It’s one thing dealing with heavy weather sailing offshore, but what should coastal sailors do when a big blow is imminent? Martin Thomas explains, and Theo Stocker puts it to the test
From South Ocean pitchpolings to North Atlantic hurricanes, much has been written about the means and methods of heavy weather sailing in open water.
The column inches tend to be dedicated to those with nowhere to hide, but with plenty of sea room to play with. As coastal cruising sailors, we have the luxury of avoiding the worst of it, but we still sail for long enough to eventually be caught out.
The proximity of shelter, relatively speaking, is a blessing at this point – we don’t have to endure the battering for very long – but the presence of land is also a hazard, reducing sea room, and with it, options. So knowing how to prepare and how to handle your boat when you do get caught, could be the difference between an entertaining anecdote at the bar later or a call to the lifeboat.
We thought it was worth drawing on the combined knowledge of the seasoned sailors who have contributed to the latest edition of Adland Coles’ bible on the subject, Heavy Weather Sailing, examining what should be done in heavy weather in coastal water, and then trying it out to see what works in practice. Editor Theo Stocker volunteered for
this enviable duty, which he insists was actually great fun, and having watched the weather forecast all winter, managed to line up yachts, RIBs, crew and photographers with a Force 8 gale in order to go and play in the rough stuff.
For this endeavour Theo wanted a sturdy yacht that would be up to taking on extreme weather easily. And for that, you hardly need look further than the ever-faithful Contessa 32. Assent was formerly owned by Willy Ker and is now owned by the Rogers family and skippered on the day by Kit Rogers, second-generation builder of Contessa 32s, among other things, at Jeremy Rogers Ltd in Lymington.
The best way to cope with heavy weather is to avoid it. Forecasts are so accurate these days that coastal cruising sailors, if they do not set out into deteriorating weather, will rarely be caught out. Beth Leonard, author of Blue Horizons, who has circumnavigated the globe twice, has estimated that she has experienced light or insufficient wind for about 70% of her time at sea. Similarly, long-distance sailors Lin and Larry Pardey reported battling gale force winds or worse for 3% of the time.
On the other hand, storms are becoming more frequent and more violent and, for most of us, one storm is enough.
In 2022 Hurricane Ian hit the eastern American seaboard with more energy and higher winds than any before. In the same year, Storm Eunice generated record winds of 106 knots (122mph) at The Needles on the Isle of Wight. In Chichester Harbour, usually a safe haven for boats, winds reached 70 knots. It seems that even cautious cruisers, if they sail enough, must inevitably face rough conditions and should be prepared with a plan.
Heavy weather sailing – is the boat up to it?
The modern cruising yacht is remarkably seaworthy but there are some alterations and improvements the sensible skipper should consider. The whole boat should be reviewed with the thought of heavy weather. For instance, the companionway latch must be operable from inside as well as outside the vessel so that you can seal yourself down below.
Lee cloths should be adequate to take a person’s weight. A bilge alarm may be fitted in case of water ingress. Deck equipment should have a stowage space below so it can be moved off the exposed deck in heavy weather and stowed safely. The list goes on.
Before you set out in your boat, spend a quiet hour sitting with a note pad and imagine the boat inverted. What is going to move? Maybe a toolbox, icebox lids, cabin sole boards, contents from lockers including under-bunk stowage, could shift or fly through the cabin. All lockers should have effective catches to contain such equipment. Don’t forget to check that batteries are properly secured into the boat.
A removable inner forestay is desirable in strong winds. A well-shaped foresail, impossible with a reefed furling headsail, is essential to make headway into wind which, if the boat is caught on a lee shore, may be vital. Having a small headsail made, with a means of rigging it with proper luff tension, will make a huge difference when it’s needed.
Skippers should also review the location and security of their liferaft. The coachroof is a popular place but is not always secure and rafts have been lost from this position. The liferaft on Inception, a Beneteau 50, was apparently robustly strapped down on the coach roof. In rough weather at night a green wave came over the boat and ripped it away so it was lost overboard. When the boat later began sinking, the crew found themselves in the sea in the dark with no liferaft. Happily, they were rescued by a nearby yacht.
A protected position aft of the cockpit for the liferaft is a suitable place. Some opt for a cockpit locker or the lazarette. Whichever location is chosen, the crew must be able to deploy the raft rapidly and safely (within 15 seconds is the recommendation).
Crew moving forward out of the cockpit at night or in heavy weather must wear a tether, preferably a double tether with short and long strops. Attention should be paid to the jackstays to which the tether is attached. Wire stays can roll under the foot and flat non-stretch webbing stays are preferred. Webbing and stitching can degrade over time from UV exposure. It’s best to remove them over the winter, and replace them every so often, especially if you’re not sure how old they are.
If crew go overboard when attached by their tether they can be dragged through the water, an unpleasant and sometimes fatal experience. If the jackstay can be positioned so as to prevent a person falling over the side at all, it will be safer. To obtain this and keep crew aboard, some skippers run the stay up both sides of coachroof with a single central line on the foredeck.
Every boat should have at least one means of recovering a casualty back on board, which should include a means of attaching and lifting an incapacitated crew member from the water to the deck. Performing a recovery like this is no mean feat and it is a sobering experience to actually try out the proposed method, even in a safe setting. Each member of the crew must be familiar with the system.
Real world experience
On deck, Assent was fitted with a removable inner forestay for the storm jib, secured to the masthead rig about a foot below the forestay – close enough that no additional mast support was required. Permanently rigged, the lower end has a removable Highfield lever, with drop nose pins. With this removed, the forestay is secured to
the chain plates with a simple cleated purchase. She also has a trysail, never yet used in anger, in part because the original trysail track, separate to the mainsail track, had been removed, which made things much harder.
Assent was well fitted out with webbing jackstays along either side deck, points to clip on to at the mast and three anchor points for our harness tethers in the cockpit, with two aft for the helm, depending on which side they were sitting, and one forward for the crew. With three of us on deck and moving around a lot, however, we could have done with a second anchor point D-ring at the forward end of the cockpit, which Kit now plans to fit.
The stretchy tethers were more flexible on the range they gave us for moving around, but equally, would have given us more scope to fall overboard. I was glad to have a double tether with a short strop.
Two of us used modern-style carabiners, which did not snag the jackstay webbing. The older carabiner with a notch in the end consistently trapped the webbing and made moving around that much harder.
You can never have enough anchor points for clipping on. Fit more. Modern tether clips make life so much easier when moving around on deck.
Being on deck was an extremely damp experience. Even if you’re under shelter, there is a lot of water in the air that finds its way everywhere. Your chartplotter and phone or iPad case may be waterproof, but once your fingers are wet and there is water on the screen, touchscreen technology will stop working.
When we tried to use the chartplotter it did unexpected things, mistaking flying water for finger taps. You need physical buttons. I also found that the only way I could use my phone was using the side button to initiate voice control with Siri.
If this had been our primary means of navigation or calling for help, we would have been stuck. A waterproof notebook with a pilotage plan to highlight hazards and how to avoid them, would have been more effective.
The boat’s fixed VHF radio was below at the chart table with no speaker on deck. We had long since closed the washboard and hatch. We could neither hear transmissions nor make any.
Luckily we had two handheld VHF radios on deck, both of which were waterproof, but even so, one of them developed an unexplained fault and wouldn’t work, leaving us relying on our one remaining radio.
It is worth having a deck speaker and mic, or ideally a command mic on deck for your fixed VHF radio for effective and reliable communications. You should also carry a few spare handheld VHF radios.
Preparation at sea
When it is clear that the storm will hit the boat before shelter can be reached then prepare vessel and crew for the onslaught. Reef early, change to storm canvas in good time and seek refuge. Issue seasickness pills and review the watch system. Set up the sail plan for heavy weather and deploy the inner forestay with a storm jib. It’s wise to hand the mainsail, fix the boom and run on headsails.
Reduce windage by tightly furling headsails and wrapping with a spare halyard, then fold and lash the sprayhood and bimini, and perhaps remove cockpit dodgers. Deflate the dinghy and move below. Remove a davit-slung dinghy or else fill it with fenders and place a strong cover over it.
Check the security of heavy weights such as batteries, anchors and toolboxes, and use extra lashings as necessary. Stow loose items below, especially in the galley. Make sure that lockers are securely closed.
At large angles of heel it may be necessary to close heads and basin seacocks to prevent flooding.
It goes without saying that windows and hatches must be tightly closed but also cockpit locker lids – make sure that whatever catches they are fitted with cannot fly open accidentally. Washboards must be secured in position so they cannot lift out. Fit retaining bolts or a line that secures the back of each washboard to hold it in place before setting sail.
Boost your crew
Check the liferaft is properly secure but not locked up and otherwise free to launch. If not already available, prepare a grab bag.
As for the crew they should be given a hot meal before the worst arrives. Then make up vacuum flasks of soup and coffee, prepare sandwiches and place them in a watertight container. Lifejackets and harnesses must be worn all the time, even when resting.
These remarks are for the coastal sailor which includes most of us; those sailors who have inadvertently been caught in heavy weather but can reach sanctuary in a day
or two or even just a few hours.
What about a drag device?
The sailors who cross oceans who may be far from any refuge, require further preparation. In particular their boat must carry some form of drag device or drogue that on occasion in mid-ocean or at high latitude can be lifesaving. Such devices are not normally required by coastal cruisers.
The drag device prevents the vessel going too fast down the front of a wave and burying the bows in the wave ahead leading to pitchpoling and damage, as happened to Susie Goodall in the Golden Globe Race in 2018 and Kevin Escoffier in the 2022 Vendée Globe. It seems clear that, in the ultimate survival storm, the best of these drag devices is the Jordan Series Drogue (JSD) specific for the size of boat.
A JSD has been successfully deployed on many occasions by such celebrated sailors as Roger Taylor in Mingming, Trevor Robertson in Iron Bark, Susanne Huber-Curphey in Nehaj and others. No yacht has ever capsized while lying to a JSD. However, coastal cruisers do not need to carry such a drag device – don’t forget about the thousands of yachts that have survived millions of miles without having one.
Real world experience
Below decks, all lockers were well secure, although under-bunk bin lids were not clipped down, and the cutlery tray in the galley was an open box – the sharp knives made me a little nervous!
Inside the companionway, there were copious pockets containing knives, radios, torches and flares, just where you would want them. The fixed VHF radio was at the chart table and there was no speaker or mic on deck.
We were very impressed by how well secured the boat was below. Clearly, we hadn’t been knocked down, but at the end of a very rough day, there was one screwdriver and one winch handle out of place below. The most water that got below came from us when we went down below in sodden oilies, or the hatch was left slightly ajar.
As the waves built, Kit bent over the stern to tap a wooden bung into the diesel heating exhaust to prevent following waves swamping it.
We had connected the inner forestay in harbour, but we still needed to hank on the storm jib, and later, the trysail. Both of these were easier with two people on deck, so we were very glad to have had Stu, a very experienced sailor, at the helm.
For any work on deck, we found that either running off downwind or heaving to was hugely preferable to scrabbling around on a pitching
and heeling deck.
We lashed the hood down initially, but the metalwork fouled the coach-roof halyard clutches and, craving a little shelter, we put it back up. Even in 40-plus knots of wind, it stayed rock solid. We didn’t have green water over the deck, and it would have been this that would have done damage, so I would judge this choice on seastate rather than wind strength.
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