Heavy weather is not always avoidable. Andy Schell has expert advice on how to prepare for and handle the big stuff
On Tuesday 15 June 2021 our Swan 48 Isbjorn was positioned near 51° North, some 350 miles south-west of Fastnet Rock. She was in deep North Atlantic waters, charging north on the fringes of a strong depression in sustained gale force south-westerlies and heavy seas.
“Isbjorn is handling the conditions like a champion!” her skipper wrote to me from the sat comms. During the strongest conditions that the boat had ever experienced under the 59° North flag, I was ashore at my farmhouse in Sweden, nervously watching the progression of the GRIB forecasts overlaid on Isbjorn’s track.
”The seas are impressive and we are taking on some green water when the breaking crests catch up with us. Making great speed under triple-reefed mainsail and just a scrap of headsail.”
Isbjorn’s skipper, Norwegian August Sandberg – who is every bit the long-haired, bearded Viking – was in command, bound from Horta towards Oban, Scotland, and ultimately Bergen, Norway. “Winds are touching 45 knots true in the largest gusts, but we are under full control. Steering is going to be more scary and challenging for the watch at night, but we are up for it,” he added.
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I knew the storm was coming. Sandberg and his five-person crew knew the storm was coming. Weather Routing Inc (WRI), the professional weather routing service we use, knew it was coming. “Routing is expected to be exceptionally difficult due to the active pattern in place with several fronts and gales,” WRI had briefed us. “There are several features we will have to monitor in the coming days to minimise lengthy periods of extreme weather.”
Isbjorn’s position relative to the approaching depression when skipper Sandberg began running off east-north-east
We knew all this while Isbjorn was still in Horta, yet Sandberg elected to head offshore on the 1,200-mile passage anyway. I agreed with his decision. As a team, 59° North had developed a solid heavy-weather strategy and with Sandberg’s crew, which included several repeat customers who’d sailed with us before and whom we trusted, he was confident they’d be able to implement a variety of tactics in order to make the experience not only manageable but a unique ‘teachable moment’ to see what heavy weather is really all about.
The passage to Oban was an outlier in that the weather got gnarlier than it usually does. Regardless, every trip we sail, whether we encounter heavy weather or not, shares two core fundamentals: a solid heavy-weather strategy to plan for the weather; and flexible, practised and reliable tactics to execute once it hits.
Storms are experienced differently by different skippers, crews, and boats. The storm August Sandberg encountered in the North Atlantic was a big one, but nothing he hadn’t seen before. Prior to joining 59° North, Sandberg had spent much of his career skippering expeditions in Arctic Norway and Svalbard, with multiple crossings of the Barents Sea, excursions to 80° North, and winter passages above the Arctic Circle in 24-hour darkness. During that June storm, he was in his element.
Conversely, a 25-knot beat into 6ft seas can be overwhelming for a first-time ocean skipper.
“I define heavy weather as when the normal running of the ship gets disrupted,” says my friend and Golden Globe skipper ,Susie Goodall, who is intimately familiar with the kind of heavy weather most of us pray we’ll never encounter.
Photo: 59 North Sailing
“The whole routine that you’ve got set up when you are offshore gets suspended. Heavy weather means that you are no longer operating under your normal day-to-day pattern offshore.”
Heavy weather strategies
While the terms are often used interchangeably, there is a clear distinction between strategy and tactics.
‘Strategy is the overarching plan or set of goals,’ writes Shane Parrish on the excellent blog Farnam Street (a must-read for anyone interested in leadership and decision-making), ‘Tactics are the specific actions or steps you undertake to accomplish your strategy.’
A heavy weather strategy is devised at the preparation stage of a voyage, and will be different depending on the type of boat, the size of the crew, experience of the crew, and other factors.
For our boats I have a very specific sail plan and equipment list that I like to carry for the range of expected weather conditions and the way we like to sail (specifically, fast offshore cruising).
We outsource the creation of a safety equipment strategy given that we are Cat 0 coded (and so should you — World Cruising Club’s safety equipment guidelines, derived from World Sailing’s Offshore Special Regulations, are ideal for recreational ocean cruising), so that part of the strategy is taken care of. Where we have some choice is in the sailplan, forecasting tools and heavy weather equipment.
well found boat and crew can cope with whatever the weather and sea conditions have to throw at them. Photo: Mike Delamore
I’ve optimised our sailplan for simplicity, robustness and redundancy. We opted to forego a trysail in favour of a deep-reefed mainsail simply because it’s far easier to set. I insist on a second stay for attaching the staysail and storm jib rather than the type that wrap around a furled headsail – far too much to go wrong there. An inner forestay (or Solent stay) adds another bit of support for the mast in really gnarly conditions.
The most important part of my heavy weather strategy is to avoid cascading problems resulting from too much complexity. A single green water, deck-sweeping wave can do a lot of damage if not planned for.
All three of our boats have nearly flush decks, allowing green water to harmlessly flow out the lee scuppers, and we deliberately don’t keep anything lashed to them at sea. No dinghy on the foredeck, no jerry cans of fuel on the side decks, no big davits aft. The less stuff you have on deck during the worst weather – including crew – the less stuff the ocean can grab and wash overboard.
As far as equipment goes, I’m a big fan of mounting liferafts on a stainless bracket on the pushpit and keeping the drogue, if carried, on top of the lazarette and ready to deploy.
Heavy weather equipment
We carry a Jordan Series Drogue on our smaller boat Isbjorn, an S&S Swan 48. Despite the failure of Susie’s drogue on DHL Starlight in the Golden Globe Race, to me the series drogue is still the only choice for serious heavy weather. While I’ve never had to deploy one in anger, there seems to be consensus among the folk I’ve talked to and the articles I’ve read that when it comes to survival conditions, the series drogue is the obvious choice.
However, on Icebear, a Swan 59 and soon Falken, our new-to-us Farr 65, we don’t carry any type of heavy weather drogue. It’s pretty well documented that big boats are exponentially at far less risk of capsize in serious heavy weather, so we’ve forgone a drag device.
Make sail changes early before heavy weather arrives to minimise time spent on deck. Photo: 59 North Sailing
Just as important is our watch schedule and daily routine. We keep a standard three-watch rotation of four hours on/eight hours off, with the skipper and mate floating. In heavy weather this changes to four on/four-off with skipper and mate included, so one of us is always on deck to manage the situation.
Then we have an emergency action plan to hand at all times should things get out of control. These routines are baked into our SOPs (standard operating procedures) and require no thinking in the moment to activate them.
A heavy weather strategy is predetermined at the planning stage and difficult, if not impossible, to change once offshore (your strategy will have dictated what choices you made at the planning stage regarding boat type, sailplan, equipment list, etc). Tactics, however, are flexible and adaptable as the situation changes.
In that North Atlantic storm, August Sandberg was able to employ a rerouting tactic that allowed him to mitigate the worst of the weather. Isbjorn wasn’t fast enough to avoid the storm altogether, so he aimed to position her as far away from the worst of it as possible.
But to minimise the conditions, it meant running off at best speed to the east-north-east, towards Ireland as the storm centre was forecast to pass to the north and follow a similar track. The problem was that if the storm tracked just a bit south of its forecast, Isbjorn would wind up in the worst of it anyway, while also on a lee shore on Ireland’s formidable west coast.
Learn to read GRIBs and understand how to route away from the worst weather. Photo: 59 North Sailing
So he split the difference. Knowing they’d be sailing into stronger conditions they reefed down, changed up the watch schedule and sailed a course to keep the wind just aft of the beam, heading more north-north-east and parallel to Ireland’s west coast, thereby leaving them much more sea room should they ultimately need to run with the storm.
My first heavy weather tactic begins just before any given passage when we’re analysing the weather and looking for our departure window. At this point I’m looking for trends in the weather regarding wind strength and direction, with two goals in mind:
1. Can I find a window to depart either in a relative calm or at least off the wind?
2. What sailplan am I going to start the passage with?
If we’ve a high likelihood of heavy weather and/or a lot of beating in the forecast, I’ll opt to bend on the smaller genoa to the headstay furler, pre-rig the removable inner forestay and hank-on the staysail before we ever leave port.
I know that an initial beat will feel like heavy weather to a lot of the crew who sail with us, even in moderate conditions, and consequently will wear them down much more quickly in those first 48 hours. Conservatively anticipating the weather is a tactic that allows me to easily transition into heavy weather mode once offshore; it’s simply a matter of changing into the predetermined new watch rotation and hoisting the staysail.
Heading downwind while towing a drogue. Photo: Helen Nicholls
I’ll make this transition well in advance. On a recent November passage between Lanzarote and Horta on Icebear, we had a well-forecasted cold front set to overtake us as we approached the Azores. We’d have some heavy south-westerly conditions ahead of the front, and we wouldn’t make it to Horta before a north-westerly wind shift which would leave us beating the final 18 hours into port up the channel between Pico and São Miguel.
In bright afternoon sunshine the crew assembled on deck and, despite the moderate conditions at the time, bent on the smaller genoa and hoisted the staysail. Before nightfall we tucked two reefs into the mainsail. By midnight, winds were touching 30 knots and all that was left to do was partially furl the genoa. Icebear raced through the night with her small sails up and little drama.
At dawn the wind shifted and we switched into upwind mode, shaking the reefs in the main and re-setting the 105% genoa, making landfall in Horta a few hours later, a textbook application of anticipating the weather and executing good tactics to contend with it.
Active vs passive tactics
Active tactics apply to situations where you’ve had to change your daily routine, adjust your routing, or both, but continue actively sailing the boat, even if it’s an autopilot doing the actual steering. Active tactics require someone on deck, which requires energy, your most precious resource in heavy weather. Eventually, if the weather sustains for long enough, you will run out of this resource, especially with a short-handed crew, and you’ll need to change tactics.
Staying active on the helm in heavy weather can give a sense of purpose, easing stress. Photo: Paul Wyeth
Passive tactics are when we’re no longer in control of sailing the boat, but rather its tending to itself. Passive tactics are about holding position to let the weather pass and re-energising the crew. The most important part of any good active tactic is knowing when to give it up and switch to a passive tactic before you’re exhausted.
Eventually, if the weather gets gnarly enough, some boats require active tactics to remain seaworthy – ie deep fin-keeled monohulls that are reluctant to heave-to may require fore-reaching, while most multihulls will need to run-off sooner than a displacement hull to avoid capsize risk – and this is where that crew energy is crucial.
Fifty years ago Don Street observed in The Ocean Sailing Yacht, that: ‘It must be remembered that on long offshore passages a well-built and well-equipped boat will stand up to much more rough weather than will the crew.’ The same holds true today.
Adapt your approach
Good execution of heavy weather tactics during a sustained storm means staying flexible. Your tactics will change as the storm evolves:
- Anticipate: Understand the forecast and set the boat up for the expected conditions long before they deteriorate
- Active: continue sailing and progressively reefing deeper and deeper, aiming to route as far away from the worst of the storm as possible in the time before it hits
- Passive: heave-to before it gets truly gnarly to give the crew needed rest
- Active: fore-reach (easier to helm, but wetter) or run-off (more dangerous, harder to control) once the sea-state gets too large to safely heave-to
- Passive: douse all sails, secure the companionway and set a Jordan Series Drogue to ride out the worst of the storm with all crew below decks. Lying ahull is no longer considered a safe option unless it’s a very short-lived storm that doesn’t build up a significant sea state
- Active: as the weather eases, transition back into actively sailing the boat. Eventually, once everyone is rested, you’ll be able to revert back to your normal at-sea routines and continue towards your destination
Assume you will need to hand-steer, and make sure at a minimum one other crew is capable of hand-steering in all weather on all points. Again, autopilot reliance is a great tactic, poor strategy. Photo: 59 North Sailing
You won’t always progress through that entire sequence. In fact, in the nearly 100,000 miles I’ve sailed offshore, I’ve yet to do so myself. But I sleep easier knowing all the tactics I have available to me when the weather gets really bad.
Every time we hold a crew debrief after we’ve seen some heavy weather, people always talk about how surprised they were at the long build-up to the actual weather event. Sandberg’s crew from June 2021 were no exception: “They’d imagined that heavy weather just hits you quickly and randomly, and that coping with it is like putting out a fire. They had not imagined that it was something you’d plan for, discuss and prepare for, often days in advance.”
If there’s one takeaway that’s most important here it’s the concept of anticipation. With anticipation at the root of all heavy weather tactics, you’ll never get caught out without a plan.
Thanks to a well found boat, her well found skipper and a sound heavy-weather strategy that was executed well, Isbjorn made it through that North Atlantic storm drama free and not only unscathed, but with an exhilarated crew who learned a bit of good seamanship.
Don’t believe the myth – all boats will heave-to, even modern flat-bottomed, fin-keeled performance boats. Some just require more patience and practice.
Heaving-to is the art of stalling a boat at about 60º off the wind by backing the headsail, sheeting the main in tight and locking the helm ‘down.’ Just like balancing a boat under sail, heaving-to, especially on more modern hull shapes, requires a careful balance of headsail size, mainsail trim and rudder trim. Once dialled in, the boat takes care of herself, allowing the crew time to recharge. It’s a useful tactic on any long passage, even in nice weather; stop for a swim, wait for a favourable wind shift, ride out a dark night before entering a new port.
In real heavy weather, there’ll be more setup. Blocks must be rigged such that jib or staysail sheets have a fair lead aft when the sail is backed. When practicing the tactic this is often overlooked, but at sea in a blow, chafe sets in and must be avoided.
When properly hove-to, your world changes: the boat locks in at a steady angle of heel and bobs on the seas while the crew gets needed rest. We find we use this tactic more than any other. It’s easy and effective. But at some point it can become dangerous…
Switch to alternate heavy weather watch rotations early to keep the crew fresh and a leader (skipper or mate) on deck at all times. Photo: 59 North Sailing
If the seas are breaking, heaving-to can become dangerous. And despite what I wrote above about all boats being able to heave-to, some are indeed difficult. In either case, consider fore-reaching.
Fore-reaching is basically sailing very slowly to windward. It’s an ‘active’ tactic and will require someone on the helm, or at least monitoring the autopilot, but often staying active in heavy weather can give you a sense of purpose and can ease the mental stress of intense conditions.
All boats can fore-reach. Set your small sails and basically pinch your way to weather. Fore-reaching is quite similar to the ‘feathering’ tactic we often employ during quick squalls when the wind is forward of the beam. Instead of reefing and unreeling for each squall, simply feather-up on the helm to de-power the sails and ride it out. Fore-reaching is similar, but over a longer duration and with smaller sails.
When conditions get too heavy to do anything but hide down below, the series drogue is the go-to tactic. It’s also the only tactic that requires truly modifying your boat before departure – you’ll need stout chainplates on the transom to take the loads from the bridle, a protected companionway that can survive a heavy breaking wave from astern, and a way to stow and deploy the drogue efficiently offshore.
Practicing deployment and retrieval is essential to avoid snags in the 300ft-long line. Modern series drogues are made with Dyneema, making them far easier to carry and stow, but more difficult to retrieve thanks to the slippery line. Randall Reeves used his often when solo sailing around the Americas and Antarctica: his blog has useful observations on how to retrieve a Dyneema drogue when short-handed.
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