One crew's brisk breeze and exciting sail can be another's gale, even if sailing similar boats. So what makes the difference? Rupert Holmes outlines techniques that experienced skippers use to take challenging weather in their stride
At some point most of us will have to go sailing in storms and strong winds.
Squalls can appear rapidly, even on apparently benign days, and if you do any more than day sailing it’s unlikely that you’ll experience perfect cruising weather all the way.
A common situation is that you are nearing the end of your summer cruise, have a deadline at work and a less than ideal forecast – what should you do?
The answer depends vitally on experience.
This is perhaps the biggest single factor in handling heavy weather with confidence.
How to go sailing in storms and strong winds
Sailing in the flat water close to land with an offshore wind can help you to get accustomed to handling strong winds in your boat without simultaneously dealing with big waves.
But when you’re out there for real, it’s essential to master steering through waves in order to give your crew, yourself and the boat a safe, swift passage.
This is mostly about identifying the smoothest path between the waves. It’s also helpful to attempt to steer around breaking wave crests.
At best, this may soak the crew: at worst, a full breaking wave – ie, not just the crest – taken beam-on can result in a knockdown.
This means that a course that puts the seas on the beam should be avoided in extreme conditions.
The skill of the helm can make a huge difference to the comfort and safety of a boat sailing downwind in heavy weather.
In particular, as each wave passes under the transom, it will tend to swing the stern away from the wind.
This makes the boat luff up into the wind, and as it does so the apparent wind increases and even more rudder angle is required to return to course.
Eventually, the water flow over the rudder stalls and the boat broaches.
However, a quick tweak of the helm to bear away momentarily before the stern lifts on a wave will cancel this tendency out.
With the boat remaining on a straight course and with minimal rolling, the boat will also be faster, but don’t turn so far downwind that there’s a risk of gybing.
In any case, a preventer should always be rigged, ideally with the tail led aft to the cockpit so it can be released if a deliberate gybe is needed.
Mainsail trim, if you have the sail set, is important.
Make sure there’s plenty of tension on the kicking strap, otherwise the top of the sail will twist excessively, adding to rolling, while the boom and the lower part of the sail will in effect be oversheeted, which will add to weather helm.
Many cruising boats have very underpowered tackle for the kicker, which can make this difficult.
However, tensioning the mainsheet against a preventer has a similar effect in holding the outer end of the boom down.
Poling out the headsail also stabilises the boat considerably when running, reducing rolling and making it much easier to steer.
The sail can be furled while the pole is rigged, making the process much easier.
In really extreme conditions, you’re more likely to be running under a headsail only, and with roller furling it’s easy to adjust exactly how much power is needed.
Is running in severe weather a bad idea?
It’s an option I have used under such conditions, but it can only be recommended with caution.
The first occasion was in gusts topping 60 knots in the Southern Ocean, but we had a big boat, 2,000 miles of sea room to leeward and a big crew with an inexhaustible supply of skilled helms.
The second was approaching a safe harbour on a Roberts 34 – a moderately heavy cutter-rigged cruiser from the 1970s.
With the wind having increased to a consistent 40 knots and gusting 50, I initially dropped all sail and expected to hoist the staysail to blow us downwind.
That plan changed when, under bare poles alone, we were scooting along at a respectable five to six knots!
Even given ample sea room, a potential problem with running downwind is that once wind or sea state builds beyond a certain level there is a greater danger of a spectacular broach or even pitch pole: and the faster a boat surfs down waves, the greater the risk.
When sailing upwind the boat will be most comfortable if you luff slightly a moment before the bow meets a wave, then bear away down its back.
This avoids slamming and keeps the boat moving.
Sail trim is important, especially if you need to beat away from a lee shore.
The ideal is a flat sail, with the maximum depth well forward to maximise drive while minimising heeling forces.
Lots of halyard tension, plus outhaul or reefing pennant tension, will help with this.
Many modern boats sail well to windward in winds of Force 6 and above with only a small headsail.
It’s common sense that as the wind builds you should reduce sail, reefing the main and changing or rolling the headsail in proportion to keep the boat balanced.
When you’ve run out of reefs it’s time for the storm sails: storm jib and a trysail if you have one.
If your course is far enough off the wind you might consider taking down the main altogether and running with just the storm jib, or even bare poles.
What is often forgotten in the hurly- burly of a squally passage, however, is the importance of sail trim.
Flat sails maximize drive and minimise heel, but in these conditions the sailcloth is under huge pressure to stretch and become baggy.
This is where laminate sails can really benefit the cruising sailor – just when Dacron sails are becoming baggy, laminate sails have minimal stretch so they retain their designed shape even in severe conditions.
On a boat test a few years ago I was able to compare two Dufour 34s, identical in every respect apart from their sails, in a gusty north-westerly Force 7 off Torquay.
When a gust hit the boat with the standard Dacron sails it was possible to see the cloth stretch, which resulted in the boat heeling dramatically then luffing up into the wind, with the helmsman finding it impossible to keep the boat on course.
By contrast, when a gust hit the boat with Pentex cruising laminate sails they retained their shape, the angle of heel increased only marginally and the boat continued on its initial course with just a small amount of additional helm applied.
It was like sailing boats of two totally different designs, and completely sold me on cruising laminates.
Having said that, the consensus is that storm jibs should still be made from Dacron, as this material will survive extended flogging in high winds better than most laminates.
Using the engine
Many cruising boats will use engines to help make progress to windward in bad weather, allowing them to point closer to the wind and make better speed, with less leeway.
This can be a very effective strategy, but don’t be tempted to point directly into a head sea – each wave will stop the boat, and even with a powerful engine progress will be slow.
It’s better to head around 20° to the apparent wind.
There is, however, a potential problem, as these are exactly the conditions in which any crud in the fuel tank will get stirred around, so blocked fuel filters are a common occurrence in bad weather.
One way to minimise such problems is to fit parallel filter systems, as is commonplace on many motorboats and big yachts.
In the event of one becoming clogged, it’s possible to switch to the second filter in a matter of seconds.
The blocked filter can then be changed at your leisure.
Over an extended period of time, the biggest problem in severe conditions is likely to be exhaustion of the crew.
Traditionally, heaving to was the solution to this, and it’s exactly what Martin Morris and Roma Griffin did last summer when confronted by a severe Force 9 gale in the Western Approaches at the end of a two-handed Atlantic crossing on their 9.7m (32ft) home-built Wylo Apple.
Alternatives include lying ahull, with the vessel beam-on to the seas and the helm lashed to leeward, towing a drogue or lying to a sea anchor – or even a normal anchor if you can find a windward shore with sufficient depth, and the forecast is for the wind to stay offshore.
My own first big open sea gale in a smallish boat was in the Celtic Sea in the mid-1990s, roughly midway between Land’s End and Mizen Head – which is where the storm struck that devastated the 1979 Fastnet fleet.
In our case, a more vigorous than forecast cold front at dusk interrupted progress.
We were sailing a GK29 – in those days, a relatively lightweight cruiser-racer.
The front itself didn’t seem particularly bad, but in its wake was an unyielding north-north-westerly consistently blowing 32-35 knots, and gusting over 40.
We pressed on for a while under just a small headsail, the helm nicely balanced and the boat bouncing enthusiastically over impressive waves.
Although the log was hovering around 5 knots, we were well off our desired course.
Even if the boat didn’t break our small crew stood to be quickly exhausted, and all for precious gain.
The decision to stop was therefore easy – the only question was how?
As we already had the mainsail down, the traditional option of heaving-to wasn’t an automatic choice, and in the circumstances hoisting more sail seemed like the wrong option.
Instead, we handed the headsail and lay ahull, with the tiller lashed to leeward.
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As soon as we yielded to the conditions and stopped fighting them, it was as though we were magically transported into a different world.
Spray stopped flying and the boat stopped bucking.
Under the pressure of the wind on the rig we heeled to around 15°, sometimes a little more as a wave passed underneath, and then returned almost to upright.
It was a gentle motion that gave us the opportunity to look a decent meal.
It turned out to be the most comfortable night of the trip – keeping watch involved nothing more than popping a head out of the companionway every 5-10 minutes to check for traffic – and when off watch, sleep was easy.
In contrast, we heard five Maydays from larger yachts that night – all well upwind of us so we had no chance of getting to any of them to lend a hand.
At dawn, we were circled by an RAF Nimrod search aircraft: although we had no sail set, two of us were standing in the companionway sipping coffee, and they seemed reassured we were not in any trouble.
The wind eased during the morning, allowing us to head for Kinsale in a blustery Force 6-7.
When we arrived, we read in the local paper that the yachts whose Maydays we’d heard had all been towed to port, arriving 18 hours before us.
Clearly, lying ahull and taking the strain off both boat and crew was the right course of action in this case.
I’ve since become a fan of drogues – particularly the series drogue – and would use one if the presence of breaking waves made lying ahull risky.
As well as enabling the crew to rest, and minimising the chance of a knockdown, there’s no need to have crew on deck – which means they won’t get swept out of the boat
Essential to good seamanship is a proper understanding of weather.
A skipper might confidently leave harbour in a quartering Force 7 which is due to moderate, but to undertake the same voyage in a building breeze which is forecast to shift to a foul direction is a different matter.
But to achieve this level of accuracy needs full comprehension of the tell-tale signs of bad weather.
Although the science of weather forecasting is constantly improving, it remains difficult to predict wind speeds with the accuracy needed for voyage planning.
A particular problem is that relatively small changes in the atmosphere can result in a difference of up to 10 knots of wind speed.
In addition, when low pressure dominates the weather outlook, the situation must be regarded as fluid and subject to change: make sure you keep up to date with the latest forecasts.
Here are some weather features to look for that can create nasty conditions, or that may form with little warning
■ Secondary depressions form on the long tail of a cold front and may spin up into a powerful, tight low-pressure system with little warning, causing strong winds across an areas as little as 50 miles away. The conditions in October 1987 that wreaked havoc across much of south-east England represented an exceptionally vigorous example of such a depression.
■ The strongest winds in any low-pressure system will be typically found at the cold front. A vigorous front can be identified by a distinct line of dark cloud under which there’s likely to be 15 minutes worth of heavy rain, accompanied by a dramatic increase of wind and a veer to the north-west.
When this new wind direction is significantly different to the wind ahead of the front, very confused breaking seas can form. This was the case with the 1979 Fastnet Race, the 1998 Sydney-Hobart Yacht Race and the start of the 2008-2009 Vendee Globe Race, which caused considerable damage among
these big boats. In the Celtic Sea we had been lucky that it was not particularly windy before the front – we had just 16-20 knots – so there wasn’t a confused breaking sea afterwards.
■ Showers can also form behind a cold front. These are relatively small features, so the biggest danger is from the wind speed, rather than waves. A helpful tip is that if the wind increases before the rain reaches you, it will increase still further when the rain hits you.
■ If planning a cruise it can be useful to remember that in our part of the world, mid-May to early July is the time of year least likely to experience gales. On the other hand, the closer you are to each equinox, the greater the risk. Gales are less frequent in winter: however, those that do form can be more intense than those at other times of the year.
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