Daily Speculations

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The Weather Gage


The second book in the great seafaring series by Patrick O’Brian, “Post Captain,” contains a nice exchange between the heroes, Jack Aubrey and Stephen Maturin, about the beautiful Diana Villiers' appreciation of a key aspect of seamanship. “I do love being surrounded by girls… She said several handsome things about the service – spoke very sensibly – thoroughly understood the importance of the weather-gage. She must have naval connections. I do hope we see her again.”

There are many lessons in this one simple sentence. Diana, of course, had been to Admiral Haddock’s library to find out about the weather-gage so that she could get the captain and his surgeon to talk about their favorite subject. (Her slower-moving cousin, Sophie,  did the same shortly afterward; she blushed cherry-pink when Diana called out "Yo ho, shipmate!" on spotting her returning from the admiral's house muttering, "Larboard, starboard." Doubtless Jack Aubrey maneuvered some matchboxes and salt-and-pepper shakers to heighten the women’s feigned interest.

All women know that a man loves to talk about himself, and the best way to get him to fall for you is pretend you are interested only in him and everything he says.

The weather-gage itself is quite relevant to markets. The term refers to staying upwind of the adversary. That way you can move faster and also block the wind and movement of the chase. But the adversary can turn, and then you have to take the direction of the tide into account to maintain the weather-gage. All this must be done with deception so as not to alert the chase that you are trying to gain the weather-gage while they do the same to you.

What is the weather-gage in the market? Is it going with the trend? Certainly in the bonds and foreign exchange it seems to hold (until you try to do it). In pre-1980s stock markets, the trend seemed to be your friend also. Traders watched the advance-decline index and swung long when the A/D ratio was high, holding until the A/D was low, at which time they covered. But of course the exact opposite is true now, as all students of the weather-gage and all good listeners would know by now, especially if they can fascinate. –Victor Niederhoffer


April 7, 2003
Jack Tierney, President of the Old Speculators’ Association, on the weather-gage

If Aubrey's anticipated battle is taking place far out to sea (where wind and weather conditions can remain constant for extended periods), maintaining the weather gage is largely determined by crew work and the relative maneuverability of the competing ships.

Closer to shore, where many sea battles did take place, maintaining the weather gage involves a little more than factoring in the tide. A few other things things Aubrey had to consider:

Off Shore Wind - As the wind leaves the shore it increases in strength and veers (goes the same direction as the sun). This gentle bend to the right can extend for some distance but becomes more less noticeable further off shore. Inshore ship now has weather gage. (Not the commonest of occurrences, might be viewed as a counter-trend.)

On Shore Wind - No directional change in wind near the shoreline. Generally very little change in velocity of direction further out. Outer ship maintains advantage but gains little. (Trend remains in place.)

Gusts - Surface air heats up and rises, often forming cumulus clouds as it does. It is replaced by cold air being dragged down, bringing the stronger winds from above. Water gets darker due to rippling caused by wind (in very light wind, ripples are replaced by "cats' paws"). Gusts occur between the clouds. Head for ripples and cat's paws, stay away from clouds. Advantage to luckiest ship. (Only the pros can play this with any hope of success.)

Rain Clouds - Usually darker than cumulus clouds. If rain is falling under a cloud, then air is being cooled. That air will be falling and the wind will be stronger. Head for dark raining clouds. Advantage to weather ship if clouds hit it first, to other ship if not. Luck again. (A major event; time to either throw up all your sails and run like hell with the wind, or time to batten down the hatches.)

Cloud base lowering to windward - Major concern for ship with weather gage as it has to prepare first for onset of storm. Front is approaching and winds increase as it gets closer and is marked by heavy rain. Head into storm on port tack as the wind will have backed (gone to left) with the approach of the rain. As the cloud base rises behind the deluge, tack onto starboard because the wind will veer by as much as 900! Ship closest to shore has time to run while weather ship makes these moves, BUT must get clear enough of land so as not to be driven onto lee shore. (An outside reversal with a major trend shift that may or may not hold...none but the brave can afford the fare.)

Thunder storms, marked by anvil shaped clouds - Air is forced upwards at an enormous rate. It is heated rapidly and surges back down, hits the water and fans out in very strong gusts. Frequently includes hailstones. Advantage to luckiest boat. (A fat tail; few get out without some damage.)

Sea breezes - Generally occur in morning when the air temperature over the land is higher than the air temperature over the sea. Heated air over the land rises and is replaced by colder sea air. In turn the risen heated air flows out to sea and, as it cools, falls to take the place of the air moving towards the shore. Sky is generally cloudless at sea but cumulus clouds are in abundance over land. Sea breeze veers gradually, and can have shifted by over 400 by mid-afternoon. Dies away during the evening as land cools off. Slight advantage to ship closest to shore. (usually good days to ignore market and do laundry.)


Note: All characteristics attributed to veering and backing assume action is taking place in northern hemisphere.