It goes without saying that wind in all its glorious forms was essential to the sailing of a ship. Before the dawn of steam and coal engines, and to a large degree even after their use became routine, a ship sat becalmed or ran at her top speed based on the fickle whim of the wind. Man being the control freak that evolution has made him, however, tried throughout history not just to harness the wind but to make it behave as he wanted it to.
Knowing how the wind worked in most cases in any given area of the globe was the first step to controlling it. Learning the patterns of the wind was fairly easy, at least by comparison, when early mariners kept themselves largely confined to seas like the Mediterranean or the China Sea. Things got trickier when ships sailed off toward the ends of the earth. As the Vikings, the Polynesians and so many others set out to a place where no land ahead was ever a certainty, weather and wind became more of an issue.
The patterns of wind in the Northern and Southern Hemispheres are actually relatively stable. Of course that stability is challenged by weather conditions whose signs would have been very familiar to seasoned salts. Generally speaking a constant wind will shift in one of two ways. In the Northern Hemisphere those are from left to right (with the sun) or right to left (against the sun).
In shifting with the sun, an easterly wind will shift to the west coming in from the southeast, south or southwest. When the wind shifts in this manner it is said to veer. Conversely, a westerly wind will shift to the east and come from the northwest, north, or northeast. In this case the wind is said to back. For the Southern Hemisphere, simply reverse the directions.
Backing and veering were not the greatest windborne concerns of sailors, however. That was reserved for either ship-destroying storms or their polar opposite: the complete lack of wind. Various beliefs and superstitions grew up around the fear of being becalmed. There were actions that would be undertaken in such a circumstance that would have been sorely frowned upon in a fine breeze. Scratching the mast with a nail or touching or hugging it while whistling were two common remedies. Whistling aboard ship was considered bad luck in any other circumstance. Men might also stick a knife in the mast, pointing the handle in the direction that it was hoped the ship would proceed. A last resort was for the Captain to climb up in the rigging and offer a lock of his hair to the Devil in exchange for fair winds.
Sailors who cared to plan ahead could consult a weather witch whose powers made them capable of controlling the wind. These men and women sold sailors pieces of rope with three knots in them. The sailor was instructed to undo one knot to release a light breeze, two knots would bring a strong wind and three knots would call up a storm. Doubtless many a huckster made a tidy living in busy ports around the world on this scam.
Mind your winds, Brethren, and may the sea always follow where ever you sail.
Header: Sunrise Off Grand Manan by William Bradford