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Heavy weater sailing

How do we define “heavy weather?” For example, a small family cruiser sailing upwind in open water might have a tough time of it in a 25-knot wind even though the same blow is perfect for a boat twice her size. And what about a vessel crewed by a retired couple who don’t spend much time in the gym, compared to the same craft manned by the local firefighters’ tug-of-war team? With the obvious exception of extreme storms, heavy weather along the coast is best not classified by wind force. A better description might be “conditions that make a skipper consider changing the passage plan.”Modern weather forecasting is so comprehensive that, in theory, it’s possible to always avoid really poor conditions on modest passages. The trouble is in today’s hectic world, most of us can only hang around for a day or two before commitments oblige us to go to sea. Typically, when we’re running out of time at the end of a cruise, we try to grab what looks like a “window.” This almost inevitably slams shut just when we reach the point of no return, and that’s when we come unstuck. How we cope will depend on a number of factors.


WEATHERLINESS

Any boat will blow downwind. It’s when the wind is forward of abeam that she shows her true mettle. Every boat has a limit beyond which she can no longer work upwind under sail, power or even both. Just where this boundary lies is mercifully unknown to most of us, but larger boats generally perform better than smaller ones. A long waterline deals with waves better. Additional displacement makes a heftier boat more stable, with more power to deliver the all-important upwind punch. Regardless of size, it also helps if a boat’s sails and engine are doing the best job they can.


SAILS AND ENGINES

Life After 30 Knots
In 30kts of wind, with motors upwind, 36kts apparent on the foredeck, and the bowman is beaten to a pulp. But with the sails downwind, 24kts apparent, the headsail shadowed, and the bowman is happy.

Shortening sail downwind: It is perfectly possible to reef most modern designs while sailing downwind. Rounding up in a near-gale to put in a third reef is a dramatic business that is best left alone. If you have to go forward, clip on and take your time. Keep the vang on, ease the halyard slowly and haul down the luff while a mate heaves on the clew pennant to keep the battens from blowing into the shrouds. This works well.

Shortening sail upwind: It never pays to reef or roll some mainsail into the mast while a boat is bashing to windward. Instead, try steering on a close reach until the true wind is at about 65 degrees. Ease sheets enough to spill a little wind without flogging. Now steer a bit higher upwind to take off as much way as possible without losing control. Most boats can jog along in relative safety on just the half-lifting headsail while the crew are on deck. Once everyone is back in the cockpit, sheet in, hang on and let her go!

Genoas: Most large reefing genoas take on a flour-bag shape and become a waste of air-space with 10 or more rolls in the luff. A tall, thin blade jib, on the other hand, is an excellent sail that a 36-footer can carry upwind in 30 knots with around four rolls. Even a 110 percent genoa makes a dramatic difference. The only reasons for not having a smaller headsail on hand are cost and stowage space. Dig deep, make room for one more bag under the bunk and be sure to bend on the smaller sail before starting out on a rough passage.

Mainsails: Any serious cruising yacht must have a mainsail with three reefs. Two reefs, unless they are very deep, are simply not enough. In-mast reefing solves this problem, of course, and if you have a conventional slab-reefing mainsail you can often have a third reef point added. Boats with “production” single-line reefing systems, however, can be left in the lurch. Two reefs are all that most of these systems can handle, and if the ropes are not Spectra, Dyneema or some other hi-tech fiber, this stretch will beat the system every time.

If this is your wretched lot, have a sailmaker and rigger set you up with a third reef that can be used conventionally. You’ll have to go to the mast to handle the tack, but when it really matters you’ll be grateful. Any deep reef should leave the sail very flat indeed, both to depower it for sailing and make it closer-winded for motorsailing.

Trysails: Most of us don’t carry one. They’re rarely used, cost money and take up space. Unless you’re bound across an ocean, a deep third reef is all you’re likely to need. However, if your boat has only two reefs, however, a trysail can be important. The problem with trysails is that you always have to rig them when you don’t feel like it. Once you’ve set the thing though, there’s an unexpected bonus. Because they spend most of their lives in the bag, trysails almost never blow out.

Storm jibs: A storm jib works best when working upwind in 30 knots or more. It needs a stay to hank to, because it is a stand-alone sail that is used only for special occasions. This is easy enough to arrange. The top of the stay is permanently rigged near the masthead and lives in the shrouds somewhere. When its day dawns, it is secured to a lug on the foredeck and set up with a Highfield lever, a turnbuckle or, best of all, a tackle. A storm jib must be cut so its sheet lead works with existing gear. Once in place, it will drive a good boat to windward long after all else has failed. Like a trysail, it carries the extra benefit of always being “fresh out of the bag.”

Motorsailing: Although we’d probably all like to carry storm jibs and trysails, most of us are constrained by our pockets. Since we spend less than one percent of our time in survival weather, we understandably opt not to go down that road. For us, then, when the genoa is rolled in so far that it develops an unproductive flour-bag shape, the only answer is to motorsail. Crank the third reef into the main good and tight, heave the clew out flat, vang the boom down, sheet in hard, roll up the genoa and motor as close to the wind as the sail and the seas allow.

HAZARDS

Lee shore: It isn’t usually the sea that causes the real trouble, it’s the land. The most serious threat is being blown onto a lee shore. In heavy weather, keeping clear of any potential lee shore is priority number one. A lee shore may not look too bad when your boat is in good order, but if she were to be disabled – typically by an engine failure – a lee shore can take on a horribly different aspect. Perhaps it’s because I spent my youth disappointed by unreliable engines, but whenever I’m motoring to windward of a nasty obstruction, I’m never happy until I’m well clear. I’m also constantly working out contingency plans just in case everything were to suddenly go quiet below.

Apparent wind: Six knots of boatspeed downwind turns a 30-knot near-gale into a 24-knot stiff breeze. Six knots of speed upwind ratchets up the same blow to 36 knots – a whole gale, with pressure on the sails virtually doubled. Bear this in mind before making a major course change in hard winds. Even when your plan is to plow straight downwind, an emergency can still find you out, so the best advice is to never be caught over-canvassed. Reef early.

Along these same lines, because everything is so much quieter when you run off, it’s great for dealing with minor crises. Let’s say your roller headsail gear snags. Anyone trained in dinghies would turn automatically into the wind and let everything flap. This is because the dinghy’s first priority is to not capsize. But a keelboat won’t tip over and a flogging sail is a major hazard; luffing up can make a disaster out of a nuisance. By contrast, running off – if you have sea room – immediately defuses the situation. As an added benefit, the main will blanket the foredeck, which can make working up there a relative pleasure.


STRATEGY

Life After 30 Knots
Heaving To: Sheet small headsail, trim main in either to a closehauled or close reaching profile (try both to find proper balance) and turn the rudder hard to the wind.

The most obvious advice if a bad blow seems likely is to stay in port. If you have to go anyway, at least make sure your passage plan includes some ports of refuge.

Being caught out at sea is a different matter. Any decision out there will be governed by the wind direction relative to where you’d like to go. The state of your crew, the amount of sea room and the proximity of dangerous areas such as tide rips will also be factors. Here are some typical choices.

Carry on regardless: If you reckon you, the boat and the crew can do it, it’s often best to batten down the hatches, tell the crew it won’t be fun and then slug it out.

Go into survival mode: Unless a knock-down seems likely, the boat isn’t in any immediate danger from the water, but a lee shore could finish her off. A summer gale probably won’t blow for more than 24 hours at the most, so if you can’t reach shelter, employing survival tactics in the open sea may be the safest option. The crew won’t like it, but it might keep you off the statistics list.

Hide somewhere: If you don’t fancy carrying on and shelter can safely be reached, this is an obvious answer. However, a harbor entrance that’s safe one day may be a death trap in different conditions. Running downwind for shelter is generally less stressful than beating to weather; It’s also easier on the boat. But don’t forget that the coast you’re approaching is a lee shore.

In even a near-gale, it can be tough smashing your way to shelter upwind. But as the coast approaches, the waves will smooth out and the going will get easier. The bottom line is that almost any refuge lying to windward with a sheltering shoreline behind it can be entered safely. The problem is getting “up” there in the first place.

When assessing a harbor, remember that one on a lee shore must have an unambiguous entrance that is broad enough to allay fears you might have about controlling the boat as you run in. If a narrow entrance is tidal, will the stream be slack, flooding or ebbing? If it’s ripping out over a bar against a gale, the seas may become dangerous, especially if they’re whipped up by wave reflections from piers or walls. Any sudden shoaling will also pile up the seas.

And how about any turns to be made inside? I once ran for shelter into a river that swung immediately to windward inside the entrance. I came in easily enough, but when I turned the boat up into the breeze inside, she wasn’t powerful enough to face it, and I was left running back out to sea with my tail between my legs. The factors to consider go on and on. The trick is to be coldly objective and not create fantasies that may prove to be at odds with reality.


TACTICS

Life After 30 Knots
Tactics: In high winds, motorsailing upwind, running downwind and heaving-to can be beneficial maneuvers, but never sail beam-on to large seas. That’s the cause of most knockdowns.

The volume of literature on open-water storm survival is so vast that anyone sailing across an ocean has no excuse for not being thoroughly informed. For sailors caught out in a summer gale along the coast or between islands, things are usually less extreme and there are fewer choices. The key to surviving dangerous waves is never to be caught beam-on by a breaking sea.

Heaving to: Skippers of boats with a deep forefoot are fortunate in having this ultimate option available. Boats with no draft forward are unlikely to be able to heave-to in heavy going, because their bows will be too readily blown off the wind. This includes many modern designs, so be sure to try it before you need it.

The principle of heaving-to is that the boat is set up with its jib aback, driving its bow to leeward, while the main is filling conventionally, shoving the stern downwind and balancing out the headsail. The rudder serves as a kind of fine tune, leaving the boat in a state of equilibrium lying about 45 degrees off the wind and waves.

You can achieve this state by hauling the jib across to weather and waiting for the boat to slow down, but it’s a lot easier to just tack and leave the jib sheet cleated off. Once the boat is through the wind, shove the helm hard to leeward (wheel hard to weather) until she stops. Lash the steering, and that’s it. If the boat is suitable, she’ll lie there making a knot or two of leeway, asking no more from you than to keep a good lookout.

Running: I’ve already noted that running off makes the world go quiet. It’s a great survival option, so long as you’ve enough sea room and can keep the speed down. Too fast and you may end up broaching. Bad news. Maintaining control may involve taking in all sail and letting her blow along under bare pole(s), which works well in as little as 25 knots for many modern boats. When it breezes up seriously and too much speed makes steering tricky, it’s time to trail warps astern. But then you’re into a serious read of Adlard Coles’s Heavy Weather Sailing

Motorsailing: The third option, and often the best one for most unmodified production cruisers, is to roll up the genoa, deep-reef the main, start the engine and motor slowly upwind. You’ll make little progress over the ground but you won’t get rolled over. So long as the engine keeps turning (did you clean the filters this year, and do you carry a spare or two?) and you have fuel in the tank, you’re in with a good chance of sitting it out without problems until the front blows through, the kettle’s singing and you’re on your way once more.

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