Tom Cunliffe: Risking a gale at sea is better than rotting in harbour, and a gloomy forecast can turn out to be brighter than expected

I’m curious about the way my attitude to weather and forecasting has changed over the years. I’ll never forget being trapped in Cherbourg in a 32-foot wooden gaff
cutter with serious claims to seaworthiness but no great pointing ability. The wind had stuck in the north for a few days and my shipmates and I had to get back to Hamble.

Our commitments varied from burying a grandmother to signing on at the Labour Exchange for the week’s dole but we were all pressed in our own way.

A lunchtime shipping forecast promised a shift to the northeast while muttering about ‘5 or 6, possibly gale 8 later’. The east-going stream was due to start at sunset and we were at least in with a chance of laying the Needles, so we had a final dinner ashore and blasted off into the gloom at bed-time. Twenty-four-hour forecasts were all that was available then, and it proved a bad mistake.

The spring flood took hold of us and hurled the old boat into the mounting seas. As it strengthened, the wind blew ever harder straight into the teeth of the tide and before midnight we were being mangled by square waves the like of which I have rarely seen.

One pal, a national dinghy champion and a sailor of substantial repute, retired to the fo’c’sle for a bout with the facilities. Fearing for his safety half an hour later we banged on the door. A groan rose above the roar of the wind and slamming of the waves. He opened up, we spooned him out and laid him to rest on the downhill saloon settee where morale showed signs of recovery until the boat fell into a trough that went halfway to Australia. All four oil-lamp chimneys bounced out of their holders and showered his recumbent form with broken glass.

It was a bad night but we’d brought it on ourselves. If we’d waited for the ebb, we’d have missed what we’d imagined would be a friendly lift to windward, but the next tide would have made up the difference in calmer water. The streams off Cherbourg peninsula are not to be trifled with. Had we benefited from a crystal ball, we’d have realised that the following day was to produce a Force 5 south-westerly, but by then the damage was done. I’d learned a lot about wind and tide, but some of my mates were swearing never to go to sea again. At least oneofthemneverdid. Today, when I tune my on-board PC in to Passage Weather and read off a week’s prognosis, I often spare a thought for that dreadful trip. Forecasting is so far-reaching now that a careful sailor could navigate in coastal waters for a lifetime without ever being caught out by a full gale. There’s a downside though, which I discover creeping up on me. Harbour sickness has always been a curse. The symptom is an unwillingness to try our luck beyond the safety of the breakwater.

The cause is usually the skipper not fancying the look of the weather. When all I had was one day’s worth of ‘met’ and perhaps a synoptic chart I’d plotted myself from the reports from coastal stations, I was usually ready to punt off into the North Sea towards Norway if things looked OK for the next day or two.

Now, I find myself hanging round waiting for five days’ worth of delights. Life isn’t like that though. It never was, and in our latitudes it never will be. With care and a little experience we can usually avoid the horrors of my nightmare off Cherbourg, but as for the rest, five days is a long time at the weather centre. Things can change. They often do. Sometimes it’s even for the better. Docks rot ships and men. Life’s too short to hang around waiting for perfection.


– Tom Cunliffe