In a Lifetime at Sea, Elliot Rappaport Has Seen Some Unbelievable Weather

His new book, Reading the Glass, unpacks the science behind it.

cover of book titled Reading the Glass by Elliot Rappaport
Cover courtesy of Dutton Books
By Will Grunewald
From our March 2023 issue

Mariners rank among a small subset of professionals — with the likes of pilots and mountaineers — who are attuned to weather in a way most people never need to be. Their lives depend on being able to anticipate abrupt changes in conditions, and for centuries, ships’ logs have been crucial to a growing body of knowledge of how weather functions around the globe. In that tradition, Elliot Rappaport has brought his nearly four decades of seafaring experience and knowledge to his first book, Reading the Glass: A Captain’s View of Weather, Water, and Life on Ships (Dutton, $30). Rappaport started working in Maine’s windjammer fleet during his college years, captained the schooner Bowdoin at Maine Maritime Academy, got a master’s degree in earth-science education, led research expeditions around the globe through Massachusetts’s Sea Education Association, and now works as a professor at Maine Maritime Academy, teaching about everything from lifeboats to general seamanship to meteorology. Reading the Glass blends science, history, and travelogue to create a fascinating account of phenomena that impact everyone’s lives, whether out at sea or firmly on dry land.

Elliot Rappaport
Maine Maritime prof Elliot Rappaport has navigated through all sorts of weather. Photo by Stephen Rappaport

How did weather become a preoccupation?

Well, one thing is that on smaller vessels you have to be a generalist. Think about a small restaurant: in a fancy hotel kitchen, you might have somebody who does nothing but croissants seven days a week, whereas if there are only three of you in the kitchen, you all need to know how to make the pastries. So I’ve been soaking up stuff about weather through experience, colleagues, some individual study. I mean, I’m not a meteorologist. Pretty much I’m trained as a mariner and a high-school science teacher, in terms of actual credentials, and with my Maine Maritime students, it’s about teaching them to understand how weather processes work so they can interact with them effectively.

Your book, though, is really more about how weather operates on a global scale.

With the book, I’m trying to be an interpreter — providing qualitative explanations. Weather is always there — we all interact with weather one way or another — but a lot of people don’t have a great understanding of it. So the initial idea was really just trying to put together a series of chapters from my teaching notes. Then, I found out there wasn’t a lot of interest in a straight-up writing of science. But I’d also gotten interested in the history of how the science developed, and the travelogue part came later, which wound up being a way to knit together what I wanted to explain. I didn’t want it to be a book of hair-raising sea stories or for it to go too far down the technical road. I just wanted to get people thinking about weather as a holistic system.

Was it difficult to wrangle something so large and complicated into a digestible form?

I’ve always thought that good mariners are good explainers. Mariners get an incredible amount of their training at sea, and there’s a real culture of sharing information. You can never have a team that’s too competent, so people think a lot about forming explanations for all kinds of stuff. It’s more common now for people at sea to watch movies to entertain themselves, and you can get at the internet depending on what sort of ship you’re on, but you still spend a lot of time talking. Sharing anecdotes is the way people pass the time and also the way they share information.

One takeaway is the huge strides in modeling weather, but another is that, on a micro level, weather can still be dangerously unpredictable.

Maps and forecasts aren’t going to say that this cloud is going to cross your location at this time. Airports actually do that very well, but they’re fixed locations on land. The oceans are huge, and ships are moving all over the place — fewer data points and a lot more real estate. With all the predictive tools today, you shouldn’t get caught completely by surprise, but wind systems are chaotic, and the resolution is still fairly coarse in terms of what’s going to happen to a particular ship. To use an overused expression, you really do always have to be looking out the window.