Autumn and winter sailing can often provide some truly memorable days afloat. Rachael Sprot shares how to extend your cruising season
Some people sail hundreds of miles to get away from it all. But wait a few weeks after August and ‘it all’ disappears of its own accord.
The jet skis go into hibernation, the showers are a haven of solitude and the stringent berthing regimes relax: it’s just the seals and the oystercatchers for company.
In many ways, off-season cruising is less stressful: the marinas are half empty and you’re not interrupted by a fleet of racers adamant that you should give way. But it’s also a pleasure in its own right.
The infinite variety of weather creates rewarding conditions, with blustery days followed by well-earned beers.
There are undoubtedly challenges involved in autumn, winter and spring sailing, but with the right skills and equipment you can extend your sailing time by several weeks at either side of the season.
Winter sailing: The weather
Understanding the weather is an essential thing to grasp when you’re planning a stint of out-of-season sailing.
There are four challenges to contend with as sailors: frontal depressions, cold polar air, low sea temperatures and fog.
Depending on whether you’re in the autumn, winter or spring their frequency will vary, but you need to be prepared for them at any point.
The seasons are created by the sun’s annual migration from 23° south in mid-winter, to 23° north in mid-summer.
It’s an extraordinary journey covering almost 3,000 miles in six months. The sun drags the weather systems with it and the patterns we experience shift dramatically, giving us our seasons.
If we’re lucky, during the summer months the British Isles lie under the protective embrace of the Azores High, which is pushed north towards us.
It creates stable, dry weather which can be rather windless unless a sea breeze kicks in.
As the sun slips back across the equator at the time of the autumnal equinox we must fend for ourselves against the trademark weather feature of the North Atlantic: frontal depressions.
These systems are generated on the boundary between two different types of air mass: cold, dry polar air and warm, wet maritime air.
The boundary forms two distinct fronts. The warm front is the leading edge of the low and brings a grizzly, grey day of drizzle and rain.
It precedes the warm sector, which is a wedge of maritime air that has infiltrated the surrounding polar air mass.
Behind the warm sector is the mighty cold front. Though more compact in stature than its sprawling warmer brother, it packs quite a punch.
Towering cumulonimbus clouds bring heavy, often thundery, downpours and gusty conditions.
Although it heralds the beginning of the end of the low pressure system this is often where the strongest winds are found.
This, combined with a marked veer in direction, makes for tricky conditions on the water.
Often a secondary low is spawned on the trailing edge of a cold front, perpetuating a cycle of unsettled conditions.
Although these systems are generally well forecast these days, it pays to take heed of synoptic charts.
Simon Rowell, meteorologist for the British Olympic Sailing team, explained that ‘the autumn is particularly unstable as it’s the time of year when sea temperatures are at their highest and it’s peak hurricane season in the Caribbean. Some of them will come our way as deep lows.’
One of the most under-appreciated changes through the winter is sea temperature, both on a local and global scale.
‘The temperature difference between the poles and the equator increases dramatically through the winter months,’ explains Rowell. ‘This imbalance is a key driver and one of the reasons behind stronger trade winds and more heavy weather in the winter.’
On a more local scale, the temperature differential between the land and sea which creates summer sea breezes, weakens.
A windless day in the summer can become a Force 4 by early afternoon thanks to the convection created by rising temperatures on shore, but that won’t be a feature in the winter months.
A windless day will most likely remain a windless day.
One of the biggest differences between spring and autumn/winter sailing is the sea temperature.
It’s still relatively high in October, but hits rock bottom around the end of February just as bright spring days and longer hours of daylight lure us out on our boats.
What may seem pleasant weather on land is very different offshore, and the invisible chill of the water should not be underestimated.
Cold Polar Air
In my early twenties I worked on the Fasttrack Yachtmaster Programme at UKSA which ran all year round.
One of the most senior skippers gave me a stark warning at the beginning of winter: ‘Beware the easterlies,’ he said with dread in his voice. He was right of course.
At least with a chain of depressions you get a let up at some point. But if high pressure establishes itself over Scandinavia then expect relentless, bitter winds of Force 6 and above.
It’s what caused the Beast from the East in 2018 and it’s a time for armchair sailing only.
Fog is an often-overlooked feature of winter sailing. Technically it’s visibility of less than 1,000m, although anything less than 2 miles probably requires a change in the way you’re operating on board.
As a rule of thumb if you can’t see the horizon from the cockpit of a small yacht, the visibility is 2 miles or less. It’s easy to fall into the habit of just checking the wind forecast on an app and forgetting visibility.
In the summer months, fog is less likely, but out of season the risk increases. It’s an integral part of the Shipping Forecast though, so pay attention to it.
There are two types of fog: advection, or ‘sea’ fog, and radiation or ‘land’ fog.
The ‘land’ and ‘sea’ refer to the cold surface on which the fog forms when warm, damp air drifts over it.
Although they look the same from the inside, it’s important to differentiate them as their impact on sailing differs.
Land fog is a local phenomenon which tends to occur in the autumn when warm land radiates heat and moisture to the air above overnight.
This causes the morning mists which gather in estuaries, rivers and other low-lying areas.
It’s a purely coastal phenomenon which usually burns off by late morning or by heading a mile or so offshore.
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You shouldn’t need to cancel a whole day of sailing for land fog, but you might want to hit the snooze button a few times.
Sea fog is much more widespread, usually in spring when sea temperatures are at their lowest.
Large areas of relatively warm, damp air drift in from the Atlantic and condense when they reach cold water.
The resulting fog is pernicious – it doesn’t disperse even with strong winds and requires a whole new air mass to arrive before clearing up.
When I’ve sailed in the high latitudes I’m always amazed by how forceful the wind is. Cold air seems to hit the sails much harder.
There isn’t a definitive explanation for this, with theories ranging from the increased density of the air to more complex hypotheses.
Whatever the cause, you’ll need to be more conservative about the sail plan.
Winter sailing skills
The demands of winter weather mean that your skills need to be sharper and you need competent crew who can respond to unpredictable conditions.
Reefing needs to be second nature but it’s also important to employ more subtle controls such as halyard, outhaul and backstay tension to depower the sails.
If you’re venturing out beyond your immediate cruising ground, make sure you’re familiar with fitting your storm jib in case you’re caught out.
Although there’s usually more space to play with in marinas, power handling is challenging in strong winds.
Practise using a midships line to spring on when you’re being blown off. Don’t neglect the theory either.
Being confident in your use of the yacht radar and interpretation of light sequences and fog signals will allow you to focus your energy on managing the boat and crew when things get tough.
On a warm summer’s day you might get away with chucking the lines off and seeing where you end up.
But when winter sailing, you can’t be so spontaneous.
A detailed plan is essential.
Simon Rowell explained that you need to sail defensively: ‘Keep a good eye on the weather and assume that you will be caught out. In the summer months, the likely worst-case scenario is that you get wet, in the winter you need to play the “What if?” game more carefully.’
Shelter: Introduce your crew to winter sailing with short days in sheltered waters. Don’t be tempted to venture offshore unless everyone is experienced in cold conditions.
Use the lee of the land to find hospitable conditions.
Plan your evolutions: Handling sails is difficult with cold, clumsy hands.
Plan your evolutions for sheltered locations to reduce the burden on the crew: even the wind shadow behind an anchored ship can be useful.
Ports of Refuge: Having a safe, all-weather harbour to divert to is essential, and ideally more than one.
Committing to long passages with no ports of refuge other than the one you’re bound for is a much riskier business when winter sailing and needs careful consideration.
Insurance: Check your boat insurance policy to ensure you’re covered for out of season sailing.
Some insurers make stipulations about where you can go and what kinds of moorings you use.
A quick phone call can ensure you are covered.
Look after your crew: The well-being of the crew is paramount. Cold, fatigue, hunger and seasickness can quickly incapacitate people.
Aside from putting them off sailing, it could cause an accident.
Monitor perkiness levels closely and be liberal with the tea and Hobnobs.
Watch systems are important even for short passages allowing people a chance to escape the wind.
When on deck, encourage active sailing to keep people engaged: curling up in the cockpit is a one-way street which most people fail to recover from.
Know your limits: Sailing in cold weather is most certainly a skill.
Knowing what clothing to wear, understanding how your body copes and proactively looking after yourself are things you only learn with experience.
But recognising the limits of your boat, your crew and yourself is the most important part of skippering at any time of year.
To me, the best thing about sailing out of season is that it’s all a bonus.
You’ve already had the summer so there’s no pressure to justify the boat ownership, develop your skills or explore a new port.
After September every bright, beautiful day on the water is a pleasure you didn’t expect to have. Enjoy it!
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