Heavy Weather Tactics: 5 Options for Sailing Through a Storm

"I hate storms, but calms undermine my spirits." -Bernard Moitessier, The Long Way

Moitessier had a way with words. I would like to have been a fly on the bulkhead to hear the conversations he had with his sailboat on the long solo passages that define his sailing legacy. Consider his quote above. It wasn't heavy weather and storms that challenged his inner self, but rather the monotony and silence of being becalmed. Storms on the other hand, have a way of shaking us to the core and tossing us out on the other side a little scared but often a better sailor for the experience. And frankly, the threat of storms can sometimes undermine my normally free spirit.


How do you deal with storms while sailing? What follows is merely my overview of options for dealing with heavy weather while sailing, rather than a deep discussion about the particulars of each storm tactic. I personally don't have extensive experience with all of these tactics nor do I have offshore heavy weather experience, so I'm not qualified to give advice to anyone but myself on this topic. However, I've done a lot of reading and talking with folks who do have the requisite experience. This post is a result of those conversations and readings stewing in my head over the last couple of years. [Note - Several excellent resources (books, websites, podcasts, etc.) from experts are given at the end of the post.]

Keep in mind that all of the tactics below have several variations and their utility as part of your storm sailing repertoire depends on your own skills, your boat's design, your crew, and your willingness to practice and be prepared to implement any or all as needed.

If you have experience or details to add, please share them below. Hopefully we'll even get a few experts to chime in. In the coming months I also hope to have future blog posts with perspectives on some or all of these tactics from others who have used them at sea during storm events.

So if you find yourself sailing with a storm approaching and you can't (or won't) head for port to wait it out, here are your options as far as I can tell:

Fore-Reaching
This is a tactic favored by many of the experts, but one that admittedly seems a bit nebulous (at least to me) until you've had a chance to try it. Fore-reaching is generally done with just the mainsail. Beth Leonard (author of The Voyager's Handbook) recommends starting with the main sheeted to centerline and the helm locked in a position that holds the boat close-hauled. You're officially fore-reaching when the boat jogs up to windward until the sail starts to stall, the boat falls off to leeward, and then starts sailing again. The motion is a controlled weave or gentle s-curve to windward. Think of fore-reaching as a very active tactic for sailing into and through the weather. John Kretschmer (author of Sailing a Serious Ocean) lists fore-reaching as his go-to tactic for coping with truly severe weather, including large breaking waves.

A depiction of fore-reaching from SAIL Magazine

Heaving-To
Heaving-to is a tactic that allows the sailboat to slow forward progress almost completely while requiring no input from the crew once the sails and rudder are set. Depending on conditions and your specific boat, you’ll likely still crab at about 1-2 knots to leeward, but things are slow and usually settled. Essentially, the sails and rudder are set so they are in balance and cancel each other out. The headsail typically gets back-winded while the rudder is held so the boat wants to turn to windward [For more details about heaving-to, you can read this earlier post]. 

This is a tactic we've practiced on multiple occasions and used for quick lunch breaks and rests while day sailing. While I haven't hove-to in high winds and storm conditions, it might be what comes to mind first since I'm comfortable with how our boat behaves and have practiced enough to potentially pull it off under the stress of a thumping gale.

The following are some considerations for heaving-to as a storm tactic (i.e. riding out the weather):

  1. Do you have enough sea room to allow the boat to crab slowly to leeward? The answer will obviously vary depending on your distance shore, the direction of the wind/current, and the longevity of the storm conditions. Remember, heaving-to is a passive tactic, so you’ve got to be o.k. with letting the boat do its thing while you hunker down in the cabin.
  2. Are your sails and rigging up to the task? As with many storm tactics, your sails and rigging will be subjected to high loads and chafe. Is your boat equipped with storm sails that can handle strong winds and potential flogging? Our boat's sails wouldn't be up to the task of remaining hove-to for hours on end, but I'm confident that I could ride out a short summer squall. 
  3. How well does your particular boat heave-to and will it remain hove-to without putting your beam to the seas? Large swells and breaking waves can be trouble for a boat that doesn’t like to heave-to.
Interesting note: Consider the infamous and tragic 1979 Fastnet race where 25 of the 306 boats in the race were either sunk or disabled and only 86 finished the race. Fifteen sailors died during this event. There were 26 boats that chose to heave-to during the horrendous Force 10 conditions (wind 55-63mph, waves 29-41 ft.) and none were capsized or suffered serious damage. Other boats in the race that did capsize or were severely damaged chose to race onward, lay ahull, or run under bare poles. I’m not sure if this is a strong case for heaving-to as a storm tactic because I don’t know all the details, but clearly some very experienced sailors have had success heaving-to in horrendous conditions.

Running-Off
Running-off means to run downwind, either with reduced sails or under bare poles if the wind is too powerful. If the waves aren’t too gnarly and you’ve got room or your destination is downwind anyway, then running-off seems like a decent option. We’ve all experienced the calming effect of a downwind run in “normal” conditions, so this tactic seems appealing up to a point. John Kretschmer, an accomplished and respected offshore sailor, views running-off as one of the very best short-term storm tactics and uses it often on his own passages.


Considerations for running-off:

  1. Do you have sea room to run off? That is, is there land, shallow water or other dangers downwind of your position that make this tactic unadvisable? Furthermore, will running off simply serve to keep you in the path of the storm longer than an alternative tactic? 
  2. Can you maintain steering with the wind and waves on your stern quarters or directly abaft?
  3. Do you need to deploy a drogue or warps to slow your forward speed in order to maintain control and keep from being overpowered by the waves?
  4. Are you up for the physically exhausting challenge of manually steering your ship for potentially hours or days on end? 
Lying Ahull
Lying ahull seems like the most passive and least favored tactic among the experts, at least for monohulls. It basically boils down to taking down all the canvas and securing hatches/ports while locking the rudder to windward and putting yourself at the total mercy of the storm. Again, depending on your boat’s design, you may find yourself lying ahull with the waves directly on your beam…not how I’d choose to ride it out. At best, this will be uncomfortable. At worst, you’ll be faced with repeated knock downs, pounding waves and even the real potential for a roll over. More modern designs with fin keels may find that the windage of bare poles is enough to keep the bow at least partially pointed to the weather and waves, which could make lying a hull more bearable…until the waves get really large and start to break. Note - lying a hull seems to be considered a more acceptable and safer tactic for moderate to large multihulls.


Given the passive nature of this tactic, rough motion and potential for a roll-over, I'm not sure I'd ever be ok with giving this a try unless I was too injured to for other tactics or damage to the boat (blown out sails, broken rudder, etc.) dictated that lying ahull was the only option.

Motoring

Here's a tactic that isn't mentioned by the experts as far as I can tell, so maybe I shouldn't even include it in this post. Still, it seems like something that could come to mind, particularly for new sailors who aren't fully comfortable with sailing yet somehow find themselves in a squall or worse.

On the surface, it may seem like just firing up the iron genny and pointing the bow towards safety is a simple solution. But as sailors, you all know that a sailboat is MUCH more balanced and stable with the sails up and the engine off. This may be lessened in storm conditions because of wave action, powerful wind and the fact that you sometimes can't have sails up (i.e. they're shredded or the wind is simply too strong). But the point is, several of the aforementioned tactics will likely provide better balance and control, which leads to increased safety. Furthermore, running the engine in these conditions probably isn't sustainable because of fuel limitations and the stress on the engine itself from operating at extreme angles of heel (think lubrication).

Perhaps in coastal conditions when dealing with a passing squall, motoring may be an option in some instances, but relying on the engine in offshore storm conditions wreaks of ill-preparation or signals something has going terrible wrong (dismasting?).


So that's my review of the most common storm tactics. What I've learned so far is that there are many ways to deal with storms while on passage and no one single tactic is right for every situation. Likewise, sailors tend to each have their own preferred tactics and variations, which is to say that you need to find out what works best for you and your boat before you're faced with making an uneducated decision in the teeth of a gale. 

And don't forget to practice your man-overboard procedures!

We never left port on this particular day, 
but could we have sailed in this if we had to?

Additional Resources
Here are some excellent resources on sailing in heavy weather and dealing with storms. I've included each of these as a resource not only because they are from notable experts, but because they also each represent different and sometimes contradicting philosophies and perspectives for storm sailing. Each gives details about the tactics shown above and provides the specific experiences and examples of using the tactics. I found it interesting to compare the slight differences in how each expert implements a particular tactic and which tactics are favored by each particular person.

Books






Podcasts

Training


6 comments:

  1. Lots of great advice and references in there, thanks for all the helpful tips! We were caught in an unexpected gale in the Gulf Stream this year with winds sustained out of the north averaging 45 knots for a good 90 minutes. We were running off under bare poles until the winds subsided to the mid 30's, but it worked out well for us.

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    1. Thanks Jessica. That's exactly the kind of real world experience I was hoping folks would share in the comments.

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  2. We were in a big storm in Stewart Island - New Zealand - getting blown on to a lee shore. We tried to start the motor to help us crab to windward, but in one knock down the motor must have got a big gulp of air instead of diesel. Anyway it meant that the motor cut out. So if you do try and use your motor to assist, make sure you have got a full tank of fuel.

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  3. Concerning lying a-hull, it's interesting to read Alan Villiers's account of using this tactic with the Mayflower-II during her crossing in 1957. He wrote "we had no idea what would happen,as no one had attempted this in a ship of this type in over 200 years..." He went on to note that with the sails down, and the rudder lashed to leeward, she pointed up nicely and "lay as a duck on a pond with her head tucked under her wing." (I'm paraphrasing here, since I can't find my copy of Men Ships and the Sea at the moment...)

    Its' worth noting that ships of that type, with their huge, boxy top-sides had substantially different windage characteristics than our sleek modern designs. From what I've been able to glean, lying a-hull in a square-rigged galleon 300 years ago probably wasn't a terribly different proposition than heaving to under a back-winded jib today.

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  4. I should have added that as I understand it at least, it was a maneuver designed to keep the waves on your stern quarter. Same principles, just facing a different direction? I'm gonna have to find my copy of that darn book now, as I'm confusing myself and sounding like an idiot.

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  5. Thanks for your wonderful and so helpful tips. We also would like to invite you to our Sailing Community - Clubtray Sailing Clubtray Sailing where members could be more helpful by your great advices and references. Hope to read more kind of real world experiences from you soon.

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