Many sailors, both beginning and experienced, fear storms as the greatest danger on the water, even though more emergencies and fatalities occur during times of relative calm. Nonetheless, strong winds and high waves can wreak havoc on a sailboat, and any sailor who might be caught by even a summer thunderstorm - or a longer-lasting and greater storm offshore - should know how to stay safe in heavy weather.
Many lengthy books have been written about storm sailing tactics, and a short article like this can only introduce key information to start thinking about how to stay safe if you're caught in heavy weather.
It's often said that boats are stronger than people - meaning your first priority is to protect yourself. Be sure to have and use the right safety gear, such as PFDs and harnesses/tethers to keep you on the boat. Recognize also that the boat's motion will be more severe in storm conditions, and take action early to prevent injury and prevent seasickness that can further endanger your safety.
The following sections consider issues and strategies for keeping the boat under control in storm conditions.
When heavy weather begins or threatens, the first impulse is often to drop the sails, start up the motor, and head for land. If you can safely reach a harbor and return to a dock or mooring, this may be your safest option. But be aware that wind and waves can rapidly turn shallow areas or narrow channels into a more dangerous place than open water, especially if the storm will be short-lived and it's mostly a matter of waiting it out. Waves become steeper and more likely to break in shallow areas, making it difficult to control the boat. Consider the risks if your engine were to die and the wind rapidly blow you onto the rocks or other obstructions. If the wind is blowing toward shore, it can also be risky to attempt to anchor, because the boat may go aground if the anchor drags - and it is difficult and sometimes dangerous to try to reset an anchor in storm conditions. You may have better options staying in open water and riding out the storm using the tactics described below.
As soon as the wind begins or is anticipated to increase, it's time to reef the sails. The old saying is that if you are wondering whether you should reef, then it's already past time to do so. You don't want a lot of sail up when a strong gust hits, potentially leading to capsize. It's also much easier to reef the mainsail or furl the jib while the wind is still manageable - and it can be dangerous to have to leave the cockpit to reef the main or drop the jib once the boat is being tossed or strongly heeled over by the wind. See this article for more information about when and how to reef.
Remember that if you are sailing downwind when the wind increases, you feel its effects less and can be shocked to see how hard it's blowing when you turn up into the wind to reef. Always pay attention and reef early.
Remember to monitor changes in the wind so that you can reef early when it's easy rather than late when it's difficult or dangerous. You can learn to read the wind or use an inexpensive handheld wind meter.
The following storm tactics are more applicable when offshore or near shore and expecting the storm to last for some time.
Offshore voyagers typically carry special sails for use in high winds. Regular sails can be reefed or furled only so far and still maintain an efficient shape, and the fabric of regular sails is generally too light for high winds. A storm jib used with or without a trysail replacing the main generally allows one to continue sailing in stronger winds, usually on a course that minimizes the effects of waves. Racing sailors, for example, usually have a selection of sails and may prefer to keep going rather than wait out the storm with a different tactic that would essentially stop the boat's progress. Many coastal and recreational sailors do not carry these extra sails, however, and prefer a different strategy, like heaving to.
Lying ahull simply means dropping the sails and letting the boat fare for itself, possibly while you go below to seek shelter. This strategy may work in limited situations when the waves are not too big and the boat is far enough from land and shipping channels that it doesn't matter how far the boat drifts downwind. In some cases it may be necessary to lie ahull to attend to an injury or simply because one is too exhausted to continue active strategies. If the waves are large and breaking, however, there is a significant risk of the boat being rolled and capsizing because it will tend to lie broadside to the waves. Never attempt this in an open boat that would rapidly fill with water and sink; a larger boat with a closed cabin should bob back up. Still, this is seldom the preferable approach to take in a serious storm.
Go on to the next page for additional tactics for heavy weather.