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Heavy Weather Sailing, cont'd


Using a Sea Anchor

Offshore voyagers are more likely to have invested in a sea anchor, which is like a parachute deployed underwater to keep the bow pointed into the wind and waves. Breaking waves cause less damage over the bow than from any other angle, and the boat is less likely to capsize or roll when facing large waves. A sea anchor can be expensive, however, and takes time and skill to deploy - this is a strategy used for a serious storm that will last for some time, not a passing squall or thunderstorm.


Heaving-to is a time-honored storm tactic preferred by many sailors. The boat is turned close to the wind, the jib (partly furled or smaller jib hoisted) is backwinded, the helm is locked into position, and the boat slowly jogs along without turning broadside to the waves (as when lying ahull). See this article for how to heave to. This is a valuable skill for all sailors, and it's a good idea to practice it in your own boat to know how best to accomplish it when needed.

An advantage of heaving to is that you don't have to stay at the helm but can go below (if it is safe to do so) or duck beneath the dodger, and the boat remains pointed close enough to the wind that it is less likely to be rolled by a breaking wave. In addition, the downwind sliding motion of the hull produces a slick in the water that makes it less likely for a wave to break on the boat.

Heaving to using a sea anchor is one of the best conservative storm tactics. The anchor is adjusted off to one side to help the bow point closer to the wind than when heaving to without a sea anchor, but the boat still drifts back slightly to make a slick. World-traveling Lin and Larry Pardey's video "Storm Tactics" and book "Storm Tactics Handbook" argue persuasively for this technique and illustrate how it is accomplished.

Running Off

The final heavy weather tactic, used by some accomplished sailors, is to run off downwind. Reduce sail as needed, and in true storm-force wind you can continue sailing downwind "under bare poles" with no sail at all. As the wind increases, the greatest danger is going too fast, even without sail, in which case the boat may come down a large wave and bury the bow in the back of the wave in front, causing the boat to pitchpole end over end or otherwise capsize. To slow the boat, sailors historically trailed long, heavy lines off the stern; modern sailors can use a special drogue for that purpose.

While some sailors swear by running off, this tactic requires constant skillful steering. If the stern is not kept perpendicular to approaching waves, a wave can push the stern around to one side, causing a broach and likely capsize.

Other Resources

As noted earlier, these brief descriptions serve only to introduce tactics for heavy weather sailing. Any boat owner who may ever be in a high winds situation, however, should be prepared to take appropriate action - at minimum by being familiar with reefing and heaving to.

Start with a good book on seamanship, such as "Chapman's Piloting & Seamanship" or "The Annapolis Book of Seamanship" - both with a good chapter on heavy weather. The "Seaworthy Offshore Sailboat" is an excellent starting place for preparing your own boat for offshore sailing conditions.

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