Tuesday, October 9, 2012
Tools of the Trade: The Weather Gauge
In plain terms, having the weather gauge simply means that a ship is to windward of her opponent.
Is the weather gauge really an advantage? According to Falconer's New Universal Dictionary of the Marine, originally published in 1815, the answer is no. The caveat being that most sailors would tell you emphatically yes. Rather than try to paraphrase the master, here are William Burney Falconer's comments on the advantages of weather gauge:
1. The weather-gage is the sooner clear of smoke; and of course that line can better observe the signals which are spread, than the ships to leeward can, which must have the continuance of both its own and of the enemy longer.
2. If the weather-ships are more in number than the enemy's they can detach some from their squadron; which, bearing down upon the rear of the enemy, must infallibly throw them into disorder.
3. The fire-ships of the weather-line can, when they are ordered, more easily bear down upon the enemy than those of the lee can ply to windward, which can never be done against a line in action; but the weather fire-ships can bear down against all the resistance that can be made by the enemy.
Falconer tells us that the disadvantage for the weather ships is in, for all intents and purposes, running away. As he so delicately puts it, "the weather-line cannot decline the action, without the dangerous expedient of forcing through the enemy's line."
There are advantages to the lee gauge, however, as Falconer notes:
1. If one, two or more of the ships to windward should be disabled, they must inevitable drive to leeward, and become a prey to the enemy.
2. The ships of the lee-line can more readily bear away before the wind, and have their places supplied by ships from the corps-de-reserve, in case of being disabled or meeting with any disaster.
3. The line to leeward can keep their ports longer open in a strong wind with a high sea, when those to windward in all probability may be obliged to shut the ports of their lower tier of guns, to prevent the water from rushing in between decks, which may be attended with the most fatal consequences.
4. The lee-line can more easily observe the men on the decks of the ships to windward, as they heel, and when the smoke does not interrupt their sight; at which time the marines and topmen may easily take aim at and destroy them with muskets and carbins.
Of course, the lee gauge has its own disadvantages including a lack of control over the timing of the battle and the ever present danger of an enemy ship breaking away from her line and coming up on the lee gauge ship or ships from behind.
The weather gauge has gone by the board now that ships of battle are outfitted with motors instead of sails. But you'll never convince an old salt - or an old soul - that the weather gauge isn't of great advantage in battle regardless of situation.
Header: USS Essex vs. HMS Alert August 13, 1812, painting by John B. Dindale