Sydney’s Three Winds

Sydney’s Three Winds

I’ve been savoring, thinking about and writing on the unique seasons we experience here in Bayarea.

It reminded me of the classic essay  (which I will reproduce here in full, as I can’t find it anywhere else online) by J.D. Pringle. Pringle was a long time editor of the Sydney Morning Herald and this piece on the distinctive winds of Sydney was reproduced in ‘Austrian Accent’ (Chatto and Windus, London, 1958).


SYDNEY is ruled by three winds, which command the City in turn like the chiefs of an invading army.

The first is the north-easter, the prevailing wind of summer. It is a fair-weather wind, a lazy, languorous wind, which comes in from the long reaches of the South Pacific heavy with moisture and sticky with salt. This is the wind which drives the great Pacific rollers on to the open beaches before leaping over the narrow barrier of land, making the pines of Manly sing as it passes and ruffling the calmer waters of the Harbour on the other side. On Sundays the crews of the 18-foot yachts catch it as they round the buoy for the long run home and push out their bellying spinnakers which lift the small hulls out of the water until they seem to be flying.

The north-easter is a sea-breeze and is out of its element on dry land. As soon as it reaches the brick-and-concrete towers of the City it begins to flag, though it still has the strength to rustle the skirts of the palm trees on Macquarie Street and to fan the foreheads of the drinkers squatting on their haunches outside the pubs in Balmain and Woolloomooloo. A few miles inland the north-easter fades away altogether, daunted by the size of the continent before it. To the western suburbs it brings no relief from the heat but to the more favoured eastern suburbs it is a source of pride and joy; and the wealthy citizens of Bellevue Hill and Point Piper set their houses to catch it like the yachts on the Harbour set their sails. But the north-easter is not an unmixed blessing. If it brings coolness, it also brings the humidity which is the curse of Sydney’s summer.

The north-easter has a rhythm of its own. It starts gently in the morning, the merest sea-breeze, and grows stronger all day until by six o’clock in the evening it is blowing half a gale and sending the more timorous yachtsmen in for shelter. Then it dies away as the sun goes down. Sometimes, too, it seems to grow stronger each day, while the temperature climbs steadily and Sydney swelters in sticky heat. Then suddenly it drops and there is a great calm. In the City the heat seems unbearable.

Women sit outside their terraced houses in the inner suburbs and lean over their cast-iron balconies, unwilling to go indoors. Pale-faced children play languidly in the streets. But the men look to where great clouds are building up in the south or turn on the wireless to listen for the weather forecast. They know that the time has come for the north-easter to give way to the second of the three winds – the southerly.

The southerly comes with a rush of cold air and a splatter of rain. The Sydneysiders call it the “southerly buster,” because it arrives with a banging of doors and windows like a train coming into the station. It can be fierce for a few hours, bowling over the yachts in the Harbour like ninepins and dexterously removing loose tiles from the house-roofs; but it is a much-loved wind in summer, bringing down the temperature with a bump, cooling the sultry streets and sending fretful babies to sleep. Generally it blows itself out in the night and Sydney wakes up in the morning to blue skies and brilliant sun as the north-easter resumes its sway over the City. In winter, however, it may blow for days, bringing cold Melbourne weather and a hint of snow to Sydney.

The third wind is the westerly, a gusty, dusty wind blowing from the heart of the continent. It- is an unpredictable wind, following no rhythm and obeying no laws, but in summer dry and hot as the blast from an oven door, it pounces on the City and worries it. It is an uncomfortable, penetrating wind, which gets through clothes and windows, forcing dust into the eyes and nose. Like the sirocco of the Mediterranean, its extreme dryness seems to irritate people, making the easy-going Sydneysiders bad-tempered.

In winter the southerly may blow for weeks on end, but in summer, fortunately, it rarely lasts more than a day or two – fortunately because it is only when the westerly is blowing that Sydney gets truly hot. The temperature climbs into the hundreds; the tar melts on the roads; and those who go down to the beaches for relief find that they cannot run bare-foot across the burning sand to the water. Worse still, it is the bush-fire wind. If you look up at the sky during a hot westerly, you will see a curious reddish- orange haze on the horizon. This is the smoke of bush-fires burning beyond the City boundaries. On a bad day, when the City is ringed with fires, the sky is half obscured with smoke and the sun glares down on the City like a blood-shot eye.

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