 12 hours, with the fronts getting progressively stronger. But noting this saying and seeing a falling barometer would have helped our early sailors realise there could be a blow on the way in southern parts of Australia.
American shipwreck in the rip, Geelong lifeboat Asa Packer barque, 24 May 1861. Asa Parcker left Melbourne for Newcastle, New South Wales, but on arrival at Port Phillip Heads the pilot refused to take it out due to stormy conditions. The captain decided otherwise. After repeated attempts, officers endangering their own lives, finally succeeded in rescuing Asa Packer's crew. ANMM Collection 00002791. Purchased with USA Bicentennial Gift Funds.
Two other common sayings were ‘Mackerel sky, not 24 hours dry’ and ‘Mares’ tails and mackerel scales make lofty ships to carry low sails’. These relate to clouds associated with a warm front, in which the clouds (altocumulus) tend to thicken and the winds to pick up as the front gets closer. In such conditions, you can expect rain and stronger winds in six to 12 hours. Australia does get warm fronts, but mainly in southern parts such as Tasmania. They are much more common at much higher latitudes than Australia.
A lack of knowledge of what the weather was going to do contributed to countless wrecks through the centuries
A lack of knowledge of what the weather was going to do contributed to countless wrecks through the centuries. I sail a square-rigged ship myself and know that it is almost impossible to sail off a lee shore in a strong wind.
Unpredictable weather meant that early mariners were forced to sail to a different time schedule than today’s sailors. In 1919 the sailing cargo ship Garthneill left Melbourne for Bunbury, Western Australia, via southern Australia but sustained strong westerly winds that prevented any headway. The skipper then tried to take the vessel anticlockwise around the continent but also encountered headwinds near Torres Strait. The vessel then sailed to Sydney and then to Bunbury, going south of New Zealand, South America and Africa using the westerly winds … taking 76 days. Another vessel, the Edward Sewall, took 67 days in 1914 to pass from the Atlantic into the Pacific Ocean south of Cape Horn – only a few days less than the Garthneill’s time to go most of the way around the globe.
Early mariners had patience and their schedules generally allowed plenty of time to travel; for instance, Captain James Cook arrived in Tahiti on 13 April 1769 to observe the transit of Venus on 3 June. But open-ended schedules are just not possible or practical in today’s world. In 2015 the HMB Endeavour replica set off for Hobart, Tasmania, for the Australian Wooden Boat Festival but encountered (forecast) bad weather ‘on the nose’ and the attempt was abandoned. Sydney Heritage Fleet’s James Craig also had to turn back to Sydney due to the same weather system.
Sailing, Storm Bay, Tasmania, attributed to Haughton Forest, before 1925. A yacht in rough seas and overcast weather off Cape Pillar Tasmania Peninsula. ANMM Collection 00008553.
The farthest thing from the generous time schedules of early sailing ships is the Sydney to Hobart yacht race. The vessels are racing, so it is obvious that patience is probably not the highest priority on board. The crews of these yachts have access to forecasts from the Bureau of Meteorology, which are issued twice a day, every day, for all of Australia’s coastline.
They can also access large amounts of computer model data extending many days into the future, and some would have non-bureau meteorologists on their team. The bureau’s marine forecasts and warnings are issued for the safety and economic benefit of Australian mariners. During the disastrous 1998 Sydney to Hobart race, the first Storm Force Wind Warning (indicating a mean wind speed greater than 63 knots/116 km/h) for the Bass Strait area was issued at 2 pm on 26 December, just an hour after the race start. Some yachts would have barely been outside Sydney Harbour at this time.
Early mariners would marvel at a modern vessel with its array of instrumentation, such as radar, radio, depth sounder, GPS and satellite phone
Now, through satellite communication, HF radio, email and computer model data, forecasts for several days ahead are available even in the remotest ocean locations. Much (though not all) of Australia’s coastline has mobile phone coverage, so a mariner with a smart phone can access all the weather data they require. Broadcasts of forecasts and warnings via HF and VHF radio cover the Australian coastline and region.
The early mariners would marvel at a modern vessel with its array of instrumentation, such as radar, radio, depth sounder, GPS and satellite phone, as well as good reliable forecasts that extend many days into the future. The early mariners had a barometer and their own interpretation of what the wind and sky were telling them. Today’s mariners are fortunate indeed to have access to all the forecast information available. However, whether you are in a tinny or a supertanker, it is still in the skipper’s hands to understand what the forecast is telling you, the likely impact on your vessel and what action to take.
Malcolm Riley worked for the Bureau of Meteorology for 34 years and is one of the skippers of the tall ship Lady Nelson, based in Hobart.
This article originally appeared in Signals 117 (December 2016).