Do not expect to get your sea legs gradually in “Reading the Glass.” On page two we are thrust into an arctic squall aboard a small vessel sailing to Greenland. The water temperature is 38 degrees, and a cold spray of seawater rockets “like birdshot across the open deck.” Wild peaks and troughs in waves disrupt any sense of place and at one point bring readers eye to eye with a pod of pilot whales. Welcome to scenes from the maritime journeys of Capt. Elliot Rappaport.

Rappaport, a faculty member at Maine Maritime Academy, gives beginning sailors training and immediate exposure to all aspects of life on board ship. He takes the same approach with readers, immersing us in the nautical and atmospheric action, as well as the foundational science. “Reading the Glass: A Captain’s View of Weather, Water and Life on Ships” covers the entire globe, detailing astounding adventures and a wealth of nautical and weather-related information. Rappaport clearly loves to teach, and the book is full of engaging stories and an ever-present sense of humor that make even the most unfamiliar science interesting and accessible.

The book’s title comes from reading the glass barometer, a vacuum tube developed in 1643, which indicates changes in atmospheric pressure – a key factor in weather forecasting. It’s one of an increasing array of data elements mariners rely on to understand approaching weather conditions. Yet despite data from satellites, high-tech radar, reports from other mariners and historical data, the weather at sea is inherently unpredictable and often intensely local. Sailors are advised that only they know the weather at their location, and Rappaport cautions his crew, “Never forget what is happening outside the window.”

Rappaport, who writes with grace and elegance, tells of planning a trip in the North Atlantic at a time when the historical likelihood of gales was between 2% and 6%. Despite these low odds, he and his shipmates encountered a gale. He chalks the experience up as a practical lesson in statistics. The “aha!” moment? “Rare does not mean never.”

The book is centered around a training voyage aboard the Robert C. Seamans. A group of 24 sailors-in-training under Rappaport’s leadership departs Puerto Vallarta on Mexico’s Pacific coast on a two-month, 3000-mile voyage southwest to the Marquesas, a group of islands in French Polynesia.

When the voyage begins, the trainees are bubbling with enthusiasm and glistening with sunscreen. After an inevitable stretch of sea sickness, however, they grow accustomed to life at sea with experienced-based learning. By the final third of the voyage, they are essentially running the ship.


Weather is a recurring theme in “Reading the Glass” and though infinitely complex, weather “is just atmospheric stirring, a three-dimensional cycle that solves imbalances by redistributing energy around the globe,” Rappaport writes. This redistribution manifests in several ways, including in thunderstorms and hurricanes.

Thunderstorms, he writes, are the “extreme expression of the energy involved when water and heat make their way around the atmosphere.” They are particularly dangerous because of the amount of energy they can release. One example is the microburst: a powerful downdraft in a thunderstorm. Microbursts can topple sailing vessels, and Rappaport recounts an example from off the coast of Brazil. Before wide adoption of Doppler radar, microbursts could cause airliners to crash – such as the 1985 Delta crash in Dallas.

Hurricanes often originate when trade winds begin to collide and rotate, causing a self-reinforcing cycle that draws massive amounts of heat energy into the upper atmosphere. About 30% of these tropical storms evolve into hurricanes, we learn. Although notable for wind speed, the destructive impact of hurricanes is more evident in rain and sea surge, as illustrated by Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans in 2005 and Hurricane Sandy in the New York City area in 2012, Rappaport writes.

Hurricanes that don’t reach land and dissipate may grow more powerful at sea, fueled by warm water. For mariners there is no such thing as a storm “going safely out to sea,” he writes, as evidenced by the “perfect storm” in 1991 and the sinking of the El Faro in 2015.

Rappaport acknowledges that over Earth’s history there have been “many long cycles of warming and cooling.” But he clearly states that our current climate situation has been fueled by an unprecedented increase in greenhouse gases, which melt arctic ice. From 2010 to 2020, 300 billion tons of ice melted into the sea, which he explains means warmer oceans, more heat energy evaporating into the skies and a hotter planet with more intense storms. Hurricanes that were a hundred-year event will become five-year events, according to “Reading the Glass.”

Readers – having journeyed through these pages, from Greenland to the South Pacific, to the troposphere to deep within the Arctic ice pack – can’t help but hold in awe the magnificent and powerful forces that surround our precious planet and at the same time feel a growing sense of alarm for the climate threats we face.

Dave Canarie is an attorney from South Portland and faculty member at University of Southern Maine.

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