Heaving To

Sailing – Heaving To

Heaving to is a useful storm tactic if you are tired or inexperienced. Heaving to is considered a ‘passive’ storm tactic because you are not actively sailing sailing but instead you are riding out the storm.

Putting the boat into a quick ‘hove to’ is a useful tactic in a COB (crew overboard) situation, especially where the likelihood losing sight of the COB is great.

On the casual side of sailing, heaving to on a beautiful day is a great way to take a break, enjoy the surroundings and have lunch. You are miles off shore and the water is far too deep to even consider anchoring. Putting the boat in Irons stops the boat temporarily but eventually the boat will want to turn one way or the other, catch wind, and with sails flapping, off you go. The solution – put the boat into a Heave To.

How to Heave To

If you have a choice of which tack you can heave to on, it is probably better to heave to on a starboard tack. Since you are still considered to be a vessel ‘under way’, you must adhere to the rules of navigation. A sailboat on a starboard tack is the ‘stand on’ boat for all other sailboats on a port tack so they must ‘give way’ – stay clear.

To put your boat into a heave to on a starboard take, you will start by sailing on a port tack. The initial phase of Heaving To is like tacking (turning the bow of the boat through the wind). (see Heave To diagram below)

As skipper you will have advised the crew to: “Get ready to Heave To.”

When the crew has advised that they are, “Ready”, the skipper will say, “Coming about to Heave To.”

The skipper will then turn the bow of the boat through the wind. On a Heave to maneuver, it is not as important to maintain boat speed since you intend on coming to a stop anyway. It is however, important to maintain enough boat speed to carry the bow of the boat through the wind.

Unlike Tacking, the crew will leave the foresail (jib or genoa) sheet cleated and not pull the foresail across the face of the mast to the other side of the boat. In other words, the crew will allow the foresail to back onto itself.

It is a good practice to shorten (reef) your foresail before you tack so that when the foresail backs onto itself, it will not be rubbing up against the shrouds (side stays).

As the boat Comes About, the mainsail will be eased out to spill wind. The boat will begin to slow.

Since the foresail is backed onto itself, the wind on the foresail will want to push the bow of the boat Leeward (down wind).

To counter the bow of the boat from turning down wind, the helmsman will slowly turn the bow of the boat to windward (back up into the wind). You are trying to stall the boat but you do not want to tack. This may require feathering the boat (turning into the wind and then slightly down wind) until the boat slows to a near stall.

The wind on the backed foresail will continue to want to force the bow of the boat leeward. To counter this effect, the rudder remains turned to force the bow into the windward (into the wind). Once the boat has settled in it’s heave to position, you will need to keep the rudder turned to windward. Tighten the wheel brake or if you are using a tiller, tie a line to the tiller arm and then tie it off to the leeward stern cleat.

In essence, the wind catches the backed foresail pushing the bow down wind and the boat begins to slowly move. The movement of the boat and the angle of the rudder force the bow of the boat back into the wind. The boat then stalls and drifts until the wind is able to force the bow leeward and the whole process to repeats itself.

The finally effect of this is that the boat rests in the water, moving ever so slightly, the constant struggle between the wind on the foresail and the counteraction of the rudder are imperceptible. The foresail remains backed and taught (stretched tightly) so it is not luffing (flapping). The main sail has been eased out so that it catches little if any wind and there is no risk of the boom swinging across the boat.

Heaving To is a very safe position to be in. In fact, Heaving To has it’s origins in heavy weather sailing where sailors would ride out rain, strong winds and high seas in a Heave To position.

You can adjust the position of the bow by changing the position of the mainsail. Tensioning the mainsheet and moving the mainsail in slightly closer to the boat  will cause the boat to head up more into the wind. Easing the mainsheet will move the mainsail more outboard and will cause the boat to lie more across the wind.

In Heavy Weather you will want the bow angled more sharply into the waves – you do not want to be lying broadside to the waves so you will have more tension on the mainsail.

Positioning the boat in a heave to position is all about boat balance. Ideally you want the boat lying at about a 45 degree angle to the wind and waves. Adjust the mainsail so that the boat is not swooping upwind and then being knocked downwind by wind and waves. The boat should hold it’s position moves at close to a 45 degree angle.

Different boats require different adjustments of rudder, foresail and mainsail to be properly positioned in a Heave To. Practice the ‘Heave To’ in different kinds of weather to see how the boat acts differently. If you encounter strong winds and need to Heave To, your practice in moderate winds will be have been a great asset.

Another method of Heaving To is to sail the boat on a tight close hauled point of sail. From a closed hauled position, rather than tacking to back the jib, simply pull on the windward jib sheet (ease the leeward jib sheet) and pull the jib to the windward side of the mast. The helmsman may have to temporarily turn the bow directly into the wind to luff the jib to make it easier to haul the jib to windward.

Once the jib has been hauled to windward, this creates a backed jib, the same as if you had tacked and had not released the windward jib sheet. From this point you would turn downwind, ease the mainsheet completely and then turn windward to slow and place the boat into a Heave To.

The tack and Heave To is great if you are sailing shorthanded. The close haul and pull the jib to windward is more physically demanding but in heavy seas tacking to Heave To may not be the most viable choice.


How to get out of a Heave To position?

To get out of a Heave To the skipper will give the command: “Get ready to get under way.”

When the crew is ready the Skipper will unlock the wheel or untie the tiller. The crew will take up some tension on the mainsail to start the boat moving forward. This forward movement will allow the Skipper to gain control of the steering. (A boat needs forward movement to steer.)

The backed foresail will be allowed to ‘blow through’ by uncleating the windward sheet and by securing the leeward sheet.

The boat is now moving forward and you are no longer in a Heave To position – it’s as simple as that.

Heaving To Diagram
Heaving To
Heaving To



Heaving To – Mainsail Only

You can also put a sailboat into a ‘Hove To’ position by using the mainsail alone (i.e. the jib is either down or furled). The process is similar to ‘heaving to’ with a jib except that there is no jib to back to help drive the bow to leeward.

Let’s say we are sailing on a port tack. We decide to put the boat into a ‘hove to’ position so we ‘come about’ (which will help to slow the boat) and once the bow has passed through the wind, we immediately release the mainsheet and let the boom and sail swing out to leeward. This will prevent the boat from gaining speed after it has tacked.

Next we begin to turn the boat to windward being careful not ‘tack’ back onto a port tack. The boat should slow and the boat start to drift to leeward. As this happens, we can turn the rudder more to windward until the boat stalls into a ‘heave to’ position.

Once in a ‘hove to’ position you can adjust boat angle to the wind by trimming the mainsail. You may find, once in a ‘hove to’ position with the mainsail alone, that the bow of the boat will turn more into the wind than when when ‘hove to’ with the jib. This is because the wind on the jib pressures the bow of the boat leeward. Since we have no jib, the boat will ride closer to the wind before bearing away.

To counter this effect, especially where wind shifts could catch the bow if it gets to high into the wind and tack the boat, you can have a very small amount of jib out to stop the bow from getting to close to the wind.

Another way to put the boat into a ‘hove to’ position with the mainsail alone is to stay on the same tack, not ‘come about’, but just let the mainsail all the way out and start turning the boat into the wind. It is a bit more challenging to put the boat into a ‘heave to’ position using this technique but watching the bow on the horizon will help to head up or bear away as necessary to stall the boat without inadvertently tacking about.