Many sailors consider budding and suffocating storms as the greatest danger to the waters, although more emergencies and deaths occur in times of relative calm. However, strong winds and high waves can wreak havoc on a sailboat, and any sailor who might get caught even in a summer thunderstorm, or a longer and longer storm at sea, should know how to stay safe in severe weather.
It is often said that boats are stronger than people, meaning that your first priority is to protect yourself. Be sure to use appropriate safety equipment, such as PFDs and wraps or ropes to maintain the boat. Boat movement will be more intense in storm conditions and taking action early will prevent injury and prevent seasickness that can increase your safety. Consider the following issues and strategies to keep the boat under control in storm conditions.
When heavy weather starts or threatens, the first impulse is often to drop sails, start the engine and head to the ground. If you can safely reach the port and return to a dock or berth, this may be the safest option for you. Be aware that wind and waves can quickly turn shallow areas or narrow channels into a more dangerous place than open water, especially if the storm is short-lived, and it is often a matter of waiting for it.
Waves become steeper and more likely to break in shallow areas, making the boat difficult to control. Think about the risks if your engine is to die and the wind blows you quickly over rocks or other obstacles. If the wind is blowing toward the shore, it may be dangerous to attempt to tie, as the boat could sink if the anchor strikes.
It is difficult and sometimes dangerous to try to reinstall the anchor in windy conditions. You may have better options for staying in open water and riding in the storm using the tactics described below.
Once the wind has started or is expected to increase, it is time to sail the sails. The old saying is that if you are wondering if you should reef, it is already time to do so. You don’t want too much sailing when a strong storm hits, which can lead to constriction. It is also easier to reinstall the sail or empty the boom while the wind remains manageable, and it can be dangerous to leave the cockpit to charge the main reef or drop the boom when the boat is tossed or stretched with a force inflated.
Remember that if you are sailing downwind when the winds are getting stronger, you feel their effects less and can be shocked to see how strong they are when the wind blows to the reef. Always pay attention and reef ahead of time. Watch for changes in winds so that you can reef early when it is easy, and not late, when it is difficult or dangerous. You can learn to read the wind or use an inexpensive portable wind meter.
The following storm tactics are most applicable when you are at sea or shore and expect the storm to last for some time.
Sailing travelers usually carry special sails for use in high winds. Regular sails can only be regenerated or spun so far and still keep an effective shape, and the texture of regular sails is very light for strong winds. A storm arm used with or without an alternate tape rather than the main body generally allows a person to continue sailing in stronger winds, usually on a path that reduces the effects of the waves.
For example, racing sailors usually have a set of sails and may prefer to continue rather than wait for the storm with a different tactic that will essentially halt the advance of the boat. Many coastal and recreation sailors do not carry these extra sails, yet prefer a different strategy, such as flicking to.
Lying ahull simply means dropping the sails and letting the fare boat for itself, perhaps while you go to seek shelter.
This strategy may work in limited situations when the waves are not very large, the boat is far enough from the ground and shipping channels, so it does not matter how far the boat is from the windward. In some cases, it may be necessary to lie on an ahull when injured or just because someone is exhausted to continue with effective strategies.
If the waves are large and broken, however, there is a high risk of the boat being rolled and shrunk as it will tend to subside into the waves. Never try this in an open boat that quickly fills with water and the sink. A larger boat with an enclosed cabin has to go back. However, this is rarely the preferred approach for dealing with a serious storm.
Using the sea anchor
Offshore boats are more likely to invest in an offshore anchor, which is like a parachute deployed underwater to keep the bow pointed at the wind and waves. Breaking waves do less damage to the bend than at any other angle and the boat is less likely to tip over or roll when large waves are encountered. However, a sea anchor can be expensive, and take time and skill to deploy.