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Weather and Other Practical Nautical Proverbs

Listen to old sailor’s words and learn much about weather

Check any waterfront, even today, and you may find some old salt who spent his life at sea, and is now grounded by age, (“setting out the anchor’’) He may be gazing out towards the inlet and reciting old, but still valid proverbs to himself or anyone else who will listen. Many of these terms have made their way into our everyday language. Some go back many centuries. There is a lot to be learned from these often-witty sayings. So, listen up closely for first we will examine some dealing with weather.


What is interesting about these ditties is that while boaters today have all types of programs and apps to cover weather forecasting, these simple quotes are still accurate and can be relied on today. We start with two famous ones.

“Red in the morning, sailor take warning!”
“Red at night, sailors delight!”

The above are two almost everyone knows. You can almost bet on these results within 24 hours. In the morning a red glow appears on the eastern horizon and then the red sun fireball rises. Maybe you should remain at the dock and “Batten down the hatches”! But if it’s a beautiful red sunset, count on a glorious next day

“When the clouds are higher, your decks will be drier”
“Dew on decks before midnight, next day will surely be bright”
“Rain before seven. Dry by eleven!”

Observation, for every sailor, should be constantly ongoing, that will allow you to find drier decks by just following the above phrases which have been time tested. In any event, always have your slicker aboard.

“A curly clouded sky will not leave you dry!” When you have low cloud cover and see swooping curly clouds below it, you know that you are going to get wet. This bet you can take to the bank! If you make it back to port.

“Filly clouded skies make sailing ships lower their sails!”
“Anvil-shaped clouds will bring you a gale!”
“Higher the clouds, the fairer the weather!”
“A round-topped cloud with a flat face will carry rainfall in its face!”

If you follow these quotes that go back to ancient times you won’t find yourself reefing your sails while your mast is almost dipping into the froth. All these proverbs help us read the sky and give us hints on how we should be piloting our vessel.

“Clear sky and full moon, frost soon!”
Of course, this applies to more northern latitudes but keep in mind, you don’t want to slip on the deck with your coffee mug in your hand, early the next morning. So keep this one in mind.
“Rainbow in the morning portends a nice morning!”
What’s better than to sit on your boat and watch a rainbow, especially since it commonly means the rain has passed you and is now off to the east and that’s why you’re out there right-for the beauty of it all. (In our Mid-Atlantic and New England sea areas, quick summer storms generally move from west to east).
There are many more proverbs and sayings related to marine weather which you can research for yourself, but I will leave this portion with one more. When you hear it shouted by the captain, you better move quickly because you are going to be “Hit” big time. And here it is “Batten down the hatches!” All hell is about to explode so tie everything down, get your slickers on, and pray to Saint Elmo!
Now we move onto:


“Run a tight ship”! This one is easy. If you keep your decks a mess with lines and gears strewn about any mariner invites disaster. You can trip, fall overboard, and get severely injured where help is far away. Everything should always be in its appropriate place with decks and pilot areas always ready for action.

“Dead in the water” How many times have you heard this term? It means exactly what it implies. In the age of sail, there were times when the wind would just quit and the ship would end up as Long John Silver would say “Becalmed”. It could last a few hours, a day, a week, or a month. If there is enough water and grub aboard a ship then you could last it out. If not, the crew would succumb, and the ship would become a “Ghost Ship” endlessly drifting. Not a pleasant thought.

“Don’t rock the boat”! This one is an easy one. It means exactly what it says. Originally smaller boats were used as tenders and whaling boats were made to be able to take high and following seas. Therefore, the shape of their hulls tended to be rounder. They were easy to row, and relatively fast but were not all that stable if sailors started getting up and moving around. Next thing you knew you tipped over and the entire crew went into the drink. So, sit down, shut up and row.

“All hands on deck”! Seamen often worked in shifts but when everyone was needed, whether it is an impending crisis or an admiral coming aboard, “All hands” meant stop whatever you are doing and report to your regular stations. No excuses!

“Landlubber”! If you can’t take the motion of the sea, if the grand emptiness breeds panic, if you are heaving your bagel overboard consistently, then you, my friend, are a “Land Lubber” which is usually said with a snicker!

“Trim one’s sails”! I mentioned this to a landlubber one day as I was going sailing.
I said “I will have to trim the sails once I figure the winds. She asked me where I kept the scissors on board. It just means, in common terms, to adjust the position of the sails so the sails capture as much wind as possible to move the boat forward. The wind is always subtly changing so the sails get “Trimmed often before or during a sail.

“Learning the ropes”! This term has a flaw built into it. I have no idea why. The fact is that there is no such thing as the word “rope” on any boat. They are always called “lines”! That being pointed out, what this term means is that on any vessel “lines or ropes” are so important that a seaman must learn the purpose and knots used under multiple situations.

“Show one’s colors”! Right from the golden age of piracy! Ships would carry flags of many nations to disguise themselves in times of possible trouble. Pirates were good at this. They would fly a Spanish flag so they could get close to a Spanish treasure ship then they would run up the “skull and crossbones” and then a pure red flag below it which meant “Mr. Spanish Captain, if you do not stop now and let us board you without a battle and chase, when we finally catch you, we will dispense with you all.” A very convincing argument once he “showed one’s colors”!
“Pipe down”! My father’s favorite term when me and my brother were kicking the ever-loving out of each other! At the end of the day, the mate would come out on deck and blow his pipe (A tin whistle) which alerted everyone aboard to quiet down, put the cards away, finish your pint and get into your hammock for some sleep. Come morning the pipe would sound again for everyone to get up and come on deck.

And the final – “Don’t be a loose cannon”! This is one I can learn from because it aptly describes me. It comes from the fear of not having tied a cannon down before a storm and it breaking loose and doing severe damage to the ship and crew during a storm.
As you can see, many of these old maritime sayings, observations and proverbs have entered our language and are still used every day, both at home, in the office and on deck. Use them at will and keep them alive.

C. 2023 by Mark C. Nuccio. All rights reserved
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