Worse things happening at sea . . .

Britain has long been known as a sea-going nation and it was dominance at sea that opened up a vast empire to our tiny island from the eighteenth century onward.  The sea, however, was no smooth road. The longer voyages for exotic goods or worldwide discovery amplified all the natural hazards and people now determinedly took on the ancient scourges of the oceans.

In the eighteenth century, extraordinary navigator Captain Cook commanded a circumnavigation without loss of a single man to scurvy, an achievement rare in much shorter voyages.   This was thanks to the radical idea of adding fresh food to the sailors’ diet giving them vital vitamin C.

Some foes, however, could not be defeated.  The weather, for example, could, at best, be evaded.  Prediction has, of course, improved to the point where we can have some trust in forecasts.  The first step was quantifying the weather.  Sailors always had, had their own specific expressions for different types of weather and from that took some prediction of the likely course of events.  For example, we all know that a building wind and dark clouds might indicate a storm but more precision was needed at sea when the results might be so catastrophic.

In 1806, Rear Admiral Francis Beaufort, came up with a scale now known as the Beaufort scale.  Here it is:

The original Beaufort Scale – 1806




Faint breeze or just not a calm


Light air


Light breeze


Gentle breeze


Moderate breeze


Fresh breeze


Gentle, steady gale


Moderate gale


Brisk gale


Fresh gale


Hard gale


Hard gale with heavy gusts




The kind of storm we had the other day without the terrible noise


The scale came to be measured in knots, which was the standard method by which ships measured their acceleration at sea.  Ropes were tied to a float at the end, knotted at even distances and cast into the water from a spool.  Over the course of a day, with frequent measurements, you could tell how far you had travelled and thus, where you now were.  That so long as you also took good account of the sun and stars or compass.

It is obvious that combining the visual clues with the confirmed acceleration would improve your chances of a good forecast and safe harbour for the night.

Wishing you all a safe harbour from this dark, wet, stormy night in England.

From Lin Petrie