OCC Forums

Best Practices in Heavy Weather Sailing


By DariaBlackwell - 15 Mar 2015

In our new series on Best Practices in Blue Water Cruising, member Tony Gooch, with more than 160,000 miles at sea, has tackled the topic of Heavy Weather Sailing, especially short-handed.

We have more than 2000 members with blue water experience and we would like to hear what you have learned across all those sea miles. One thing we all recognize is that every boat, every crew and every situation is different so please take a look at Tony 's excellent paper and please contribute your thoughts via this Forum. We 'll compile the comments into an OCC white paper for all to benefit. Many thanks.

Please Note: The original attachment has been removed because the paper has been updated and is posted in a later section of this thread.
By DariaBlackwell - 24 Mar 2015

More from Tony Gooch:

Re: OCC Best Practices paper on Heavy Weather sailing.

I am the author of this paper. The Webmaster, Daria Blackwell has asked me to highlight some of my experiences that underlie the recommendations in the paper.

My wife and I started sailing together in 1967. The first 12 years were spent racing dinghies and more latterly, in Maistral, a 29 foot Arpege half-tonner. In 1979 we converted Maistral to a cruising yacht and for the next fourteen years we spent six months or so each year cruising, logging 60,000 miles from Toronto, to the Baltic, the western Med, Caribbean, French Polynesia, Alaska, Chile to Cape Horn and back north to Victoria.

Our first taste of heavy weather was crossing the Atlantic, when 5 days out of the Azores heading for Ireland we had to heave-to for 8 hours in 35 knots from the east. The Arpege has a fin keel with the rudder mounted aft of a skeg. We played with the main and staysail, but the best we could get was an 80 degree angle to the wind. The boat was reasonably stable. We learnt lessons about, watch-keeping, position tracking (this in pre-GPS days). After the wind switched to the SW we got going again, running before the building wind and seas, hand steering. Big mistake. Way too tiring for two people, much better to reduce sail, balance the boat and make the wind vane do the work.

We had to heave-to again in the Baltic when we were returning from Helsinki and got caught in a summer gale. The harbour in Visby was unsafe to enter, so we hove-to and drifted south and west for 12 hours.

Reading the books about warps and other speed reducing ideas we carried a 300 ft warp and a 3 1/2 ft diameter tire. We thought this should slow a 29 ft boat. En-route from the Canaries to Grenada the trades were honking and Maistral, under only a storm staysail was surfing so I attached the tire to the warp and threw it overboard. For a while it slowed the boat a bit and improved directional stability. That was until a big following wave picked up the tire and it overtook the boat! So much for that as an idea.

Our worst storm in Maistral was crossing the Gulf of Alaska, notorious for deep lows and wild seas. A deepening low developed out of nowhere. Our only available defence was to go down to three reefs in the main and a hanked on staysail. After 3 or 4 hours hard-on-the-wind we gave up and hove-to. It was a bit of a worry as the waves were steep and breaking.

In 1996 we were lucky enough to buy a 42 foot, full keeled aluminium sloop we named Taonui. We bought her in Germany and sailed across the Atlantic in May, through the Panama and south around the high into Valdivia, Chile, and then through the Canales to Cape Horn and on south to Antarctica. Coming north we stopped at Caleta Hoppner on the north side of Staten Island. We left on March 31, 1997 heading for Buenos Aries. Three days out we were overtaken by a deep low. We ran before it with only the staysail pulling for 36 hours before deciding to stop. Continuing north we were staying with the low. Stop and it would pass. We tried heaving-to but with only a staysail she would not lie across the wind. It seemed like too much hard work to raise the main, so we decided to lie a-hull. It was OK for a while but during the night we had two knock-downs. Lockers opened, tin cans all over the place. By morning the barometer was rising and the seas were down. I went on deck to tidy things up in preparation to getting going again. I had just unclipped my lifeline tether to move forward past the boom vang that was attached to the outside rail, when a rogue wave hit, slamming the boat upside down, snapping the mast, and throwing me over-board. Below, Coryn was thrown out of her bunk and into the saloon headlining resulting in a bad gash on the head. She managed to climb out of the cabin and over the engine, now exposed as the cover boards had been thrown off. Once on deck she saw me as just a spot in the ocean 50 yards downwind. With the mast over the side acting as a drogue, Taonui drifted toward me. Coryn threw a life sling. I got back on board

We cut way the mast (actually pulled the pins on all the turnbuckles) and eventually motored to a port 400 miles south of BA.

Lessons learned:
•   If we had deployed the series drogue that we had on board but had never used, we would not have been knocked down or rolled over.
•   We should never have lain a-hull. The seas were too big.
•   Our storage down below was not secure enough to withstand a knockdown.
•   The chain in the anchor locker slammed against the anchor locker lid when the boat was upside down and damaged it.
•   We were in the wrong place at the wrong time. We should have been either along the coast or 400 miles offshore, not on the shallow waters 200 - 300 miles off the coast of Argentina which are prone to rouge waves caused by storms, currents and shallow waters.

We shipped Taonui back to the UK for repair. Mike Pocock (ex-OCC Commodore) designed a new, stronger mast, rigging and sail handling system for her. In the spring of 1998 we sailed to Iceland.

Over the next 15 years we sailed over 90,000 miles mostly in the high latitudes, including two circumnavigations via the Southern Capes.

Over these 15 years we learnt valuable lessons in sailing safely in heavy weather. One was how to forereach against 50 knots of NNE wind coming from an approaching cyclone 300 miles north and east of New Zealand. I didn’t want to give up any westing as I needed every mile to clear the Hawaiian Islands and I knew that the cyclone would pass to the west as it headed south. So I went hard on the wind and then some and just jogged along with the wind vane pinching her up. Eventually the centre of the cyclone passed and the wind gradually freed and lightened.

We deployed the series drogue six times from Taonui. It worked perfectly every time. Once was when heading south from Svalbard. A low to the west had become stationary and the north winds were driving us rapidly toward the very inhospitable coast of northern Norway. Hoping that the low would pass we deployed the drogue. We slowed to 1 1/2 knots, but the low was stuck and then drifted SW and the resultant NNW meant that we might be making landfall beyond the Russian border. We thought that we might have to cut the drogue. After 48 hours on the drogue the barometer started to rise and 12 hours later we could retrieve the drogue and sail safely into a remote harbour in the far north of Norway.

Another time when the series drogue saved the day happened as I was approaching Cape Horn coming non-stop from Victoria B.C. Strong 40 + knot W to SW winds were driving Taonui eastward toward the lee shore of southern Chile. It was going to be hard work to sail against these winds and clear Cape Horn. The low would pass if I could just slow down, so I decided to deploy the drogue. While getting it out of the cockpit locker a big wave knocked Taonui flat and before I could drape myself over the open locker a great deal of water got down below into the watertight aft compartment. I did get the drogue out and the whole world stopped. I cleaned up the mess, had a good meal and slept for 8 hours. I lay to the drogue for 49 hours, drifting 110 miles, to the east, before the low passed, the wind dropped and, after two hours of heaving and huffing to retrieve the drogue, I was on my way to safely clear Cape Horn in light winds.

I’m looking forward to receiving comments and suggestions on the recommendations in this paper, particularly from boats of other design….Ketch, catamarans. One comment already received is regarding the use of trysails, a traditional storm sail.
By David.Tyler - 27 Mar 2015

An excellent paper, Tony. I 'd just like to query one point about the jackline - "White tape is more UV resistant than coloured tape." I believe it 's the other way about. Coloured plastics are more resistant to UV, as the dye or pigment stops the UV from penetrating deeply. And black is best of all. I make my sails with black thread for that reason.

I put my jacklines inboard of the sidedeck, and above the deck, so they can 't be stood on, and that means I can use 10mm triple braid round line, which stays round and is easier to hook onto than webbing.

As for the rest, all good stuff, except that there seems to be a heavy emphasis in the rig section on how to overcome the deficiencies of the bermudan rig. Best practice, IMHO, would include not to have to go onto the foredeck in a gale to change headsails. I quote : "Changing headsails (genoa to staysail) when going to windward in a building gale can often be a wet and potentially dangerous exercise". I take the Gordian Knot approach to this, having designed bermudan rig components for a living and having seen and tried to remedy some of the deficiencies - I simply sidestep the issue and sail under junk rig with an unstayed mast. No taming the headsail issues, no wire fatigue issues, no reefing at the mast issues. A docile rig with quick and easy furling and reefing down to storm sail size; that 's my choice.

In 79,000 miles, including the South Atlantic and North Pacific, I 've never felt that I needed to deploy a drogue. Just luck, I know, but it puts the heavy weather thing into perspective. It doesn 't happen that often ( I don 't count routine gales, which an offshore-ready vessel ought to be able to cope with). Maybe, though, Tystie 's hull form has something to do with that. A V - hull, no external keel, internal ballast, bilgeboards and a large skeg mean that she feels very safe to me, running downwind, with no keel to trip over. I carry a parachute, as a last desperate remedy to keep me off the rocks - but I 'd deploy it from the stern, like a series drogue, if i had to deploy it at all. I had a homemade Galerider, but apart from a trial, it never went in the water, so I scrapped it as it is difficult to stow, being 3ft diameter. One day, when I get a Round Tuit, I must make a series drogue.
By David.Tyler - 30 Mar 2015

One thing that 's puzzling me here, folks:
Here 's a topic that all OCC members must surely have an opinion on, and experiences to relate.
Here 's poor Daria, working hard to start these topics of conversation and keep them going.
Here are 174 views of this topic, when I started to post this.
Here 's me, all alone, posting in this topic.

C 'mon, people, don 't be shy, stop lurking and say what you think, tell us what you know, about heavy weather sailing!
By alshaheen - 30 Mar 2015

Indeed an excellent paper from a member who has a huge amount of open-ocean cruising experience. I cannot offer any worthwhile comment except to fully endorse Tony 's comments on rig, deck layout and rig components.

Here 's why. After Tony 's dismasting he had Mike Pocock (former OCC Commodore) design a re-rig for Taonui. Some time later Mike designed Al Shaheen for me (another 42 ft alloy hull) and I agreed to have the same rig design as Taonui. Best decision ever! Mike incorporated practically all the details which Tony features.

1. slab reefing at the mast with three reefs and all lines permanently roven
2. replacement of the standard boom gooseneck horns with Wichard clips. As Tony says, absolutely foolproof. Why is this not standard with every boat? It is so simple.
3. tapes through the reefing cringles on the luff with stainless steel rings each side (possible typo in Tony 's paper- these should be one and one half inch diameter)
4. Reefing winch - I would place it on the deck at the foot of the mast. That way you can sit down and crank it while keeping an eye on the reefing lines at the clew as they draw the clew down to the boom. To me it is safer and more comfortable than standing.
5. high cut roller furling headsails with oversized furling lines led back to rope clutches at the cockpit and an ability to put them on a secondary winch
6. Fitting an inner detachable forestay with a Pelican hook at the deck, for a hanked-on storm jib.
7. Good sized, non-electric, self tailing winches at the cockpit
8. Boom gallows. The ability to hold the boom securely when no mainsail is set makes for a great feeling of security - and protects the helmsman 's head
9. Twin spinnaker poles permanently stowed on the mast each with a boom lift permanetly rove and with a foreguy and afterguy permanently rigged to the pulpit and led back to rope clutches on the side deck at the cockpit. It is then very easy to lower the boom a little, clip on foreguy and afterguy, clip in the sheet before deploying the boom over the rail with the crew in the cockpit working the foreguy and afterguy to keep the boom under control in a seaway. The boom inner end is always attached to the mast and the whole system is fully controllable and can be set in almost any sea conditions.

I have been delighted with all these very practical features, unfortunately seldom, if ever, found on production boats.

The one big mistake I made was not to have a solid alloy dodger. Canvas spray hoods just don 't cut the mustard in really bad conditions.
By bbalme - 3 Apr 2015

Without the experience of the author, it 's hard to make sensible comment - but David 's observation is just! Here goes then...

While Toodle-oo! is well set up for heavy weather, I still have some missing pieces to the puzzle... in both equipment and experience.

In 2013 we crossed the Atlantic and for a couple of days we were headed sort of down wind in 35knots with a 15 - 25ft following sea. The deployment of a simple 300ft warp with a length of chain was a novelty for us - but did a nice job of assisting directional stability. Fortunately it never got worse, so we didn 't deploy the Galerider drogue we have aboard.

At that time, Toodle-oo! was equipped with 2 deep reefs, with separate lines for tack and clew led back to the cockpit. We decided to add a third reef when we got to the UK, but I 've still not rigged it as I cannot decide if I should add the hardware to reef at mast or in cockpit. (I personally believe that staying in the cockpit is a sensible safety precaution.) If I bring the third reef back, that entails another two clutches and yet more line in the cockpit. No sense in rigging third reef at the mast with one and two in the cockpit - as I 'd have to go to the mast after every reef - just to tidy up the third reef lines. I guess I could reef the first at the mast - but that 's the most frequent one deployed - what a PITA! Your thoughts appreciated.

Another deficiency of this relatively inexperienced crew - we 've not mastered the art of heaving to in this boat yet. Not been able to get the balance right so far - not helped by having a fin keel. We have forereached - or at least something like that! - but it remains a bugaboo that needs -and will get- practice this year.

Last year, while approaching Dartmouth (UK), we were headed east - downwind in 35knots past the last headland (can 't remember it 's name) and we had to jibe to the north. We had timed things badly and had the current against us - so the chop was considerable. We were already on the 2nd reef and the inner small jib was reefed too. I managed to time the turn OK and accomplished the jibe without major disaster - but I wonder if this was a foolhardy maneuver. I tend to think it would have been safer (quieter) to have done a 270 degree tack rather than the 90 degree jibe. Any thoughts?? (other than to call me a wimp!)
By stuartletton - 6 Apr 2015


I used to run my Jack Lines along the side deck as is standard practice. However, after reading of the fatality of a yachtsman who was knocked off the boat and drowned, while still attached to his Jack Lines I moved mine inboard. I now have a short JL running from the transom, around the coaming and up to the front of the sprayhood, attached to the deck mounted mainsheet traveller.

There is then a second Jack Line running forward along the length of our coachroof to the foredeck. This means that once I have exited the cockpit and re-clipped to the deck line there are fewer positions where I could be washed overboard while connected, yet I can transit to all necessary points. The only downside of this system is the need to re-clip at the traveller but using a 3 point line means I 'm always connected.

In the pic you can see the Jack Line running across the top of our coachroof. You can also see a second jackline running along the deck. I have since removed this to force me to use the deck mounted line.

By DariaBlackwell - 15 Apr 2015

The first time we crossed the Atlantic, from Halifax NS to Westport Ireland was the most "exhilarating" as we dealt with 6 gales and avoided one strong storm. We had Herb to guide us that time, and we were fortunate. We hove to twice to let gales pass over us, and it was absolute magic. We went from being tossed around and beaten up to literally baking cookies and reading at leisure under what felt like benign conditions. Only when we went on deck to check during our watch did we realize what was happening around us. There were days when it was terrifying and days when it was terrifying and stunningly beautiful.

Having learned to heave to under 'normal ' cruising conditions made all the difference. We did it first in our Frers 41 sloop. There it was a simple matter of tacking without releasing the jib sheet under reefed main and jib.

On our Bowman 57 ketch, we found that reducing sail down to jib and jigger (hanked on jib on the inner forestay and mizzen sail - we have reef points but we didn 't need to use them) and heaving to the same way gave us the perfect balance and kept us moving forward at about 1.5 knots in 40+ knots of wind with gusts much higher.

We wrote about our experience here. http://cruising.coastalboating.net/Seamanship/Anchoring/Heaving-to/index.html

Heaving to was a technique we also used to effect repairs at sea. When it 's blowing and the seas are massive and your Monitor windvane 's sacrificial post gives way, you have to fix it. Heaving to made it a reasonable proposition. See photo.

One thing I should mention, as it was always my responsibility at the helm to tack through to heave to, I found that I needed to count waves because they always came in sets, usually three but not always. After the third there was a slight delay in the period which gave me more time to complete the tack safely.

Another thing that we found crucial was keeping the boom under control at all times. Without religious use of a preventer we would not have made it. Ours is simple just ropes tied to the booms to keep them from swinging without warning on accidental jibes, when most accidents at sea occur. Of course given two booms we need two preventers, but the mizzen preventer is more to save the mast from extreme forces than anything else (Aleria is a centre cockpit).

There are a few other things I should mention. Before we left, we installed heavy duty attachment points for tethers around the boat. We have a rule that we do not leave the companionway without being clipped in. The most important rule is to stay on the boat. We know that if one of us goes overboard while the other is below, we have no chance, especially in heavy weather.

We did, however, practice MOB extensively before we left. What we found FOR OUR BOAT and for our situation is that when sailing short-handed the most effective MOB maneuver is to immediately heave to. All you have to do is tack the boat without changing the sheets. It 's simple, immediate, it stops the boat, it and brings the boat slowly back in the direction you want to go.

A few more best practices include making sure that your automated radio distress signal is connected to your GPS transceiver so your emergency beacon broadcasts location, and ensuring that your EPIRB (preferably a GPIRB) is registered with the authorities.

I have to concur with Stuart on Jacklines. Getting them as high as possible and always walking up the high side of the boat so, if you fall, you fall into the boat, is paramount.

For additional reference, please see the Cruising Club of America’s Safety at Sea pages.


By Tonygooch - 21 Apr 2015

My thanks to those who have responded to the posting of a "white"paper" on Heavy Weather Sailing. I have edited and revised the paper to reflect the input and the revised paper Version 3. will replace the earlier posting. The principal revisions/edits were in regard to:

Use of staysails
The colour of webbing used for jacklines.
Movement on deck during heavy weather
A side note on the advantages junk rigged boats in reducing sail in Heavy weather
Position of reefing line winch.
Considerations when heaving to.

Please post further comments/corrections/suggestions.
fair winds Tony Gooch
By DariaBlackwell - 5 May 2015

Interesting account of an incident in 1998 which occurred as a result of lying ahull.

By DariaBlackwell - 18 May 2015

A tragic account of a man who is tethered falling overboard and drowning with his wife unable to get him back aboard. It underscores the need to position jacklines as high as possible.

By Tonygooch - 20 May 2015

An educational session of the Blue Water Cruising Association discussed this recently. The real problem was that the wife did not how to stop the boat. We discussed theory ion of running Jacklines higher up rather along the deck, and concluded that although it may be preferable on some boats, generally the Jacklines should be along the deck.

Jacklines should kept taut and allow crew to cover the whole length of the boat. This can be hard to achieve if the lines are along the cabin top.

Always move forward along the high side so that if you do fall it will be into the boat. If you are attached to a lose line along the centre of the boat you may be thrown over the leeward side. Better to be brought up short by a taut Jackline at your feet on the high side.

Always remember the old adage.....one hand for the boat and one for yourself.

If necessary, move your knees or bum on the foredeck.
By DariaBlackwell - 4 Aug 2015

Tony 's excellent paper with input from members has now been published at:

www.oceancruisingclub.org/Publications/images/Publications/Best_Practices/HEAVY WX OCC Version 4 Word.pdf

Please continue to provide comments and input to help improve our knowledge over time.

I am also inserting the file here for your convenience.
By neilm - 12 Aug 2015

Great work Tony. Agree with most of it, including that it is best to reef at the mast.
The mention of SS rings on webbing through the luff reef cringles suggests ring 1" or 1 1/2" diameter. To me, 1 1/2" is minimal. We have 40 mm rings made of 8 mm diameter rod, which have worked well for 30,000 miles.
A big Wichard snap shackle is the best way of attaching them, as you say. I like you welded on hook idea, but it may not always be practical, particularly for 2nd and 3rd reefs. Our hooks are on short lanyards to eyebolts.

Mast pulpits are a huge help for reefing at the mast. It is easy and safe to work with both hands on reefing. Our pulpits are 25" high (a bit higher may be better, but too high would impede arm movement for winching) and 29" outboard of he side of the mast. Many I see are too close to the mast.


By alshaheen - 13 Aug 2015

The photo of the reefing rings in Tony 's paper was taken on Al Shaheen. Our rings are the same size as yours and I agree the desirability of rings this size. We have a slightly larger Wichard clip than the one you show and have no difficulty in attaching 3 reefing rings on the same side of the boom. The advantage of a fixed, welded, Wichard clip is that the rings can be clipped in using only one hand. It is best to lave slightly longer tapes between the rings for the 3rd reef.

With a reefing winch mounted on deck, just aft of the mast, I sit on deck (low centre of gravity) when reefing, with a clear view of the reefing cringle in the leech. We keep a short tether permanently attached to the gas strut fitting at the base of the mast and work there with 2 tethers to limit potential falling distance if dislodged.
By neilm - 13 Aug 2015

Agreed that welded Wichard hooks are the best, for the reason you state
We have no good location to attach them. In addition we have Battcars instead of sail slides, so the second and third reef rings are pretty high, although your idea of making the correct length web could perhaps solve that.
By DariaBlackwell - 21 Aug 2015

I just came across this article on heavy weather strategies for catamarans. Does anyone here have experience to add?

By David.Tyler - 20 Apr 2017

Evans Starzinger 's paper on:
© 2006 Beth A. Leonard & Evans Starzinger
By neilm - 20 Apr 2017

We have features 1-5 on Milvina, and like them.
Our inner forestay is permanent. We set the piston hanked staysail most of the time in open water, whether we think we need it or not. Thus it is ready rigged when it blows up. If we need more than about 6 rolls in our high clew jib, we just roll it up completely, and the boat balances well with the sails quite low.
Instead of the boom gallows, we secure the boom by having a permanent tether line on port side of the cabin with a Wichard hook to attach to the boom when required, and pull the boom to starboard with the sheet. The topping lift holds the boom up. with this three-way tie, the boom is very stable. Not as solid as gallows, but we have no gallows to get in the way.
Ideally, we would have an aluminum dodger (as John said) which would also function as gallows.
All this has worked well is gales, but we have been lucky enough to miss the extreme conditions Tony Gooch discusses.