In 1976, Canadian singer-songwriter Gordon Lightfoot scored a No. 2 hit on U.S. radio with a tribute to twenty-nine sailors who lost their lives when a freighter on Lake Superior went down the previous year.
Nearly fifty years later, I wonder if Mr. Lightfoot has another song in him. Because last Thursday, another cargo ship and the thirty-three crew members she carried were presumably sent to the bottom by Hurricane Joaquin.
I’ve written before that the wind can make fools of the most experienced seamen.
Much of the time, its capriciousness will get a laugh from them; sometimes, a curse. But once in a while, it will cost them their lives.
The wind can drive even large ships onto reefs and shoals, and can create waves that will bury their bows in seawater or flip them right over. So it is important that sailors learn never to underestimate this force of nature.
But while efforts to understand and use the wind stretch back into prehistory, attempts to develop a consistent standard describing its strength are remarkably young. In Great Britain, the earliest recorded attempt to create such a standard appears to be Daniel Defoe’s 11-point wind scale in 1704.
And nearly 130 more years passed before Britain’s Royal Navy adopted a single wind scale in 1831 for use on all its ships. The scale so adopted was the creation of an Irish Royal Navy officer, Francis Beaufort.
Like Defoe and other predecessors, Beaufort assigned numbers to wind terms that were more or less understood throughout the maritime culture of his day. For instance, his Force 4 was a “gentle breeze,” his Force 5 a “moderate breeze,” his Force 6 a “strong breeze,” and his Force 12 a “hurricane.”
The problem with all these scales, however, had lain in the “more or less” part of “understood.” Depending on individual experience and temperament, one man’s “gentle breeze” could be another man’s “strong breeze.” Put these two guys on one ship and give them each a gallon of beer a day. And pretty soon, the one will be implying, gently and diplomatically, of course, that the other is a total wimp. And the other will be offering, quite generously, really, to extract the one’s molars with his fists.
Yep, they allowed alcohol on Royal Navy ships back then, and, to a lesser extent, they still do today.
So Beaufort’s innovation, starting in his own ship’s logs in 1805, was to create working definitions of these terms by correlating his scale’s points to the observable effects of the wind on the sails of a Royal Navy warship.
For the men under Beaufort, a Force 6 wind soon became not just a “strong breeze, but “that in which a well-conditioned man-of-war could just carry, in chase, full and by, single reefed topsails and top-gallant sails.” (You know, there are still people around nowadays who know what that meant.) And a Force 12 hurricane became, in a much easier phrase that has since passed into sailing folklore, “that which no canvas could withstand.”
Had it not been a British invention, the men of the USS Constitution (the ship, not the document) would have found this emerging tool very handy for the tasks they faced during the War of 1812.
Since then, the Beaufort Scale, like the U.S. Constitution (the document, not the ship), has proved itself well founded to keep up with changing times. Since its adoption by the Royal Navy 185 years ago, the scale has evolved to reflect:
- Numerical wind speeds, not of interest to sailors before the introduction of accurate wind measuring instruments.
- The heights and physical descriptions of waves, nowadays of more concern to today’s large, powerful motor-driven vessels than the wind itself.
- The visible effects of the wind on trees, smoke, flags, and structures, so you landlubbers have some idea of what we’re facing.
Finally, Beaufort’s breakthrough insight in correlating the wind’s strength with its effects on one type of sailboat can be applied to sailboats of any type. In my copy of his copiously, fancifully and beautifully illustrated book on the art of sailing, The Complete Sailor, author David Seidman includes a wind speed table that suggests corresponding courses of action for the small coastal cruiser. Here are the last three entries.
- Force 8 (Fresh Gale, 34-40 knots): Limit of boat’s sailing ability. Use motor or seek shelter.
- Force 9 (Strong Gale, 41-47 knots): Run under bare poles, lie ahull, or sit to sea anchor.
- Force 10 (Whole Gale, 48-55 knots): Swear oaths you will not keep once back on land.
That ever-present sound
It is widely assumed that sailors love the wind, and, to a point, this is not to be denied. The wind is, after all, what sets us apart from our motorboating brethren.
But, as the Beaufort scale demonstrates, there are limits. In winds up to about 16 knots, we take delight. Between 16 and 40 knots, we cope. Above 40 knots—if we were unlucky enough to be caught out there at all—we simply try to survive.
Pam and I were not out there at all this past week. But I can think of several oaths I would gladly have sworn and kept as we sat here in our Cambridge, MD marina under a northeaster with winds to 25 knots and with Hurricane Joaquin on everyone’s radar.
And the one thing no mere study of a wind scale can prepare you for is the sound. The tremulous rustling of nervous trees. The slapping of halyards against masts throughout the marina. The whistling through your wires, the rattling of your rigging, and the creak of your docklines as they strain to hold your home on the water against being thrown onto docks and pilings by the rising tides.
And then, of course, there’s the sound of the wind itself. At 25 knots, not yet a howl. But a certainly a threat, and perhaps a portent: a constant, rolling resonance from across the water as if from a far-off and never-ending freight train, suddenly ramping up whenever a sharp gust, filling the space around you, seems to move your boat perilously close to the tracks.
The sound will get inside your boat. And after a while, it will get inside you.
And once lodged in there, it will have more power than the cold rain and the grey sky outside ever can to make you wonder if the sun will ever come out again.
To sail another day
There are places in the world, such as Patagonia, where the wind never stops.
Here in Cambridge, I know myself a little bit better than I did a week ago. And I now know that I could not casually move to a place like Patagonia–not for a salary, scholarship, or sponsorship; not for a prize, and not on a bet. Because the sheer dread I found being built up within me by the ever-present sound of the wind is something for which I simply have no answer.
But before I knew this, I already knew myself to be an anxious person. New people and places make me uneasy. New experiences and their learning curves discomfit me. And whatever by its very nature lies outside my direct control terrifies me.
I can’t control the wind.
But I know I don’t have to.
And I also know through experience that my amygdala, that hypersensitive little fear center in my brain, is trainable. Just one or two walks around the same block, and it begins to shut up and settle down. The truism is true, after all: Whatever hasn’t yet killed me has indeed made me stronger.
So now I have a simple task, and no reason to think I won’t succeed. Like countless millions of sailors before me, I learned how to use the wind. Now, I have to learn how to wait patiently under it, so I can live to sail another day.
And, out of respect both for the wind itself and for all who venture out in it, try to remember the thirty-three who didn’t.
Portrait of Sir Francis Beaufort by Stephen Pearce, National Portrait Gallery (London) retrieved from Peter Sommer Travels.
USS Constitution in Boston: Retrieved from Wikipedia.