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Fair Winds and Following Seas

Posted by Victoria S Dennis on April 12, 2011 at 22:05

In Reply to: Fair Winds and Following Seas posted by CPO Burns on April 12, 2011 at 09:08:

: In response to "Fair Winds and Following Seas".

: Those who guessed the "Fair Winds" portion are correct. 'Fair winds' have been important ever since the first sail. The second half is not so obvious. Note that many nautical terms are derived from the farm since many a seaman was farm raised. Any dirt farmer knows what a fallow is. It is a shallow trench or depression seen after the harvest. A fallow sea is a calm sea. The expression originally was "FAIR WINDS AND FALLOWING SEAS." A sort of God's speed and smooth sailing. You heard it from a retired sailor.

On the contrary: the “following sea” part is exactly what it sounds like – a sea whose current is going in the same direction as your vessel, and thus appears to be “following” you. (A following sea is not necessarily calm at all – it can be quite rough.) A fair wind and a following sea together create the very best conditions to get where you want to go, which makes it a good thing to wish somebody.

You can have a following sea and a following wind (incidentally, the Romans called such a wind “ventus secundus”, which is an exact equivalent in Latin.) Here are some historical uses of the term:
1807 J. Boone in Naval Chron. XXIII. 406 She was assisted by a high following sea.
1839 F. Marryat Phantom Ship viii, You may sail for weeks with a cloudless sky and a following breeze, without starting tack or sheet.
1858 W. Cook in Mercantile Marine Mag. 5 42 We had a following sea previous to falling in with this mist, but the sea then changed to a kind of boil, or topping sea.
Where do farmers call a shallow trench or depression seen after the harvest a “fallow”? The Oxford English dictionary does not know this definition or anything like it. (And what kind of harvesting leaves trenches or depressions behind it, anyway???) Nor does the OED recognise “fallow” as an adjective meaning “calm”.

In any case, the quotations listed show that the word has been “following”, not “fallowing”, for the last two centuries.

Also, FWIW, very few nautical terms in English are derived from farming; because from the Middle Ages onwards, fishing and seafaring communities were traditionally quite distinct from farming ones.

You heard it from a wordsmith.