Bill Streever is a biologist and a well-known nature writer. He and his wife, Lisanne, are novice cruising folk, who boldly set off on a cruise from Galveston, Texas, to Mexico’s Yucatan with only a very brief sailing course under their belts. They set sail in a 50-foot yawl, which strikes one as foolhardy, until you realize that Bill takes weather forecasts very seriously indeed. They enjoyed a remarkably incident-free cruise, which speaks volumes for their calm acceptance of the vagaries of the sailing life.
We alternate between their modest adventures with fascinating excursions into the esoterica of wind, weather, and forecasting. Galveston, with its disastrous hurricane of 1900, was an appropriate starting point for the voyage, which began with their waiting out a norther. Meanwhile, we enjoy an excursion into Daniel Defoe’s vivid account of the great storm of 1704, which cut a path 300 miles wide across England, wrecked dozens of vessels, and killed hundreds of seamen. This is a good cautionary tale about the lack of weather forecasting to begin, which contrasts well with the accurate forecasts at Streever’s electronic fingertips.
The voyage unfolds against a backdrop of fascinating excursions into well-known and less-celebrated pioneers of ocean forecasting. We visit, among many others, with Sir Francis Beaufort of wind Force 8 fame, with the dugout voyager Captain Voss, who weathered typhoon winds so strong that one couldn’t stand up, and the pioneer French forecaster Urbain Le Verrier, who studied a fatal gale of Sevastopol in 1854. The destruction is mind-boggling, witness the wreck of the steamship Royal Charter in 1859, which killed more than 400 victims off the Welsh coast in 1859.
The author has a gift for vivid and evocative writing, which makes his cruise, and its vicissitudes, come alive. When he ventures into wind and forecasting, he makes us aware of the staggering advances since Defoe’s day, and even in the past fifty years. I realized just how lucky we are to sail offshore today. Steever has written a lovely, beautifully written, and enjoyable book that deserves leisurely reading and rereading, preferably at anchor in a calm bay. This is a thought-provoking excursion into the realities of forecasting that will make you take forecasts seriously, whether ashore or afloat.
And Soon I Heard a Roaring Wind: A Natural History of Moving Air by Bill Streever (Little Brown, 2016; 308 pages)