It’s one thing dealing with heavy weather sailing offshore, but what should coastal sailors do when they need to shorten sail in a blow? Martin Thomas explains, and Theo Stocker puts it to the test
Knowing the theory behind how to reduce sail in a storm is one thing, but does that theory work id you do get caught out? We took to the Solent on 40 knot winds to find out if the usual advice was easy to put into practise while a sea in inclement weather.
This is the second on a new Yachting Monthly series with the first part covering how to prepare your boat for a storm. 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 of windy weather, 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.
Yachting Monthly 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.
Reducing sail in a storm
The first action to take as the wind rises is to shorten sail. Reef early and start by reefing the main, especially if you are still trying to make to windward. For most coastal and cruising sailors, standard reefing points are sufficient, although many new sails will have just two rows of reefing points, with a corresponding paucity of deck hardware.
It is sensible to specify a third reef as standard, and to find ways to handle the additional controls. If worse weather is anticipated then ask a sailmaker to put in a deep reef, usually a fourth reef. Be sure that the deep reef luff cringle will reach the staghorn, using a pair of ‘spectacles’ (two rings secured by a webbing strap through the cringle) if necessary. Some racing organisations such as RORC insist that boats carry a trysail, but for cruisers, in my view, this is not necessary. A trysail is a difficult sail for a short-handed crew to rig, especially in the conditions when it might be needed.
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A partly furled Genoa becomes baggy and performs poorly when the boat is close- hauled. If you plan to make longer voyages, when encountering rough weather is more likely, then fit a removable inner forestay before you set out. This can hang quietly attached to the toe rail or chain plate until needed. Then as the storm approaches, it can be deployed with a ratchet, wheel or lever to tighten the wire and a reduced headsail hanked on.
Such a headsail will set kindly in strong conditions even when hauled to the wind. Be sure to have a suitable lead for the sheets as the blocks for the furling Genoa may not be in the right place.
Carry a storm jib of heavier canvas, although for most sailors the storm jib will be flown rarely, if ever. With a fully reefed main and a Number 3 jib or storm jib set on an inner forestay, most cruisers can survive quite severe weather for long enough to reach shelter.
It would be worth consulting a rigger or surveyor before fitting such an arrangement to agree the best means of doing so, and that both rig and deck attachment points will be strong enough to support the loads.
Our experience of reducing sail in a storm
Willy Ker said of Assent that ‘You can stick more or less anything with three reefs and the jib rolled well in. If it gets really nasty, I roll the headsail away. I don’t think I’ve ever set a storm jib.’
So setting a storm jib and trysail may have been overly cautious, but it was a good exercise.
For most of our time on the water, we had the deep third reef tucked in the main. A handkerchief compared to the full main, it set flat with good tension, and supported the boom at a sensible height. We did have to re-lead the first reef line as the third, as it gets used so rarely. Doing anything with the boom in heavy weather is best avoided, so if you can keep the third reef rigged, it is makes life easier
We began with a scrap of the furling genoa. Assent was fitted with a fairly new and very nice set of Kevlar-reinforced dacron cruising sails from Sanders which hold their shape extremely well, and I was pleasantly surprised by how well the Genoa set even when heavily furled, compared to the wrinkled bag I was left with on my own Sadler 29’s stretchy genoa, that served only to induce heel and pull the bow off the wind.
The thing that caught us out was that, despite having been used as it was for over two year without issue, when using the roller-furling to reef the Genoa in a blow, the force of the wind pulled the turns of sail much tighter around the foil, exacerbated by any stretch in the furling line. Once we’d reached the end of the furling line, we still needed three or four more turns to get the sail away. The only way to achieve this was unreeving the sheets and passing them around the forestay, after which we had sufficient turns – not a fun job in heavy weather.
Rigging the storm jib
Hanking on the storm jib was fairly straightforward, and made easier with two people on deck. There was a little bit of guess work as to which way to lead the sheets around the shrouds and whether the forward genoa car would be suitable. As the storm jib was very high-clewed, it actually worked well with the car position, and it was best to keep the sheets outside the shrouds, even when close hauled, as we were sailing a fairly free angle. Re-leading the sheets and moving the genoa car, as we needed to for the genoa when heavily furled, required putting someone on deck, and tacking to free off the leeward side.
It is worth knowing which way to lead sheets before you have to do it for real to minimise time on deck. It isn’t always obvious if you haven’t tried it beforehand.
Possibly the least used sail in any boat’s wardrobe, and for good reason. If you need to use the main mast track, getting the main sliders out and trysail sliders in was a pig of a job. The mainsail needed lashing down first, then it was a two-person job to wrestle the sliders free, with clevis pins and split rings that in these conditions were fiddly and potentially easy to lose, yet critical to the functioning of the system.
We led the sheets to the secondary winches via the spinnaker blocks on the quarters, which worked well, though they did cross the cockpit to do so.
If you can avoid this palaver, I would. You would be better to run under storm jib alone, or bare poles, though you will then be restricted to sailing across or downwind. It might be possible to rig a trysail on a wire aft of the mast, or with parrel beads around the mast as an easier method.
Despite all of this, I am a fan of the trysail. It is a brilliant sail once set – we were amazed at how well the boat sailed upwind with it. We clocked over 6 knots in 35-40 knots of wind on a fetch, and could point pretty high upwind. The helm remained balanced, heel was manageable and the boat felt under control. This is basically the only option if you need to make way upwind in extreme conditions, and anecdotes suggest this is one of the safest courses to steer. This may be more important for coastal than offshore sailors, given the potential need to sail upwind away from a lee shore when there isn’t searoom.
A dedicated trysail track would be invaluable if you carry a trysail. Without a track, the effort to rig it, and the risk of people spending a protracted period on deck, may put you off doing so. The sail will increase your options if you’re in a squeeze.
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