Having got the boat ready for heavy weather sailing, how to do you decide enough is enough and how to you run for shelter when you've made that call? Martin Thomas explains, and Theo Stocker puts it to the test

Previously we’ve looked at how to prepare your boat for heavy weather sailing, including how to rig and fit your boat for storm sails and how to reduce sail in a storm, 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.

We’ve also covered how best to sail a boat in extreme conditions, but now, we’re going to take a look at what is the best practise when the weather becomes too dangerous and you need to run for shelter.

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.

In strong winds, a small, well-cut headsail will keep the boat balanced and sailing
well to windward. Photo: Richard Langdon / Ocean Images

Running for shelter – theory

With the sail plan reduced and the wind rising, the skipper should consider running for shelter. I suggest that the right time to run for shelter is four hours before you thought of it.

Put another way, as soon as the crew starts debating whether to seek shelter or not, then they must do so straight away. Possible bolt holes should have been identified prior to sailing and appropriate charts be available on board.

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A yacht can manage worse conditions when turned away from the wind, ‘running before the storm’. The ability to reef the main while off the wind or even sailing downwind is helpful and safer than having to turn into heavy weather to reduce the main. With in-mast furling this can be more difficult, but to be able to reef off the wind with the boom fixed and not swinging is a boon.

The key is to have a low-friction system for the mainsail sliders. A bolt rope, traditional plastic sliders or external sliders exert more friction and can jam. Stainless steel or ball-bearing sliders are easy to reef.

A reefed furling Genoa is ineffective when close hauled but can function better off the wind. For these various reasons it is therefore wise to seek shelter downwind rather than upwind, even if the latter refuge is nearer.

It is preferable and safer if the shelter (a harbour, mooring or anchorage) is known to the skipper. If members of the crew are familiar with the destination then they will be aware of hazards such as rocks or tidal sets. Safe landfall is more assured than if an unknown refuge is approached.

A heavily furled genoa will work better downwind than it will upwind. Photo: Richard Langdon / Ocean Images

Decision making

These points were well illustrated when we were a few miles SE of Plymouth on passage from Guernsey to Falmouth. The boat was hit at two in the morning by a storm which had been brewing. I had dismally failed to respond to the obviously deteriorating weather. Winds reached 40 knots. One huge wave, one that we felt but did not see, caused my cousin Carole to be flung across the cabin and she broke her arm.

We needed to seek shelter but not in Plymouth. Although only 3 miles upwind, Plymouth was unattainable in the conditions. We turned away east and ran on a Number 3 jib alone and no mainsail. I did not know Salcombe well and a quick calculation, not easy in those conditions, showed there was likely to be insufficient water over the bar. Instead we ran for Dartmouth, which I knew better.

As soon as we rounded Start Point into the lee of the Devon coastline, conditions improved. We arrived at Dartmouth in the light and entering the familiar harbour was easy. We had followed the plan; we had reduced sail by handing the main and flying a Number 3 jib, turned away from the weather on jib alone, eschewed an unfamiliar harbour but instead made for a refuge downwind known to the crew.

The error, the poor seamanship which led to Carole’s injury, was not seeking shelter earlier. What on earth were we doing 3 miles off Plymouth at night in a storm? A storm we knew was coming?

We should have been safely tucked up in harbour long before the severe winds arrived. X-rays taken the next day confirmed the fracture.

In summary, to survive rough weather the coastal sailor should prepare the boat, look after the crew and have a plan.

Heaving to works well with
the headsail opposing the
helm to slow the boat down. Photo: Richard Langdon / Ocean Images

Our experience

Heaving to

We had a go at heaving to. Often recommended, it is still pleasantly surprising how well this works. We found that with the storm jib to windward, the helm to leeward, and the deep reefed main sheeted just enough to stop it flogging, we could sit happily with much reduced motion at about 10-15º of heel, with very little water over the deck, and making a speed through the water of around 2 knots.

While coastal sailors would be unlikely to ride out a storm by heaving to as it requires plenty of searoom, it may well be a good strategy during particularly strong squalls, or just to have a rest, to change the watch on deck, use the heads, make a cup of tea, and come up with a plan. A break from the heeling and at-times violent motion can do wonders for crew morale.

Make the effort to look up, make eye contact and communicate. Photo: Richard Langdon / Ocean Images

Communication and awareness

Being in a Force 8 is noisy. The wind is howling and spray is lashing. This is compounded by being cocooned inside your hood, which muffles your hearing, making talking to each other tricky.

It also becomes more difficult to see what others are doing, and physically, much harder to carry out jobs on board. Related to this is the temptation to retreat inside your hood to hide from the weather, a sure fire way to stand the boat into danger, and yourself into seasickness.

Make the effort to communicate regularly. Make eye contact, and shout to make sure you’ve been heard. Also make the effort to stand up, look around, and keep pushing your ‘bubble of awareness’ as wide as possible. Resist the temptation to retreat into your cocoon.

It can be very wet on deck. If your foulies leak, you will soon be wet, miserable, and more dangerously, cold. Photo: Richard Langdon / Ocean Images


It is amazing how wet you will get over several hours of heavy weather. Even top-end sailing waterproofs will be challenged to remain completely dry.

Avoid cotton baselayers so you dry out quickly. Also, consider wearing a waterproof top with a seal around the neck – some offshore waterproofs offer this, or alternatively, an inexpensive dinghy sailing smock, or an absorbent neck buff, will prevent the water from running down your back.

Being out in rough weather can be enjoyable and enlightening. Photo: Richard Langdon / Ocean Images

Learning by experience

Until you actually go sailing in heavy weather in your own boat, you have no idea what equipment and tactics will work and what won’t. Nor will you know how you will cope, whether the experience will leave you grinning like an idiot or a quivering wreck. If you get the chance to go sailing in strong winds in a controlled way – within the confines of an estuary or harbour, where shelter and safety is easily accessible – then it is a useful and informative thing to do, although as with these things, diving in before you are ready could get you into difficulty even then, so build up slowly and carefully in line with your experience.

Read all parts of our guide to Heavy Weather Sailing.

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