How do we define “heavy weather?” For example, a small family cruiser sailing upwind in open water might have a tough time of it in a 25-knot wind even though the same blow is perfect for a boat twice her size. And what about a vessel crewed by a retired couple who don’t spend much time in the gym, compared to the same craft manned by the local firefighters’ tug-of-war team? With the obvious exception of extreme storms, heavy weather along the coast is best not classified by wind force. A better description might be “conditions that make a skipper consider changing the passage plan.”
Modern weather forecasting is so comprehensive that, in theory, it’s possible to always avoid really poor conditions on modest passages. The trouble is in today’s hectic world, most of us can only hang around for a day or two before commitments oblige us to go to sea. Typically, when we’re running out of time at the end of a cruise, we try to grab what looks like a “window.” This almost inevitably slams shut just when we reach the point of no return, and that’s when we come unstuck. How we cope will depend on a number of factors.
Any boat will blow downwind. It’s when the wind is forward of abeam that she shows her true mettle. Every boat has a limit beyond which she can no longer work upwind under sail, power or even both. Just where this boundary lies is mercifully unknown to most of us, but larger boats generally perform better than smaller ones. A long waterline deals with waves better. Additional displacement makes a heftier boat more stable, with more power to deliver the all-important upwind punch. Regardless of size, it also helps if a boat’s sails and engine are doing the best job they can.
SAILS AND ENGINES
Shortening sail downwind: It is perfectly possible to reef most modern designs while sailing downwind. Rounding up in a near-gale to put in a third reef is a dramatic business that is best left alone. If you have to go forward, clip on and take your time. Keep the vang on, ease the halyard slowly and haul down the luff while a mate heaves on the clew pennant to keep the battens from blowing into the shrouds. This works well.
Shortening sail upwind: It never pays to reef or roll some mainsail into the mast while a boat is bashing to windward. Instead, try steering on a close reach until the true wind is at about 65 degrees. Ease sheets enough to spill a little wind without flogging. Now steer a bit higher upwind to take off as much way as possible without losing control. Most boats can jog along in relative safety on just the half-lifting headsail while the crew are on deck. Once everyone is back in the cockpit, sheet in, hang on and let her go!
Genoas: Most large reefing genoas take on a flour-bag shape and become a waste of air-space with 10 or more rolls in the luff. A tall, thin blade jib, on the other hand, is an excellent sail that a 36-footer can carry upwind in 30 knots with around four rolls. Even a 110 percent genoa makes a dramatic difference. The only reasons for not having a smaller headsail on hand are cost and stowage space. Dig deep, make room for one more bag under the bunk and be sure to bend on the smaller sail before starting out on a rough passage.
Mainsails: Any serious cruising yacht must have a mainsail with three reefs. Two reefs, unless they are very deep, are simply not enough. In-mast reefing solves this problem, of course, and if you have a conventional slab-reefing mainsail you can often have a third reef point added. Boats with “production” single-line reefing systems, however, can be left in the lurch. Two reefs are all that most of these systems can handle, and if the ropes are not Spectra, Dyneema or some other hi-tech fiber, this stretch will beat the system every time.
If this is your wretched lot, have a sailmaker and rigger set you up with a third reef that can be used conventionally. You’ll have to go to the mast to handle the tack, but when it really matters you’ll be grateful. Any deep reef should leave the sail very flat indeed, both to depower it for sailing and make it closer-winded for motorsailing.
Trysails: Most of us don’t carry one. They’re rarely used, cost money and take up space. Unless you’re bound across an ocean, a deep third reef is all you’re likely to need. However, if your boat has only two reefs, however, a trysail can be important. The problem with trysails is that you always have to rig them when you don’t feel like it. Once you’ve set the thing though, there’s an unexpected bonus. Because they spend most of their lives in the bag, trysails almost never blow out.
Storm jibs: A storm jib works best when working upwind in 30 knots or more. It needs a stay to hank to, because it is a stand-alone sail that is used only for special occasions. This is easy enough to arrange. The top of the stay is permanently rigged near the masthead and lives in the shrouds somewhere. When its day dawns, it is secured to a lug on the foredeck and set up with a Highfield lever, a turnbuckle or, best of all, a tackle. A storm jib must be cut so its sheet lead works with existing gear. Once in place, it will drive a good boat to windward long after all else has failed. Like a trysail, it carries the extra benefit of always being “fresh out of the bag.”
Motorsailing: Although we’d probably all like to carry storm jibs and trysails, most of us are constrained by our pockets. Since we spend less than one percent of our time in survival weather, we understandably opt not to go down that road. For us, then, when the genoa is rolled in so far that it develops an unproductive flour-bag shape, the only answer is to motorsail. Crank the third reef into the main good and tight, heave the clew out flat, vang the boom down, sheet in hard, roll up the genoa and motor as close to the wind as the sail and the seas allow.