Rupert Holmes has sailed more than 85,000 miles, including the Southern Ocean. He shares his tips for sailing in strong winds

Sailing in strong winds requires a mixture of experience and good judgment, and these are the factors which draw the line between an exhilarating and a terrifying sail.

People sitting in a cockpit of a boat while sailing in strong winds and waves

Fighting the conditions will only leave the crew exhausted

Practise your techniques before you need to use them in anger, watch the weather forecast with a sailor’s eye and bear in mind the following essentials, and you can approach with confidence conditions which will have novice sailors staying at home.

1. Don’t let problems escalate

Very few disasters are the result of a single big incident: most occur from an accumulation of minor problems, with each additional one leaving the vessel and crew increasingly vulnerable.

If you feel the situation is going downhill, buying some time should allow you to keep on top of events. Heaving-to or reducing sail may be all that’s required to achieve this and enable any small issues to be sorted out.

2. Don’t fight the conditions

At sea, it’s important to choose your battles carefully: some are not worth fighting.

Yielding to the conditions by heaving to, lying ahull or to a drogue or sea anchor will give both boat and crew a much easier time, minimizing exhaustion and breakages.

3. Keep away from lee shores and other dangers

Assuming you have plenty of sea room, and contrary to the expectations of many non-sailors, one of the safest places to be in bad weather is in open water.

Here the waves will be more regular, with fewer breaking crests than inshore, and you’re well clear of nasty things you might bump into. Like land.

Lee shores are perhaps the biggest single reason for boats being wrecked in bad weather.

Sometimes it’s the result of a navigation error, but more usually it’s due to a breakage or other problem that could be solved given time.

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The trouble is that time is not something you have if there’s 30 knots of wind driving you onto a shoreline that’s only half a mile away.

After a Bénéteau suffered steering failure while sailing in an onshore Force 7 and was rapidly pushed onto rocks ashore, one of the Marine Accident Investigation Branch’s key findings was that more sea room would have given more opportunity for the crew to rig emergency steering, and for the lifeboat to arrive.

In other words, the boat may have been saved had they been two or three miles further out to sea.

Headlands, tidal races and other areas with overfalls should be avoided – these can see huge waves that can overwhelm a boat.

The same is true of the edge of a continental shelf – one of the elements that caused problems for the 1979 Fastnet Race fleet.

a boat run aground on a beach

Whatever your boat, keep away from lee shores. If you are using your engine, it’s most likely to fail in big seas when any muck in the fuel tanks gets stirred around

Sand or gravel bars at the entrance of harbours and estuaries should also be avoided, especially with a strong onshore blow and ebb tide.

Chichester and Salcombe bars have both claimed victims who maybe thought they were within reach of safety, but in reality were in the most dangerous part of the trip.

These are not the only harbours that are dangerous to enter in strong onshore winds.

During the summer of 2011, for instance, the skipper of a Contessa 32 was knocked overboard in the confused seas that form at the entrance to Brighton Marina in heavy weather.

By contrast, a port such as Dartmouth – with deep water throughout and a wide entrance – can be entered in any weather, although you may need to go a little way upriver to get really good shelter in a severe onshore gale.

4. Maintain a large margin of safety

In light airs, when little can go wrong, it’s possible to shave close to many dangers.

However, the stronger the wind and the bigger the waves, the more vital a big safety factor becomes.

So what constitutes a sensible margin of safety?

One way to figure it out is to ask yourself what might go wrong.

If that makes you feel vulnerable, allowing more space will do no harm.

5. Build up your experience

If you never venture out in a Force 6 you’re likely to be well outside your comfort zone if caught out in an unexpected Force 7.

However, if you have the opportunity to sail in a Force 6 that’s forecast to moderate (so the risk of being caught in a stronger breeze is minimal), you’ll gradually become accustomed to sailing in stronger winds, and that voyage home will seem less daunting.

It’s still important, of course, to recognise your own limitations and those of your boat and crew, and operate within those.

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