In Lympstone at the water’s edge stands a clock tower with a pyramidal roof, a pint-sized version of Saint Stephen’s tower at the Houses of Parliament, and on top of the pyramid is a weather vane in the form of an arrow. When there is no wind five young starlings come to perch on this vane, from time to time they balance on only one leg each. These contented birds might be said to be demonstrating to the world sufficient evidence of calm on the Estuary. But perhaps not! Come to think of it, as tipsters, these five starlings should not be relied on. They have been known to deceive the innocent sailor and keep him at home on a tide when he could be winging up and down the river like a fiddler’s elbow for there is many a time that a fine breeze is waiting out in the channels that does not make itself known in Lympstone’s cove.
The surface of the water is a much better indicator. The tides flood and ebb but they hardly ruffle the water. The slightest breeze does so. In a true calm the waters are a mirror to the sky, a pewter mirror to a cloudy sky, a silver mirror to a sunny sky, a star spangled mirror to a clear night sky.
Calm at sea has a bad reputation and a ghostly feel about it. Was calm not the albatross’s revenge? It can’t have been much fun to be trapped aboard a painted ship upon a painted ocean and in the great days of sail a prolonged calm was understandably dreaded by all ancient mariners and whistlers for winds. There is a boatman in a Goethe poem who is also somewhat perturbed by an awesome Meeresstille. (my translation)
Stillness reigns upon the waters.
Nothing stirs. The sea is calm.
His boat as still as death, the skipper
Gazes ’round him in alarm.
On every side a fearful silence.
No single breath from any quarter
And far as eye can see no wavelet
Frets the surface of the water.
Tomorrow: still becalmed!