top of page

Red Skies at Night, Sailors Take Warning...huh?

I took this picture this morning at sunrise in the PNW and even though it was taken on land and some 47 years later, it reminded me of an alternate reality I had experienced that I wanted to share...

‘Red Sky in the Morning, sailors delight...’

There’s an old adage “Red sky in the morning, sailors take warning. Red skies at night, sailors delight.” That might be true, sometimes; but as we found out that, in the real world, (at least when we saw it on a daily basis... out at sea for a year) it could be exactly the opposite! Hence we turned the saying on it’s head (as we commonly did when we were ‘out there’, both geographically and mentally, on an extended sea voyage with not much else to do except stay alive and try to smoke the entire ton of Thai weed we were carrying)!... “Red sky at night, sailors take warning. Red skies in the morning, sailors delight.”

This upside-down re-interpretation of this ‘time honored’ saying reminded me of what Willie, Joe, Dave and I used to say every time we’d see a beautiful sunrise (like this morning’s photo) or sunset, because the reality of what followed seemed to always be the reverse of that axiom. That was most apparent as I described the the violet/red sunset we witnessed on the evening of November 5, 1974 as we entered the Sulu Sea and the anticipated ‘sailors delight’ we experienced after that!

(page 217, 90° To Zamboanga, Memoirs of a Twenty-Year Marijuana Smuggling Adventure)

“... The water and fuel tanks were topped off and we departed at noon. The plan was to make a beeline across the Sulu in two days and out through the Balabac Straits into the South China Sea. Nepenthe quickly rounded the tip of Negros and plowed into the Sulu Sea. There was a steady fifteen knot wind and a violet sunset. Around midnight, the wind started picking up and by morning was a thirty-four knot gale. The smooth blue water of the previous days had now become a sinister-looking slate colored chop.

“The storm appears to have gained speed and it looks like it’s overtaking us,” Killian said as I relieved him at the tiller. I showed him the copy of a weather fax I had just received and printed from our onboard radio-facsimile machine. I held the curly fax paper for Dave to see and it showed a cyclonic storm system of tight concentric barometric pressure lines now centered over the southern Philippines with the outer edges in the Sulu, over our exact position. There was an edgy, unsettled tone to his voice as all four of us shared an unspoken feeling of dread.

Killian then decided to double reef the mainsail and put up the storm jib. “Be sure you are wearing your safety harnesses. I don’t want anybody on deck without one,” Killian ordered. Joe and Willie bent to the task while I steered. When it was rough, like now, we wore bright orange float coats which we all had specially made at the sailmakers loft. Each custom-made coat had an exterior layer of rip-stop nylon which incased a form fitting piece of Thinsulate floatation material stitched inside. It also had two ‘D’ rings double-stitched on either side of the zipper and attached to two inch webbing also double-stitched around the coat’s middle. The ‘D’ rings were then attached to a ten foot rope lifeline with snap shackles braided into each end, which each of us all carried in our float coat pocket. One end of the lifeline attached to the railing stanchion and the other to the ‘D’ rings in the float coat in case you went over the side. In this fashion we could work anywhere, upon deck, at the bow during a headsail change or in the cockpit while on watch, and at the same time remain safely secured to the boat. Each of us also carried a red and white emergency beacon light in one of the zippered pockets. Just in case. One hour into my watch, Killian made another decision. “There’s too much sail up. Take everything down. We’ll try and run with the typhoon. Make sure every hatch and dorade vent is secured tight,” Killian shouted to Joe and Willie. The dorades are plastic cowlings attached to brass deck fittings which funnel fresh air below, allowing for ventilation to circulate in the cabin; great in light weather, but in heavy seas are a primary source of water getting into the boat. They were now sealed with tight fitting brass deck plates. The howling wind now shrieked and groaned like a tortured beast. The gale had dramatically risen to typhoon strength, a steady sixty to sixty five knots with gusts approaching eighty or more. There were no distinct wave patterns, the sea was in a state of wild confusion with dark towering mountains of water, some almost as high as the fifty foot mast, appearing out of nowhere. Rain and spray were blowing horizontally, making it very difficult to see anything through the dodger window. For the helmsman, he was alone in the cockpit with the lee boards and companionway hatch securely shut. He was in his own world, huddled against the bulkhead and virtually hanging on, trying to keep the boat on course and hopefully not hit anything in front of us, which you couldn’t see anyway. Even though the wind was blowing at typhoon strength, the air temperature was still in the balmy mid-seventy degree range. With all of the fresh ventilation ports closed, down below the ship’s cabin was beginning to reek like a high-school gymnasium locker room permeated with the stagnant aroma of sweat and fear...”

That so-called ‘delight’ we experienced following the “red/violet sky at night” preceding it was typical and just about as absurd as is the misguided vision that sailing is all about ‘sailing into the sunset!’"

23 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All


bottom of page