Sailing In A Storm:How To Safely Navigate

General Info

 

What will truly test your skills of handling a sailboat will not be close combat racing at an elite regatta. It will not be your ability to keep calm while your kids are complaining about the lack of WiFi for five hours straight. And it will not be your ability to dock your boat into a tight spot at a foreign harbor. What will really test your seamanship will be the forces of nature.

 

The wind and the waves. It may happen during a transatlantic crossing with no shore in sight.

 

It may happen on a day-sail cruise with sunny skies and moderate breeze. No matter your plans,nature may be in a mood to spoil them.

 

A squall or a fully-fledged storm can develop in a matter of hours - and therefore you always need to be prepared.

 

But what are the exact steps to get safely through the gale-force breeze and steep challenging waves?

 

 

Storm signals

 

 

First and foremost,you need to be prepared, and the more time you have to do that, the better suited you will be to withstand what is coming.

 Thus, it is important to catch the signs of an incoming storm or squall as early as possible.

Of course, you need to pay attention to weather forecasts, and if possible radar imaging which will be able to tell you in detail when and where a storm is developing as well as its intensity.

If you realize that you will be confronted with severe weather conditions, you should seriously consider sailing to the nearest port and lay over while the storm passes.

Regardless of your experiences as a sailor, the force of nature should be respected and there is no need to bring your crew into a distressed situation if it can be avoided.

it is not possible to reach the shore in time, it is important that you keep a safe distance to it. Waves tend to get steeper and break more easily as they get closer to shore.

If you are too close and unable to handle your boat in the breeze, you may risk being blown onshore with severe material damages to follow. 

 If you do not have access to instruments that can help you determine the incoming weather conditions, you have to rely on what your eyes can see and what your skin can feel. 

Perhaps the earliest sign is the so called cirrus clouds. These are thin stripes of white clouds with slight swirls in one end leading into heavier cloud formations in the other.

These are signs that a front is approaching with a resulting change in your current weather conditions.

The front may be anything between 6 to 24 hours away so no need to make any radical decisions aside from increasing your awareness of other storm indications. The signs to look for is increased speed of the clouds, a drop in barometric pressure and perhaps also drops in temperature.

If you notice these signs, you need to pay close attention to the horizon. When you begin to see dark and low hanging clouds develop, you should know that heavy winds are likely to arrive within hours. 

 

At this point there should be no doubt that you will soon be sailing in a storm and you need to start prepare for it. 

 

Prepare your crew and your boat

First, make sure that everyone in your crew is wearing their life-jackets and their safety-line harnesses.

A safety-line harness is a simple piece of apparel that will allow you to attach yourself to the safety-lines that should run all along your boat- from the stern to the bow. The safety-lines should be fitted tightly to the deck and with some sort of “stopper” that will prevent you to slide all the way to the aft of the boat if you fall overboard.

It is crucial that the stopper is positioned in a way so that the boat will be within an arm’s length. This way you should be able to pull yourself back onboard. This is particularly important during single-handed or other short-handed sailing.

Second, make sure that all safety-lines are in place and functioning. As the next step, you should bring your crew together and go through those procedures that you may need to execute.

As a minimum review how to reef the mainsail and how to change to storm-jib. Then, make sure that your storm-jib is easily accessible in case reefing proves not to be  enough.

Finally, stress the importance of keeping calm. If your crew adhere to the procedures you have just gone through, you will pass through this rough patch smoothly.

 

How to handle your boat when sailing in a storm

For recreational sailing, you might as well reef your mainsail at this point. It is much easier to tie it down before the storm hits rather than after.

To reef you need to direct your boat to a close-hauled point of sailing. Then release the main sheet slightly to take a bit of pressure off the mainsail. You should now find yourself on close-haul sailing mainly on your jib.

Then release the main halyard and bring your mainsail down until you can hook the reef-clew in your mainsail into the hook fitted on your mast or boom. It should be right around the goose neck.

When the clew is on the hook you can pull the reef-line in order to bring the reef-clew in the leech of your mainsail down towards the boom.Grind it in slowly and make sure that your mainsail is being folded nicely all along the boom and especially at its leech.

If not, you risk that the mainsail will tear and you will not be able to set the mainsail fully again,until it is repaired.

Ideally there will be a few eyes fitted in the mainsail where you can string a line through and tie the mainsail closely to the boom. This is not actually necessary but we still highly recommend it.

sailing in a storm

 

As you approach the storm you will begin to develop a more accurate sense of how strong it really is. As the wind starts to pick up, you should make a decision of what front sail to use.

This will be a fairly permanent decision as changing the front sail is a difficult and somewhat risky operation. You will need to bring several crew-members to the bow in order to pull down the existing front sail and replace it with a new. Therefore, we recommend that you make this decision conservatively, picking the smaller front sail if you are in doubt.

If you have a furler for your front sail, you have many more options as you can simply reduce the sail area of your front sail by furling it in as needed.

 

If you are sailing into the breeze with a reefed mainsail and your smallest front sail while still struggling to keep you boat under control, the next step should be to pull the mainsail all the way down, leaving only your front sail - likely your storm jib- up.

The key to sail only by using your front sail is to maintain your speed at all times. You achieve this by sailing slightly below close-hauled and by never steering your bow directly toward the waves.

If you get caught by a wave and your boat suddenly comes to a complete halt, there is a risk that your bow will slide all the way down to a beam reach before you are able to build of sufficient boat speed to point back up.

Beam reach, should as a general rule be avoided. Particularly in large steep waves, you will be much more likely to become rolled over by a wave on a beam reach.

If you are still notable to keep the boat under control, you fortunately still have a few aces up your sleeve. Your next move could be “heaving-to”.

This is a mode of sailing where you pull your front sail to windward and pull your mainsail to close-hauled while you are fixing your rudder to the center position. With these settings the front sail will drive the bow to leeward, while the mainsail will push it to windward.

Making the sails work against each other will slow the boat down substantially and it will be drifting significantly. However,the boat will feel very balanced and comfortable to sail. The angle will be around 60 degrees to the wind, which will be somewhat risky as a large wave might be able to roll you over.

To avoid that, you should consider throwing in a sea anchor. This will keep your bow slightly more to windward, giving you a better angle to the waves.

Also, it should be mentioned that “heaving-to” usually works better for classic sailboat designs rather than lighter modern sailboats with thinner keels. So you should definitely test out how your boat operate in this mode, before your try it out for real.

Your final option is to “lie ahull”. This basically means that you drop all your sails and point your bow directly away from the waves. This way, you will drift slowly along in the direction that the waves will take you. It will be quite uncomfortable as the boat will roll unsteadily as the waves pass by under your hull without any balancing force from the sails at all.

Aside from being uncomfortable, another unfortunate thing about “lying ahull” is that you will have to follow along with the storm. This means that you will spend more time in rough and risky conditions while perhaps also drift in the wrong direction compared to your destination.

However, you should always put safety first in these situations - and getting there a couple of days later is always better than not getting there at all. 

 

Safety Procedures

In severe weather conditions, the crew should , at all times, be hooked into a safety-line.

It should not matter whether they are moving up upon the bow or sitting in the cockpit. They should always be hooked in. If an accident happens and a crew member is swept overboard, the safety-line will prevent him from dropping all the way into the water, however, if an overboard crew is partly in the water,it can still be very difficult to pull them up by hand.

In that case, you can take one of the halyards that is not in use, attach it to the overboard crew and grind him up.

The danger of falling overboard is in-measurably higher if the crew is not attached to the safety-line.

If it happens, it is crucial that the rest of the crew acts swift and precisely. The person that sees a another falling overboard should yell “Man Overboard” loud and clear. Point straight to at him while ALWAYS keep his eyes fixed to the person in the water.

The rest of the crew should immediately start the engine and bring down the sails. Don’t mind folding them. They just need to come down. Then you should turn around your boat.

Be aware that you need a couple of boat lengths to turn the boat around and get control of your speed.You should throw out a buoyable rescue device that is tied to your boat for the overboard person to grab. Then you should pull him in. Slowly and controlled.To pull the person all the way out of the water, you may again need to use a halyard and the grinder.

To be just slightly more confident in these types of situations, we strongly recommend that you do a couple of drills of this kind every year. And especially ahead of any long-distance offshore sailing.

That being said,while also reminding you to always respect the sea, you as well as your crew should be aware that there is no need to be overly concerned when sailing in a storm.

It is something every sailor will have to experience every now and then.Of course being far from shore and unable to get help may feel a bit unsettling but it is important to remember that if the crew is able to keep calm and maintain safe and sound decision-making then sailing in a storm should feel as safe as any other day on the water.

Also, during storms, boats are more susceptible to fires so you'll want to read up on our fire safety guide to ensure you are prepared in case the worst were to happen.

Simon Nielson

Simon is a former world class sailing athlete, winning medals in European and World Championships while being ranked no. 1 in the world in the Olympic 49'er class as part of being in the Denmark national team. He has contributed many articles to the Deepsailling blog. If you'd like to learn more, you can read our about page. If you'd like to share your photos or stories from your sailing adventures, simply email us and we'll share them on the site.

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