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How to Heave To a Sailboat

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Steps to Heave To
Heave to a Sailboat

© International Marine

Heaving to is a technique for stopping the boat almost completely with the sails still up. The boat maintains a steady position relative to wind and waves, in contrast to "lying ahull," in which sails are dropped and the boat is allowed to drift any which way - usually leading to an uncomfortable and perhaps dangerous boat position. A boat lying ahull is likely to turn beam-on to the waves and may capsize.

Why Heave To?

Heaving to is an essential sailing skill every sailor should learn. With this simple technique you can stop the boat in a controlled manner without having to stay at the helm. It can be a valuable skill for managing a storm because it allows you to "lock" the boat at a safe angle to wind and waves and go below to ride it out. Some sailors like to heave to simply to calm the boat for lunch. Singlehanders who do not have an autopilot find it a valuable skill if they need to leave the helm for any reason.

Basic Steps to Heave To

The theory of heaving to is to use the mainsail and headsail (usually the jib) to work against each other to balance the boat at an angle to the wind. The jib is backwinded and attempts to turn the boat away from the wind, while the mainsail and rudder attempt to turn the boat into the wind (as shown in the illustration above). With these forces balanced, the boat holds a steady position.

Here are the basic steps for heaving to:

  1. Bring the boat into a close-hauled point of sail with both the mainsail and jib trimmed in tight.
  2. Tack across the wind without releasing the jibsheet (unlike in normal tacking).
  3. Once on the new tack, the wind in the backed jib will attempt to blow the bow further away from the wind. Turn the rudder to keep the boat toward the wind on your new tack. The force of the mainsail will try to move the boat toward the wind just as the force in the jib tries to push it away.
  4. As needed, adjust the mainsheet and the rudder position until the forces balance out and the boat stays steady relative to the wind, often roughly 60 degrees off the wind.
  5. Lash the tiller or wheel to keep the rudder in this position. The boat should stay heaved to in this position unless thrown off by a sudden gust or a big wave, very slowly drifting away from the wind.

These basic steps are easy to learn - but not every boat acts the same. More modern boats, especially, require some adjustment and practice in order to heave to. Go on to the next page to learn what else to do to make this work in your own boat.

Illustration courtesy International Marine. From The Complete Sailor by David Seidman.

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