Sailors Superstitions & Fish Wife’s Tales

Welcome to Fish Wives’ Tales

In each issue of Smoke Signals (the Chieftain Training newsletter), Doug tells us about a well-know sailing superstition, proverb or meteorological lore.


(This article appeared in the June 2022 edition of “Smoke Signals”)

This particular “Fish Wife’s Tale, “is less nautical than most Met. Lore that I have written about. The exact origin is unknown but it is likely to have first been quoted by farmers or shepherd’s on mainland UK.

Rain cloud

“Black smoke,” refers to dark rain clouds. The usually white cumulus clouds appear dark due to a combination of two reason. Firstly the more moisture they contain the darker they look and secondly the high volume of these clouds blocks sunlight and cause a shadow over other clouds. Lots of moisture (water droplets) within clouds is a sure sign of impending rain, hence the need for the cloak (or coat).


(This article appeared in the March 2022 edition of “Smoke Signals”)

Many sailors associate high pressure with calm conditions and fair weather. In the summer this usually mean’s warm calm weather, in the winter this could be an arctic high and consequently cold temperatures but again very settled weather. This particular weather lore assume that wind is required to create clouds and in term perception, therefore no wind= no rain etc. makes sense.


The high pressure discourages air to rise so basic weather phenomenons such as the sea breeze are less likely to occur, particularly during the winter and at the shoulders of the UK season, when the sun is nearer the equator than our Northern latitudes.


(This article appeared in the February 2022 edition of “Smoke Signals”)

“Trace in the sky the painter’s brush,
 The winds around you soon will rush.”

The “painter’s brush” refers to high cirrus clouds. These are a “text book” first sign of a frontal depression and therefore an increase in wind is likely.
While the current weather is likely to appear fair, this is our warning of high altitude moisture and instability. This is a sign of likely wind and wet weather approaching by way of a low pressure system and weather front. Over the next 12-24 hours you are likley to see the barometer fall, the temperature drop, the wind freshen and the clouds to the West lower and thicken. 


(This article appeared in the December 2021 edition of “Smoke Signals”)

It is well-known that bananas are considered bad luck onboard a boat, but where did this superstition come from?

The belief dates back to the 1700s when merchant ships were voyaging back from the Caribbean to Europe. Some ships were lost at sea, others made it but their fruits were spoiled. What those early Trans Atlantic merchants did not realise is that bananas give off a gas, ethylene (aka Ethene). Ethylene in turn causes other fruits to ripen quicker which in turn causes them to go off sooner.


Furthermore merchants would always seek out fruit that had not yet ripened, in order to have it ripe by the time they reached the markets of the UK. In looking for un-ripened fruit they would select green bananas. Green of course is also considered unlucky, but more of that another month……….


(This article appeared in the November 2021 edition of “Smoke Signals”)

While the black cat is a symbol of halloween and witchcraft to some and a sign of bad luck in many cultures, the tradition among British and Irish sailors was that a cat on board the ship would bring good luck. As such the “Ship’s cat,” was well looked after.

There is some logic to this superstition.

Cats are adept at hunting rodents which if not managed would chew threw warps, damage food stores and spread disease on board the ship. It is very likely that sailing ships who carried a cat were considered lucky as they were more likely to arrive in port healthy.Ship’s cat

A study published by the University of Leuven in 2017 provides considerable evidence that the DNA of Egyptian cats made its way to Northern Europe via merchant ships. The same geneticists concluded that cats were carried on trading ships by the Vikings around the 8th to 11th centuries.


(This article appeared in the september 2021 edition of “Smoke Signals”)

“When smoke descends, good weather ends.”

This month’s fish wives’ tale is relevant to those of us communicating by smoke signals. A chimney or bonfire can help tell us what is coming our way.

Smoke from a fire will rise due to the heat from the fire but if it falls back to the ground, downwind of the fire its is a sign of low pressure

As atmospheric pressure falls (due to an approaching low pressure system/depresison) smoke absorbs moisture from the air and becomes heavier, therefore indicating the weather will turn for the worse. Conversely when we have  higher pressure (usually associated with drier and more settled weather) smoke will rise vertically.



(This article appeared in the August 2021 edition of “Smoke Signals”)

“When windows won’t open and the salt clogs the shaker,

The weather will favour the umbrella maker!”

Ignoring the rather non marine reference (umbrella), this fish wife’s tale is based on simple science. If there is moisture in the air it causes wood to swell. As a result shed doors, wooden window, hatches etc. can jam. High moisture in the air is more likely to lead to rain.

Meanwhile salt attracts moisture, which then makes it clumpy. So a clogged shaker signifies moisture in the air, which in turn may again mean rain.

When the wind is out of the East, 
‘Tis neither good for man nor beast.

(This article appeared in the July 2021 edition of “Smoke Signals”)

“When the wind is out of the East, 
‘Tis neither good for man nor beast.” 

An early reference to Easterly winds features in Chapters 10 and 14 of Exodus, where Moses summons the East wind to bring the locusts that plague Egypt and again to part the Red Sea so that the Children of Israel can escape Pharaoh’s armies.  It is not the place of a mere Sailing Instructor to comment on the accuracy of the “good book,” so I will reframe, however I do believe there’s a more likely explanations for this particular fishwives tale.

Many readers will remember the media’s “The Beast from the East,” in 2018 and 2020. It is of course the same “tale,” just rebranded (the famous, “Beast from the East,” in 2018 was also assisted by a deep Atlantic depression, Storm Emma). An Easterly wind (for us Brits), is common in winter and is caused by a large high pressure system (anticyclone) centred over Scandinavia. This anticyclone sends us bitterly cold dry Easterly winds from Siberia (cold polar dry continental air). As these winds cross the North Sea they pick up moisture and can cause rain and snow in Northern England and Scotland. Further South the air is often drier as the English Channel is so much smaller than the North Sea. Additionally as cool air around a high descends this stops clouds forming (which would otherwise trap warm air from the daytime sun near the earth’s surface) this causes the night to be colder still.


(This article appeared in the June 2021 edition of “Smoke Signals”)

“When the wind backs; and the weather glass falls
Prepare yourself for gales and squalls.”

A backing wind is defined as wind that is changing direction in a counterclockwise direction—usually starting in the west, then changing to the southwest, south, and then southeast. A backing wind indicates the approach of a low pressure system (or Atlantic depression) from the southwest.

The “weather glass” refers to the barometer.  When the barometer (weather glass) falls, atmospheric pressure is falling, signalling the approach of a low pressure system. The further it falls the bigger the winds. 

A similar rhyme is: 

“When the glass falls low, Prepare for a blow;
When it rises high. Let all your kites fly.”

Again, the “glass” referred to here represents a barometer, which measures air pressure. High pressure means fair weather; low pressure indicates rain or storms. In lighter wind cruising yachts will of course fly their spinnakers (kites) which would be over powered in a storm (low pressure)

Ships barometer
Ship’s barometer


(This article appeared in the May 2021 edition of “Smoke Signals”)

“Rain before seven,  fine by eleven.”

This very British fish wife’s tale refers to the times 0700 and 1100. This particular weather lore assumes the rain is caused by a weather front of an Atlantic depression. A warm front typically moves at 10+ knots and a cold front at 20+ knots. Hence the rain associated with a front often takes 2-4 hours to pass over us. Consequently it is common to find that if you wake up to rain before 0700 it is likely to have cleared by 1100. Nonetheless we should be mindful that not all weather systems follow the text book example and there are days when it rains before 0700 and continues raining all day. On that account this particular “tale” is not as reliable a some of the others on this page.

Rain Before seven

“Rain before 7” is also a well know proverb, meaning things will get better (i.e. rain now, better weather later).


(This article appeared in the April 2021 edition of “Smoke Signals”)

“A ring around the moon means rain or snow is coming soon.” 


“If there is a halo round the sun or moon, then we can all expect rain quite soon.”

There is some truth to this tale. The  halo or ring referred to in this particular fish wife’s tale is caused by the refraction of light through the ice crystals of high circus cloud.

High cirrus cloud are of course often the first sign of a depression.  A depression in turn will usually bring rain as each fronts passes.

Halo Round the Moon
Halo Round the Moon
Halo Round the Moon, rain coming soon
Halo Round the Moon, rain coming soon


However the fact that we can see a “halo round the moon,” does not mean that the resulting depression, which will follow is going to go over us. So, “Yes!” there will be rain somewhere soon, but not everyone who can see a halo round the moon is necessarily going to get wet!



(This article appeared in the January 2021 edition of “Smoke Signals”)

“If in the sky you see cliffs and towers, it won’t be long before rain and showers.”

There are a few variations of this one but they are all pretty close, another couple of common examples are;

  • When clouds appear like towers, the earth is refreshed by frequent showers”
  • When clouds are like rocks and towers, the earth is soon refreshed with showers”

Vertical Clouds usually mean “rain”

This particular fishwives tale is a pretty accurate forecasting tool and like the last issue’s, “Mares tails and Mackerel Scales,” (below), we can often use the clouds to predict what is about to happen;

Cumulonimbus, from the Latin cumulus (“heap”) and nimbus (“rainstorm”, “storm cloud“), are a dense towering vertical cloud.  

They are caused by atmospheric instability and formed by large amounts of water vapour being carried upwards by vertical air currents. Towering clouds are usually a sign of unsettled weather and thunderstorms coming soon.

A very rough rule of thumb, is that the more vertical the cloud is the more wind, the flatter the cloud (at one altitude), the less wind. Here is an image from last autumn in the Solent which told us wind was coming;

Cliffs and Towers seen from East Cowes (image by Tim Griffin)


(This article appeared in the Mid August 2020 edition of “Smoke Signals”)

“Mares’ tails and mackerel scales make lofty ships, carry low sails”

A very traditional weather proverb among British and Irish seafarers, this rhyme tends to ring true.

“Lofty ships” refers to tall ships or sailboats carrying a lot of canvas.”

“Low sails” refers to the practice of reefing / reducing sail for stronger winds.

Let us not forget that the clouds are a very useful forecasting tool. “Mackerel scales and mares tails” are descriptions given to the appearance of the skies before a storm.

What are Mackerel Scales (skies)?

Mackerel scales is the name given to high level cirrocumulus clouds that are often arranged as ripples in the sky and have the appearance of the scaly skin of a fish. These high level clouds are mainly composed of ice crystals. The frequent glimpses of blue among these clouds tell us the clouds are unstable and breaking up

Mackerel Scales or Skies
Mackerel Scales / Mackerel Skies

What are Mares Tails?

Not to be confused with fish wifes tales! A mare is of course a horse and the comparison to mare’s tails are high altitude long, cirrus clouds, often stretched by strong high-altitude winds.

Mares Tails
Mares Tails (High cirrus clouds)

Both of the above help build our 3D picture or what is happening around us, and while the current weather is likely to appear fair, this is our warning of high altitude moisture and instability. This is a sign of likely wind and wet weather approaching by way of a low pressure system and weather front. Over the next 12-24 hours you are likley to see the barometer fall, the temperature drop, the wind freshen and the clouds to the West lower and thicken. So its time to catch your mackerel now before the weather deteriorates!



(This article appeared in the late July 2020 edition of “Smoke Signals”)

Red Sky at Night, Shepherd’s Delight
Red Sky at Night, Shepherd’s Delight

Probably the best known of all the Fish Wife’s Tales, is the saying

“Red sky at night Shepherd’s delight. Red sky in the morning Sailors take warning”

There are several variations and the words Sailor and Shepherd are often interchanged, but where does it come from? Is it a useful forecasting tool and should it refer to Shepherds or Sailors?

Where does Red Sky at Night… come from?

This is in fact one of the oldest known meteorological myths as it has been in use for over 2000 years. The earliest record I can find is in the bible, in the Book of Matthew, Chapter 16, verse 2.  The modern translation reads;

When it is evening, you say, “It will be fair weather; for the sky is red.” And in the morning, “It will be stormy today, for the sky is red and threatening.” You know how to interpret the appearance of the sky, but you cannot interpret the signs of the times.

There is a similar quote in  the Book of Luke but Mathew’s verse fits the modern day saying the closest.

Is the Red Sky at Night…. fish wife’s tale correct?

The theory behind this particular tool/tale is based on the premise that when we experience high atmospheric pressure, dust and small particles are trapped in the atmosphere. This scatters blue light leaving the appearance of a red sky.

If we assume for the moment that the prevailing weather comes from the West (as it does, in the UK), let us apply the theory.

We view sunset on the western horizon as the sun goes down, so if we see a red sky at sunset (or red sky at night) it suggest there is high pressure to the west of us and therefore coming our way. High pressure brings fair settled weather (popular with a shepherd tending to his flock at night) but is also associated with light winds or no breeze at all (so not so popular with the sailor).

So it appear the first half of the phrase should in fact exclude sailors and should read;

“Red Sky at Night Shepherd’s delight…”

Turning our attention now to the morning.  Sunrise occurs on the Eastern horizon and if we have red light to the East that’s suggests the high pressure has past and therefore unsettled wet and gusty conditions may follow.

Red Sky in the morning, sailors take warning!
Red Sky in the morning, sailors take warning!

Both the Shepherd and the sailor would want to be warned of this but more so the sailor. So the full saying makes the most sense when read as;

Red sky at night, Shepherd’s delight,

Red sky in the morning, Sailors take warning!

You can of course swop and interchange, “shepherd” or “sailor” if you feel particularly strongly.

Does Red Sky at Night… apply outside the UK?

The simple answer is, Yes, it applies anywhere with prevailing westerly winds which is most of the mid latitudes. That is 30-60 degrees North or South of the equator. So this particular fish wife’s tale is true for much of the worlds’ population including Damascus/Nazareth where the biblical quote above came from.

Global Wind Circulation

However if you were below 30 degrees latitude, (i.e. in the tropics) or above 60 degrees  latitude (in or near the polar regions) then this saying would be unlikely to work much of the time for you.


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