Guest Post by Willis Eschenbach
In the Pacific off the coast of California, there’s an unusual weather phenomenon called a “fair-weather gale”. It happens periodically in the summer when California’s Central Valley and the Mojave Desert heat up. To replace the rising warm air, the cool air starts to rush in from a broad expanse of the Pacific Ocean off the coast. This leads to strong gale-force winds that arise without a storm, hence the name.
In the spirit of my previous post, “It’s Not About Me” let me approach this weather phenomenon from a different direction, and tell you how I finally learned about the fair-weather gale.
In 1979 I was newly married to my wife Ellie. We hadn’t spent 24 hours together when we were married, with just us and the preacher there, standing outdoors in the pouring rain. But that’s another story. I don’t say much about Ellie despite her importance in my life, don’t want to break the spell, so let me be brief again. I think of myself as a good guy. But I’m a good guy because I learned to be, mostly from Ellie and the other women I lived with before I met her. Ellie, on the other hand, is good to the bone, inherently decent and caring. She is also a gifted Family Nurse Practioner, a category something between a Registered Nurse and a Doctor. I can only offer her the ultimate accolade … she’s put up with me for 32 years.
I had a grand year fishing that year. I was working on a boat gill-netting herring for their roe, in San Francisco Bay. The season is in the winter, January and February. Crystal clear nights with the Transamerica Pyramid glistening across the Bay, sunshine over the Golden Gate Bridge while setting nets off of Sausalito, it’s a gorgeous office for a man to work in. The season runs five days on and weekends off. I commuted to work, I was living in a canvas yurt in Sonoma County at the time. Weekends I spent hiding out in the yurt with Ellie.
So for five days at a time the boat crew (3 men) did nothing but fish, set nets, tie the boat off the end of the net and go to sleep for two hours, pull the nets and shake the herring out by hand (no shakers then), set them back out, go prospect for herring while the nets were fishing, and do it over again. Herring scales covered the boat, the nets, our foul weather gear, our faces, our ears.
Late Friday afternoon, after five days of straight fishing 24 hours a day, and very few hours of sleep, we’d park the boat at Pier 38. Pier 38 is an up-market bayside collection of tourist shops and boutiques and restaurants and the like, with slips for boats. We’d stagger off the boat, exhausted, wrung out, covered head to toe with fish scales, and stand there in the evening sun and watch the beautiful women walk by. They looked at us with vague amusement, they were perfectly dressed and coiffed with highlights in their hair. We were authentic San Francisco waterfront atmosphere with fish-scale highlights in ours.
Now, when you fish with gill nets, what you catch depends on the size of the mesh of the net. We watched the sunset ladies, and speculated about setting a gill net with a mesh size of 34DD across Pier 38 to scoop them up. We were beyond making sense, drunk on youth and fishing and the joy of the Bay and making good money, picking herring roe out of our teeth and eyebrows.
The season was two months. I made just over ten grand, including one glorious sunny morning where we landed $4,000 worth of fish (my crew share) in six hours.
So I retired again, and spent all week with Ellie again instead of just weekends. Soon, however, the wanderlust hit me. After a month or so at home with my gorgeous ex-fiancée, I took a job helping finish up the building of an aluminum boat in Bellingham, Washington. When the boat was finished, we took it for sea trials, and then put it on the barge for the Bering Sea. We flew to Dillingham, Alaska to meet it, put it in the water, and went fishing in Togiak. This was purse seining for roe herring, with a spotter plane to put us on the fish. I got to go up with the spotter plane once, I do love to fly. The view from up there, back across the coastal plain to the mountains that stretch thousands of miles with only an occasional human habitation, will stay with me always. It is one of the wild places of my mind, a place that scarcely knows the hand of man. Go to some huge wild untouched place at least once in your life, dear friends. It is important for us to have and keep true wilderness, not just on the planet, but in our minds and memories as well.
The Bering Sea herring season lasted six weeks. I made $14,000. I retired again. I started back to see Ellie, she didn’t know I was coming. Through a series of misunderstandings and coincidences, I ended up having to go to Seattle first. While there, I saw a boat for sale. It was a sweet little 21 foot (six+ metre) sailboat. I’d done a lot of sailing at that point, including a Pacific crossing. I’d spent lots of time at sea by then, fishing, snorkeling, sailing. But always with other people. I’d never done any single-handing. I had a rush of blood to the head. I bought the boat. I didn’t tell Ellie. I decided to single-hand it to just north of San Francisco where I was living. I was an idiot. I named it the “Midnight Special”. I was a moron. I looked on it as my personal final test of my ocean-going skills. I was God’s own fool.
After spending a couple weeks fitting out the boat, one fine day I set out. The boat was on the lake in Seattle. I sailed it out through the locks and into the ocean. I stopped at Port Townsend for the night. I set out the next morning without checking the tides. I sailed for four hours in light winds. I didn’t seem to be moving much. I finally realized I wasn’t moving at all, the tide was carrying me backward. Four knots of boat speed minus five knots of tide gives minus one knot. Duh. But when the tide changed, I fairly flew out the channel.
After a final stop at Neah Bay, at the tip of the Olympic Peninsula, I blew out to sea. Winds fair, overcast sky. The first day was uneventful. I had a LORAN for navigation, a dinosaur system that could give you a pretty good fix … sometimes. But when it lied to you, there was no way to know, it could give you a fix that was ten miles away from your actual position. I checked it with horizontal sextant shots of the coast, plus occasional sun shots through breaks in the clouds. It seemed to be spot on, but that meant nothing. If it hit an area with skip, it could go wrong any time. I worked my way slowly south and offshore. The first day was uneventful. At night I set up the self-steering gear. By then I was offshore of the shipping lanes. I slept in fits and starts.
The next days I sailed southwards. I was becoming more comfortable with the boat. The miles rolled by, 200, 300, 400. I was on an 800-mile voyage. Deep green sea, chock full of life. The deep blue Central and South Pacific is dead, a desert, little life. The upwelling waters on the North Coast Pacific are full of nutrients. Blooming life keeps them green.
At some point in there, the radio started talking about increasing winds. And then at some point in there, I was in the area of increasing winds. I went to reef the mainsail, to reduce the sail area. To do that I needed to lower it down, gather up the bottom of the sail, and tie it up. Then I could continue to sail, with less sail area.
Murphy not having died, of course, the rope holding up the sail was jammed at the top of the mast. The wind was rising. I would have to climb up and release it. I tied a safety line to the base of the mast and the other end to my safety harness. I started to climb. It was a huge struggle on the slippery mast. I got up to the spreaders. My safety line jammed on the deck. I couldn’t loosen it. My weight, even halfway up the mast, was making the tiny boat swing widely from side to side. It would get worse as I went up. But I was half exhausted, and if I went down I wasn’t sure if I could get back up. I untied my safety line with one hand and continued upward. At the top, my weight made the boat roll drunkenly. I looked out at the ocean. From up there, the boat looked small, and the waves stretched forever, ocean and only ocean in all directions. What an eternal fool I was to be up there with no safety line on, but aaaaah, god what a view, the boat rolling like a drunken sailor on shore leave, me holding to the slender, whipping mast like a monkey clinging to a fly rod, looking forever across a storm-tossed sea, a view to die for … suddenly realizing I did not wish to do that, I loosed the jam and slid down the mast like a demented fireman, hungry for the safety of the deck. I found my safety harness rope and re-tied it.
Then I finished reefing the mainsail.
The wind continued to rise during the day. By now it was around 30 knots (about 15 m/sec, knots are conveniently about 2 times metres per second, actually 1.94 but close enough). I dropped all the sails at dusk, which was a mistake. I should have kept up enough to keep the nose of the boat into the wind. Bad sailor, no donuts.
I slept even more fitfully. Breaking waves were beginning to batter the boat. Around 2 AM the boat was picked up and tossed sideways. I woke instantly. I swore I’d heard something crack. I searched with the flashlight. Nothing was visible. I was scared. I steered the boat by hand.
Dawn was ugly. The boat had a window in the side of the small cabin, about two feet long by 4″ wide (600 x 100 mm). Morning light showed that it was cracked and crazed. It only held together because it was safety glass. I had nothing to repair it with. I knew if the boat went over like that again, the window could blow out entirely and the boat could fill quickly. I knew I was in serious danger.
The boat was continually being battered by waves. I put on my bright orange suit, my covers your body and has claw hand gloves, one-piece survival suit. I’d prepared it beforehand by duct-taping a signal mirror to it. If the boat went down I’d swim to shore and signal boats and airplanes along the way. The ocean wasn’t going to get me without a big fight.
Figure 2. This is not me, but that’s just like my survival suit. Except that his suit lacks a signaling mirror. And duct tape. Check out the lobster claw hands.
Waves were steepening and growing. The weather report was ominous, full fair-weather gale. Breakers were smashing the boat. I realized I had to get the boat moving or the shattered window would blow out entirely.
The wind was howling. I took the “jib sail”, the smaller triangular sail in the front of the boat. I started folding it. Half, quarter, eighth, sixteenth. I clipped it onto the forestay. It was a tiny triangle of sail, a couple feet wide in the front and tapering back eight feet to the corner.
When I hoisted that scrap of sail and the wind hit it, it snapped tight as a steel bar. The boat started forwards as if it were startled. I was moving again. But where could I go? There are very few all-weather harbors on the north coast. The radio warned of the closures. I started downwind, heading for the coast.
The waves started breaking big. When they caught me, I’d swing the boat to take the pressure off the bad window. I’d crouch down in the tiny cockpit. The breaker would pound completely over me and the boat. I would steer it so it went over on the side with the good window. The cockpit would fill to the brim. The boat would go over sideways until the mast almost touched the water. The water would pour back out of the cockpit. The boat would stagger up, the wind would catch the scrap of sail, and I was off on the hobby-horse again.
The waves grew steeper and steeper. I could feel the boat wanting to take off on the waves, and for a while, I fought it. For most boats, surfing down a wave is terminal. With the speed, the bow drives underwater at the foot of the wave, and the boat broaches (swings sideways) and rolls over. But a wave spun me sideways, and the boat surfed gracefully down the wave. I was stunned when I found that I could surf the boat! All my surfer’s instincts came to the fore.
So for the next several hours, I was surfing my boat, dressed in my survival suit with the duct-taped survival mirror, and I didn’t mention two small cans of juice duct-taped to each arm and leg. I was surfing in waves that were taller than the mast. Here I came to understand a crucial difference between a fair-weather gale and a storm.
In a storm, the winds spiral out from one point in the center of the storm. As the storm moves, the different waves interfere with each other, leading to a chaotic sea.
On the other hand, in a fairweather gale, the air moves steadily and strongly over a large area. After a couple days it creates huge waves that are perfectly straight from horizon to horizon.
When I was between waves, it was like being in a long canyon. Looking down the canyon, at three or four places at any time, the wave was breaking. But not breaking and crumbling down the face. Breaking in huge overfalls, great mountains of water shooting out and dropping with a thunderous roar. When the waves picked me up I was standing up in the cockpit in my ludicrous bright orange survival suit with the duct-taped juice and the survival mirror, screaming with joy at the top of my voice as the boat plummeted down sheer cliffs and drove hard across the face of the wave to escape the oncoming breakers. I thought my heart would explode from the sheer rush, it was incredible to surf like that.
After while, it wasn’t so much fun …
By late afternoon, I was exhausted. I hadn’t seen a boat in three days. No land in sight, low clouds, poor visibility. I knew if I didn’t get out in 24 hours, sooner rather than later I’d make a lethal mistake, the window would blow out, and the boat would go down. So at that time, I swore a big swear. I was young. In later life, I learned that a big swear at sea is generally not recommended. Then, in my youthful ignorance, I swore a big swear that if a cargo boat or a fishing boat or even a puny motorboat came by I’d fire every single flare I had at the sucker until they got the message and rescued me.
Of course, as tends to happen when a man makes big swears at sea, right after I made the big swear, up pops a ship, a big cargo ship. It’s coming my way. The sun is setting. The wind is rising.
I get out all my flares. I had four regular flares and three pistol flares. Not counting the smoke flare and the regular flare that I had duct-taped to my survival suit. Along with the cans of juice. And the survival mirror. Oh, and the whistle. Right. I had duct-taped an emergency whistle to the back of the wrist of my survival suit. I looked at the cargo ship. I looked at the sun. I looked at the whistle. I looked at the giant waves. I heard the wind … rising. I looked at the big, safe ship.
… suddenly I could see the newspaper headlines. They said “Cargo Ship Rescues Idiot From His Own Stupidity”. With a picture of me hanging my head and wearing my survival suit with its ridiculously dangling cargo of whistles and mirrors and cans. I shuddered. I couldn’t face that.
I’d decided I’d rather swim to shore. If it took me a week, no worries. I was prepared. I could just eat the candy bars that I had duct-taped to the survival suit. Plus I had the duct-taped flares to signal a ship while I was swimming. And the cans of juice. And the mirror. And the whistle. I was good. I looked at the cargo boat. It was going away. I looked at the sun. It was going away. I looked at my survival suit. I looked at the cans of juice, and the pathetic candy bars. I looked at the horizon. The cargo ship went over it. The sun went down. The temperature was dropping. The wind continued rising, a cold, biting wind. I realized I likely had just thrown away my only chance of survival. I cursed myself out loud, I yelled that I didn’t care about the newspaper headlines, I said I took it all back, I really did want to be rescued. But the cargo boat didn’t reappear.
I had to have a plan. I remembered reading, maybe a decade before, that in olden times when there were strong winds offshore, sailboats would hide out just below Cape Mendocino, because the winds weren’t as strong there. At least I thought I remembered that … I’d read it years before. I realized that this was likely my only chance. So in total darkness, without a sun sight or a sight of the coast in five days, steering by an unreliable LORAN, I turned and ran for Cape Mendocino.
At that point, I was maybe thirty miles from the Cape. As I approached the south side of the Cape, or as I headed directly for the rocks if my LORAN was lying to me, there was no slackening of the wind. Instead, it blew harder and harder.
Figure 3. Battleship Rock, offshore from Cape Mendocino. What I feared to hit in the dark.
I was still steering the boat. I was so exhausted I started nodding off. I was hearing voices in the wind. At one point, I remember being very angry. I was angry that whoever was steering the boat wasn’t paying attention. They were letting the boat go sideways, and I knew it was a mistake. I was yelling at the helmsman to straighten out the boat or the wave would hit us. When the wave hit and the cockpit filled up with water I woke to realize I was screaming imprecations into the unhearing wind, as alone as ever … the night went on. I remember thinking “Soon the wind will get tired. It can’t blow like this forever. It must be exhausted by now.” It made perfect sense at the time. The voices in the wind continued to mumble and laugh and talk, but I couldn’t understand what they said most of the time.
Wind in the rigging of a boat is a funny thing. When the wind is light, the rigging sighs. At higher wind it kind of whistles. When the wind gets higher it starts to scream. At forty knots, it begins to howl.
But when the wind tops fifty knots or more, the rigging shrieks with a demon scream underlain by a strange humming sound, a combination that sets your fillings dancing and makes your ears ring and your eyes water. As I approached the Cape, the wind and the shrieking rigging kept going up and up the scale, it was inside my ears and grinding my thoughts. And for all I knew, I was driving my boat as hard as I could go directly onto the cruel gnashing rocks off of the Cape, home of lots of dead ships.
Eleven o’clock, the wind still rising. Midnight, the shrieking escalated. I was surfing down unseen mountains in total blackness, avoiding overfalls by sound and by luck, dropping with exhaustion, and trying to listen through it all in fear of hearing what I dreaded to hear, the sound of waves breaking on rocks ahead. Every hour on the hour I raced below, copied the numbers off of the LORAN, and plotted my position. I crept towards what I thought was the lee of the Cape.
One o’clock, and no change. One thirty, even more wind. Then at two, I took my hourly fix. I figured I was maybe five miles offshore. I had no choice but to keep steering for unknown dangers … and right then, in about fifteen minutes, the wind went dead flat calm. And I mean dead flat. Not a scrap of wind. Not a breath. I looked at my watch. 2:20 AM. I dropped the sail and listened. I could hear the wind moaning out to sea. I listened to the radio. Still blowing full gale offshore. I went below. Water was sloshing over the floorboards. I was too tired to bail it out. If the boat sank I was only five miles from shore, so close I could survive by eating the emergency dye pack I had duct-taped to one of the legs of my survival suit. A boat might run me over. The wind might eddy in behind the Cape and blow me on shore. I didn’t care. I laid down in my bunk, still in my survival suit, and dropped into a deep, dreamless sleep.
Not much else to tell. I woke up at about 11 am to the foghorn of a cargo ship. It sounded very near, very loud. I jumped out of the bunk, heart pounding. I was covered in sweat, drenched from fighting the ocean and from sleeping in the survival suit. The ship’s foghorn sounded again. I couldn’t tell which way it was coming from. There was only the ghost of a wind. In haste, I put up the full mainsail, the full jib, and the spinnaker, a large sail used only in light airs. The foghorn sounded again, softer this time, moving away. I ghosted southwards along the coast to Fort Bragg, about sixty miles north of my original destination. The harbor mouth was open with just a slight swell over the bar. I went in and tied up. I untaped one of my candy bars from my survival suit and ate it. Never has a candy bar tasted so sweet, before or since. It was the sweet taste of still being alive. I walked ashore and took a motel room. I called Ellie and asked her to come get me. I told her what I’d done. She didn’t sound surprised. She said she’d dreamed I was coming back. I fell asleep. And that good woman, that dear lady came and gathered me up and dusted me off and gently brought me home.
Now, at that point in my life, for some years I’d been fishing commercially and sailing on the California coast. I also was used to following the fair-weather gales by way of the weather maps, eyeing the isobars and watching the pressures. I would have said I understood the fair-weather gale pretty well.
But I didn’t understand how the waves of a fair-weather gale differ from a regular storm. I didn’t realize the importance of orography (the shape of the land) in determining the near-coastal wind patterns. I didn’t know that it could be blowing 50 knots just offshore, and be dead flat calm two miles inside of that. I didn’t realize that the increasing wind after midnight meant that I was getting into the stream of air blowing off of the end of the Cape.
Now, please don’t get the idea that I am dismissing book knowledge. I love book knowledge, I wish I had more of it. Intellectual understanding is crucial to getting a handle on a situation.
But practical experience is also important. It’s valuable to know that a change in the weather is coming, not from the TV or a weather map but from a subtle wind shift and a few wisps of cloud. And just as being able to understand the isobars and fronts on the weather map is important, seeing exactly what they mean from the deck of a ship is important as well.
So that’s how I met the fair-weather gale. And that’s another reason why the weather has always fascinated me, and I have always studied it. Because I knew my life might depend on my understanding of the weather.
I swore another big swear at the time, too, somewhere in that black starless night. I swore that if I got out alive, I wouldn’t claim the trip showed I was a master mariner. I wouldn’t claim that I had beat the ocean with the “Midnight Special”. I would be honest about what happened. As a man of my word, I am honor bound to tell you that I was a fool, a very lucky fool, but a fool nonetheless. I did not beat the ocean, it spared me.
The name “Midnight Special” comes from a prison song. It’s about a train, the “Midnight Special”, that runs near the prison. The jailhouse legend was that if the headlight of the Midnight Special shone on you, it meant you’d soon be free. Of course, being a train, the headlight always swept the same path, and never shone on the prison.
It seemed appropriate that the running lights of my very own Midnight Special should shine on me … and in the event, they did, and released me from the fair-weather gale and set me free once again.
PS – After I got to shore and checked the boat, I found that the keel had been loosened by the waves, the hull was weakened, and the entire keel was very close to dropping out and leaving a huge hole in the bottom of the boat … I’m a lucky fool indeed.
[UPDATE] Ted Wagner in the comments below says:
Question about the general weather pattern you’re describing: if the offshore gale is caused by air coming in to fill the void of the heated air rising over the land because of convection, what happens to the air above the rising air? To where does it get displaced?
My understanding of the normal convection pattern is that the thermals (rising air) are surrounded by much larger areas of slower falling, cooler air. What conditions determine which “replacement pattern” prevails?
Dang, very good question, never considered that. You are right that around thunderstorms, and between squall lines, there are areas of descending cooler, drier air.
Off the top of my head, I’d say that in the case of the fair-weather gale, the rising air over the Mojave and the Central Valley would move poleward. Let me think about that.
Generally, the Mojave and the Central Valley are at about 35-40° North. The great deserts of the northern hemisphere (Sahara/Gobi/Sonora) are in the descending part of the great Hadley Cell circulation, further south at around 30°N. Would it connect aloft with that? I don’t think so, doesn’t feel right.
Yeah, I think polewards. That’s supported by the fact that the replacement air is generally moving southwest off the Pacific before rising, and something has to replace it. Now, how about east and west?
Well, the air in the east over the valleys and deserts is warmed and rises. The air in the west over the Pacific is cooled by the cold upwelling currents along the entire coast, and it sinks. So aloft, my guess is that the rising air over the land would move generally north-east out over the Pacific in a contra-current to complete the circuit. While it is very wide-spread, it is still a local phenomenon.
But that’s just my gut response, I have absolutely no data on that at all. I welcome any facts from anyone.
Either way, it is another natural example of the “chimney-effect” method of quickly moving heat from the surface aloft. When heat is removed quickly from the surface aloft, it spends less time in the high water vapor / high GHG lower atmosphere.
It is also one of many of what are called “emergent phenomena”. These are phenomena that arise spontaneously, typically with the crossing of some threshold of temperature and other variables. They usually arise at a certain time, have a lifespan, and die away, although some are more persistent features of a particular system. Typical examples of emergent climate phenomena are thunderstorms, hurricanes, squall lines, tornados, dust devils, El Niños, and at the largest scale, the globe-girdling Hadley Cells. And also, as I hadn’t previously considered, Pacific fair-weather gales. Here’s one thing those have in common.
Every one of them moves prodigious amounts of energy from the surface aloft, at a rate of knots.
These emergent phenomena, taken as a whole, are what regulate the temperature of the planet. They emerge at a certain threshold and remove local heat buildup. Whether it is a thunderstorm on a hot summer afternoon in Ohio or a fair-weather gale in California, those phenomena have emerged to deal with local hot-spots, places where there is an excess of heat. Unless this spontaneous emergence of hotspot-removing natural phenomena is a feature of the climate models, I don’t see how they can hope to model the climate. See my comments on the Tasmanian Dirt Devil. They are what keep the planet from overheating.
Thinking about it, that would be an interesting test of a computer climate model. You can’t see how well they simulate thunderstorms (except in the abstract) because they’re too small, sub-grid-scale. But in their current form, do the climate models periodically cough up fair-weather summer gales off the coast of California such as peg the needle on a man’s pucker factor meter, with fifty-knot winds and twenty-five-foot waves? I have no idea.
Anyhow, as I said, my thanks for the very interesting question. I’m adding this to the head post.
… from Willis’s piecemeal and ongoing autobiography, entitled “Retire Early … And Often” …