“Red skies at night, sailors delight. Red skies in morning, sailors take warning.”
This durable ditty has survived the ages because it is pithy — but often wrong. Think about it for a moment. Just because the sky is red in the evening doesn’t necessarily mean it will be a clear day tomorrow. It could just be a nice sunset. Enjoy it for what it is.
Red skies in the morning has more substance, as shown below. It could indeed be a beautiful sunrise, but evidence suggests an approaching set of rain clouds. For a more accurate picture, consult the daily forecast of any weather station. It doesn’t matter whether it’s Accu-Weather or Weather First, etc. They are required to reflect the precision of the NOAA forecast, albeit with graphic bells and whistles.
“The low sun of sunset (or sunrise) always projects red rays. These do not of themselves presage a fine night. The fine night follows because the sun can only illuminate the windward clouds if there is no closed cover over the horizon (ie. to windward at sunset). The clouds in the foreground must be at medium and high levels. These conditions are fulfilled when a cold front has just passed and polar air is moving over the observer. It will then be a fine night.”
On the other hand…
“Reverse the situation and you have the dawn of a bad day. The sun is now to leeward and shining over a clear horizon onto the clouds of a warm front whose weather and wind has yet to come and is that of which shepherds warn.”
Apprehensive vacationers sometimes ask for a forecast several weeks out. I can provide a general statement like sunny and breezy in May, flatter winds in August. But no one can predict rain accurately more than a week away, and even then it’s only 50% accurate. The closest forecast is 24 hours, usually 95% correct. With today’s modern radar, Let’s Go Sail can confidently set out even if it’s raining 100 miles south.
It’s easy to get the ditty mixed up. People ask, “Is it true about red sails at night?” I assured them yes, it’s true. Red sails at night will be red sails in the morning. 100% accurate forecast on that one, every time.
Sailing from Jersey
Williamsburg is full of people who moved or retired here from New Jersey, Philadelphia, New York and points north. Every now and then someone comes along who’s still working and suddenly realizes Virginia is within their grasp.
Meet Louis Delgadillo of Westhampton NJ, who took his family sailing on the York River to celebrate his wife Yelena’s birthday. He said, “I work in the HIV division of the State Health Department.” I thought at first he said VIP division, but no. “We monitor the many agencies statewide that deal with HIV patients to make sure the money is appropriated properly.”
Nowadays you hear so little about HIV/AIDS that I thought it was a departed scourge of the 1980s with hundreds of people. “No, there aren’t hundreds of patients, but thousands instead. Some people don’t even know they have it. That’s why testing and prevention are so important. Those with HIV sometimes fail to take their medications and misbehave as well, spreading the disease.”
We got to talking about the disparity of taxes between New Jersey and Virginia, and I postulated that he could just as soon work here as there. “I’m finishing up my master’s in public health at Liberty University, taking night courses online. So yes, Virginia would work for us. It’s so beautiful.”
Yelena got her brother on the phone, where he was driving a truck in Connecticut. Louis said, “Show him the captain!” so she turned the camera on me. “No, the other captain–the wannabe–me.” So she did, portraying Louis in command of the helm in a light wind.
Back to HIV/AIDS. I wondered if the famous LA Laker was still alive. “You’re thinking of Magic Johnson. He’s fine because he takes his meds. It used to be 10-15 pills a day, and I can’t imagine keeping all that straight every day. Now it’s down to just one pill a day. That’s actually a problem because some patients take their condition for granted. They have to learn to lead a controlled life.”
As we talked, the couple’s twin sons and daughter moved about the boat and wound up on the bow where it was more fun. Earlier I discounted the charge in anticipation of a light rain, and two hours in a drizzle began to fall. Everyone went below except Louis and me. Yelena’s mother came out as well and eventually we headed in as the rain became steady. It was a serene sail and not the least bit somber despite the subject matter. Louis was so hooked on sailing and boating that I promised to send him a link to getmyboat.com to go out closer to home.
A family from Richmond and a couple from Alexandria got a fast ride out the York River in 12 mph easterly winds under cloudy skies. Sarah Harper had always wanted to try sailing, and she got a good baptism. She held the helm tightly while churning through 2-3 foot waves heading out the river. Eventually Valerie Riviere took over the helm, having sailed 50-footers in the Mediterranean.
Later, Dean Pace of Richmond learned how to sail in an informal lesson under the same conditions. He picked up quickly on the Close Reach vs. Beam Reach and was happy for the diversion.
“I really needed this, out on the water. My son works for Dominion Power and is recovering from nearly getting electrocuted. He was helping repair a site and extended a cloth tape measure down a hole when a line arced and hit him with 19,900 volts. He had burns all over his body.” Dean showed me photos on his phone depicting severe red burns and virtual holes in his fingers.
“They’re not sure if he’ll lose any fingers. He’s been in MCV’s burn unit for three weeks. He didn’t suffer any brain damage, but they say the residual effects aren’t known for years. It did improve his eyesight, oddly enough. He said he can see perfectly now.
“Man, this is great out here. Very calming.”
Steve and Frankie Coe of Jamestown NC have sailed with Let’s Go Sail for years, returning every summer to visit Williamsburg together and this time with their daughter and grandchildren, ages 10, 7 and 3. Normally this is a problem as young children don’t fare well on a sailboat because they find it boring. Not so.
“They’ve been on boats since they came home from the hospital, maybe three weeks before they went out,” said Steve proudly. “At the appropriate moment, I show them something specific on a boat to see if they’ll learn it. Like Red Right Return. After a while they pick it up.
“Boating helps build self-confidence, but being there is what matters. I went everywhere with my dad when I was young. He exposed me to life like no one else could, but he died when I was nine years old. I made a pledge to carry on his mission with these kids, and they seem to enjoy it.” Indeed they did, running the helm, hanging out on the bow with Mom, and asking lots of questions. They were curious, attentive and well-behaved. I know some adults who fall short.
We headed out for an evening sail, and Steve looked at his watch. “Well, it’s 6:15,” he said. “Forty-five years ago at this moment we got married.”
A steady 14 mph easterly kicked up 2-3 foot waves, which was nothing for Steve. “I was up in the Northern Neck one time helping sail a 60-foot two-masted schooner down the Bay. The wind picked up and we couldn’t pull down the sails fast enough. It blew out the Genoa. We were doing 28 knots in 30 mph winds to our back. Finally we ducked into the Big Wicomico River and got shelter.
Earlier, three retired sailors and their wives took a mad dash downriver in stiff winds and rising waves. They loved it. They used to sail out of Deltaville and the Eastern Shore.
Bill Mize admired the in-mast furling and recalled the alternative hoisting method. “Once I went up there to put up the main, so I gave Johnnie a compass heading and said to keep it right there. I got up on deck and next thing you know the boom started swinging wildly, one way and then the other. I had to hang on for dear life.” He paused and chuckled, “She learned a lot doing that maneuver.”
Sailing in High Seas
A California couple took the History Cruise as they soaked up Virginia’s heritage. Debbie and Steve Hill are from Rocklin, north of Sacramento. “This is our first visit to this part of the country,” she said. “The closest we got was Washington, and we drove past Monticello on the way here. Yesterday we did Colonial Williamsburg and today Yorktown.” I walked them through the Battle of the Capes and the Siege of Yorktown while maneuvering in high seas of 3 feet under 15 mph winds.
Steve ran the boat like a pro as we headed upriver to see two Navy cruisers in dock. One of them was the USS Monterey, named not for the iconic California city but for a battle during the Mexican-American War.
I pointed out the Navy patrol boat hovering near the two ships to protect them from sailing terrorists. The ships are about twice the size of the 1700s man of war battleships in the Battle of the Capes. One thing those ships had in common with today’s was bottom issues. The old boats lasted ten years or less because worms ate through the wooden hulls. The Ticonderoga-class USS Yorktown lasted barely 20 years because the steel hull somehow got galvanized and had to be scrapped in 2004. That was a shame. On 4th of July weekends, if the Yorktown was sailing into the Naval Weapons Station, the crew would stand on deck in their dress whites and salute the town. It was glorious.
Steve said, “I sailed a 14-foot Snipe, but not very often. After a year and a half I said we need to sail that more often. Five years later we donated it to a sailing program.”
Debbie added, “Steve and his siblings learned to sail on a rowboat fitted out with a mast. At least they could row it.” He said, “It was an El Toro, and we sailed on Bass Lake near Yosemite.” By those lights, a Snipe was a big improvement. I marveled how he tacked under the Coleman Bridge as the current flowed against us. He seemed totally unfazed, grateful to be sailing a big boat that was much more responsive than the smaller fry.
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Red Skies Myth Debunked
"Red skies at night, sailors delight. Red skies in morning, sailors take warning." This delightful ditty has survived the ages because it is pithy -- but often wrong.
Capt. Bill O'Donovan
Williamsburg Charter Sails
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