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The weather gage (sometimes spelled weather gauge) is the advantageous position of a fighting sailing vessel relative to another. The concept is from the Age of Sail, and is now largely antiquated. A ship at sea is said to possess the weather gage if it is in any position upwind of the other vessel. Close proximity with the land, tidal and stream effects, and wind variability due to geography (hills, cliffs, etc.) may also come into play.
An upwind vessel is able to manoeuvre at will toward any downwind point, since in doing so the relative wind moves aft. A vessel downwind of another, however, in attempting to attack upwind, is constrained to trim sail as the relative wind moves forward and cannot point too far into the wind for fear of being headed. In sailing warfare, when beating to windward, the vessel experiences heeling under the sideward pressure of the wind. This restricts gunnery, as cannon on the windward side are now elevated, while the leeward gun ports aim into the sea, or in heavy weather may be awash. A ship with the weather gage, turning downwind to attack, may alter course at will in order to bring starboard and port guns to appropriate elevations. Ships seeking to evade capture or attack, however, have the advantage being downwind if they are faster vessels or are close to friendly land.
One of the last times that weather gage was perhaps a factor in a naval engagement was in the Battle of the Denmark Strait in 1941 where the German battleship Bismarck and the heavy cruiser Prinz Eugen held the weather gage over the British battleship HMS Prince of Wales and the battlecruiser HMS Hood. Being upwind, the German ships had the advantage that their rangefinders were not as wet as the British rangefinders, which faced the spray direction. The weather restricted the visual range to much less than the gun range. However, being upwind from one's target was ironically not an advantage for the Germans—it was even detrimental. The common tactic was to bypass the thick armor of a ship's hull, making the shells dive almost vertically over the less-protected horizontal decks. Firing against the wind would make the shells fall more vertically, given their parabolic trajectories.
The concept of weather gage is still useful in modern yacht racing, although it is hardly ever referred to by that name. The sails of a boat disrupt the wind to leeward; this disruption is often called "dirt" or "dirty air". An overtaking boat on a downwind course can position itself to focus its dirty air on the boat ahead of it. Conversely, a boat on an upwind course may find itself trapped in the dirty air of a boat immediately to windward. However, right-of-way rules give priority to the leeward boat and can make it advantageous to be the boat without the weather gage, especially just before the start or when the boat to leeward can point higher into the wind.
Gauge and gage are often used as alternative spellings. To the extent that there is a difference, a weather gauge can be a form of meteorological instrumentation for measuring weather quantitatively, such as a rain gauge, thermometer, anemometer, or barometer. A gage is a challenge, and hence an entry into battle, though the word is more commonly embedded in the word engage.
- Regan, G. The Guinness Book of Naval Blunders, p. 175. Guinness Publishing, London 1993.