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Trust what your eyes tell you, and you will always know how the wind is blowing

2021 September 1

was considering the 55th anniversary of SAILING, and I asked the question, “What is the one thing that binds all SAILING readers together aside, of course, from great photos and even greater writing?”


When I rolled out of bed this morning (late again, as She Who Must Be Obeyed noted pointedly), I glanced out the window. A millisecond glimpse of palm trees (this is Florida, after all) and I thought to myself, “15, gusting 25, out of the east.”

I mused on that as I prepared for an adventurous day of grocery shopping, library returns and, sadly, a quick foray into Home Depot for some silicone sealant. I say sadly because none of these outings had anything to do with our boats. Even the sealant was to cure a weeping window in our great room. Sigh.

One of my musings was, “How did I know automatically that it was 15 to 25 from the east?” I realized that, after decades of rolling out of bed on regatta days, on cast-off-the-docklines-for-a-cruise days or on varnish days, I knew what to expect before I listened to any TV talking head’s lame guestimate of the weather.

I knew that I’d need the heavier and older sails for the regatta, that I might convince SWMBO into casting off tomorrow instead, and that the varnish can would keep its lid in place until next week.


A lifetime, and not a particularly short one, had given me all the tools I needed. The palm fronds were blowing and bending slightly to give me the wind speed, just like the windsocks at an airport (more in a moment). I could easily see that the ripples on our lake were marching east-to-west, and of a size that said (to me) that it would be 15 on the 15 to 25 scale. 

Just as automobile drivers see out of the corner of their eyes the signs for gas prices, I could register a fairly exact estimate that would be confirmed when I went on either aviation or marine weather after breakfast. As I thought, Palm Beach International had a steady 16, gusting to 20. The outer sea buoy of Palm Beach had 18 to 22. 

I wasn’t particularly concerned because I was setting off for the library, not Bimini. It wasn’t the North American championships of anything except finding the last paper towels in the aisles of our local Publix. And the varnish was already long dried on the parts I’d brought home into our garage that, as SWMBO points out regularly, once held two cars. 

Every sailor, including those who are on their second sailing lesson, look out at the water and consider many things. Do I need sunscreen? (The answer should always be yes). Do I need my foulies? (Again, yes.) Do I need my sailing gloves? (Aw, c’mon, the answers are all “yes,” except whether one six-pack 

is enough). 

For the first half of my life, I looked at yacht club flags, at flagpoles wherever I was, and even at the fluttery banners on used car lots. But it wasn’t until I took up flying, specifically soaring, that I learned that there were actual measurements of flag-waving.

The windsock that you’ll find at every hick airport with a dirt runway (and more than a few with the word “international” in front of their names), is crucial to pilots getting ready to do something close to the ground: going up or going down.

Windsocks, in case you’ve never looked, are high-visibility orange with alternating white stripes. But until you’re in the windsock cognoscenti, you probably think it just indicates wind direction, like the pennant at the top of your mast. Wrong.

It also, and quite accurately, gives you the wind speed because, under International Civil Aviation rules, every windsock is carefully crafted from a specific material and to a specific shape. 

In short, the stripes tell you the wind speed. Under ICAO rules, a windsock will be fully extended (that means straight out) at 15 knots of wind. Precisely. A 10-knot wind will cause the sock to droop five degrees below horizontal, while six knots takes it to 30 

degrees down. 

The stripes on the windsock can also give you more accurate increments: each stripe adds about three knots to the true wind speed, so pilots can snort when the tower says, “light westerlies under five knots at 270-degrees.” A few, unafraid of a bad report card, have snapped back, “step outside the tower and look at your windsock.”

Back to sailing. I’ve personally calibrated the palm fronds on a nearby palm just like a windsock, and I’m irked when a zealous gardener trims them back so I need to start over. This morning, for example, the two droopy brown fronds were wrapping around the trunk, so it was clearly over 15, and the fact that the green fronds on the downwind side were being lifted above their normal sag in gusts said clearly on the 25 side. 

Because wind is what moves us, sailors care. Licking your finger and holding it up is totally useless, unless your finger bends over backward in a hurricane. I recently was wasting time in a marine hardware store where I came across an anemometer that had all the complications of an Italian espresso machine (and probably the usefulness). I had one of those in my back yard once, and I watched the anemometer spin off like a well-launched Frisbee with a last recorded speed of 125 mph. I didn’t really need this $350 wind-o-meter to tell me that, as the Brits say, it was blowing a hoolie. Or as Down Easters say, it was blowing dogs off their chains. 

Speaking of hurricanes, I learned a lesson of never letting pride (and false knowledge) get in your way. Being a sailor, I felt I had a finely tuned understanding of how hurricanes work so, as we prepared for our fifth, no, our eighth hurricane, I could clearly see where the eye would pass, which meant that I didn’t need to put hurricane shutters on the downwind front doors of our house. 

The hurricane, of course, cared nothing for my years of sailing and so, as SWMBO and I braced ourselves to keep the front doors from blowing in, she looked at me and said, “Just where in the @*#)& do you get your weather info?”

I learned to soar from a wizened instructor with more hours in his logbook than most airline pilots, and his “windsock” was to watch the dust devils play on our airstrip, but most important was to check the angle of the hot dog sign on the little airport café, and to listen to how much it was squeaking.

Wind. It’s what we worship as an invisible god, but he’s a tricky one. We must remember to use what we have available to understand and assuage this deity. The more you study and understand the wind (hurricanes aside), the better and happier and more prepared a sailor you will become. 

Having lived and sailed in areas as diverse as San Francisco and Alamitos Bay, in Arizona and now Florida, I have learned one extremely useful tool. On local cable TV they usually have a weather channel broadcasting 24 hours of weather. But I’ve always had something far better than that wherever I lived. No, it’s not an electronic wind-o-meter.

It’s called a window.