Heavy Weather Sailing

Heavy Weather Sailing


heavy weather
Heavy Weather Sailing

Most coastal and inland water sailors will not encounter the true heavy weather sailing conditions of 40 knot plus winds with 20 to 30 foot waves where the use of warps, drogues and parachute anchors can be critical to survival.

Wind speed, wave height, wave direction, length of boat, boat direction and set of sails are all variables that come into play in bad weather.

You should know your limits and your boat’s limits before heading out from sheltered waters. Keel boats are made to withstand the forces of strong winds but when you combine high water with high wind the potential for a rigging failure or capsizing dramatically increases.

It is the waves and not the wind that becomes a threat to a ballasted sailboat. The wind may cause a boat to temporarily flatten but waves can cause a boat to roll over.

It takes a combination of high winds, high water, angle to wave and wave action (breaking wave) to create a rollover situation. In moderate wind conditions, a wave height equal to 30% of the boat length has the potential to roll a boat over if the boat is broadsided by the wave and if the wave is cresting or breaking. In practical terms this means that a 30 foot boat hit broadside by a 9 foot wave that is cresting with winds blowing at 20 knots could capsize the boat.


Preparing for Heavy Weather

Skipper and Crew

Make sure that your crew knows the location of all the safety gear and that they know how to use it. (PFD’S, flares, fire extinguishers, life ring, horn, throwing lines, flashlights, life raft, safety harnesses etc.)

Make sure your VHF radio is working – familiarize the crew with the operation of the VHF radio.

Everyone should put on their foul weather gear, PFD’s and personal locators (if they have them).

Anyone coming on deck should know how to use jack lines and have their save harness on before they step on the deck. Always clip onto the windward jackline when moving forward.

Record your position in the boat’s log.

Assign tasks to each crew member based on ability and experience.

Fatigue plays a major role in boating accidents – poor decision making; lack of co-ordination; apathy and morale. Schedule shifts to keep the crew as rested as possible.

Prepare meals in advance and then re-heat. Warm food will help avoid hypothermia, increase morale and the extra carbohydrates will give the crew more energy.

Look at the chart for potential hazards (lee shore, rocks etc.) and areas of safe harbor. Pick the best route with alternative routes should conditions change.

As a skipper it is important to remain calm and instill confidence in the crew that everything is going to be alright.
The boat

You should have done this as part of you pre-sail checklist but make sure that all your safety equipment is readily available and that it is working.

Clear anything that is not necessary from the deck and cockpit area.

Rig jack lines from bow to stern on both the port and starboard sides.

Ready a smaller headsail if you have one.

Make sure your reefing lines are in place on the mainsail and that your crew knows how to reef a sail.

Secure all gear and equipment below deck in the lowest area of the boat. Flying objects in a cabin can cause serious injuries.

If you have an automatic release EPIRB, make sure it is unencumbered.


Reefing Your Sail

In stronger winds on a close haul or close reach, you need to make your sails flat. For the headsail this means tensioning the luff by adding backstay tension, tensioning the headsail halyard, moving the jib sheet leads aft to flatten the foot of the headsail and to twist air off aloft.

For the mainsail, you want a flat entry so you need to tension the luff by tightening the mainsail halyard, tensioning the downhaul, tensioning the Cunningham (moves the draft point forward and makes the boat easier to control) and tensioning the outhaul (flattens the lower third of the sail). The mainsheet traveler should be moved outboard to the leeward side of the boat.

If the boat is still being over powered, it is time to reduce sail area. You do this by reefing your main sail and if you have a roller furling system for your headsail, pull in some of your headsail.

If your headsail is not on a furling system you may want to take down your genoa or jib and raise your #4 jib or storm jib if you have one. The old saying goes, ‘If you think about reefing, it’s time to reef.’

If you are uncertain about wind conditions take your boat out with the sails reefed. If you have over estimated wind speed (i.e. not as windy as you thought), it is simple task to shake out a reef.

It is always easier to reef your sails before a storm rather than during. There is so much force on the main sail in strong winds, that even with the bow straight into the wind, the main sail pulls tightly against the mast sail track and it is very difficult to lower the sail.

If your main sail is rigged with ‘one line’ reefing system and you feel you need to double reef, always start with Reef 1 and then move to Reef 2. If you skip Reef 1 the bottom of your main sail will bellow out and you will lose stability and control.

Head into the wind and luff your sails. If you are solo sailing and do not have a one line reefing system, put the boat into a heave to position and then reef your sails.

You reef your mainsail by first tensioning the topping lift. This prevents the boom from falling down onto the deck when you ease the mainsail halyard.

Next ease your mainsail halyard. A good practice is to mark your halyard for your reefing points. Rather than guessing, you know exactly how much to ease your halyard in order to create enough slack in order to pull your sail down to the reefing points.

Go forward and pull down the tack reefing point to the boom and secure with a reefing line. In rough conditions don’t get creative with your knots. A couple of half hitches will work just fine.

Next tension the halyard to tighten the luff. You want a tight luff to de-power the sail and to move the draft point of the sail forward.

Then move aft and pull down the clew to as near the end of the boom as you can. Again, you want a flat, less powerful sail. There is a lot of tension on the clew reefing line so consider adding a second line as a backup.

When the tack and clew are secured, the sail is now reefed. The grommet points in the mid section of the sail are used to tidy up the sail hanging down. If you feel a need to tidy up the sail, run lines loosely around the bottom of the sail and up through the grommet points. Do not put any tension on these lines. The mid sail grommet points are not intended to take much load and tensioning these lines will most surely tear your sail.


Sailing in Strong Wind and High Water

Lets say your are caught in bad squall – wind speed is in the 25 to 30 knot range (Beaufort 6 – 7 ) and seas are running at 8 to 10 feet.

If you have been keeping your eyes on the sky, as all good sailors should, you will have seen the squall coming and have already made the necessary preparations discussed above.

Reef your main and furl your head sail or switch your foresail to a #4 jib or a storm jib.

If you are caught in high winds with full sails, spill as much air as you can and head into the wind to avoid a knock down. If need be, start your motor and hold the bow straight into the wind until you can shorten your sails.

Sailboats with fore and main sails have been designed (balanced) to have both sails set. If you lower your foresail and sail only with your main (reefed), the center of effect moves aft which makes the boat more difficult to control as it will want to swing up into the wind (weather helm). Having some headsail raised will balance the boat and make it easier to point into the wind. If you have too much headsail, the center of effort will be moved forward which will cause the boat to turn downwind (lee helm). Ideally you want some weather helm but not so much that you have to fight the rudder to maintain course.

Sail shape is important – you want flat sails and a narrow point of entry when reaching in strong winds.

For the main sail, tighten the halyard, down haul and Cunningham to flatten the luff. A flat luff makes the sail less round at the point of wind entry. This enables you to point more into the wind and at the same time de-powers the sail.

The main sail traveler should be moved to leeward to give the leech more twist. This will spill air aloft where you need it the most.

Tighten the outhaul to flatten the lower third of the sail and tension the leech line to eliminate any ‘flutter’ along the leech. Do not over tighten the leech line or you will cup the leech and increase weather helm.

The jib sheet leads should be moved aft to twist off the leech of the jib and spill more air aloft. The jib halyard should be tightened to flatten the luff.

Tension the backstay to increase mast bend. This will tension the luff of the jib but more importantly, flatten the center of the main sail (more so on fractional rigs than masthead rigs).

Tack only if you have to and do it in the flat spots between the waves.

Sailing with only the mainsail raised makes it nearly impossible to tack without stalling mid-way. In 20 to 30 knot winds, one of the worst things you can do is stall mid way through a tack. The boat stalls, you cannot steer and then the boat starts backing up. At this point you have to turn the rudder the other way being mindful that the rudder could swing hard and jam or break off from the force of the water and boat. At best it is a tense time waiting for the sails to catch and wondering if the boat is going to get temporarily flattened.

The presence of some headsail will help drive the bow of the boat around in a tack.

In strong winds the chances of stalling on a tack increases, whether you have some foresail up or not. The high winds and rough water cause rapid loss of boat speed when coming about.

If you are sailing in high winds and high seas and are concerned about stalling, start you motor in advance of tacking. As you tack and if you feel you are not going to carry enough boat speed to come about, simply put the boat in gear and give it some gas to bring the bow around.

You will want to tack from a close hauled point of sail to a close hauled point of sail. The further you carry your tack through the wind, the more distance over ground you will lose plus you will encounter greater heeling forces from the wind catching the sails.

Close Hauling and Close Reaching in High Winds

Heavy Weather - Close Reaching
Heavy Weather – Close Reaching

At this point we will assume that your sails are flat and you have your mainsail reefed (perhaps double reefed) and you have between 1/3 to 1/2 of your headsail flying.

Sailing somewhere between a Close Haul and a Close Reach is one of the safest points of sail in high winds. The bow of the boat is meeting the winds near face on, the angle of the boat into the wind allows you to spill maximum air while still maintaining control of the boat.
Wherever possible you want to pick your path between the waves. When you hit a wave, you want to hit it at about a 20° angle. This allows the bow to cut through the wave, not get knocked back and minimize the stress placed on the hull and rigging when the boat drops off the tops of the wave. If the bow starts getting knocked back, making it difficult to re-position for the next wave, you need to increase the angle of attack as the wave approaches.

Sailors talk about sailing the groove. When you are Close Hauling sailing and get too high (i.e. boat to direct into the wind) the boat will stall – sailing too low (i.e. too directly downwind), the boat will catch too much wind and heel excessively.

In high winds the groove becomes smaller – constant vigilance is needed in order to prevent the boat from stalling. Stalling means loss of control – you don’t want to be lying broad side to big waves. If you do stall, be prepared for excessive heeling forces as the wind initially catches the sails – be at the ready to let the sheets out.

If you fall out the groove by bearing away too much, (turning the boat too far down wind), the sails will catch more wind and the boat will heel excessively. This requires letting out the sheets quickly, to regain control and then heading up to find the groove again.

The helmsman should steer the boat in an S pattern. As the wave is about to hit the bow, the helmsman turns the boat more into the wave (20°). The impact of the wave will slow the boat so it is necessary to bear away slightly as the boat travels down the back side of the wave in order to pick up speed to be able to power through the next wave. The helmsman is always looking ahead to avoid breaking waves, large waves and to steer towards lulls in the wave patterns.

There will be a point in heavy seas and strong wind where Close Hauling becomes impractical. The wind and waves prevent little forward motion especially with downsized sails and the stresses placed on the boat and rigging by meeting and then dropping off steep waves increase the threat of a major rigging failure.

If the boat stalls and starts to move backwards down the face of waves there is a rear threat that the rudder will catch, spin and jam or break off it’s rudder post. The other risk is that the boat will be turned broadside to the waves and the risk of capsize greatly increases.

At this point a good skipper will tactics and begin running with the weather so prepare the crew and Come About between waves.


Beam Reaching, Broad Reaching and Running in Heavy Winds

In all cases you will want to spill as much wind as you can.

You should be flying a number 4 or a storm jib or if you have a furling foresail system, your foresail should be pulled in so that only about 1/3 is flying.
Sailing on a Beam Reach in Heavy Weather

Sailing on a Beam Reach will mean that you are sailing directly or near directly across the waves – not a good idea.

The potential for capsizing greatly increases. The waves will be broad siding the boat creating severe roll. Add this to an already heavy wind heel plus the weight of the boom (which has been swung out wide to spill air), you have a potentially dangerous situation. Get caught with a cresting wave of 6 to 7 feet (or less if you have a smaller boat) and you can most certainly expect to be knocked down if not capsized.
Sailing on a Broad Reach in Heavy Weather

Heavy Weather - Broad Reaching
Heavy Weather – Broad Reaching

Sailing of a Broad Reach, the waves will be quartering the boat (hitting boat on the aft quarter either port or starboard depending on the tack).

Quartering creates an awkward rolling effect as the wave passes under the boat.

Initially the wave picks up the stern and wants to carry the boat with it causing the boat to twist forward. Broaching, where a boat suddenly swings violently to Windward or leeward is a major concern. Often times, prior to broaching, a boat will develop a rhythmic rolling effect where each roll becomes progressively greater than the previous roll. If you allow this progressive rolling to continue the boat will ultimately broach. To break out of this progressive rhythmic rolling pattern you need to turn. If the boat is rolling to leeward, bear away and let out the sheets. If the boat is rolling to windward, head up and tension the sheets. A good analogy is to think of trying to steer under the top of the mast. If the top of mast is out to leeward, bear away. If the top of the mast is to windward, head up.

As the wave moves forward under the boat, the bow of the boat is pushed or carried by the wave causing the boat to twist the other way. The boat then drops down the backside of the wave and boat speed drops considerably as you wait for the next wave.

Big waves come in sets, it’s the second and subsequent waves that cause trouble. You can line your boat up to take the first wave but once knocked about you do not always find yourself in the best position to take on the second or third wave.

Dropping down the backside of a wave as another approaches increases the impact and effect of the next wave. It is important to try and carry as much boat speed as you can and minimize your drag before the next wave hits.

Steering on a Broad Reach requires looking back and over the waves to see what waves are coming as you angle across. If you see that your course will take you into a big set of waves you will want to try and avoid the set by either slowing your boat speed (spill more air) or by changing the direction of the boat or by doing both.

Heavy Weather - Broad Reaching
Heavy Weather – Broad Reaching

Once you have avoided the large set of waves you can resume your course.

As the wave approaches the stern, bear away so that the wave hits the stern at near right angles. This will help to reduce the chance of broaching and being spun by the wave. As the boat accelerates down the wave you will want to decrease boat speed – angle across the wave. Driving straight down the face of a wave could drive the bow into the back of the wave ahead and cause the boat to pitch pole.

Controlling your boat speed on a Broad Reach can be difficult. You want to maintain enough boat speed to retain your ability to turn – this means you have to have the boat moving faster than the water but too much boat speed makes the boat difficult to control. As a displacement boat reaches it’s maximum boat speed (take the square root of the length of the boat at waterline and multiply by 1.34) it will want to turn off one way or the other because of the increased water resistance from the wave the boat creates in front of the bow by displacing water as it moves forward.

To help control boat speed, you will want to de-power your sails. This means increasing the twist along the leech of your sails.

The mainsail traveler should be near center, the boomvang should be eased and the mainsheet let out. With the traveler positioned near centerline, the lower third of the mainsail is more inline with the wind as opposed to catching the wind more face on. The eased boomvang will allow the boom to rise, create more twist in the upper sections of the sail and spill air where it is needed most. Easing the mainsheet will also twist off the top of the mainsail.

In heavy weather especially, always sail with a preventer rigged to your boom to prevent an inadvertent gybe. If you do not have a preventer specifically rigged for your boat, run the mast end of the boomvang out to a toe rail.

If you are still catching too much wind take down your mainsail. There is no problem with just sailing with your Storm Jib or furled foresail – in fact, it is recommended.

It is easier on a boat to be pulled by the wind rather than being pushed. Wind on the mainsail has more of a push effect and in high winds this means the boat will want to twist up into the wind. Sailing with the jib creates more of a pull effect and will help keep the boat running true.


Heaving To

Many a good sailors have ridden out bad weather by Heaving To. See: Heaving To

Heaving to in light to moderate winds to stop for lunch is much different that heaving to in strong winds. You want to reduce sail area but maintain enough sail to place the boat and hold the boat in a Heave To position.

In strong winds you want to Heave To with the bow pointed as much as possible into the oncoming waves. Heaving To is a balancing act between wind forces wanting to push the bow of the boat leeward and the rudder wanting to turn the boat windward.

You can control the angle of your Hove To position (somewhat) by adjusting the angle of the rudder, reducing/increasing the amount of headsail or tensioning the mainsheet slightly which turns the boat more up into the wind and waves.

Heaving To is considered a passive storm tactic. The worst case scenario with heaving to is that you could get broadsided by a rogue, cresting wave and get knocked down or capsized in very extreme weather conditions.