A captain’s-eye view of weird, wondrous weather at sea
Elliot Rappaport has spent 30 years as a ship’s captain. For sailors of this pedigree, the weather is not something that smooths conversations, it is about “getting successfully to where you are going and knowing when not to try.” It’s a lifesaving part of the day job, as he explains in his first book, a meditation on weather and the ocean that mixes memoir, science, travel writing and much else besides.
Each chapter is brimming with knowledge and experience. Rappaport can really write – and he’s done his research too – but in terms of structure, Reading the Glass could have used a firmer hand on the tiller. Not content with tackling subjects as mighty and mercurial as the sea and sky in one book, he tries to find room for a lifetime of experiences, tangents and trivia too – though these are often wonderful. We learn, for instance, that the phronimid amphipod is the plankton species that inspired Ridley Scott’s Alien. Elsewhere, Rappaport suggests that Britain may have escaped invasion for so many centuries after 1066 simply because the continent is downwind of us.
The result is a book of strong sentences and facts sprinkled across chapters that sometimes yield form to the wind. There are masterly sections, and others that struggle to squeeze an ocean into a teacup. There are times when it all gets a bit much: somebody, please stop all this stuff rattling belowdecks and in my tired mind!
The mountains in New Zealand are “are an anvil to the wind’s hammer – forcing the cold air aloft.” This is a crisp and helpful image, and we are grateful for it, yet on the same page we have already spent time in Australia, the Tasman Sea and Southern California, meeting droughts, brush fires, and winds that drive currents moving marine algae, which are likened to miniature avocados or drops of bacon grease (all ocean sailors are secret poets). The algae, Rappaport tells us, explain the numbers of seabirds and squid. And there are sharks that eat the squid. Before that same page is out, the mountains have explained the wine and wool on the drier side of the high ground. And there is a “thrashing eel of subpolar cold”, somewhere. This was just the first of many pages that sent my mind reeling – which country are we in? What was that about wind, water, wine, wool and cold eels… And bacon?
After an immersive opening section, I detect a shyness, a sense that Rappaport doesn’t believe the reader wants to spend whole pages with him as he battles a storm and so they are skipped over. More than once he tells us that rough weather is basically boring: “Most weather events are in truth comprised primarily of tedium and endurance.” He’s good company when he’s not being bashful. At one point he wonders what the biggest wave he’s seen is, only to answer, “I’m not sure.” He must know that, as readers, we want honesty about science, but emotion when talking about big waves.
The book blooms in the final third. Early on there is a reticence to dwell on any phenomenon or the science behind it – a technical explanation appears, then it’s as if he blushes at his teacherly manner and dashes on to another topic – but later he worries less about the kids at the back and we get some of the strongest science sections; his treatments of the jet stream and climate change are superb.
Some of the most delightful passages have little to do with the sea or weather. They come when we get a real sense of what it’s like to lead a crew at sea, and, equally interestingly, when moored up. In the galley, the crew wonder if they should save some cake for the captain, when he is busy with firefighting drills. It is reassuring to learn that nobody escapes admin, not even the intrepid, “When we go forth to colonise Mars, the spreadsheet will follow.”
For all its digressions and eccentricities, Reading the Glass will be a must-have for serious weather-watchers – or sailors with aspirations.
Tristan Gooley’s How to Read a Tree is out on April 13. Reading the Glass: A Sailor’s Stories of Weather is published by Sceptre at £22. To order your copy call 0844 871 1514 or visit Telegraph Books