Sailors Superstitions & Fish Wife’s Tales

Welcome to Fish Wife’s Tales

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

Cliffs and Towers |

Mares Tails & Mackerel Scales |

Red Sky at Night… |


(This article appeared in the early September 2020 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 month’s Mares tails and Mackerel scales 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.

Here is an image from a couple of weeks ago;

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 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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