Weather gage

Weather gage

The weather gage is a nautical term used to describe the advantageous position of a fighting sailing vessel, relative to another. The term is from the Age of Sail, and is now antiquated. A ship is said to possess the weather gage if it is in any position, at sea, upwind of the other vessel. Close proximity with the land, tidal and stream effects, as well as wind variablility due to geography (hills, cliffs, etc.) also may also come into play.

An upwind vessel is able to maneuver at will toward any downwind point, since in doing so the relative wind moves aft. A vessel downwind of another, however, in attempting to attack upwind, is constrained to trim sail as the relative wind moves forward and cannot point too far into the wind for fear of being headed. In sailing warfare, when beating to windward, the vessel experiences heeling under the sideward pressure of the wind. This restricts gunnery, as cannon on the windward side are now elevated, while the leeward gun ports aim into the sea, or in heavy weather may be awash. A ship with the weather gage, turning downwind to attack, may alter course at will in order to bring starboard and port guns to appropriate elevations. Ships seeking to evade capture or attack, however, have the advantage being downwind if they are faster vessels or are close to friendly land.

The term has had a literary rebirth in the popular seafaring novels of C.S. Forester, Patrick O'Brian and Alexander Kent.

One of the last times that "weather gage" was perhaps a factor in a naval engagement was in the Battle of the Denmark Strait in 1941 where the German battleship Bismarck and the heavy cruiser Prinz Eugen held the weather gage over the British battleship HMS Prince of Wales and the battlecruiser HMS Hood. Being upwind the German ships had the advantage that their shells would carry further than those of the British, also the British ships had the disadvantage of spray being blown onto their optical rangefinders. [Regan,G. "The Guinness Book of Naval Blunders", p.175. Guinness Publishing, London 1993.]

The concept of weather gage is still useful in modern yacht racing, although it is hardly ever referred to by that name. The sails of a boat disrupt the wind to leeward - this disruption is often called "dirt" or "dirty air". An overtaking boat on a downwind course can position itself to focus its dirty air on the boat ahead of it. Conversely a boat on an upwind course may find itself trapped in the dirty air of a boat immediately to windward. However right-of-way rules, which give priority to the leeward boat, can make it advantageous to be the boat without the weather gage especially just before the start or when the boat to leeward can point higher into the wind.

Weather gauge

Gauge and gage are often used as alternative spellings. To the extent there is a difference, a weather gauge can be a form of meteorological instrumentation for measuring weather quantatively, such as a rain gauge, thermometer, anemometer or barometer.


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