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Following the War of 1812 through approximately 1850, thousands of wooden “tall ships” graced the Great Lakes, serving as the backbone of our transportation system, moving cargo and people.

Yet today only 150 of these magnificent commercial wooden vessels remain in service in the U.S. — mostly serving as educational or tour boats. Five of the seven tall ships that graced Kenosha Harbor last month have wooden hulls and superstructures — namely Niagara, Pride of Baltimore, Bluenose, Denis Sullivan and Red Witch. These vessels are, essentially, an endangered species — wooden dinosaurs whose hulls, decks, cabins, masts and booms are gradually rotting.

The mission of tall ship owners and crew is to try to slow the pace of rot — by annually coating (painting, varnishing, oiling and slushing) all internal and external surfaces, and by replacing any areas of rot (easier said than done!).

Few, if any, large wooden tall ships are being built. Why? Old guard craftsmen — shipwrights — who built these majestic vessels are dying off and, with them, the old world methods used. And although wooden boat building schools still exist, they primarily teach how to build small boats — not larger vessels.

Additionally, we have harvested many once-indigenous hardwoods that were suitable for construction of varied aspects of a wooden boat. So the labor and materials requisite to construction of proper wooden sailboats are becoming increasingly scarce.

Aboard Red Witch we are trying not merely to preserve the superstructure of the tall ship, but also try to honor centuries-old traditions regarding operation of the vessel. One such seafaring tradition is meteorology.

Obviously it is important for us to closely monitor and predict weather — to assure passenger safety and comfort. In the 1830s only two tools were available — a barometer and the vessel’s flag (“colors”). A barometer measures ever-changing local patterns of low-pressure (storms) and high-pressure (clear) zones. This gives general information but not specific information regarding location and timing of storm systems. The flag atop Red Witch’s main topmast provides more specific intel regarding location and timing of storms (including wind shifts and precipitation).

Believe it or not, local weather patterns frequently act like hurricanes — wherein a counter-clockwise wind precedes the center (“eye”); note that storm systems including hurricanes in the northern hemisphere develop a counter-clockwise wind, whereas southern hemisphere storm systems develop a clockwise spin.

As clouds develop in a clear sky, they grow and begin to create an organized wind flow that may radiate 150 miles ahead of the organizing clouds in a circular, counter-clockwise direction.

As an example, a weather pattern (i.e. an area of relatively lower barometric pressure) nearing Rockford, Ill., approximately 65 miles west-southwest of Kenosha, may create and power a sustained, light-to-moderate wind from the northeast at Kenosha; this is a counterclockwise wind relative to the west-southwest direction of the Rockford weather pattern. As the Rockford storm pattern heads east-northeast toward Kenosha (or even simply eastward toward Evanston, Ill.), the northeast wind near Kenosha may grow a bit in intensity. Then the northeast wind will begin to “clock” (move in a clockwise direction) so that as the storm pattern intensifies and/or nears Kenosha, wind direction at Kenosha will gradually move from northeast to east to southeast to south, ever-intensifying in wind speed. When the storm is within a few miles of Kenosha, the wind direction will likely “clock” yet again to southwest and finally west-southwest (the source direction of the storm) when the storm is within minutes of hitting us. This is known as “clocking” — the wind source direction shifts in a clockwise manner. Patterns of clocking and increased wind velocity provide reliable intel that weather (i.e., precipitation and wind) are imminent.

When low-pressure systems are nearby, as indicated by clocking and visual cues, we must quickly (understatement) reduce sail area — i.e., strike the sails — to protect passengers, crew and vessel. To this avail Red Witch crew practices striking all sails in under 90 seconds.

In this manner we maintain awareness of weather patterns within 50 to 150 miles and have up-to-the-minute information more accurate than that attainable from weather.com’s radar and written forecasts (which are typically updated every 15-ish minutes, so are not real-time). As small storms travel at 30 mph and severe storms travel at 35 to 45 mph, we frequently have at least a couple of hours notice regarding imminent weather patterns.

Capt. Andrew R. Sadock is president of Tall Ship Red Witch; redwitch.com.

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