They are the worst of times, they are the best of times
There’s a fabulous line from an old Paul Simon song that I often sing to myself while sailing: I can gather all the news I need from the weather report. It is part of the magic of sailing, this ancient process by which we propel our vehicles through and with the environment that surrounds them. In conjuring that magic, the only thing that really matters is the weather. What is also magical, of course, is how accurate our modern weather reports have become, how much further into the future they can see, and how easily we can access them, even when sailing in the middle of nowhere.
Still, even the best weather report can’t tell you everything. It may, for example, warn you that squalls are more or less likely at a certain time and place, but it can never describe what those squalls will be like. The very local granular turbulence of a squall is always random. It cannot be anticipated. It can only be experienced in the present moment.
It truly is terrible, the games they play with us. I have seen squalls that looked like almost nothing—mere white smudges in the sky—that suddenly unleashed, without warning, winds of near-hurricane force. I have seen oncoming inky black walls of seeming certain annihilation that held nothing more than a gentle drizzle of rain and a faint breath of air. I have been in squalls that lasted for hours. I have been in squalls that lasted only a few minutes. They have pelted me with hailstones. Stabbed at me with bolts of lightning. Given me buckets of freshwater when I had nearly run out. They have stolen all my wind and left my sails slatting against the rig. They have ripped my sails to pieces with unthinking fury.
It is impossible to state any hard and fast rules for coping with squalls, but I have developed some general guidelines. Though it can be hard to predict what a squall will do by looking at it, you can often see the rain in them. If the rain is canted at a sharp angle, there will certainly be a strong wind coming with it. The strongest wind may not be in the middle of a squall, but along its outer edges, and it will often come from a different direction than the wind preceding it. In the tradewinds, in particular, I have noticed that squalls tend to run in series. A weak squall is often followed by more weak squalls. A strong one will likely be followed by more of the same.
Tactically, your options are necessarily limited. If you reduce sail well in advance of any squall’s approach you will inevitably spend a lot of time wallowing about under too little sail waiting anxiously to see what happens next. Then, when the squall arrives, you may well find you need not have reefed in the first place. If you play a bolder hand and wait for the squall to show its cards before taking action yourself, you will inevitably sometimes be caught out with way too much sail up. If you have sea room, you can usually compensate for this by simply running off with the squall. This will reduce the apparent wind speed and allow you to bury your headsail in the lee of the main. You can then douse your headsail much more easily and carry on under main alone.
Dealing with a line of squalls can be one of the most frustrating aspects of sailing. However, it can also be one of the most rewarding. Dancing with squalls efficiently—with the least amount of unnecessary sailhandling, with the least disruption to a vessel’s intended line of progress—is always a gratifying experience. It leaves you feeling you have communed with the elements and are a sibling of universal things. Once you have achieved this state of grace, you will also realize that squalls do, in fact, have a purpose. They keep us honest and remind us of the two great truths of sailing: weather is your life, and your life is never certain.