Before deciding to cruise full time, my wife Kylie and I had spent our summers sailing in our home waters of Georgian Bay, Ontario. Although the Great Lakes offer sailors challenges, we had never faced any that would have forced us to resort to heavy weather tactics.
This void in our experience was lingering in the back of our minds as we prepared to sail Meggie, our 30 foot wooden ketch, southbound to the tropics and I resorted to reading books on the subject. I have a deep admiration for all of the pioneer sailors, such as Slocum, Chichester, Knox Johnson, Moitesser and Eric and Susan Hiscock. While unique, they have shared a common obstacle, the sea.
Perhaps the most useful book I read was “Storm Tactics,” written by Lin and Larry Pardey. It’s by no means an adventure novel but if you plan to cross the Atlantic for the first time tomorrow, I would be sure to read it today.
Armed with all this knowledge we rushed Meggie out into 40 knots of wind, right? Well, maybe not 40 knots, but we did practice the most important tactic called “heaving to.” Although Meggie is small, she is a classic full-keeled ketch and behaves really well in the hove to position. Lying 50 – 60 degrees off the wind while drifting slowly to leeward, a wonderful turbulent slick billows out to windward created by her long keel. I had read about the extraordinary effect this slick has on the on-coming seas and was amazed the first time I saw it; it actually breaks the sea before it reaches the boat.
We have hove to under main and mizzen alone, but the common method is to back a stay sail. We chose this method off the Georgia Coast one evening as an awesome storm cloud charged towards us like a stampede of wild horses. We doused the Yankee, reefed the mizzen, and double reefed the main. Then, as the wind shifted, we backed the stay sail, and put the tiller down roughly 20 – 30 degrees. We sat comfortably hove to through winds screaming up to 50 knots for 45 minutes while taking photographs and watching the beast pass overhead.
Confident in our abilities to heave to, one question still remained. When is it time? We asked ourselves this question regularly one night while 300 nm out of Jamaica en route to Honduras, as the wind piped up to 30 – 35 knots. Fortunately, our course was downwind, but the following seas were quite big and by midnight they were breaking. We ran under double reefed main alone, trying not to sail too fast. We were prepared to heave to if conditions worsened, but saw that Meggie rose gracefully to each passing wave so we decided to keep running. This was a great experience and we took comfort in knowing that we could assume a safe position.
During our Caribbean loop we encountered only a few occasions of heavy weather while at sea, but thinking back upon those times, I was glad to know the alternatives to running scared. For some cruisers refrigeration, amp hours and Wi-Fi seem to have taken priority over gaining the knowledge to keep them safe at sea and as a result we have heard wild stories involving sailors caught in conditions that they were unprepared to handle. One involved a large sailboat with a powerful turbo diesel engine. Assuming they could out-run bad weather, the crew feared for their lives as they were caught by the storm while navigating an inlet. Another couple we know had worked their way from Florida to Venezuela aboard a 42 footer but lacked the confidence to sail free of the engine and relied completely on it to keep them safe.
My hat goes off to every sailor out here living his or her dreams. Although it may be true that with today’s marine weather communications, one can go from island to island and avoid dealing with heavy weather, remember that the sea cannot always be predicted. It should be every sailor’s responsibility to learn how to handle his or her vessel in rough weather. Written knowledge is available to us all. I am happy to have learned the easy way.
Mike and Kylie are currently sailing Meggie through the Great Lakes. They are heading home for the first time in three years and taking a break from the sea. Fair winds to all of our cruising friends.