The storm tactics every sailor should be familiar with

Jessica Watson
Posted April 4 2017

Storm tactics for yachts at sea is a complex topic. Mother Nature never gives us quite the same scenario, very few boats are the same, and every crew has different capabilities. There’s no silver-bullet solution.

There are also many conflicting opinions on the merits of different storm tactics, and while the different logic and many myths can be confusing, every serious ocean sailor has to navigate the misinformation and make their own decisions.

Only you know your unique situation, and such serious choices can only be made by the person set to face the storm at sea. Here’s an overview of common tactics to get you started.


Heaving-to

Heaving-to is a traditional piece of seamanship that stalls a yacht approximately 45 degrees off the wind. The manoeuvre is used to calm a boat’s motion and allow the crew to rest. Theory suggests that with the jib backed (sheeted to windward), some main sheeted on and the rudder hard to windward, a yacht should drift gently sideways. However, many sailors find that yachts without traditional long keels take some trimming to achieve the desired gentle drift in heavy weather.

Bluewater Sailing cover heaving-to in detail here and this video offers a handy demonstration. 


Lying ahull

Lying ahull is achieved simply by dropping all sail and letting the yacht drift beam on to the wind and waves, with the rudder secured amidships. Full-keeled yachts are often reported to handle this position well. But many sailors consider this tactic to be ineffective, with some suggesting that the approach only heightens the risk of knockdowns.


Sea parachutes

Also known as a para-anchor, this large cloth parachute is deployed from the bow. Considered a good tactic when sea room is lacking, the sea parachute is intended to calm the boat’s motion while drifting backwards. However, many sailors have reported that yachts yaw and sail forward with the sea parachute deployed. Drifting backwards may also raise the likelihood of rudder damage and put crew members in danger as they work on the foredeck.

The third edition of Lin and Larry Pardey’s Storm Tactics Handbook covers the use of sea parachutes in great detail.


Drogues

Drogues are parachutes, usually smaller than sea parachutes, which are deployed from the stern. Designed to keep the yacht perpendicular to the waves, a small amount of sail is usually flown to keep the yacht moving forward at a slow speed.

In the eighties, the US Coast Guard undertook extensive research into storm tactics, and as a result of that research, a drogue known as the series drogue was developed. As the name would suggest, the series drogue features small cones on a long line rather than a single, bigger chute.

While the series drogue promises to hold a yacht in even the most dangerous breaking waves, the small cones can also make it difficult to handle. You can read the US Coast Guard report that advocates for the use of the series drogue here.

Depending on the severity of conditions or in the absence of a drogue, streaming long lines from the back of the boat is another popular tactic used to control speed and keep the stern to the waves. Knots are often tied in the line, or a weight is joined to the end to add friction.

Running with the waves

The preferred tactic for many modern light racing yachts is to run with the waves rather than focusing on slowing the boat. Racing crews with skilled helmsmen/women aim to dodge dangerous breaking waves and position the boat carefully on the face of steep waves.

North Sails provide a few tips for sailing in storm conditions in this post, but there are few sailors who could be considered experts at helming in dangerous seas. This tactic can also leave the helmsperson in a dangerous position on deck, and quickly fatigue the crew.

Of course, deciding on, setting up and practising your chosen storm tactic is only a small part of storm preparation. The entire boat needs to be assessed end to end and readied for snatching wind, sweeping waves and violent motion. Amongst many other things, lockers and even floorboards may need to be secured, and waves prevented from forcing their way up the engine exhaust.

There are plenty of great books that cover storm tactics in further detail, and Yachting Monthly share great advice from experienced cruising sailors in this article.

What storm tactics have you used? Did they work for you? I’d love to hear your experiences and recommendations.

8 people found this helpful. Do you?Thank Jessica Watson

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Jack and Jude
Deckee Pro  Posted December 15 2017
Hi Jessica,

On Banyandah, a 38' full keel mono, we'll run and dodge the big scary ones if we can, the boat closed up and anyone on deck firmly attached. Once in a horrible gale off Fremantle we lay ahull and we're pleasantly surprised at how well she did. Those 50 knot winds blew her over to about 45 degrees and the waves broke against her side, the spume and white water going right over us. Hove to is fine in milder weather when we need a rest or wait for light. To do that, headsail down, main in tight, helm lashed up, and she drifts off about 45 to the wind at a knot or two. We got flipped once in the North Pacific, just after a winter front passed over with the wind 90 degrees out of sync to the seas. Not nice, lost some gear and part of the dodger as well. But, boats float thankfully.

A useful tale worth mentioning; we got caught in an intense east coast low out near Lord Howe delivering a 72' ex racer to Sydney. No real gear on board, and precious few crew who could steer such a greyhound with a 100' stick, so we rigged two lines aft, one from each quarter with the ship's barge board between them and a few tyres on each line along with some chain to weigh the board down. Saved our lives. That mess would bite into the back of the passing seas running 50'-60' and would pull us stern to them. Kept us from broaching which would have bust that old timber girl in two. You didn't mention any of your more adventurous tales?
Was this helpful?Thank Jack and Jude

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