Lee shore: It isn’t usually the sea that causes the real trouble, it’s the land. The most serious threat is being blown onto a lee shore. In heavy weather, keeping clear of any potential lee shore is priority number one. A lee shore may not look too bad when your boat is in good order, but if she were to be disabled—typically by an engine failure—a lee shore can take on a horribly different aspect. Perhaps it’s because I spent my youth disappointed by unreliable engines, but whenever I’m motoring to windward of a nasty obstruction, I’m never happy until I’m well clear. I’m also constantly working out contingency plans just in case everything were to suddenly go quiet below.
Apparent wind: Six knots of boatspeed downwind turns a 30-knot near-gale into a 24-knot stiff breeze. Six knots of speed upwind ratchets up the same blow to 36 knots—a whole gale, with pressure on the sails virtually doubled. Bear this in mind before making a major course change in hard winds. Even when your plan is to plow straight downwind, an emergency can still find you out, so the best advice is to never be caught over-canvassed. Reef early.
Along these same lines, because everything is so much quieter when you run off, it’s great for dealing with minor crises. Let’s say your roller headsail gear snags. Anyone trained in dinghies would turn automatically into the wind and let everything flap. This is because the dinghy’s first priority is to not capsize. But a keelboat won’t tip over and a flogging sail is a major hazard; luffing up can make a disaster out of a nuisance. By contrast, running off—if you have sea room—immediately defuses the situation. As an added benefit, the main will blanket the foredeck, which can make working up there a relative pleasure.
The most obvious advice if a bad blow seems likely is to stay in port. If you have to go anyway, at least make sure your passage plan includes some ports of refuge.
Being caught out at sea is a different matter. Any decision out there will be governed by the wind direction relative to where you’d like to go. The state of your crew, the amount of sea room and the proximity of dangerous areas such as tide rips will also be factors. Here are some typical choices.
Carry on regardless: If you reckon you, the boat and the crew can do it, it’s often best to batten down the hatches, tell the crew it won’t be fun and then slug it out.
Go into survival mode: Unless a knock-down seems likely, the boat isn’t in any immediate danger from the water, but a lee shore could finish her off. A summer gale probably won’t blow for more than 24 hours at the most, so if you can’t reach shelter, employing survival tactics in the open sea may be the safest option. The crew won’t like it, but it might keep you off the statistics list.
Hide somewhere: If you don’t fancy carrying on and shelter can safely be reached, this is an obvious answer. However, a harbor entrance that’s safe one day may be a death trap in different conditions. Running downwind for shelter is generally less stressful than beating to weather; It’s also easier on the boat. But don’t forget that the coast you’re approaching is a lee shore.
In even a near-gale, it can be tough smashing your way to shelter upwind. But as the coast approaches, the waves will smooth out and the going will get easier. The bottom line is that almost any refuge lying to windward with a sheltering shoreline behind it can be entered safely. The problem is getting “up” there in the first place.
When assessing a harbor, remember that one on a lee shore must have an unambiguous entrance that is broad enough to allay fears you might have about controlling the boat as you run in. If a narrow entrance is tidal, will the stream be slack, flooding or ebbing? If it’s ripping out over a bar against a gale, the seas may become dangerous, especially if they’re whipped up by wave reflections from piers or walls. Any sudden shoaling will also pile up the seas.
And how about any turns to be made inside? I once ran for shelter into a river that swung immediately to windward inside the entrance. I came in easily enough, but when I turned the boat up into the breeze inside, she wasn’t powerful enough to face it, and I was left running back out to sea with my tail between my legs. The factors to consider go on and on. The trick is to be coldly objective and not create fantasies that may prove to be at odds with reality.
The volume of literature on open-water storm survival is so vast that anyone sailing across an ocean has no excuse for not being thoroughly informed. For sailors caught out in a summer gale along the coast or between islands, things are usually less extreme and there are fewer choices. The key to surviving dangerous waves is never to be caught beam-on by a breaking sea.
Heaving to: Skippers of boats with a deep forefoot are fortunate in having this ultimate option available. Boats with no draft forward are unlikely to be able to heave-to in heavy going, because their bows will be too readily blown off the wind. This includes many modern designs, so be sure to try it before you need it.
The principle of heaving-to is that the boat is set up with its jib aback, driving its bow to leeward, while the main is filling conventionally, shoving the stern downwind and balancing out the headsail. The rudder serves as a kind of fine tune, leaving the boat in a state of equilibrium lying about 45 degrees off the wind and waves.
You can achieve this state by hauling the jib across to weather and waiting for the boat to slow down, but it’s a lot easier to just tack and leave the jib sheet cleated off. Once the boat is through the wind, shove the helm hard to leeward (wheel hard to weather) until she stops. Lash the steering, and that’s it. If the boat is suitable, she’ll lie there making a knot or two of leeway, asking no more from you than to keep a good lookout.
Running: I’ve already noted that running off makes the world go quiet. It’s a great survival option, so long as you’ve enough sea room and can keep the speed down. Too fast and you may end up broaching. Bad news. Maintaining control may involve taking in all sail and letting her blow along under bare pole(s), which works well in as little as 25 knots for many modern boats. When it breezes up seriously and too much speed makes steering tricky, it’s time to trail warps astern. But then you’re into a serious read of Adlard Coles’s Heavy Weather Sailing…
Motorsailing: The third option, and often the best one for most unmodified production cruisers, is to roll up the genoa, deep-reef the main, start the engine and motor slowly upwind. You’ll make little progress over the ground but you won’t get rolled over. So long as the engine keeps turning (did you clean the filters this year, and do you carry a spare or two?) and you have fuel in the tank, you’re in with a good chance of sitting it out without problems until the front blows through, the kettle’s singing and you’re on your way once more.