October 14, 2012

Heavy weather practice

YESTERDAY I WAS READING a manuscript of a book to be published next year that deals with tragedies connected with small boats.  One of the themes of the book was how easy it is for a sailboat crew at sea to become dangerously exhausted and incapable of rational decisions or even necessary sail changes.

It struck me then, as it often has before, that too many sailboat skippers simply don’t know how to handle heavy weather. They have never bothered to find out how their particular boat will behave in high winds and rough seas so that she will tend to herself safely without human help, and give her crew a chance to snatch a bite to eat and catch up on some vitally needed sleep.

One way to do this is to heave to, a catch-all phrase for any number of methods of slowing right down and letting your boat bob over the waves while you shut yourself securely down below.  Hulls of traditional design, that is to say hulls with full-length deep keels, will often heave to under a backed storm jib and a deep-reefed mainsail or a dedicated trysail. You can adjust the angle at which the sails catch the wind so that your bows are pointed more, or less, toward the oncoming swells.

The tiller or wheel should be lashed to leeward, so that if she starts to drive forward too fast, the rudder will automatically head her up into the wind again and slow her down. Forward speed in general depends on several things, of course, including the strength of the wind and the amount of canvas you’re spreading, but is usually in the region of 1 1/2 to 2 knots.  Your course over the ground will be roughly at right angles to the wind, which is something to make you wary if there is any land close at hand. Some traditional hulls will adopt a nice hove-to position 60 degrees or so off the wind under a deep-reefed mainsail only.

Unfortunately, the only way to learn how best your boat will heave to is to take her out in strong winds — preferably 25 knots or more — and experiment.  If you have a fin-keeler, that can be interesting because while some fin keelers are completely docile and easy to heave to, others of less displacement and higher freeboard tend to be skittish and less predictable in their behavior.

In fact, many light-displacement fin keelers, perhaps the great majority, are better off in heavy weather if they’re kept moving at a reasonable clip of three-quarters hull speed or so.  This gives the fin keel a chance to dissipate the rolling energy from waves into a greater area of sea water.

I mentioned the need for strong winds for your heaving-to experiments because I once undertook to show a friend with a light fin keeler how to heave to. The weather was very light, 5 knots tops, and no matter what I did with sail areas and angles, the damn boat would not heave to. She spun around slowly in dainty circles, cocking her snoot at me, while my friend looked on cynically, obviously not impressed with my prowess at basic seamanship. I discovered then that boats behave very differently in light winds, and in fact each boat behaves differently in heavy winds, too, so you just have to go out when it’s blowing and find out for yourself how your boat likes to be handled in a gale.

Once you have worked that out, and practiced a few times, you will have earned much peace of mind.  Your knowledge of how best to face gales so that you can get some rest while the boat looks after herself, will do wonders for your morale and for the safety of the boat and her crew.

Today’s Thought
Experience is the best of schoolmasters, only the school-fees are heavy.
— Carlyle, Miscellaneous Essays

“Return ticket, please.”
“Yes, sir. Where to?”
“Back here, you idiot.”

(Drop by every Monday, Wednesday, Friday for a new Mainly about Boats column.)

1 comment:

longroute said...

Thank you for this very interesting and useful article. Now - for the first time - I can understand the reason why I was never able to heave to with my boat: all the times that I had tried - as an experiment - the wind was too light. The boat didn't stop advancing even with the jib "on the wrong side" the main flattened and the tiller to leeward.

Now my problem is this: I (we) need to be able to heave too in heavy weather BEFORE we happen to find such condition and yet in order to learn we need to get off the harbour with 25 knots wind or more, something that most of us are not so keen to try... (:-)

I guess the only solution to this is to sail with an expert skipper who knows how to do it.