Sticks and stones … but words can never hurt me?


Everyone has heard the old saying, but in fact words can — if not properly understood — lead to unfortunate consequences on the water.

I was recently a speaker at a Safety at Sea seminar geared toward ocean-going sailors. As part of my presentation, I presented a “pop quiz,” asking for the definition of both a Gale Warning and a Storm Warning in the context of a marine forecast. In each case, I provided four choices for answers, and polled the audience by asking for a show of hands: “How many think choice A is correct,” “how many for choice B,” etc. The results were not very comforting. While some participants did choose the correct answers in each case, the total was not a majority of those present, and each wrong answer was chosen by at least some participants. A significant portion did not raise their hands at all, perhaps because they were not sure of the correct answer, or maybe they just didn’t want to commit themselves in this venue.

For those who undertake an ocean voyage, there are many resources available to help understand what to expect in terms of weather conditions and sea state. But if the terminology is not understood, then the information has limited value and, in fact, could lead to erroneous assumptions that might, in turn, lead to making dangerous decisions. The time to learn and understand this terminology is not in the midst of a voyage when conditions may be difficult or deteriorating, but rather beforehand when there is ample opportunity to not only learn the terms, but also to understand how and when they are used in products that are issued and may be relied upon during the voyage.

NOAA’s National Weather Service provides a glossary of terms here. No, it’s not scintillating reading by any means. It’s not a page-turner that you won’t be able to put down. But there is a lot of information there — in fact, over 2000 entries — some of which could be critical for your next ocean voyage. By looking through the glossary, you will find terms that are regularly used in forecasts as well as some rather obscure terms that will not have relevance to marine weather. Many of these may lead you to explore some topics in more detail (both marine and non-marine), and that’s a good thing.

Another way to use this resource is to look through some of the weather products that you are used to using, both charts and text forecasts, and make sure that you understand the terms and abbreviations that are regularly used. If not, or if you are just not sure, go to the glossary and look them up. Sometimes you’ll learn something new, sometimes you’ll find that you had an erroneous assumption of what the term meant, and sometimes you’ll confirm that your understanding of the term was entirely correct. In all cases, you will have increased your knowledge of subject matter, which could be of critical importance during your next voyage.

There are many terms that are used colloquially with some frequency, and perhaps to mean different things. These terms often have specific definitions though, and when used in forecast products, it is these definitions that are important. The example at the start of this newsletter is a classic case. How many times have you heard someone exclaim, “It’s blowing a gale out there”? In many contexts, the meaning of that exclamation is simply: “Oh boy, it’s really windy today!” However, the term Gale Warning has a specific definition, and it is critical for ocean-going voyagers to know what it is. Look it up!

Which is worse, a Gale Warning or a Storm Warning? Look it up!

All sea state forecast products show what is known as Significant Wave Height. While this number does give an indication of how high the waves will be, there are likely to be variations in this, and looking up the definition in the glossary will give some indications of how likely these variations are to occur and how large they might be. Knowing this definition, and what it really means for waves that will be experienced, is critical for ocean voyagers. Look it up!

One can even find the answer to one of the age-old questions of meteorology: What is the difference between “partly sunny” and “partly cloudy”? Look it up!

By Ocean Navigator