How to Sail in Heavy Weather – Tips on Reefing and Heaving To

The sight of the lee rail awash on a beat in six-foot seas causes many cruisers to wish they were still tied up at the dock.

For many sailors the prospect of strong winds and rough seas takes them outside their comfort zone. The sight of the lee rail awash on a beat in six-foot seas causes many cruisers to wish they were still tied up at the dock. Knowing the steps to take as the apparent wind approaches gale force and practicing them in calm weather builds the skill set needed to overcome the challenge.

Reefing the Sails

As the wind pipes up and the sail trim methods for depowering the sails fail to reduce the excessive weather helm on a keelboat, it is well past the time to begin reefing. Imagine how terrifying it would be to careen along a mountain road in a supercharged Indy racecar compared to driving around those same curves in a 90 horsepower subcompact. Since the sails are a boat’s engine, reefing gives the prudent mariner the ability to reduce the size of the boat’s engine allowing for safer sailing in heavy weather.

Deciding which sail to reef first is determined by a boat’s sail plan. The relative sail area between the mainsail and the jib or genoa determines the order of reefing. The sail with the greater square footage should be reefed first to keep the center of effort of the sails balanced for a slight amount of weather helm. If the genoa is carrying greater sail area than the main, reef the genoa first. Or since the mainsail has greater area than a working jib, first tuck a single reef into the main.

Methods for reefing a mainsail differ for in-mast, in-boom, slab reefing or jiffy reefing rigs. And roller reefing allows large genoas to be reduced down to the size needed. The owner’s manual of newer sailboats may contain reefing recommendations based on apparent wind speed from the boat’s designer. 

Simple diagram showing a vessel hove to - Heaving To illustrated
Simple diagram showing a vessel hove to

Heaving to – How To Steps

This traditional sailing technique should be part of every sailor’s tool kit and can be used whenever sailing conditions get too rough and safety of the boat and those aboard are a concern. 

Heaving to is best accomplished with plenty of sea room to leeward, as the vessel slowly drifts in that direction while making a small amount of headway. The steps to follow to heave to are:

  1. Sail close-hauled with the sails trimmed, and reefed if needed.
  2. Tack the boat through the wind, but don’t release the jib or genoa sheet and let the foresail backwind.
  3. Continue the boat’s turn through the wind and stop the turn when the wind is abeam.
  4. Slowly turn the bow back towards the wind taking care not to bring the bow back through the wind.
  5. While easing the mainsheet to allow the sail to luff slightly, bring the rudder hard over to steer the boat to windward
  6. Lock off the steering wheel or lash the tiller to keep the rudder hard over.

When hove to the boat will sit with the wind forward of the beam in a position representing the equilibrium of forces. First, the wind will push against jib that is aback to send the bow to leeward. This motion will cause the mainsail to stop luffing and fill, which causes forward motion. However, with the rudder hard over turning the boat to windward the mainsail will luff again and lose forward drive. The backwinded jib will once again push the bow off the wind as the cycle repeats itself.

Depending on the ratio of sail area of the foresail to the mainsail, it may take some practice to heave to with the wind sitting forward of the beam. But just like reefing, practice is the key to completing a successful maneuver when conditions warrant.

Heaving to can be used in a variety of situations not limited to riding out a storm. Reefing the mainsail is more safely done from a hove to position, and medical or other emergencies may be addressed more easily when the boat is not pounding through the waves. Working in the galley, route planning at the chart table and eating meals are all easier when hove to.

Keep in mind while hove to the vessel is still underway, and according to the Rules of the Road a proper lookout by sight and sound must be kept at all times.

Good seamanship under sail in heavy weather is both satisfying and rewarding.  Satisfying because the duel with the forces of nature was met successfully, and rewarding because of the confidence gained while expanding one’s repertoire of sailing skills. 

Capt. Jeff Werner
Capt. Jeff Werner is a Senior Instructor with International Crew Training in Ft. Lauderdale, and is a 22 year veteran of the yachting industry. www.yachtmaster.com