Having got the boat ready for heavy weather sailing, how do you actually sail through it? Martin Thomas explains, and Theo Stocker puts it to the test

Coastal sailors usually have the luxury of waiting out bad weather safely tucked up in harbour, but sail for long enough and eventually an unexpected squall, front or storm will catch you out. How well prepared you are and knowing how to handle your boat in these conditions will be of critical importance – either seeing you safely into a port of refuge, or coming a cropper and calling for help.

In previous articles, we looked at how to prepare your boat for rough weather, including how to rig and fit your boat for storm sails and deep reefs, securing below decks, and preparing your crew, so that as the weather approaches, you can be confident you have made yourself as ready as possible in a seamanlike manner. This month, we look at how to handle the boat when sailing upwind, reaching and downwind, as well as giving heaving to under storm sails a go, and reflecting on what the experience of sailing in heavy weather will teach you that you won’t find in the text books.

To do so, Martin Thomas, editor of Heavy Weather Sailing, has drawn on the collective wisdom of the contributors Adlard Coles’ bible on sailing in strong winds, and Yachting Monthly editor Theo Stocker went out in a Force 7 to 8, with wind speeds of 30-35 knots gusting 46 knots, and wind-over-tide conditions to see whether the theory matches up with reality.

Bear away over the crest as the boat accelerates and to reduce slamming. Photo: Richard Langdon / Ocean Images

Heavy weather boathandling


As the wind rises and sail has been shortened, the boat may need to continue to make way to windward. This might be to reach shelter or to keep off a lee shore. When pressing on under storm canvas, the helmsman should close reach across the troughs, then head up into the waves and bear away hard on the wave top to avoid a slam.

Incidentally, this is also how both dinghy and yacht racers helm over waves as it maintains the most boat speed. As the boat slows up the face of a wave, the apparent wind moves aft, allowing the boat to point higher. As it accelerates down the back of the wave, the apparent wind moves forward, requiring a bear away to stop the sails luffing.

Sailing in this way will help to keep the boat from stalling and keep steerage way on for positive control of the boat.

Push the bows up to meet steeper waves and crests. Photo: Richard Langdon / Ocean Images


When reaching, the helmsman will luff into the wave crests and bear away in the troughs. There is a risk of capsize if the boat is caught broadside to a wave. A breaking wave will have to be taken head on. This can throw the boat back onto her rudder, with a risk of damaging the steering system, rudder, or cable quadrant, or with a tiller-steered boat, passing the forces onto the helmsman. Light vessels are more likely to suffer such damage. A last-minute luff into a breaking wave will help.

The vessel must keep up speed by flying adequate sail or using the engine. In this instance motor-sailing is good seamanship as the boat requires sufficient power to be able to drive through the crests and retain control in the troughs.

With a preventer rigged, things are much safer, though gybing requires more planning. Photo: Richard Langdon / Ocean Images


Running before a storm is not easy, especially at night. The helmsman must avoid the breakers and keep the stern square on to the waves to prevent broaching. Adequate sail must be carried for control but not so much that the boat accelerates down the front of the wave when the craft can sheer sideways, particularly as the bow hits the back of the wave in front, with a risk of capsize.

A high-geared wheel is better for control but requires considerable strength. In the 1979 Fastnet Race the waves were huge and confused with cross-seas. In Eclipse a crewman was placed at the forward end of the cockpit, looking aft, to call the direction of the next breaking wave. Steering in heavy weather, especially downwind, is taxing, physically demanding and hard work for the crew, and is helped by a rota of competent helms taking turns in relatively short tricks on the helm.

Some waves will try to stop the boat dead as the bow buries in. Photo: Richard Langdon / Ocean Images

Heavy weather boathandling: Our real-world experience


In wind-over-tide conditions the waves built rapidly and with enough force to slow the boat down. We found that running the engine greatly assisted in our ability to maintain positive control over the boat, and although we were making good progress, it helped keep the boat driving forwards when we hit some boat-stopper waves.

In a long-keeled boat like a Contessa 32, which has a deep V-shaped forefoot, there was no slamming, as she cuts through the waves. This does make her a wet boat in these conditions, but you can’t have everything.

A trysail can make all the difference when clawing to windward. Photo: Richard Langdon / Ocean Images


In general, sailing downwind will be easier than upwind and will let you handle strong conditions more comfortably. Sometimes, particularly for coastal sailors, you may not have this option if you are trying to escape a lee shore, clear a headland, or sail up into the lee of land. In most instances and winds up to 40 knots (Force 9), you could probably get away with the deep-reefed main, particularly if you ‘feather’ it, playing the sheet to spill wind as gusts come through, as racing sailors do.

In anything above 35 knots, and certainly above 40 knots, we found the trysail to be invaluable. Assent only has one mainsail track, so we had to lash the main to the boom, remove the mainsail sliders and insert the trysail sliders – a real palaver taking 15 or 20 minutes for two people on an exposed and pitching deck. Even so, once rigged the boat was well-mannered, balanced on the helm with a manageable amount of helm, and made good progress of over 6 knots on a fetch to windward.

If you’re entertaining any cruising plans that take you away from easy shelter, I would seriously consider a trysail and setting up an easy way to rig it.

As boat speed builds, the rudder will bite, as the boat rolls to windward, threatening a gybe. Photo: Richard Langdon / Ocean Images


On a run we were quickly up at hull speed, especially down the waves. A hull like this isn’t keen on surfing, instead making more of a bow wave. It takes concentration to keep the boat pointing dead downind as the stern gets pushed one way and another by breaking waves, even in a narrow-sterned boat like the Contessa 32.

This is an effect that would be amplified by a large, buoyant stern, though somewhat compensated for by reducing the pronounced rolling that a deep, narrow stern can elicit, and increasing the odds of surfing down the wave, matching its speed. The danger then is burying into the back of the wave ahead, which we didn’t experience.

Goosewinging is fast, but puts you at risk of an accidental gybe. Photo: Richard Langdon / Ocean Images


We were happy running downwind under deep-reefed main and storm jib, though to sail dead downwind with the stern square to the waves, we had to try goosewinging – not straightforward in these conditions, as it isn’t a stable sail configuration.

As we yawed and rolled in the waves, the storm jib slammed from one side to the other, mostly harmlessly but very noisily. It may have been an easier option to go with the mainsail down and a scrap of genoa unfurled, but we didn’t try that sail configuration. Unfurling the genoa is a risk, in case it fully unfurls for any reason.

The boom was sheeted in to make rigging the preventer easier, but it wasn’t ideal putting someone on deck on a run. Photo: Richard Langdon / Ocean Images


Once we were running downwind, our course was close to a dead run. Even though we steered conservatively, rolling downwind meant our course yawed from side to side a fair amount and keeping the boat straight took large helm adjustments. It was very apparent we needed a preventer on, and sharpish.

This was achieved quickly with a spare low-stretch spinnaker sheet, and two or three turns round the boom, as we didn’t want to rely on the aluminium boom-end casting, and it wasn’t easy to access the steel boom sliders. It then required a crewmember to go on deck and take the line to the bow cleat. This worked well, but meant that when it was time to gybe, we had to put someone on deck again before the gybe, and either let them stay forward during the gybe, or risk two more trips forward with an unsecured boom.

Turning into the wind and tacking would have been equally tricky, increasing apparent wind, taking the seas head on, and putting the boat beam on to breaking waves at least twice, with the danger of getting stuck in irons. A ready-rigged preventer system that required as few trips forward as possible would really have helped.

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