If you think you need to reef, you should have already reefed. Reef early and Reef often.
By Marcin Wojtyczka
16 minutes read
Heavy weather sailing preparation and tactics.
With modern forecasting, a true storm will rarely arrive unannounced, but as you venture further offshore the chances of being caught out increase.
Heavy or bad weather is a situation in which navigation for both the boat and its crew is hard. However, there is no strict definition at which conditions a heavy weather occurs. It depends on the wind and wave conditions, sailing area (coast upwind, leeward), type of boat and people on board. As an example, a heavy weather for small boat could start already at force 6 or 7, for larger boats this might be 8 or 9.
In today’s world of satellite communication and more accurate weather forecasts, it is certainly easier to avoid heavy weather than before. Sailing up a sea storm is very hard, sometimes impossible. That is why it is important to plan, execute and monitor passages properly, with a good weather forecast in your hands and an alternative strategy in your mind.
You should generally stay in harbour if bad weather is predicted. But once you are out on the sea, far from a harbour, and the forecast predicts a deep low in your vicinity, you might not have enough time to avoid the system. You can attempt to escape as far away from the low as possible, and ensure that you are some distance away from any shelving seabed which could increase likelihood of breaking waves. Other than that, you should plan passages to avoid unfavourable seasons, e.g. hurricane season that can create Tropical Revolving Storms (TRS) that must be avoided at all costs (North Atlantic and North Pacific: July - November; Bay of Bengal and Arabian Sea: June - November; South Pacific and South Indian Ocean: November - April).
Do not head out to sea if bad weather is predicted.
How to prepare for heavy weather
You should prepare the boat and the crew before the bad weather hits.
Assess your situation and make a plan on how you want to ride the storm. Can you afford to run 200 NM downwind? Are you on a lee shore? Are there any shallows? Two classic storm strategies are to try to keep away from land so you are not blown up on shore, and to sail away from the storm’s path - especially its “dangerous semicircle”. If you are near a lee shore or shallows, you need to get away from it as fast as possible and work out a tactic that will keep you off until the sea state has calmed down. You should also try to get away from a high concentration of traffic and shipping lanes.
Ports of refuge
Check if there is a suitable port which you can pull into to escape or avoid heavy weather conditions. In most situations, making landfall in strong offshore winds (blowing toward shore) should be avoided as it might put you and the yacht at risk. But a large, sheltered harbour might be approachable before it gets too bad.
Brief the crew
Inform the crew that harder conditions are expected but do not frighten anyone. Adjust the watch rota if needed. The crew should take seasickness tables, prepare warm clothes and stow their gear.
Clear the deck
Take everything below (including dinghy) and stow it well. Make sure all running rigging is well stowed so no lines are going to go overboard and foul the propeller. Make sure that all furling sails cannot unfurl by themselves. Ensure that all hatches and lockers are closed.
Cook and eat a decent meal
Make sure that everyone is well fed and watered and that you have some food prepared (e.g. sandwiches, tea in a thermos).
Charge the batteries
You should have batteries charged in case you have to start the engine or use water pumps.
Double check all safety gear
Ensure that the safety equipment is ready (EPIRB, PLB, PFDS and harness, VHF, Grab Bag, first aid kit etc.). This should generally be already checked as part of the passage prep but it will not harm to double check.
Reduce sails early and hoist storm sails (if you have one) whilst you still can, and certainly before dark.
Rig sea anchor / drogue
Ensure these are ready for deployment if you plan to use them.
There are several proven storm tactics, all of which aim to reduce the strain and motion by pointing one of the boat’s ends (either bow or stern) toward the waves. No one tactic will work best for all boats in all conditions so you have to practice and work out a strategy that works best for you and your boat.
If conditions are wrong, or are forecast to worsen, do not go. If you can avoid the storm, then do so. Stay in the harbour and enjoy time with your shipmates. Make sure your anchor or mooring lines are secure, read a book or brush up some sailing knowledge with your crew (e.g. COLREGs, navigation).
If your boat is threatened by a hurricane, strip all excess gear from the deck, double up all docking or mooring lines, protect those lines from chafe, and get off. Do not risk your life to save your boat.
Head for safe harbour
When the heavy weather begins or is predicted, the first impulse is often to drop the sails, start up the motor and head for land. If you can safely reach a harbor, this may be your safest option. The danger lies in being caught in the storm, close to shore, with no room to maneuver or run off. The wind and waves can rapidly turn shallow areas or narrow channels into a more dangerous place than open water, especially if the storm will be short-lived and it’s mostly a matter of waiting it out. Waves become steeper and more likely to break in shallow areas, making it difficult to control the boat. Also consider the risks if your engine were to die and the wind rapidly blow you onto the shore. You may have better options staying in open water and riding out the storm.
Steer downwind course
Active steering downwind course is probably the best technique for a modern lightweight boat as long as you have plenty of sea room and a competent helmsman. If the stern is not kept perpendicular to approaching waves, a wave can push the stern around to one side, causing a broach and capsize. A good autopilot can do even a better job than a helmsman so use it, if you know you can trust it.
Big ships and long keel boats like fisherman boats prefer to take big waves on bow but there are serious forces in play and modern lightweight performance yachts are better off going with the wind and waves rather than fighting against the nature. This tactic is useful if it sends you in the right direction, but perhaps not very good if it puts you far from your destination. You will also stay in bad weather for longer, rather than letting it pass over you. Also that having someone on deck helming puts them in a vulnerable position with potential waves landing on deck.
When surfing the waves at some point you might have to slow the boat down to be able to control it. The sail plan would mainly depend on your boat and available sails on board. For a typical cruiser, this could mean a main with a second or third reef and reduced headsail (rolled or storm jib). You can also drop the main sail or use a fourth reef.
When running it is necessary to keep the yacht in right angles to the seas. Therefore, it is advantageous to set the sails as far ahead as possible and to take off the main thus improving the capability of steering because the distance between “center of effort of the sails” and “center of effort of the rudder” is enlarged.
In extreme cases, where even a scrap of sail is too much, you may decide to drop all the sails and simply run under bare poles a technique successfully used by Bernhard Moitessier described in his classical text passage: “Now she is running barepoles, free, heeling, when the sea is running up at an angle of 15 to 20 degrees, is accelerating like a surfer … and is responding to the helm, when I bring her back downwind”.
If you cannot actively steer anymore the only option remaining would be to stabilise the boat in some other way like heaving-to or laying a drogue or a sea anchor, but this may or may not work for your boat.
Beat possibly by assistance of the engine
If you loose too much ground to leeward you can try to beat to windward with reefed mainsail and the engine. Relying on the engine for long time in offshore storm will probably not be sustainable in long run because of fuel limitations and the stress on the engine itself from operating at extreme angles of heel (engine not lubricating correctly and overheating). Also, rough seas can stir debris in the fuel tank, clogging fuel filters, stopping the engine at a potentially very unsuitable time. Nevertheless, this remains a viable option in coastal conditions when dealing with a passing squall.
Heave-to (if your boat can, practically suitable only for traditional voyagers)
Heave-to under reduced sails with a staysail or jib sheeted to windward and the helm lashed over to maintain a heading of approximately 45 degrees off the wind.
Heaving-to gives the crew a rest and it can be a safer means of riding out a storm rather than trying to sail it out but you need the right boat for this (see below). It is a classic survival technique where you tack the boat through the wind, leaving the sails backed and the wheel lashed to windward. Note that in strong wind it might be dangerous or impossible to tack the boat so you should rather back the headsail to windward by trimming the windward sheet.
Heaving-to stabilizes the boat and slows down drift to 2-3 knots on average. You should be able to adjust the sails to sit at about 30-45 degrees off the wind. Finding the right balance where a boat will sit comfortably at the correct angle to the wind and not giving up too much ground to leeward will require some adjustments. You should lower or deeply reef the main or raise a storm trysail (very small storm mainsail) as well as a small headsail (storm jib) to reduce loads on the rig. Depending on how the boat is pointing to the wind and waves you might need to drop the headsail or the mainsail. You may be able to heave-to under deeply reefed main, or under a sail set further aft. But watch out that you are not forereaching instead - see below.
A really cool part of heaving-to is that the boat will leave a wake to windward. Breaking waves hit this “slick” and flatten out, thus reducing the wave action on the vessel.
Modern boats generally do not heave-to very well, and certainly not as well as a solidly built full-keel boat will. The sailplan and hull geometries of modern designs just do not let the boats lie stable to the wind. Experiment with your boat and see how the boat behaves. Try having-to in moderate conditions so that you can use the technique confidently in heavy weather.
Back the headsail to windward by trimming the windward sheet. If you have a big headsail, roll it up to handkerchief size or setup a storm jib. Do not gybe because the boat might fly down a wave and tacking might be impossible
Ease the reduced mainsail until the boat stops all forward motion
Put your rudder over hard to windward, taking care that the boat does not go head to wind. Lash the helm well, so it can’t work
Play with the mainsail trim until a balance is struck at a good angle to wind and waves. The ride should be comfortable. It’s all about a balance between what is below the waterline (keel and rudder) and windage above (sails and rig)
If there is still too much tendency to climb to windward, drop the mainsail. This would probably be the case if you had a third reef, which would be too much sail. A fourth reef (storm trysail size) might work
Keep a close eye on the boat for some time to make sure it stays in balance during various cycles of wave and swell patterns
Crew can go below. One watchkeeper is sufficient, booted and suited to go on deck to make any changes
Heave-to earlier rather than later. It is much easier to set up everything in a controlled situation. If the wind is rising, there is no point waiting as you will not lose much distance anyway.
Another technique akin to heaving-to is forereaching. Forereaching essentially keeps a boat moving forward to windward (off the wind at 45 to 60 degrees) at greatly reduced speed (making maybe 3 knots) and is accomplished by sheeting the jib amidships (not quite backed) or lowering it altogether, with the mainsail sheeted in tight (and usually reefed) and the helm lashed slightly to leeward. Think of it as sailing your boat very inefficiently to windward. Often a boat that is improperly hove-to ends up forereaching unintentionally.
Forereaching can be a better alternative to heaving-to in certain situations. In tidal areas, for example, forereaching can be used to slow down a boat without losing ground to an outgoing tide or current. One of the big benefits is that you have directional control so that you can manouver to avoid monster breaking waves - will only work if you have enough speed. You will also make some way, which is especially important if you’re working off a lee shore.
To effectively and safely forereach in storm conditions you need a boat prepared for offshore sailing. Your boat need to be able to take waves on the bow and lots of load. Sturdy boats with long keels prefer to take big waves on bow but modern lightweight performance yachts are better off going with the wind and waves. You need a stout rig and a good storm sailplan. Some form of storm jib, a bulletproof sail set on its own stay with clean sheet leads. You can use a furled down jib, but the center of effort will be too high and too far forward, and the shape will suffer too. If you use a furled headsail, you need to be very vigilant against chafe. A parted furling line can really ruin your day.
Lay a drogue astern
Even if running under bare poles you have too much speed, the are several possibilities to decelerate the speed to avoid avoid pitch poling or broaching, e.g. using warps (bight of line will trail behind the boat 300 feet or so) or deploying a drogue. You have to practice using drogue well in advance in various conditions. These are big and difficult to handle devices. The load generated by them is enormous. Personally, having been in Force 10 storm and lots of heavy weather less than that, I can tell you that setting these devices in that conditions will never cross your mind if you didn’t practice it before. If you do plan to use it, deploy it before the bad weather hits. Amongs drogues the Jordan Series Drogue receives a lot of praise from long distance sailors. Another option would be to use Seabrake Drogue.
If things get really bad, the last resort might be lying ahull: drop all the sails, fix tiller to leeward and lock oneself inside the boat, allowing the boat to drift, completely at the mercy of the storm. The ride will not be comfortable and the boat may not make it, but it is an option when there are no others left. Modern boats will often lie abeam big seas and this is a vulnerable position. This option is effectively giving up, so you must choose it only as a last resort.
Many experienced ocean sailors are of the belief that once it has got to sever gale conditions the crew should all be below deck, with the boat potentially sitting to a drogue or sea anchor from the bow and the hatches battened down. Indeed, many of the injuries sustained during the 1979 Fastnet race were from people trying to helm or move around the boat.
Drop an anchor
If you have in the vicinity of a shallow water and you have no other option to escape the lee shore you can drop an anchor as a last resort. Requirement: 30 - 50 m of chain, plus nylon cable of the same length (or both longer). A cable of nylon is elastic and it is able to absorb the movements back and fort.
My roadmap for cruising on modern 40ft performance boat
Up to Bft 4
Maintain the course
I reef in the main
Maintain the course
2nd reef in the main
Maintain the course
Bft 7 and up to a wave height which roughly matches the beam of the ship
3rd reef in the main
Running: further reduced headsail
Upwind course: storm jib
Maintain the course
Important not to sail beam-on to the seas, switch to running or to beating
Using the selfsteering as long as possible with somebody near the helm, who takes the wheel if necessary
3rd reef in the main
with additional support of the engine if needed
main with 3rd reef and storm jib
or storm jib only
main only, 3rd reef
with additional support of the engine
as long as the seas permit
under storm jib solely
Bft 10 and more
Running under storm jib only or bare pole
Maybe with Jordan Drogue to reduce speed and keep the stern held down
Retreat of the crew into the ship, close off the vessel
Reporting the position on VHF: “Restricted in manoeuvrability”
You and the storm
Few people get to experience the full fury of a storm. Although everyone will remember it differently years later, a long, wet, cold sail through a storm can be miserable. It is memorable but not pleasant so do not dream about it. As a skipper, keep calm and make the best of it. Watch over your crew, offer help to those who need it, and speak a few words of encouragement like “This is miserable, but it will end”.