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Heavy weather cruising

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#1 Black Panther

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Posted 21 May 2018 - 02:59 PM

I was asked for this in another thread. Flame away.




First this is about cruising, racing is a whole nuther story. And since the majority of long distance cruisers are either couples or short handed that’s what I’ll focus on.

So a few generalised thoughts about cruising in the strong stuff:

Do not be in a hurry. It is often said the most dangerous thing on a boat is a calendar and it is true.

Learn to navigate. The overwhelming majority of boats lost are lost through human error and the vast majority of them through nav error. It is actually quite rare for a boat to be overwhelmed by wind and wave

Which brings up another point: the wind will not hurt you, the waves will. A good example is one of the best days sailing I’ve had was in the Gulf of Tehuantepec. The predominant wind is off the beach at 50kn. For days on end. After a few days waiting I got bored and we left anyway. Storm jib and a deep reef, Solid 45kn plus but 100m off the beach on a beam reach that slowly went aft. Great sail in flat water at full speed.

But the waves normally are associated with the wind so we talk about heavy weather rather than big wave sailing.

Here’s another idle thought. I often hear harbour racers claim they “haven’t reefed in 20 years”. Well at sea you will reef sooner than around the coast because of the sea conditions so if you haven’t reefed in years get out there and start practicing.

The whole point of your tactics should be to preserve the crew in the best condition you can at all times. That will often mean slowing down. There’s nothing wrong with heaving to to do the dishes or cook a meal. At sea you only have the resources contained by your toerail and the most critical are the crew. Take all the time you need to sleep, make sure you poop in the first 24 hrs, eat if you are hungry, never become dehydrated. If you are vulnerable take steps before you leave to deal with seasickness.

So let’s define what we are talking about.

Up to 28 kn winds – normal sailing.

28 – 38kn wind – heavy weather, but easily handled by any well equipped offshore cruiser. You’ll probably have stopped sailing and be sitting it out.

38 – 50kn , this is getting serious and as well as sitting it out you are thinking of special techniques to orient your boat to the waves.

At around 60 kn you are in survival mode and anything over 70 kn is scary as hell and there’s a chance you won’t come home, but taking the right steps earlier will improve your chances.


Downwind the tactics are easy. Drop sail if you are going too fast. Start at the back of the boat, i.e. drop the mizzen, then the main, then the jib. There have been three well reported deaths lately from mainsheets crossing the cockpit. Get the main down early. When you get to bare poles kick the drogue over – more on that later.

Upwind your tactics will be different to downwind. Somewhere around 30kn I stop sailing upwind and heave to. If you haven’t tried this before you will be astounded. I have gone from being beaten bloody at 6kn to thinking I was at the marina when down below. If you get nothing else from this essay, go out and practice heaving to (you can practice in under 30 kn, just use a bit more sail). When hove to have some food and a hot drink and get into your bunk where you can read or sleep. (your bunk will have a secure comfortable lee cloth right?) Stick your head out occasionally to make sure conditions haven’t worsened or that a ship isn’t going to run you down. The worst storm I have been in we were all below and totally unaware that a front had gone through with a 90 deg windshift and a LOT more wind till we woke up on the ceiling.

How do you heave to? The classic was to back the jib against the main. I believe that with nearly all modern boats this won’t work. Old boats had full keels and full forefoots (forefeet?). With a fin feel and a sloop rig the force on the jib will push the bow down until you are fore reaching (bad) or beam on to the seas (very bad). With a modern rig and a cutaway forefoot you can simply drop  the headsail (roll it up if that’s what you have), then pull the traveller to windward and sheet the main in hard. The main will push the bow to weather, but the boat shouldn’t have enough way on to tack , if it does then shorten the main. Lash the helm to leeward (Whatever happened to tiller combs?? I’ll look for a photo, they are cool). The goal is to come to a stop with the apparent wind about 40 -60 off the bow. You’ll probably be slipping sideways at ½ to 1kn, that’s perfect, but you want zero boatspeed.

As I said – learn this. Practice. Next time you are out on the gulf roll up the jib, strap the main in, lash the helm and go have a cup of tea. I can’t emphasize this enough.

As the wind increase and the boat tries to fore reach keep shortening the sail area. Eventually you will have just the trysail strapped to the weather quarter. This should take you up to some seriously strong wind in comfort. In the Cav I had to give up and try the next trick at around 60kn. You could sail around the world three times and never see that.

When you can’t keep the boatspeed off even with that rig it is time to do the next thing. At this point you can turn and run, I would use bare poles and a drogue. This has the advantage of also being my choice of “ultimate survival technique”.

If you really don’t want to go the wrong way, either coz you’re a blockhead or you don’t have sea room a sea anchor might be a better bet. Unfortunately most cruisers don’t have the capacity for both. I choose a drogue. I know others who choose a sea anchor. I have always found the drogue painless to set and retrieve which swings it for me.

I like the Jordan series drogue. The idea is to keep a bit of way on (my best guess about 60% of your theoretical hull speed. This means you can steer a very little bit. But more importantly you take the sting out of the waves. I have never been rolled, broached or pooped while using a drogue. I have been in conditions where we were regularly surfing at


insane speeds (bare poles on a P38) and broaching at the bottom of the waves. After streaming the drogue that just plain stopped. We were able to clean up, have some food and get into our bunks.

So when I joke about climbing into my bunk and putting a pillow over my head it isn’t really a joke. Keep yourself warm, dry, rested and fed. You and your crew are the boats greatest resource so you need to look after yourself.

Don’t be in a hurry to get somewhere.

Study navigation properly (the instructions for your chart plotter don’t count)

Practice heaving to, learn the joy of simply stopping.

One of my favourite stories is of a couple who took 29 days to do a 1,000 mile passage. I asked what took so long. They said they would always heave to at night and sleep, then get up in the morning and decide whether or not to continue sailing, which they did about every second day.

Or the delivery skipper who was presumed dead when 30 days overdue from Gibraltar to the UK. When he eventually turned up he explained that he was disappointed with the boats leaky decks so he hove to after three days and spent 20 days re caulking the deck. Then continued in a dry boat.

Attitude helps.

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  Two figures sat side by side, staring at the Sea. One said to the other, “You know that one day we will die.” And the other friend replied, “But all of the other days WE WILL LIVE!”


#2 Black Panther

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Posted 21 May 2018 - 03:09 PM

tiller combs, this should give you the idea


Attached File  tiller comb 1.jpg   4.5KB   4 downloads


Attached File  tiller comb 2.jpg   7.69KB   0 downloads

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  Two figures sat side by side, staring at the Sea. One said to the other, “You know that one day we will die.” And the other friend replied, “But all of the other days WE WILL LIVE!”


#3 raz88


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Posted 21 May 2018 - 03:16 PM

Interesting read. Thanks.
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#4 Bad Kitty

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Posted 21 May 2018 - 03:18 PM

Thanks BP, great read.

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#5 Island Time

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Posted 21 May 2018 - 03:35 PM

Good post BP, and I agree with all of it :-) 

My boat too, wont stay hove too after say over 55-60 knots.  I've no issue with a drogue, esp a jordan series drogue, but my preference is the parachute at this point, esp if the blow is prolonged, or really serious (say 70,80,90Knots).

Ive never been "on the ceiling" worst ive had is a knockdown, never capsized (in a keel boat).

A drogue is lighter and smaller than a parachute, and easier to carry....

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#6 Fish


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Posted 21 May 2018 - 03:45 PM

Upwind your tactics will be different to downwind. Somewhere around 30kn I stop sailing upwind and heave to.

Are you sure this bit is correct BP? I thought cruisers didn't sail upwind, and specifically, that you have quoted around here somewhere that you haven't sailed upwind in 20 yrs (or words to that effect)  ;-)

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#7 Tillsbury



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Posted 21 May 2018 - 03:56 PM

Excellent post, thanks BP.  I don't have a drogue, and currently I don't plan to be anywhere near 50+kt winds, but when we do set off away from the coastal weather forecasts in a few years' time I intend to pick up a Jordan for exactly what you describe.

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#8 Kevin McCready

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Posted 21 May 2018 - 04:09 PM

Good stuff. Thanks David. I hadn't heard the 60% of hull speed advice before. I get my guests to learn to heave-to even in 5 knots of wind - one more MOB technique for the armory.

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#9 Black Panther

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Posted 21 May 2018 - 04:16 PM

Fish. Upwind to be avoided whenever possible. But heaving to is a valid option to avoid sailing to windward.

Kevin. I came up with that 60% based on how the boat was reacting. I really like being able to adjust the drag to get the best ride. I would lead the the legs of the bridle to the primaries via snatch blocks on the quarter for easy adjustment.
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  Two figures sat side by side, staring at the Sea. One said to the other, “You know that one day we will die.” And the other friend replied, “But all of the other days WE WILL LIVE!”


#10 John B

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Posted 21 May 2018 - 04:20 PM

We very successfully hove to( or close to it ) in a 46 ft Davidson fin keeler in about 2011. I think 50 knots would be fair  but as David says  its not the wind  , its the monster waves. 

 A real heave to is when you make a slick to windward, I think we might have been technically fore reaching making about 1. 5 knots IIRC, but either way, functionally it was really nice. When it settled the next day we'd spent about 16 or 18 hours in a patch of water about 20 miles square with one 'tack'.


The issue ( in retrospect) was we'd sailed onto the Colville ridge , 70 miles off the Kermadecs, where the bottom had gone from  kilometres deep to about 500 odd, 300 odd metres. That ridge turned the sea state into near vertical monsters that defied measurement.

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