Storm tactics for yachts at sea

29th March 2021 Jack O'Rourke

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.

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.

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. 

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 may need to be prevented from forcing their way up the engine exhaust.