Practicing storm tactics before the storm
We have been studying heavy weather tactics for years trying to make some sense of everyone’s opinions. There are about as many opinions about what a sailor should do when heavy weather hits as there are sailors out there. Some say you should drop all canvas, close yourself in, and wait out the weather (lying ahull). Others say you should keep sailing under bare poles. Others say you should keep your boat sailing with as much canvas as makes sense for the conditions. Still others advocate using seas anchors or drogues and trailing warps to slow yourself down and smooth out the seas behind you. What’s the answer? How can a sailor know the right path to take for the safety of the crew and the vessel, especially when caught by a storm in coastal waters?
Part of the answer lies in your skills, the condition of the gear and the crew, and the preferences of your boat. Yes, your boat is going to react differently with each of those tactics so trying them all out in advance of a real need makes a lot of sense to see how your boat will behave under different circumstances. Now many of you aren’t going to be sailing offshore, so your likelihood of deploying a drogue or sea anchor may be remote. Those are especially important in huge seas. So in our case, it makes sense to practice all those other things, especially heaving to.
Heavy weather tactics for coastal sailors
Sea anchors, drogues and warps
Being coastal cruisers in an area where storms can come out of nowhere in a hurry, it is critical to get to know the fastest way to reduce sail area on your vessel. We practice a simple rule: The instant we think it might be time to reduce sail is the instant we do it.
On our racing/cruising sloop, we typically dropped to the first reef when the wind climbed over 15 knots, which is also when we’d start to feel weather helm that elusive force that keeps you turning the wheel harder and harder to windward to keep a heading. She happened to be really happy with one reef and we never saw a reduction in speed at that point. If that wasn’t enough, at about 18-20, we’d roll up the genoa a tad depending on which sail we had up at the time and perhaps put in a second reef in the main. We never dropped the main and sailed with genoa alone; we watched our boat and many others sailing under genoa alone and noticed that they became severely unbalanced, almost like they are about to trip over their noses. That seems to put too much stress on the mast as well. Pay close attention the next time and you’ll see the bend in many cases.
Over 20 knots, we’d certainly put in the second reef if we hadn’t done it before. At 25, we’d furl the genoa completely and sail under the reefed main alone. Over 30, we might drop the main and sail under bare poles with the “iron genny” (engine) running for extra steering and speed in the desired direction (out of dodge!).
Reducing sail on this boat meant having a person go forward to the mast where the reefing line controls were, and where we had to secure the reefing clew. We did not head up too far into the wind but rather eased out the mainsheet until the sail was pointing almost into the wind, dropped it, and then eased it back in to secure sail ties through the reef points without having to hang overboard. That last part is important to reduce stress on the sail. But a word of caution do not use white sail ties. When you go to raise the main, you will invariably leave one tie on at some point and potentially rip the main where it’s tied.
On our ketch, our options are significantly more varied. Typically, we fly at least four sails in wind under 15 knots main, yankee, staysail, and mizzen. The first sail that comes down when the weather freshens to about 18 knots is the staysail. Over 20 knots, we either reef the main or drop it altogether and sail “Jib and Jigger” (with yankee and mizzen only). The main on our ketch is reefed at the mast and the procedure is similar to that described above, but we have a much more stable platform and granny bars to steady us. This combination we find is very balanced, very manageable, and still pretty fast. Above 25, we reef the yankee a tad to ease the weather helm. Over 30, as coastal sailors, we either head home or furl the yankee and hank on a storm jib on the inner stay.
Just remember, every sailor, every boat, and every day are different. You need to experiment and practice what works for you.
Practice heaving to, you will be amazed!
Even if you sail in the most protected waters, one day, you will need to take action to protect yourself and your vessel against an unexpected strong squall, high seas, and other forces of nature. Or more likely, after beating hard for three hours on a charter passage, you will need to take a break to use the head, refresh your coffee or simply appease your spouse who is starting to threaten with divorce. You better know what to do!
What to do then? Well... you heave to! We think this is a most amazing tactic and can’t imagine why more people don’t take advantage.
Heaving to under reduced sail is what many offshore sailors consider the best compromise in winds up to 50 knots. Heaving-to means setting up the sails and the rudder so that they oppose one another and the boat stops making headway. In heaving to, you reduce your sail area down to a manageable amount (storm jib and heavily reefed main or trysail), then tack without releasing the jib sheet. Secure your tiller to windward (or wheel to leeward) and voila, you will essentially park your boat. The jib being backwinded counteracts the main moving forward. Several things happen then. Your forward progress slows to a crawl on our sloop we would do about knot of boat speed in 25 knots of wind, and a kind of calm overtakes the vessel. In fact, after struggling to sail on in a storm, the act of heaving to has an almost immediate positive effect on crew. The boat's motion eases, the fury of the wind seems to abate, and the stress on gear, sails and the crew's morale seems to dissipate. It’s truly a quieter calmer situation that lets your crew get much needed rest, let’s you prepare a meal, and eat in peace.
"Being hove to in a long gale is the most boring way of being terrified I know. "
Heaving to need not be solely a storm tactic. Stopping the boat at any time, to navigate, make repairs, or simply have a quiet dinner, is an option too often overlooked. If you're not in a hurry, then stopping for a while can be a real pleasure. We used to practice heaving to in good weather just so we could perfect our technique (not that there is much to it). If we wanted to sit down for lunch on a beat, we’d just park her for a while and put up the table.
In modern masthead sloops of moderate to light displacement, another method of heaving to in heavy weather is under storm jib alone. To heave to, trim the storm jib to windward, force the bow off the wind and then tie the helm down to counteract the leeward force of the jib. The boat will seek a position approximately 60 degrees off the wind and will then proceed forward at one or two knots. The course will be erratic as the boat rides over large swells and falls off again in the gusts at the top of the wave. And, the boat will occasionally take a breaking wave on the forward windward quarter that will shove the hull to leeward. Your progress under the storm jib alone will be a diagonal vector at about 130 from the true direction of the wind, as you will be gong forward at about two knots and going sideways at about one knot.
In a split rigged boat, you can accomplish the same with a storm jib and reefed mizzen, both of which have to be sheeted in very flat. Our friends on a catamaran had been told that cats can't heave to. Rubbish. They tried a number of different options and found one that worked perfectly with their boat. Since each boat reacts a little differently, you should practice with your boat under various conditions until you are comfortable enough to deploy it when you need it most.
Sea anchors, droques and warps
Sea anchors, droques and warps are techniques to help you slow your vessel down to match the speed of the boat to the period between waves so you can ride them more safely without constantly speeding up and slowing down and falling off the waves into the troughs or getting swamped by following seas. These are not usually things a coastal sailor needs to know unless you are likely to be offshore in near coastal waters where you could get caught in storm and not be able to make your way back into a safe harbor. This is not a subject we will cover here in detail but in passing so you know what the basic applications are. These might often be used when sailing under bare poles.
Sea anchors are deployed off the bow and rely on the conical shape to trap sea water which provides the drag needed to hold the bow of the boat to windward. The Gale Rider is one example. An alternative is the parachute anchor, which is a huge, lightweight sea anchor designed along the lines of a parachute and deployed much like a sea anchor. Deploying a sea anchor or para-anchor can be difficult. The wind will catch the cloth making deployment into the water tricky and yet it will take time to open and fill once in the water. The rode should have at least one swivel and chafe protection and should be long enough to place the anchor two wave crests to windward. It’s length should be adjusted to account for changes in the wave patterns.
The danger in lying to a sea anchor or parachute anchor is sliding backwards as a breaking sea rolls under the bow of the boat. As the hull slips back on the wave, the entire weight of the hull will fall onto the rudder. The pressure can easily bend the rudder post or shear off the pins. With a sea anchor, you also do not have much steering ability so many cruisers prefer the drogue which gives you at least some ability to point your boat in a different direction if need be.
A drogue is small-cone shaped device which is attached to a rode and deployed off the stern. The rode is then attached to a bridle (a line running from one port winch or cleat, into the water behind the stern and attached to the starboard winch or cleat.) A bridle will reduce the load on a cleat or winch by distributing the force between both the port and starboard sides of the boat. The drogue should be played out to at least two wave crests behind the boat. A small amount of drag will help keep the stern pointing into the oncoming waves but not enough to appreciably slow the forward motion of the boat. A small amount of drag can also be created by running warps, or loops of lines secured from the port primary winch into the water off the stern and then looping back and secured to the starboard winch.
Lying ahull…or not!
This is an open water technique not usually advisable for coastal sailors where there is always a coast to steer around. We do not advocate lying ahull. That’s just asking for disaster to come your way, not to mention it’s the single most uncomfortable and scary place to be. When you lie ahull, you take down all your sails and stop steering. This puts you completely at the mercy of the seas, and it’s not the wind that will get you usually, it’s the sea. Eventually, you will even take one broadside with the potential for capsizing. Think about it. You’re a cork floating on the surface being bashed by waves in every direction. Especially where we sail, in coastal waters, we hardly get that lovely ocean swell. Instead we get square waves, confused seas, and massive tidal swings where waves build up against the wind and smack you around like the Minnow. Nope, this is not for us.
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