A Complete Guide To Sailing In A Storm

Paul Stcokdale Author Avatar
Written by Paul Stockdale | February 14, 2023
A sailboat sailing in a storm

Sailing in a storm can be a challenging experience but with the right preparation and techniques, it can be navigated safely in most instances.

While it's best to avoid storms when sailing, there are times when storms cannot be avoided.

To sail in a storm:

  1. Prepare the sailboat for a storm
  2. Monitor the weather conditions
  3. Adjust the sailboat to stabilize the vessel in the storm
  4. Maintain communication with the coast guard

The number one priority when sailing in a storm is safely navigating through the water during these bad weather conditions.

1. Prepare The Sailboat For A Storm

The first step of sailing in a storm is to prepare the sailboat for storm weather conditions.

To prepare a sailboat for a storm:

  • Check the rigging & sails: Assess the rigging and sails overall condition. Ensure they are in full working order with no issues with maneuverability or rips in the sails. There should be a storm sail onboard too in preparation for sailing in the storm
  • Ensure safety equipment is onboard: Ensure there are liferafts, life jackets for everyone onboard, life buoys, heaving lines, sailing jackets, flashlights, flares, VHF radios, chartplotter/GPS, first aid kits, and fire extinguishers
  • Remove the boat canvas/bimini top: In preparation for sailing in a storm, remove the boat canvas/bimini top to prevent it from getting damaged or destroyed or causing injury to passengers onboard
  • Ensure loose items are tied down: Any loose items like lines on the deck should be tied down and secured before sailing in a storm. Loose items can become dislodged and damaged or cause injury to passengers onboard if they are not secured during a storm
  • Ensure the sailboat's engine is in great condition: Ensure the sailboat's motor is in perfect condition with sufficient oil and fuel to operate during the storm

Preparing the sailboat for a storm will take approximately 30 minutes to complete. This timeframe will vary depending on the size of the vessel and the amount of equipment needed to be purchased and installed onboard.

In preparing for sailing in a storm, there is certain sailboat equipment needed. The equipment needed for sailing in a storm includes a storm sail, heaving lines, sailing jackets, life jackets, life buoys, liferafts, first aid kit, Chartplotter/GPS, fire extinguishers, VHF radio, and flares.

The benefits of preparing the sailboat for a storm are a sailor will be prepared for any issues caused by the storm and a sailor will have the necessary safety equipment to help keep everyone onboard safe during the storm.

One downside of preparing the sailboat for a storm is it can be costly (over $500) especially if the sailor does not have all the right equipment needed to withstand the stormy weather. However, this is a small downside.

2. Monitor The Weather Conditions

The second step of sailing in a storm is to monitor the weather conditions regularly.

To monitor the weather conditions:

  • Connect to the VHF radio weather channel: Connect to channel 16 on the VHF radio as this channel provides storm warnings and urgent marine information for boaters
  • Use a chartplotter: Modern chartplotters will have marine weather data for boaters to monitor the weather conditions and check windspeeds, rainfall levels, wave height and other relevant marine weather data
  • Check a marine weather forecast provider website: If you have internet access on the sailing trip, connect to a marine weather provider for marine weather forecast information in your area

In sailing, weather conditions are considered a storm when the wind speed is 28 knots or higher and the wave heights are 8ft or higher. Other characteristics of stormy weather when sailing is poor visibility with visibility ranges of under half a mile (0.8km or less) and heavy rain with a precipitation rate of at least 0.1 inches (2.5 millimeters) per hour.

It can take approximately 3 to 6 hours for a storm to fully develop when sailing. However, for larger storms, it can take over 2 days for the storm to fully develop.

Monitoring the weather should be done every 20 minutes when sailing in a storm to get up-to-date information on potential nearby locations with better weather to sail to.

The benefit of regularly monitoring the weather conditions is a sailor will be more prepared for the weather that lies ahead and the sailor will be able to make adjustments to their sailing route to help avoid the bad weather.

3. Adjust The Sailboat To Stabilize The Vessel

The third step of sailing in a storm is to adjust the sailboat to stabilize the vessel.

When sailing through the storm, reef the sails to reduce the stress and load on the mast and sails, attach the storm sails, turn the vessel until the wave and wind direction are blowing from the stern of the sailboat, i.e. the wind is blowing downwind. Carefully tack the sailboat slowly until the boat is in the downwind position. Pointing the sailboat downwind is not recommended if the sailboat is near land as it could cause the boat to run into the land.

Alternatively, if the storm is very bad, sailors can perform a "heaving to" storm sailing maneuver.

To perform the heave-to storm sailing maneuver:

  1. Turn the bow of the boat into the wind: This involves turning the sailboat so that the bow faces into the wind. This will cause the boat to lose forward momentum and begin to drift backward
  2. Adjust the sails: Depending on the size and configuration of your boat, you may need to adjust the sails in different ways. In general, you will want to position the sails so that they are catching less wind and are working against each other. This will help to slow the boat's drift and keep it from moving too quickly
  3. Adjust the rudder: You may need to adjust the rudder to keep the boat from turning too far or too fast. In general, you will want to angle the rudder slightly to one side to counteract the wind and keep the boat on a stable course
  4. Monitor the boat's drift: Once you have heaved-to, you will need to monitor the boat's drift and make small adjustments as needed to maintain your position. This may involve adjusting the sails, rudder, or other factors as conditions change

The heaving to maneuver is used to reduce a sailboat's speed and maintain a stationary position. This is often done in rough weather to provide the crew with a stable platform to work from or to wait out a storm.

This sailing maneuver will adjust the sailboat and should stabilize the vessel in the storm.

The benefits of adjusting the sailboat position in a storm are it will help to stabilize the boat, it will improve safety, it will reduce the crew's fatigue as the crew will not be operating with a boat at higher speeds, it will help maintain control of the sailboat, and it will reduce stress on the sailboat and the rigging system.

Depending on the size of the sailboat, how bad the weather conditions are, and a sailor's experience level, adjusting the sailboat to stabilize it in the storm should take approximately 10 minutes to complete.

4. Maintain Communication With The Coast Guard

The fourth step of sailing in a storm is to maintain communication with the coast guard.

This is particularly important if the storm is over Beaufort Force 7 when sailing is much harder.

To maintain communication with the coast guard during a storm:

  • Understand the important VHF channels: During sailing in a storm, be aware of VHF international channel 16 (156.800 MHz) which is for sending distress signals
  • Ensure there are coast guard contact details on your phone: Put the local coast guard contact details into your phone. These contact details are not substitutes for using the VHF channel 16 distress signal or dialing 911. These contact details should only be contacted if all else fails

Contacting the coast guard takes less than 1 minute to complete and they are fast to respond in case of an emergency caused by the storm.

The benefits of maintaining communication with the coast guard during a storm are it will help improve safety, the coast guard will be able to provide real-time alerts, and it will provide navigation assistance as the coast guard has access to the latest navigation technology and can guide you through the storm's hazardous areas such as shallow waters or areas with a strong current.

Frequently Asked Questions About Sailing In A Storm

Below are the most commonly asked questions about sailing in a storm.

What Should You Do If You're Caught Sailing In A Storm With Your Boat?

if you're caught sailing in a storm with your boat, you should reef the sails, attach the storm sails and tack the vessel slowly until the wave and wind direction are blowing from the stern of the sailboat.

Should You Drop An Anchor When Sailing In A Storm?

Dropping an anchor can be a useful technique to help keep a boat steady during a storm. However, whether or not to drop an anchor depends on a variety of factors including the size and type of the boat, the severity of the storm, the water depth, and the type of bottom (i.e., mud, sand, or rock).

If you are in a smaller boat that is being pushed around by the waves, dropping an anchor can help keep the boat oriented in a particular direction, reducing the boat's drift. Additionally, it can help reduce the risk of capsizing or being thrown onto a rocky shore.

However, if the storm is very severe with high winds and waves, the anchor may not be enough to hold the boat in place, and it may put undue stress on the anchor and the boat's attachment points. In such a case, it is usually better to try to navigate to a sheltered area or to deploy sea anchors that can help reduce the boat's drift.

It is also essential to be careful when anchoring in a storm as it can be challenging to set the anchor correctly and the wind and waves can cause the anchor to drag.

Is It Safe To Sail In A Storm?

Sailing in a storm should be avoided due to the lack of safety. However, experienced sailors can sail in storms up to Beaufort Force 7 if required. Beaufort Force 8 and higher storms are extremely dangerous to sail in and should be avoided at all costs.

How Do You Improve Safety When Sailing In A Storm?

To improve safety when sailing in a storm, wear a life jacket, hook everyone onboard up to a safety line or harness so they don't fall overboard, reef the sail to improve the sailboat's stability, and understand where all the safety equipment is onboard and how to operate it in case of an emergency.

What Type Of Storm Should Not Be Sailed In?

A sailor should not sail in any storm but especially a storm from Beaufort Force 8 to Beaufort Force 12 as it is considered to be too dangerous.

Can You Sail Through A Hurricane?

While sailors have successfully sailed through hurricanes in the past, sailing through a hurricane should be avoided at all costs. Sailing in hurricane weather is too dangerous and could result in loss of life.

What Are The Benefits Of Sailing In A Storm?

The benefits of sailing in a storm are:

  • Improves sailing skills: Sailing in a storm will force sailors to improve their sailing skills and increase their ability to handle rough seas
  • Exciting experience: For some sailors, the thrill of navigating through a storm can be an exhilarating experience that they enjoy. The adrenaline rush and sense of accomplishment of successfully sailing through a storm can be incredibly rewarding
  • Greater appreciation for the power of nature: Sailing in a storm can provide a unique perspective on the power of nature. It can be humbling and awe-inspiring to witness the raw force of the wind and waves and this can lead to a greater appreciation for the natural world

It's important to note that these potential benefits should never come at the expense of safety. For the majority of sailors, it is smarter to avoid sailing in a storm and instead wait for the bad weather to pass.

What Are The Risks Of Sailing In A Storm?

The risks of sailing in a storm are:

  • Boat sinking/capsizing: With high winds over 28 knots and waves and swells at heights over 8ft, there is a risk of the sailboat capsizing and sinking
  • People drowning: High winds and high waves during a storm can cause people onboard to fall overboard and drown
  • Loss of communication: Bad storm weather can cause the sailboat's communication system to stop working making it much harder to signal for help if needed
  • Boat damage: Storm weather can damage the boat including the sails, mast, rigging system, lines, Bimini top, etc.
  • Poor visibility: Sea spray, large waves over 8ft, and heavy winds over 28 knots can reduce the visibility to under 500 meters in some instances making it difficult for navigation
  • People being injured: People onboard can get injured due to the increase and sharp movements caused by the storm

What Should Be Avoided When Sailing In A Storm?

When sailing in a storm, avoid:

  • Getting caught sailing in the storm in the first place: Ideally, a sailor should avoid sailing in the storm in the first place by checking the weather radar and instead wait for the weather to clear before continuing their sailing trip
  • Increasing the sail area: Increasing the sail area in a storm should be avoided as it can cause the sailboat to become more unstable and increase the risk of capsizing
  • Not wearing a life jacket: Life jackets should be worn at all times when sailing but especially during a storm. Avoid not wearing a life jacket in a storm as there is no protection if someone falls overboard
  • Not wearing the appropriate gear to stay dry: Sailors should avoid not wearing the appropriate foul weather gear to stay dry when sailing in a storm
  • Not connecting the crew to safety lines/harness: When sailing in a storm, all crew on the boat deck should be
  • Not understanding the safety equipment: Sailors should avoid not understanding the safety equipment onboard

How Do You Avoid Sailing In A Storm?

To avoid sailing in a storm, check the weather forecast regularly when going on a sailing trip to know when and where not to sail as the weather gets worse in these areas. If a sailing trip involves passing through a storm, wait in an area where there is no storm until the weather clears up in the storm area before continuing on the voyage.

What Are The Best Sailboats For Sailing In A Storm?

The best sailboats for sailing in a storm are the Nordic 40, Hallberg-Rassy 48, and the Outremer 55.

What Are The Worst Sailboats For Sailing In A Storm?

The worst sailboats for sailing in a storm are sailing dinghies as they offer little protection from the dangers of stormy weather.

What Is The Best Sized Sailboat For Sailing In A Storm?

The best-sized sailboats to sail in a storm are sailboats sized 30ft. and longer.

What Is The Worst Sized Sailboat For Sailing In A Storm?

The worst-sized sailboats to sail in a storm are sailboats sized under 30ft. as it is more difficult to handle rough weather and choppy waves in these boats.