Hoisting the cones

"IN 1859, after a series of disastrous gales in which many ships and lives were lost, Vice Admiral Robert FitzRoy of the British…

"IN 1859, after a series of disastrous gales in which many ships and lives were lost, Vice Admiral Robert FitzRoy of the British navy was given the difficult task of using available scientific knowledge to provide warnings of severe weather for the use of ships at sea.

To this end, FitzRoy organised a network of 40 weather stations around the Irish and British coastlines. They provided him with daily weather reports by telegraph, and although his forecasting methods were primitive by today's standards, by 1861 a system was in place. When gales were expected, warnings were telegraphed to ports and harbours around the country, and within 30 minutes appropriate signals were prominently displayed on shore to relay the word to passing ships. It was the beginning of shipping forecasts as we understand the term today.

The signals displayed were of a semaphore type, and were hoisted on a tall mast ashore to allow mariners to take note and exercise the necessary vigilance. If gales were expected from a generally northerly direction, for example, a black cone 3 feet high and 3 feet wide at the base, was raised upon the mast this was a "North Cone". If on the other hand the gales were expected from a southerly quarter, a "South Cone" was hoisted - a cone with its apex pointing downwards.

Other patterns had meanings which quickly became standard and widely understood; "a "drum" or cylinder, for example, was sometimes used to indicate successive gales from varying directions. At night red lights were used to indicate the relevant shape - a triangle of lights to form a cone, and four lights arranged in a square to indicate a drum. In all cases the signal was lowered when the wind dropped below gale force, provided no further gales were expected within six hours. A signal still in evidence after the wind had dropped, however, was to be interpreted as a sign that any abatement was only temporary.

"Storm cones" continued in regular use at ports and coastguard stations around Britain until the early 1980s. They are responsible for the quaint phraseology heard until comparatively recently on British shipping forecasts which advised, for example, that "South cones are being hoisted". In general, however, the use of both the cones and the phraseology they engendered have died out with modern improvements in communications, although cones are still displayed occasionally by yacht clubs on a voluntary basis for the information of the casual passer by.