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Basic Storms Tactics for Cruising Sailboats

I’m 61 years old, and have lived aboard and ocean sailed for 53 of those years. I’ve only been scared at sea four times. By scared, I mean worried that I wouldn’t see dawn. Three of those episodes involved major gales with opposing ocean currents. The fourth was a different combo — a major storm combined with a jammed sail. We made it through that last one, but it was stressful.

I’ve been miserable for week-long stretches.

This isn’t to say I haven’t been worried or uncomfortable at other times. I have been, truly. In fact, I’ve been miserable for week-long stretches. But misery is my middle name. Offshore sailors have to be stoic. Suffering is just part of the mix. I like to think of the experience as an organic social strainer that naturally weeds out the bozos, landlubbers, and dirt dwellers who are better off hugging a rock.

The reasons I am not scared offshore are many.

One of the chief reasons is that I’m not scared of death. I fear dying in some uncomfortable, prolonged way, true. But everyone dies. It’s part of life. Change is our only constant, and death is the ultimate change. I view death as really just a scheduling conflict: you might want to croak off on a Saturday so you get one more Friday night beer-blast in, but God might send you off on a Wednesday morning. There’s no shame in death; only in not living while alive.

If I knew that sailing offshore would kill me, would I continue?

My life’s goal is freedom. My boat is the ultimate tool to achieving that lofty goal.

On the outset of my first circumnavigation, on the lip of the Eastern Pacific, I thought about the 3,200 miles of empty ocean before me. I asked myself: If I knew that sailing offshore would kill me, would I continue?

My answer surprised me. It was an unqualified “Yes!”

The life I lead is so intoxicating and riveting and free and fulfilling that I’d gladly sacrifice all my tomorrows for another one or two minutes of today. I’m in the moment, and it is a very, very nice moment.

I do not ‘hope for the best’ and pray I’ll be okay. Instead, I prepare for the worst.

If sin exists, this is it.

But the ‘death thingie’ is only a small part of my offshore philosophy.

I’m seldom scared at sea because I work hard to be prepared to survive the conditions I’ll encounter. Most disastrous voyages begin at the dock with a lack of foresight and preparation.

I do not ‘hope for the best’ and pray I’ll be okay. Instead, I prepare for the worst. This gives me a level of self-confidence and serenity that others may lack.

Let’s take a peek at anchoring, for instance. Anchoring is the bedrock skill of the coastal sailor. I have over $10,000 invested in having my anchor hold. Many people find this amount excessive, while I, frankly, find it paltry.

(Editor Note: Fatty Shares his thoughts on anchoring in: Anchoring a Boat: The Ultimate Guide)

I spend the vast majority of my cruising life “on-the-hook.” What’s more important than having my anchor hold to a person such as myself?

That’s why I have five anchors, a 250-foot chain rode, four 200-foot Nylon rodes, an anchor windlass, and various other bits to ensure my vessel stays put.

The concept is simple: I should be able to safely and dependably anchor my vessel at will, given a decent bottom (sand or mud) and appropriate depth. If any vessel can hold, I should be able to hold. Thus, I mouse my shackles, rig my chafe gear, and juggle my chain claws with a clear and definable goal — to maintain position while others drag.

Shore is the danger, not the open sea.

Yes, I have three different anchor snubbers aboard. Yes, all this gear costs money and takes up space. But that’s is the price of admission in Minerva Reef, Beveridge Reef, and Chagos, locations where we regularly anchor in horrible weather conditions for months at a time.

The other reason I’m not worried at sea is because I’m away from shore. Shore is the danger, not the open sea. I like to think I’m always the first sailor to leave an exposed anchorage before it turns into a lee shore. I’m proactive. I crank up. I move.

My job is easier offshore. While sailing in deep ocean, I have many options as a storm approaches.

First and foremost, I reduce sail. This is the primary difference between an inshore sailor and an offshore veteran — the seasoned veteran always has the correct amount of canvas up. (Yes, we still say canvas in this Age of Dacron.)

Ganesh-water-on-deck-rough

My current vessel, a sturdy 43-foot French ketch, is a delight in a blow.  As the wind increases, I roll up the genoa while unrolling the storm staysail. Then, as the it increases more, I tuck in a single reef, a double reef, and finally I douse my mainsail, hoisting my storm trysail.

Usually, it isn’t the storm gear that saves a vessel from floundering. It’s the experience of her crew.

With my flat-cut storm staysail, my tiny storm trysail, and a double-reefed mizzen, I can (semi)comfortably and safely sail to windward in 40+ knots.

If my course is off the wind and my vessel is experiencing any tendency to round up or brooch, I trail a little something astern. This can be as simple as two fenders on 75 feet of line, or a small ‘gale-rider’ drogue. Anything that creates a mild turbulence will do, and the effect is often dramatic and immediate. A vessel that is wallowing and fighting its helm instantly becomes manageable upon launch of the fenders.

Usually, it isn’t the storm gear that saves a vessel from floundering. It’s the experience of her crew.

There are times, of course, when the sea and wind builds to such a crescendo that all forward movement is inadvisable. In these conditions, I heave-to.

I’ve never seen God’s face, but the closest I’ve come is aboard a small boat in a large ocean, pirouetting atop a giant wave.

Heaving-to is easy and fast. You merely allow a tiny amount of sail to remain up to steady your vessel’s roll and to keep her positioned approximately 45 degrees off the wind. This usually means I have the extremely rugged storm trysail up —  with perhaps a double or triple reefed mizzen — and my helm hard over.

Helm hard over? Yes. I leave the helm hard over as if to come about. Since the boat isn’t moving there is no water flow past the rudder, so the rudder doesn’t work and the boat doesn’t come about. But it tries to, and stalls out on repeat. The boat gets a little forward speed, the rudder kicks in — and kills that speed.

If at first she hunts, I micro-adjust my mainsheet, traveler, vang, and helm until she is almost dead in the water. She will sit there for days (I’ve hove-to for 72 hours plus, at times) as pretty as you please.

This has worked for 90% of the gales I’ve encountered on my circumnavigations.

If you perfect heaving-to to the ultimate degree, your vessel will have zero speed forward and be pushed directly downwind sideways with your keel making considerable turbulence in the water.

This resulting ‘slick’ to windward serves to trip/trick the waves into breaking before they reach you.

I’ve made it through major gales with patches of dry deck showing amid huge breakers, all because of this ‘slick’ effect. Remember — losing all forward motion isn’t easy nor quick to accomplish, but it’s well worth the effort. As a test, drop a wet paper towel into the sea to windward. If it appears to be magically sucked up directly to weather, that’s perfect, because it means the boat is drifting directly downwind!

Another option is to ‘run off’ before the wind and breaking seas.

This can be done if

  1. the gale isn’t too severe;
  2. you have plenty of sea room, and;
  3. you’ll be heading fast in the direction you desire.

One advantage of this method is that it presents your highly buoyant transom to the waves.

The downside of this method is that, as the wind and waves increase, your vessel starts sliding down the face of such large seas so fast that her rudder aerates. She can spin out (broach) or tumble end-for-end (pitch-pole) during such conditions.

Pitch-poling is nearly always catastrophic to the vessel, and often fatal to the crew. This is where a Jordan Series Drogue is worth its weight in gold. This is basically a long rode (line, Nylon) with (in the case of our 43-foot ketch) 136 small cones or drogues attached.

The advantage is that the series drogue isn’t in one wave while the boat is experiencing a different wave (and the horrible resulting shock load), but rather it is immersed in many waves.

Thus, there’s little shock loading (except when a large sea breaks aboard) and the Series Drogue suffers almost no damage even in prolonged hurricanes.

Of course, the boat is oriented transom-to the waves. This makes the rudder vulnerable. So it must be secured amidships. The plus side of this is that 99% of sailboats want to drift nose down, so it is easier to keep them in this attitude than to maintain a ‘head up’ position to the wind and waves.

If I don’t want to offer my transom to the waves, I deploy my Paratech sea anchor on 250 feet of stretchy Nylon attached via a shackle to 250 feet of heavy chain. I’m careful to make sure that we’re crest-to-crest. This means that the boat and the parachute anchor crest on the waves at precisely the same moment about 400 to 450 feet apart. This is important. If the boat crests a wave while the parachute is in the trough, they are suddenly 40 to 60 feet different, and the resulting shock load can snap lines, rip off chocks, and decapitate the main bitts.

All these tried-and-true options, once mastered, take the sting out of storm strutting. Now, in many ways, I look forward to an approaching gale. I call them to me — not in challenge, but in acknowledgment of their power and beauty and majesty.

I’ve never seen God’s face, but the closest I’ve come is aboard a small boat in a large ocean, pirouetting atop a giant wave.

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3 comments

  1. S/Y Explorar Conmigo

    I also have a 44′ Ketch– what size/model Drogue do you have for your Ketch?

    Thomas

    • Hi Thomas,

      I will forward the message on to Fatty. He is underway somewhere in the Pacific… Stay tuned!

    • Hi Thomas,

      Got an answer from Fatty:

      Ahoy! I have an 18 foot Paratech sea anchor. My 43 foot ketch is quite heavy, 30,000 plus. This is adequate, but on the small side. Certainly, the 15 footer would be too small.

      I also have 136 cone Jordan Series drogue for use off my transom.

      …like one old salt joked to me, “It depends whether you want to snap your rudder off with the sea anchor or stove in your companionway with Mister Jordan.”

      Of course, as per my article… I just heave-to most of the time.

      Cap’n Fatty
      S/V Wild Card… er, Ganesh!
      S’pore
      Indian Ocean
      Earth
      Milky Way

      For more info: see fattygoodlander.com or
      join us at http://www.facebook.com/capnfatty

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