Heavy weather sailing
Practice heaving-to and forereaching before the storm clouds gather
strong line of thunderstorms will reach you just after dark," is exactly what you don't want to hear as you are preparing to round Cape Hatteras. A few years back I was delivering a Beneteau 461 from Connecticut to Tortola, a classic fall milk run. Insurance required that we use a weather router and we chose longtime routers Dane and Jenifer Clark. The Clarks gave us updates every day via satellite phone and things were good until that storm came up.
The forecast called for some strong storms with 50 to 60 knots of wind, which is not unusual for Cape Hatteras in fall. It's strange to say, but the forecast was the worst part of the experience. A sense of doom came over the boat, like learning the latest genetic test shows you have an 85% chance of some dreaded cancer within the next five years. We knew how to handle the storm, but as they say, the waiting is the worst part. Fortunately, heavy weather sailing is something you can prepare for so when it hits, you'll know what to do. The key is in practicing well ahead of time, not when the storm clouds are on the horizon.
There are three common strategies to use in a storm: heaving-to, forereaching and lying ahull. Each has its pros and cons, and each will work in certain conditions.
Heaving-to is a technique where you backwind the jib and lash the rudder hard over to drive the boat into the wind. The boat is balanced but makes no headway. The jib pushes the bow off the wind but the rudder and main drive the bow back up into the wind. The boat lies with a light heel and slowly drifts downwind. Ideally the boat will lie off the wind maybe 45 degrees, and you'll need to trim the rudder and main to find a comfortable position. This technique will work under moderate conditions and the definition of moderate depends on the boat. As the wind pipes up the boat will want to lie beam to the wind and this is a dangerous place to be as the wind and waves build. The kind of boat you are sailing also affects the decision on whether heaving-to is the right call. Modern boats generally don't heave-to very well, and certainly not as well as a solidly built full-keel boat will. The sailplan and hull geometries of modern designs just don't let the boats lie stable to the wind. Experiment with your boat and see how the boat behaves. Almost any amount of wind will work, so you don't have to wait for a gale.
Forereaching is an excellent technique that works quite well on a variety of boats. It involves reefing way down and jogging off the wind at 45 to 60 degrees, making maybe 3 knots. It sounds a little counterintuitive and goes against a lot of popular wisdom, but it works really well. One of the big benefits is that you have directional control and you make way, which is especially important if you're working off a lee shore. Another benefit is that you are an active participant in your journey rather than just sitting there waiting to get tromped by a monster breaking wave. Being actively involved can't be underestimated; if you are involved you are aware, and this can make or break a passage, and even save your life.
Forereaching doesn't require a lot of skill so long as you remember to aggressively shorten sail-a deep reef in the main and a storm jib is a good place to start. Pick a heading and point of sail that is roughly 45 to 60 degrees off the wind and it's even better if it's actually in the same general direction as your destination. You'll need to play with your boat setup, adjusting heading and sail as conditions change.
To effectively and safely forereach in storm conditions you need a good boat that is set up for offshore sailing. It will need to be able to take a pounding as you'll be shouldering off the wind and seas, so the boat will see a lot load. You need a stout rig and a good storm sailplan. I recommend some form of storm jib, a bulletproof sail set on its own stay with clean sheet leads. You can use a furled down jib, but the center of effort will be too high and too far forward, and the shape will suffer too. If you use a furled headsail, you need to be very vigilant against chafe; a parted furling line can really ruin your day. A furling main works really well because it allows you to reef down as far as conditions dictate, and the resulting sail is in a balanced position. A trysail is also a good option because it takes the boom out of the equation.
If conditions worsen and you get too tired to take an active part in your survival, the chosen technique is often lying ahull: you just take all sails down, lash down everything and go below. This is truly a last-ditch survival effort. The ride will not be comfortable and the boat may not make it, but it is an option when there are no others left. Modern boats will often lie abeam big seas and this is a vulnerable position. This option is effectively giving up, so you must choose it only as a last resort.
It is very common for novice and experienced sailors alike to drop sails and try to motor into heavy weather. This strategy may work for very short passages in coastal waters, but it is a very bad idea offshore. Diesel engines are designed to be run relatively level, and if you run them heeled over you run the risk of the engine not lubricating correctly and overheating or seize up. Also, rough seas can stir debris in the fuel tank, clogging fuel filters, stopping the engine at a very inopportune time. You are on a sailboat, hopefully a boat designed to take some weather, so I believe in riding out the storm under some sail or just lying ahull if things get bad enough.
On that delivery, darkness came as well as that line of storms. We didn't see wind over 50, but 50 was enough. The 461 is a tough boat, but its modern design limited our options in weather. We chose to forereach, the furling main and jib allowing us to reef down to a couple beach towel-sized sails, just enough to keep us moving. The boat made tremendous leeway, but forereaching allowed us to claw up each wave and skid down the backs. We rode through that storm in good form and were calling in Soper's Hole within the week. We all appreciated the mental preparation that the forecast afforded us but secretly dreamed of a simpler world where you just handled the weather that came your way. Learn how your boat handles weather, practice as often as you can, and be active participant in your journey.