Reading the Glass: A Captain's View of Weather, Water, and Life on Ships

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Release Date: 
February 14, 2023
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Reading the Glass is a deeply engaging, eloquent, and colorful account of a captain's life at sea.”

One takeaway from sea captain and maritime instructor Elliot Rappaport's engrossing tale, Reading the Glass: A Captain's View of Weather, Water, and Life on Ships, is that weather is far more complex, fascinating, and terrifying than is evident from news meteorology. But this beautifully written account is about much more than weather; it's a story of a captain's life at sea aboard research or sailing-school vessels that are relatively small (compared to the massive commercial ships that ply the global waterways), as he navigates across the oceanic plains of our planet.

From his home base in Maine, Rappaport journeys—often for months at a time—across the Atlantic and Pacific, through doldrums or rocketing storms, to Greenland or Bora Bora, Mexico or the Arctic, New Zealand or Hawaii, sometimes to the tiniest islands, mere specks in the middle of the ocean, like the Tabuarean atoll, "a bit of grit" he writes, in the central Pacific, a thousand miles south of Hawai'i.   

Rappaport's writing is rich with detail and thus immersive. He transports readers onto the vessels to witness both the mundane and the glorious, whether it's getting a cup of coffee or executing a technical sailing maneuver. His writing is precise, yet often lyrical, with metaphors that allow readers to visualize, and vicariously experience, the atmosphere on board: "Above us a loose skein of clouds is boiling away to leeward, a shaft of sun panning the sea surface behind it like a slow spotlight."

Rappaport patiently takes readers though the seemingly indecipherable and evolving science of weather and wind currents, water and ocean waves, of ship engineering and navigation. Rappaport's facility with language is essential to deciphering the sometimes thorny and intricate scientific phenomena: "The troposphere—where most weather happens—could be imagined as a big room whose ceiling slopes downhill from the equator toward the poles." He offers an "urban version" of the Beaufort wind scale, one most readers will understand: "Force 6: Umbrella ruined."

These translations of technical jargon are a welcome relief from the sometimes dense science, as is Rappaport's droll wit. "Flying fish skitter off the crests, tails grazing the water before rebounding aloft for improbable distances. Attracted to light, they fly aboard after dark and thrash about the deck like great beached cicadas. You can order them for lunch in Barbados; they don't taste bad at all."

His own vivid adventures at sea are blended with tidbits of history that put contemporary shipping into context: the invention of the barometer, the creation of the first marine weather maps in the mid 19th century, or the birth of cloud taxonomy in 1803. The narrative is peppered with stories of legendary ships and adventurers (Magellan, Captain Cook, Darwin), or contemporary seafarers who heroically survived sudden storms, like a treacherous episode that his own ship endured under a different captain: "[T]his ship was caught by a gale that grew rapidly into a hurricane-strength storm, a sudden freezing blast in which the vessel went from comfortably afloat to nearly underwater," probably caused by a "sting jet," Rappaport explains, or in meteorological terms, "a bent-back cyclone."

There is always danger, and sometimes tragedy, as with the sinking of the merchant ship El Faro in 2015 during a journey from Florida to Puerto Rico, which Rappaport recounts; the vessel was beset by a category 4 hurricane, that—coupled with human error—cost the crew of 33 their lives.   

In Reading the Glass, Rappaport catalogues the enormous advances in shipping and navigation, in weather and atmospheric science, in oceanography. But when captains and crews set sail, even equipped with state-of-the art navigational tools and computer models and sophisticated wave and wind simulations—and for Rappaport, his 30 years of experience as a seafarer—the  weather remains, at least to some degree, always uncertain. Reading the Glass is a deeply engaging, eloquent, and colorful account of a captain's life at sea.