Clouds are a sailor's friend. As long as there are
clouds in the sky, you have a good idea about the type of sailing conditions
you will experience for the next couple of hours. They won't necessarily
tell you what's going to happen tomorrow or the day after, but if if you
listen to what they say, it's not too hard to stay out of harms way when you
are sailing offshore.
Clouds start at the sea surface extending up to eighteen-thousand feet, and
when you look at them, you can figure out what's happening to the wind at
different altitudes. High cirrus clouds tell you what's going on in
the upper levels, and trade wind cumuli tell you what's happening at the
lower levels. When you look at their speed and direction of movement,
you discover what the winds are doing at your location.
Clouds aren't static. Their size and shape continually change
throughout the day. Trade wind cumuli increase in size and height
until late in the day. As the sun sets you can watch them shrink as
they literally melt away in front of your eyes.
Thunderstorms announce their presence as vertically developed cumulus clouds
that go all the way to eighteen-thousand feet, and they usually do it long
before lightning and thunder make their appearance. When clouds are
taller than they are wide, you have a condition called vertical development.
When you are sailing offshore, you always look to see how much vertical
development there is in the cumulus clouds, because you know it's highly
unlikely to have thunder and lightning with associated squalls unless
there is significant vertical development.
It's easy to avoid thunderstorms and squalls, because you can see them
forming and alter your course to avoid them. There's no need to be
pummeled by fierce downdrafts of forty to sixty knots; you simply sail away
from them or around them. I usually don't get caught by squalls
and thunderstorms unless I am not paying attention to the clouds, or if I am
at anchor, and there's nothing I can do to avoid them because I am
Paying attention to clouds isn't rocket science, and you don't need an
advanced degree in meteorology to use clouds to your benefit. You
simply need to pay attention to what is going on around you.
In thirty-three thousand miles of sailing I have been in squalls quite a
few times, and I can't remember a single instance in which I was caught off
guard with too much sail up because I pay attention to what the clouds are
saying. I am careful to not be over-canvassed, because blowing out
sails and loosing a mast in high winds is expensive and dangerous. I
sail in damage control mode most of the time, and that means fear is not a member of our crew.
The sailing photo at the top of the page shows Exit Only
confidently motor-sailing into the sunset. The low level cumulus
clouds are breaking up as the sun sets over the horizon. Those clouds
tell me it's going to be a quiet night at sea, and I feel good.
The photo at the bottom is a fully developed example of
"red sky at night, sailor's delight." A red sky in the evening usually
means the weather is going to be relatively benign during the night.
It will be a "no worries mate evening," and that's reassuring because there
are lots of clouds in the sky.
Even when the sky looks ugly with billowing cumulonimbus clouds on the
horizon and black squalls heading your way, you have plenty of time to
prepare for the onslaught. Thunderstorms don't last forever, and
squalls pass quickly by. If you listen to what the clouds are
saying, you will handle these meteorologicalinconveniences in
stride. You will reduce your sail to a safe level until the tempest is
The real problem isn't the wind and waves. It's the storm of
thoughts blowing though your mind that gets you into trouble. If you
listen to the voice of fear, your sailing adventure becomes a nightmare.
But if you listen to the clouds, you will recognize the voice of fear for
the imposter that it is. People who sail offshore in a well-found
yacht have little to fear from the weather ninety-eight percent of the time,
and the clouds usually tell you what to do.
The clouds are your friends, and if you listen to what they say, your
life will be good as you sail on the ocean of your dreams.