Heavy Weather Sailing
Extracts from an article written by Barrie Jackson
The wind’s backed and freshened. Dark, foreboding clouds blot out the sun. It’s chilly now. The sea fetches up. A wave breaks. The signs are there, and you are headed for heavy weather.
But what exactly defines heavy weather — a hurricane, a gale or just strong winds? There are two components that contribute to the severity of a storm at sea: the force of the wind and the sea state. For the average person, heavy weather is anything over 25 knots. On the open sea, high waves are intimidating, but are not necessarily dangerous. Inshore, on the other hand, strong currents, shoals and other underwater obstructions can make riding out a storm in coastal waters treacherous. For one, strong currents inshore can add appreciably to wind strengths. A four-knot current running against a 30-knot wind, for instance, creates an apparent wind of 34 knots. And, in a strong rip, wave lengths decrease and the seas can become choppy, will break often, and can be dangerous.
Predicting Heavy Weather
For the coastal sailor, the best heavy weather strategy is “Don’t go!” Avoidance is the best heavy weather tactic. A common reason why sailors get caught in heavy weather is because they disregard weather warnings in their rush to get to the next harbour or home port. This is also a major factor in aviation accidents.
“With modern technology you don’t have to put yourself at risk. Weather forecasts are readily available throughout the world. But don’t just poll the weather fax or listen to the forecast before you sail. Instead, get the updated forecast once you are underway. Don’t go, or seek shelter promptly if the storm warnings are there.
Weather is capricious. Conditions can change suddenly, rendering the forecast obsolete. So if you do get caught out on the water in a blow, what do you do? Firstly, create a plan and work out your current position and the safest course to sail. “If the present course is no longer safe, bear away onto a reach or run. Head to the alternate destinations you have established in your sail plan. Are you on a lee shore or in the lee of the shore? In the lee, one can expect less fetch and smooth seas. The best advice in this situation is to anchor and wait out the storm. But if you can’t find shelter, get ready to meet the storm. If you have advance warning, prepare for heavy weather early and create a check-list with these three headings: on deck, below deck and crew.
It’s easier to shake out a reef than put one in. Therefore, reef early and progressively, ahead of the weather. The longer the crew waits, the more difficult it is to reef. A rule of thumb about reefing is to shorten sail to balance the boat in the gusts and squalls, not just the average wind conditions. Better still, for safety, carry less sail than the yacht can stand. There will be little sacrifice in speed but a huge gain in comfort. The extra sail required to achieve the last quarter knot places a load on a yacht’s sails, gear and crew which is out of all proportion to the gain.
What about storm sails?
“They’re not essential for the coastal sailor. Instead, consider a good roller reefing/furling system. This headsail will work better in a breeze if it is equipped with a foam-luff draft regulator to flatten the sail as it is reduced in size. “As well, your mainsail should have two, and perhaps three, deep reefs – not the tiny ones found on most production boats.” If you are planning a longer blue-water passage, cruisers can consider retrofitting a detachable inner forestay on a lever or pelican hook on which to hoist a hanked-on storm jib or heavy air staysail. The addition of an inner forestay is a major boat modification and requires various structural modifications to the deck, anchor bulkhead and mast, and may involve adding running backstays. But for those offshore sailors who have sailed with their storm jibs rigged on inner-forestays and with three reefs in main, this retrofit is well worth the investment and is an excellent heavy weather configuration. They key point here is that the inner stay allows you to centre-up the sail plan to the mast. This will keep the centre of effort and lateral resistance close together for balance. A balanced boat will not have excessive windward or lee helm in high winds and seas.
Preparing the crew
A well-built boat will take more punishment than its crew. In the 1979 Fastnet race the people gave up before the boats did. Many of these sailors drowned after they abandoned their yachts during a fierce storm that raked this infamous Admiral’s Cup offshore race. Most of the boats were recovered still floating after the storm and during the search for survivors. Had these crews “stayed with the boat”, they would still be racing today.
An alert crew is vital; but when the going gets rough fear and fatigue will often sap crew morale. And someone comatose with seasickness is of no use at all. So, prepare your crew physically and psychologically for the challenge ahead. Boat preparations, in themselves, help psychologically. Serve a hot meal beforehand and insist that everyone take sea-sickness medication well before the storm – for even seasoned sailors get queasy as wave heights increase.
Prone rest combats exhaustion almost as effectively as sleep, so encourage your crew to rest, even if sleep eludes them. On deck, dress for the weather. If anything, overdress slightly – being too warm is better than being cold. After you’ve addressed fatigue, what about fear? People never really overcome fear so come to terms with the fact that you will be frightened on occasion. Overcoming it is part of the challenge. That’s why reefing in time is so important. Being over-canvassed is very scary – the boat will heel excessively, will become difficult to steer, and will fatigue the helmsperson quickly. Take heavy weather in a controlled way. Sail to the ability of the crew, not the skipper or boat.
Heavy Weather Tactics
Strain on the helmsperson generally determines the amount of sail to carry when close hauled. In coastal waters or lakes, you may have to sail a bit fuller and carry a little more sail to punch through short, choppy seas. Assessing wind strength on a run is more difficult as an increase in wind speed across the deck is difficult to gauge easily. But don’t run with more sail than you would carry close hauled. There is a huge load on the boat and steering gear. You are being lifted and slewed all the time and take the waves on your quarter if you are off the wind. When beating, round up slightly as you approach the crest of the wave and turn away as you sail down the back side towards the trough. Bearing off at the crest prevents the stern from falling into the trough.
When it’s too windy to sail
In a gale it may be prudent to heave to. In this state, the boat will make leeway rather than resist the wind or sea. Surprisingly, the ride when hove-to is quite comfortable compared to being underway. But perhaps more importantly, the boat is safe.
Most offshore sailors are sceptical of sea anchors. Shaped like a wind sock and made from heavy canvas and/or webbing, sea anchors are run from the bow or stern. In fact, these storm devices impose dangerous loads on the yacht. Drogues spin, twisting up the tether. If you can deploy, operate and retrieve a sea anchor you’re not in trouble! But what else can you do?
When it gets really crazy, above 60 knots of wind, offshore sailors will “lie a-hull”. In this state, a yacht is left to find its own position in the waves under bare poles and rides, rather than resists, the waves.
Another effective tactic is to tow warps in hurricane-force winds. Although a warp won’t slow the boat much, it will provide directional stability, keeping the stern to the seas. In very bad storms, though, the most vulnerable part of the boat (ie. the stern) will be exposed to breaking waves.
Alternatively, run before the gale. Some say the following sea may break dangerously in the quarter wave. At five- to six-knots, the quarter wave is insignificant, but watch that the speed doesn’t fall too low, otherwise the boat will loose steerage and will become hard to manage in the troughs. Quick helm response is lost just when it is needed most. In summary, either run fast enough for absolute control or slow down with warps to steady the stern.
After the Storm
Get your crew in warm, dry clothes and restore their energy with hot food and attend to any cuts and bruises. Afterwards, clean up and inspect the boat for damage, pump the bilges, check the rig, shake out reefs and furling. With the storm experience fresh in your mind, make notes of what you would and would not do the next time you encounter the heavy stuff. And at the top of this list write in capital letters, “AVOID HEAVY WEATHER!”