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Sailing Under Control

2008 December 1

Sailing offshore safely requires the ability to quickly and easily shift gears

Safety at sea seminars are always attended by large audiences because the topics covered are foremost in sailors' minds. The mere thought of getting caught out in high winds is enough to make daysailors out of many. Yet, when sailing is restricted to daysails and coastal cruises, sailors miss out on some of the greatest, most adventurous and rewarding experiences possible on a boat.

In truth, winds over 35 knots are relatively rare, probably seen 10 to 15 percent of the time. Those sailors with an understanding of heavy weather management become instilled with greater confidence. There is little fear and no panic, just making adjustments and sticking to protocols to keep the boat and its crew safe when rough conditions approach.

Weather offshore is what I call "pure," compared with that over land, which can be influenced by any number of factors. The winds we experience at sea-absent influences such as trees, mountains, skyscrapers, and large inland bodies of water like the Great Lakes-are exactly what their weather systems created. The weather systems, winds and sea swells flow unimpeded by external influences until we approach landfall, making offshore forecasting often more accurate and reliable. We should never be surprised by conditions at sea; everything is displayed right before us to observe, and forecasts are easily obtained through a number of sources. In full realization of what to expect, we have adequate time to prepare, whether the forecast is mild or rugged. Our job is to use that time wisely.

Shifting gears
One key to effective sailing and heavy weather management in particular is referred to as "shifting gears." It is a term commonly used by racers, and it means matching your sailplan and trim to the wind conditions. I've been on race teams with crewmembers so familiar with each other that they all understood just what "first gear" and "third gear" meant in terms of sail adjustments.

In order to shift gears, we monitor wind strength and sea state closely, and adjust sails according to changes in conditions as they occur. This keeps the boat sailing most efficiently, avoids heavy rolling, excess weather helm and heel and promotes crew confidence and comfort.

As the breeze freshens to the 11-to 16-knot range, we have various adjustments at hand to prevent overpowering before reefing or rolling in headsails:

  • Move the jib fairlead aft to open the upper leech and spill off wind.
  • Move the jib fairlead aft to open the upper leech and spill off wind.
  • Ease the jib sheet.
  • Move the mainsail traveler car down to leeward.
  • Ease the mainsheet, adding twist to the upper main and spilling excess wind.
  • Flatten the mainsail and jib with increased backstay tension, clew outhaul and vang.
  • Pull the mainsail draft forward with more halyard and/or cunningham tension.

When winds strengthen to the point where trimming sails no longer de-powers the boat, it's time to bring in some sail. To give an understanding of what the right sailplan will look like in certain conditions, I've composed schedules of sail deployment in sloops and ketches according to true wind strength. This is based on 35 years of sailing: racing, cruising, offshore training and deliveries on a wide variety of boats. These models should be used merely as guidelines on your boat, however, as each boat is a little different. But I'll bet they're
pretty close.

Sloop/cutter rig upwind
  • 15 knots: first reef in main, genoa possibly 10 percent furled.
  • 22 knots: second reef in main, genoa 20 percent furled.
  • 30 knots: third reef in main or storm staysail, genoa 40 percent furled or removed and stowed below, deploy storm jib or
  • storm staysail.
  • 35 knots: deep-reefed main down on traveler or dropped in favor of storm trysail, headsail furled or dropped, storm jib or storm staysail deployed.
  • 40 to 50 knots: actively steer close hauled upwind (forereach), or heave-to.
  • 50 knots and above: continue concentrated, active forereaching or heave-to, with sea anchor if necessary.

Sloop/cutter rig downwind
  • 20 knots: first reef in main, maintain full genoa.
  • 25 knots: second reef in main, furl genoa 15 to 20 percent.
  • 30 knots: third reef in main or storm trysail, furl genoa 30 to 40 percent.
  • 38 knots: third reef in main or trysail, genoa furled or removed, storm jib or storm staysail deployed.
  • 44 knots: storm trysail and storm jib or storm staysail. Deploy drogue if necessary.
  • 50 knots and above: actively sail the waves downwind, deploy drogue to maintain safe speed. Alternatively, head upwind and sail a close reach (forereach) or heave-to. Never risk sailing too fast downwind under bare poles.

Ketch rig upwind
  • 16 knots: first reef in main, mizzen full, genoa furled 10 percent.
  • 22 knots: second reef in main, first reef in mizzen, genoa 20 percent furled.
  • 28 knots: main down, single reef in mizzen, genoa 30 percent furled.
  • 35 knots: main down, double reef in mizzen, genoa furled or removed, storm jib or preferably storm staysail deployed.
  • 40 to 45 knots: actively steer a close reach (forereach), playing the wind and waves, or heave-to.
  • 50 knots and above: actively steer (forereach) or heave-to, deploy sea anchor if necessary.

Ketch rig downwind
  • 20 knots: full mainsail, drop mizzen, full genoa.
  • 25 knots: first reef in main, genoa 10 percent furled.
  • 30 knots: second reef in main, genoa 30 percent furled.
  • 35 knots: third reef in main or storm staysail, furl genoa, deploy storm jib or preferably storm staysail.
  • 40 knots: drop mainsail, sail on storm jib or storm staysail.
  • 48 knots and above: actively sail under storm staysail, deploy drogue if necessary, head up and close reach (forereach) or heave-to. Never risk sailing too fast downwind under bare poles.

Reefing begins sooner upwind than downwind because the apparent wind is greater sailing a beat or close reach. Mainsail reefing and headsail reduction should be done sooner rather than later in either circumstance, however. The weather forecast determines sail deployment tactics. If heavy weather approaches, it can be wise to skip some intermediate steps in sail reduction.

When true winds approach 30 knots, the storm jib or staysail and the trysail should be readied for deployment; i.e. set up to be hoisted with their sheets on and run, as seen on page 20. Aboard our Beneteau 46 Voyager, we have the trysail on deck in its bag when leaving port. Its sail slides only need to be set into the trysail track and the halyard shackled on. I keep sheets permanently attached to the trysail and storm staysail.

Notice that a drogue is deployed in both types of boats-­sloops and ketches-to control downwind speed. This prevents the boat from accelerating down a wave and burying its bow into the next wave crest. I usually recommend against such a scenario. If the crew demonstrates difficulty in controlling the boat down wind, I would tack and forereach upwind or heave-to unless the waves were so large as to threaten the boat-a very rare situation to say the least. Sailing the waves very fast down wind requires several helmsmen capable of concentrated efforts to drive the correct angles up waves and then bearing off appropriately down waves.

Do not be fooled by the diminished apparent wind speeds sailing down wind. If your boat is making 10 knots of boat speed, the apparent wind you feel will be 20 knots less than you'd feel upwind. Pay close attention to the true wind speeds, and become familiar with the Beaufort Scale of Winds and Seas, which will allow you to estimate wind speed based on the appearance of the sea. I can't overemphasize this point.

Quick reefing
Hesitation in reefing is alleviated by making this important task easier to perform. The use of a single-line reefing method, led back to the cockpit, obviates the necessity to go on deck, with all maneuvers done from the safety of the cockpit. Putting in the first reef, proceeding to the second and then third, and shaking out the reefs, should be practiced by the whole crew so that the process becomes second nature.

The headsail roller-furling unit should be well maintained so that the drum and top unit move freely to permit rapid furling. Salt and dirt particles can impair function, so cleaning is important. The headsail should furl by hand for the hearty sailor in up to about 20 knots of breeze.

At 14 to 16 knots of wind, many boats will sail better with the first reef and maybe slight furling of the jib sailing upwind. At those wind speeds, the heel angle will approach 20 degrees, the boat is uncomfortable and moving around is challenging. Steering becomes more difficult and less efficient. Excess heel pulls the rudder out of the water and weather helm results in increased rudder angles, which serves to brake the boat. The first "gear shift" is done to keep the boat safer, flatter, faster and under total control.

The basic sailing maneuver of heaving-to simply must be within your repertoire of skills. In the photo at right, we've used this tactic to escape the winds of an approaching squall. This simple tactic is useful in weathering extended heavy weather, short squalls, quickly stopping the boat for crew overboard situations, "parking" the boat at sea when making landfall at night, making repairs, or just eating lunch without having to deal with a heeling boat. The difference in boat motion and noise is hard to believe once you've hove-to and gone below, out of the elements. Know how it's done on your boat, practice it under varying conditions, and don't hesitate to use it when necessary.

Have protocols of shifting gears in mind to reduce hesitation when the time comes. Practice de-powering your sails-know exactly how to reef the main and shake reefs out. Ensure that the headsails furl easily. Be intimately familiar with the tactics of forereaching and heaving-to, and you'll become a more capable, seamanlike sailor. Instead of fearing heavy weather, you'll be able to manage those situations with confidence, experience the water like you never dreamed possible, and know the immense satisfaction of weathering a gale at sea.