Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Tools of the Trade: The Weather Gauge

The idea of today's tool will be very familiar not only to the Brethren but to readers of nautical fiction. Having the weather gauge seems an all important point in winning a sea battle. Explaining why this might be is, to my mind, more difficult than achieving it. Readers of O'Brian will recall Dr. Maturin puzzling over the finer points of this strategic maneuver on more than on occasion. The question even came up in the movie Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World and found poor Killick insisting that Jack draw his examples for the weather gauge "not on the cloth."

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


Timmy! said...

Interesting post, Pauline... and a very cool painting too!

Pauline said...

It's a little long winded but I didn't want to leave anything out.

I love that painting: Huzzah! for Captain Porter!

Blue Lou Logan said...

The logic of the weather gage seems to me to have a Nelson-like simplicity. Regardless of seeing signals, escaping, fireships, or somesuch, having control of the wind simply means having the upper hand. It's no different in racing by sail. And there's a little detail Falconer seems to miss: In close combat, being to windward means that your opponent is in your shadow, so to speak, and you can literally steal his wind. I seem to recall JA using this on a number of occasions.

Rick said...

I think also that it might also depend on the personality of the commander - an aggressive commander will always try to gain the weather guage, even withdrawing from a situation where he doesn't have it. Having the weather guage would definately seem to favour a more aggressive approach!

Pauline said...

Lou: thanks for the additional points. I do remember Jack being extremely fond of the weather gauge - almost to the point of mania at times. It has certainly been put to good use by many a expert sailor throughout history.

Rick: your point is very well taken and, to some degree, speaks to what Lou mentioned as well. If you are a commander who is very much about going at 'em, the weather gauge could be your best friend in battle.

Charles L. Wallace said...

Pauline, a wonderful post (with some good degree of technical applicability)... as you and the lads have surmised, having the gauge goes hand in hand with aggressiveness - so not in keeping with the "Fighting Orders" of yore, and so in keeping with Nelson's ethos (and, just as applicable for sailing/racing!)

For me, playing "Wooden Ships and Iron Men", I always appreciated being able to (in ship on ship action) use the wind gauge to cut across the other guy's stern and fire a raking broadside down the length of his deck, whilst facing only a couple of carronades.... Good stuff! :-D