April 21, 2009

How to heave to

I HEAR SOME GRUMBLING among the groundlings. They’re complaining that my recent offerings have been too flighty, too airy-fairy. They want more meat and less gravy. Very well, then. Here in plain simple language devoid of all literary merit, apt metaphor, or clever allusion, is the straight dope about how to heave to.

First, though, we should ask WHEN you need to heave to. The answer is that you should heave to whenever you want to slow or stop your sailboat in such a manner that she will look after herself quietly and competently while you reef the mainsail, pump the bilges, take compass bearings, prepare some food on the stove, or catch a nap down below.

Obviously, the ability to heave to will be more useful if you regularly singlehand your boat. It’s especially useful when the wind pipes up. In a moderate gale of 30 knots or so, your boat will usually lie quite safely, riding the seas like a duck with her head tucked under her wing, pointing about 50 or 60 degrees away from the wind direction.

The amount of sail you should carry when heaving to depends on the wind strength. You can heave to under all plain sail in 15 to 18 knots but in a moderate gale a sloop would be down to a storm jib and a close-reefed mainsail.

To heave to, you need to get the foresail counterbalancing the mainsail. To achieve that, you can trim the sails for a beat and simply pull the jib sheet to weather until the sail is backed. An easier way to do it is to sail on the port tack and then go about without touching the foresail sheet. As soon as the bow has passed through the eye of the wind and way is off the boat, push the tiller down to leeward and lash it there, or turn the wheel as if you were about to tack once more. At the same time, give the mainsheet generous slack. You will now be hove to on the starboard tack and have the right of way.

If you’ve previously been crashing and bashing through fierce head seas you’ll now be astonished at how quietly and obediently she lies. You’ll be drifting sideways and moving forward at between one and two knots, but your average course over the ground will be more-or-less at right angles to the wind direction.

When you first heave to, you should experiment with the sheeting position of the mainsail. Find where it lies quietly in the lee of the foresail without driving the boat forward too much. You can point up into the wind more by trimming the mainsail in toward the center of the boat and/or by giving the foresail sheet a little slack. Conversely, you can get her to lie farther off the wind by slacking the main sheet and/or pulling the foresail farther to weather of the mast.

Incidentally, it doesn’t help much to practice heaving to in very light weather. Few boats will behave with any decency under those conditions and you will unnecessarily frustrated. Try it first with a full-sail breeze, and if you have a roller-reefing foresail, roll it up to 100 percent fore-triangle area before you heave to. Most boats that are hove to properly will move forward in little scallops, alternately pointing up slightly and falling off slightly.

You should be aware that some fin-keel boats, especially ultralight fin-keelers, are more difficult to heave to. They can be very finicky about the areas of sail drawing before and behind the mast, which have to balance each other, and they often require frequent adjustments. When the fin keel is not moving forward through the water it is basically stalled, which allows the boat to slip sideways at a great rate. This is not necessarily a bad thing, especially if it leaves a smooth slick to windward that tends to break up big seas before they reach the boat, but it’s something to be aware of if there is land to leeward.

That’s about as much help as I can give you. Every boat is different, and you need to experiment to find out how your particular boat handles best. But if you follow the principles given above you will have a good head-start. It’s worth your effort. Heaving to is a basic requirement of good seamanship. It’s also a very satisfying trick to know.

Today’s Thought
He who commands the sea has command of everything.

“What do you want to be when you finish college?”
“I’ve half a mind to become a politician.”
“Well, you’ll be better equipped than most of them.”

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