10 Tips for Sailing In Heavy Weather

10 Tips for Sailing In Heavy Weather | Life of Sailing

Last Updated by

Capt Chris German

August 6, 2020


They say that calm seas never made a great sailor. Rough seas and heavy wind are just a right of passage for many. I however would argue that the best sailors are those who manage to avoid heavy weather entirely.

Reading a weather report and planning one’s voyage to avoid nasty weather is the best call of them all. But, if you find yourself under gloomy skies and heavy chop unexpectedly, then getting yourself back to shore becomes paramount.

Here are a few tips for bad weather sailing that have helped salty sailors stay safe.


Table of contents for this article

1. An ounce of prep saves a pound of trouble

Whether it’s replacing the impeller before it goes bad or coiling lines properly before you head out, preparation is the name of the game when it comes to sailboats. They say that the average sailor spends 10 hours working on a boat for every hour sailing and that’s just about how it should be. Making sure everything is working and properly cared for is a full time job and if you're not putting in the hours to keep your boat in tip top condition, your boat will fail you just when you need it most.

Things to watch out for when prepping for bad weather include:

  • Scuppers are clean and free flowing. An errant acorn or a wad of tape can turn an otherwise seaworthy boat into a bathtub. Heavy rain and/or crashing waves have been known to sink a vessel that could not properly ship water overboard. Take the time to make sure your scuppers can save your boat and your life in heavy conditions.
  • An orderly boat is a safe boat and that includes properly coiling lines. If you don’t know how to properly coil a line then you should learn asap. You never know when you will need to cast off a line or drop a sail in a hurry. Making sure that all your lines are properly coiled ensures that a line will run freely without kinks or “ass holes” when you need it to.
  • Engine maintenance is all too often forgotten on sailboats. In heavy weather, bare poles are sometimes much safer than sails and a good working motor can be the difference between life and death. Changing the oil, checking belt tension and visually inspecting through hull fittings should be part of common practice on your boat. Having back up supplies like an impeller, hoses and belts are also part of good maintenance and you should regularly check your supplies and replace them when they get used.

2. Reef early, reef often

If you read last week’s piece on reefing, you may think I am beating a dead horse. But I can’t stress enough the importance of reefing in heavy weather. A better alternative to reefing is using the right sail for the right conditions. Many a genoa jib has been reduced to shreds in heavy air when a skipper fails to change sails in a timely manner.

Much like reefing, which should be done before you actually need to, so too should you raise your storm jib and douse your main before the heavy weather starts. Making the call to reduce sail or go bare poles can be a life saving call when made at the appropriate time. If you don't know how to reef or have difficulty changing sails, you should refrain from sailing in heavy air until you have had a chance to practice in lighter conditions.

3. File a float plan

In this day and age with cell phones and email, we often think help is just a text message away. At sea, especially in heavy air, sending a text message or making a phone call can be impossible.

Rain, wind and waves can kill a cell phone and if you doubt that, here’s a little virtual experience of sailing in heavy weather.

Put on all your foul weather gear, turn your shower on full blast cold and have your partner bring the garden hose into your bathroom. Then stand in the shower while your partner sprays you with the hose. For an even more real experience, crumple up $100 dollar bills and flush them down the toilet while you're at it. Then you will realize that using a cell phone in heavy weather is nearly impossible.

That is where the float plan comes into play. By leaving a detailed account of your planned voyage in writing with someone who cares about you, you will ensure that when you are late someone will miss you. And I can’t stress that you leave your float plan with someone who cares about you enough to miss you if you don’t show back up.

In the marina office where I currently work, one of our guests left a float plan with our staff saying that if they weren’t heard from by June 30th that we should send out a search and rescue mission. I found that note on the peg board in our office on July 22. I never heard if they made it back but didn’t see them on the news either so I am hoping they are safe.

But who knows, they may be stranded in the back of some canyon and 10 years from now we will hear about their amazing survival story.

4. Avoid glass and label your can goods

In rough seas, the galley becomes a battlefield. The pitch and yaw of rough seas and gusty winds can turn a dutch oven into a scud missile. Things like glass jars and wine glasses soon become shrapnel as objects fling themself out of cupboards and smash on bulkheads and cabin floors.

When I was buying my endeavour 42, I hired a delivery captain to fit out the boat and sail it from Tampa Bay to Marathon Florida. As part of his job, he needed to buy living supplies to stay on the boat for three weeks as we brought the boat north to Beaufort, NC.

He bought all sorts of cool things like new pots and pans and a full set of flatware. He also bought a very nice french press coffee pot with a tempered glass cylinder to maximize flavor and keep coffee steaming hot. That coffee pot cost me $50 and lasted barely a mile and half out of port when a wake launched that glass cylinder against the bulkhead. Glass is tough on a sailboat.

That being said, I do love storing dry goods in mason jars afloat. Sure they break often enough, but they are relatively cheap to replace and ensure a watertight seal for your flour, rice, beans, oats and other dry goods that go bad in salty places in plastic bags.

You can protect them in the cupboard with silicone webbing available at most big box stores and online megamarts. But who is really gonna indict Grandma’s go to for preserving peaches when all it costs you a $1 worth of oats when it crashes to the deck.

Another good alternative for heavy weather life aboard ship is can goods. They are battle tested and virtually impermeable, even when stored in dank old dark holds of a sailboat. The drawback with can goods is you have to open them to see what’s inside when the humidity and seawater peel off the labels and melt them into bilge sludge.

Do yourself a favor and label them before you put them in the galley locker. Three days at sea with water seeping into every uncaulked hole can make even the most astute seaside chef scratch their head when they pull an unmarked can from the hold. Is it creamed corn or is it canned peas? Do you want to have to open five different cans of food to find the canned tomatoes you were looking for? Label everything in advance with a good label maker.

5. Head lamps, batteries, and darkness

The first night you find yourself wedging your bags around your body to keep you in the bunk while you try to sleep, you will realize life aboard ship in foul weather is tough. And it becomes even tougher when the darkness sets in and you are trying to preserve night vision so the on duty crew can keep the boat upright while the winds and waves batter them on deck.

Headlamps and good batteries are a must. One hand is always for you and the other is always for the boat so if you have to carry a flashlight to empty your bladder on a pitching boat deck in the middle of the night, you will likely hurt yourself.

By strapping on a headlamp (preferably one that has a night vision setting - you know the red light that is used on submarines in the movies), you will keep both hands free to move about the cabin and perform on deck functions. You will get so much use out of a headlamp on a boat that you ought to bring back up batteries for it and for any other battery operated things you might have like fans, radios and other items.

A darkened ship is a different world and to be safe at night especially when it is rough weather requires that everyone respect each other's night vision while underway. A good headlamp with lots of back up power will make your life so much better that you’ll want to go sailing sometime soon again, even if you step off the boat after this storm and say” I’m never doing this ever again.”

6. The ditch bag - your secret weapon

All cruisers who go off shore are familiar with the ditch bag. It’s usually a waterproof bag that holds your important papers, credit cards, passport, medication, cell phone and other important stuff you might need if the boat goes down. But you don't have to be on a cross Atlantic blue water adventure hailing a mayday to enjoy the benefits of a ditch bag. When the weather turns foul, a waterproof ditch bag is a great place to put all your important stuff to keep it from getting saturated.

The nice part about a personal ditch bag is you can put anything you want in it. It will be there if the boat goes down, but it will also be safe even if the boat doesn’t go down and it just gets soaked by an improperly dogged down hatch or porthole. There are all kinds of good ditch bags and ways to protect your stuff, but one I really like and I am happy to call my friends is UGO.

It’s a neoprene carrying case for your cell phone and keys, but now they have an even larger tablet version which can hold even more stuff. But what’s so great about a waterproof carrying case for your phone you ask? Well this one floats just in case your vee birth fills with water and all you stuff get saturated in a pile on the deck.

You can rest assured that your wallet, cell phone and keys will float at the top of the pile and stay safe and dry in a UGO dry pouch. To be totally clear, Mel and Vicky are really great friends of mine, but I would advocate for UGO even if I didn’t know them because it’s just such a cool idea. You can check them out at most of the boat shows to see these things in action or head over to their website.undefined

7. Reach out to someone - from the middle of nowhere

Since I'm talking about great ideas and better deals let me also introduce you to the newest deal in Satellite Phones.

For far too long, Sat phones have been the privilege of the well-to-do who were not so well connected. If you wanted to go where the wild things were, you had to give up your connection to civilization or pay $1000 for a sat phone.

Since moving to Utah, I have found out how hard it is to make a call when service is spotty and quite frankly if I had had one of these phones on a few of my deliveries offshore, I wouldn’t have had so many run ins with bad weather- more on that in the next section.

While a brand new sat phone with data will run you upwards of $2000, Amazon has a refurbished sat phone for just $200 and plans for just $90 per month for Global Star and Nexus Wireless. We found this to be quite affordable and provide us with a ton of peace of mind while we are either on a mountain top in Utah or 50 miles off the coast of Florida.

Now I am not saying this phone will allow me to live stream to Facebook from the middle of the Gulf of Mexico, but what it will do is allow me to stay connected with shore, get weather updates and ensure I can reach help if I ever need it.

A Sat Phone should be part of everyone’s heavy weather operational plan and if you have any questions about whether it’s right for sailing in heavy weather or not, I point your attention to SV Delos and their voyage to the Azores last year.

They posted a daily update with conditions and stories to their Facebook page and their huge following 1000 miles from the nearest cell tower and always stayed in touch. Now that there are affordable sat phone solutions and even more affordable plans with Nexus Wireless, no one should head offshore or into heavy weather without one.

8. Know your weather before it hits you

The biggest thing about heavy weather sailing is the heavy weather. If you can avoid the nasties then why don’t you?

There are lots of tricks to tell where the wind is going to go next, but the best bet for weather prognostication I have found is satellite weather from Sirius XM. It’s not that expensive and you do have to buy some gear for your boat, but once I was hooked up, I got live weather updates laid over my gps screen and live lightning and winds warnings too. It really changed my world and after my experience on a 36 lagoon off the coast of Florida, I will never sail without XM weather ever again.

We were sailing out of Tampa once again on our way to do a delivery to Beaufort. We had been out for a week and the winds were light and variable the whole time. This meant that we had to motor most of the way and that caused us to blow a gasket on our starboard motor just outside Port St. Lucie.

When we put in, and because most of the trip was hot and boring and now a motor was dead, most of my crew decided to fly home and that left me and my buddy Jay to take this boat the rest of the way back to North Carolina, on one motor.

We decided to go at 6pm on a Tuesday.

We sailed through the first night without incident and by the time the sun rose the next morning, the wind had freshened just a bit and we were making a cool 5 knots some twenty miles off Melbourne. By midday we had reached Daytona Beach and off in the distance we could see dark clouds building.

By 3pm, we found ourselves darting between downpours and lightning strikes but it was until we eyed St. Augustine that the roll cloud appeared. With no cell phone and no weather info, we decided to make a bee-line for St. Austine and hoped to make it inside before the roll cloud reached us. We didn’t make it.

I could see the wall of wind rolling towards us from at least 10 miles off. The calm blue green seas turned in foam streaked torrents as the 75 mile an hour breeze streaked towards us. I told Jay to take the helm and I darted up to the mast to drop the main. It came down with a loud thump into the stack pack and then I turned my interests to the roller furled jib.

We had noted that it was incredibly difficult to turn due to a worn out bearing in the base, but failed to fix it while we were in the safety of the Gulf. Now that we were on blue water and all hell was about to break loose I regretted that, as I struggled to furl the jib.

When I got the jib half way in, the wall of wind reached us. The catamaran leaned hard to starboard as the wind hit us broadside and I begged Jay to head the boat to wind. The one motor groaned under the load but begrudgingly turned the bows of the pontoons to wind and allowed the jib to whip violently in the vicious wind. Just then rain began falling like boxes of hand grenades being poured onto a dance floor and echoed through the deck of the limping boat.

The sky seemed to become night within seconds with only the lightning to light our way. In the flashes I could see what was left of the jib whipping the jib sheets into a 18 inch knot. When the wall of wind passed us, a steady 20 knots followed and stirred the Atlantic waters into a washing machine.

For 6 more hours we plodded our way into port and slammed the stricken vessel into the first open slip we could find and walked away. I called my wife when I finally got cell service again and she sounded terrified when she picked up. “MY GOD ARE YOU STILL ALIVE?” I laughed weakly and said “yes, why?”

She then told me that the storm was all over the news and that she had tried to warn me that I was sailing right into it. With no working phone and no early weather warning, I was a sitting duck and so was our boat.

Thankfully we made it to shore, but there but for the grace of God go I. I will never go to sea ever again without satellite weather and a satellite phone.

9. Know your limits

I’m not saying that I was not ready to handle a 36’ lagoon at sea when that roll cloud came through, but I can tell you I was ill prepared. Without the right gear including weather and phones, I should never have tried that. But now I know. And I still get caught by the weather every once and again.

I wish I could say it gets better and that it isn’t as scary the second or third time, but I’d be lying. Anytime you're in bad weather in a boat, a little piece of you should be terrified. If it isn’t then you don't have enough experience to be out there and should have headed home way before the grey clouds roll in.

And that’s it. Know what you know and don’t do things that you don’t know. If you have never sailed in 30 knots of wind, don't start sailing in 50 knots. Read the forecast and sail to your experience level and to the readiness level of your boat.

Lots of people ask, I have a 26’ sailboat, can I sail offshore? You sure as hell can but why would you want to? If you have to ask the question if you should, then assume you should not. Because the fact that you even asked is evidence that you don’t know. So don’t do what you don’t know.

And here’s the big finish!

10. Consider your guests

No one likes to be scared or nervous or feel ill or worst of all be cold and wet. If you boldly go out, your first consideration should always be the comfort of your family and guests. If the weather turns foul, odds are the seas will build, the temps will drop and winds will freshen.

These factors make an otherwise pleasant day on the water, very unpleasant.  And while it may just get your juices flowing to have a boat healed 45 degrees and 35 knots whipping across your deck, there is a very good chance that not everyone would agree with you that that is ideal sailing conditions.

Condescending, domineering skippers often find themselves single handing their boats because no one wants to sail with them. If you get a reputation as a skipper who always finds the heavy breeze and the nasty conditions, you will soon be short of guests to sail with. So always check the weather and plan your trip with a top consideration for your guests.

So that's it, my ten best tips for sailing in heavy weather. I have spent more than my share of time sailing in weather I would rather not have sailed in and I like to think that I am old enough and smart enough to avoid the nasties whenever I can. I wish I could.

Mother Nature is a fickle old girl and can turn on a dime. Prep yourself and your boat for the nasties well in advance and never leave the dock without the assumption that bad weather could and will hit. If you get back to shore afterwards and all was fine then you lucked out. But don't ever rely on luck to keep you safe in a sailboat.

Thanks for reading, and remember to do good, have fun and sail far.

10 Tips for Sailing In Heavy Weather

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