Heavy Weather Sailing – Choose Your Sails for Perfect Balance!

In light of all of the rough weather cruisers and racers alike have been encountering the past few weeks, particularly in the Atlantic, there seems like no better time to bring you a Boat Rat on heavy weather sailing courtesy of Captain John and his team at www.skippertips.com.

Did you know that in heavy weather sailing, it is not necessarily the size of a wave that makes it dangerous but the shape of it? Offshore sailor and SkipperTips member Lindsay Turvey of New Zealand provides expert advice from his years of blue water sailing!

When sailing in heavy weather the waves rather than the wind are our greatest enemy. The short steep waves are the ones to be very wary of. New waves whipped up by a sudden increase in wind strength tend to be steep and close together. When the wave becomes steep enough the tops collapse onto the face of the wave. This creates white caps or roaring walls of white water like surf breaking on a beach. Older waves from a distant storm are often still big but become well rounded with plenty of distance between the crests.

The best way for a cruising sailor to cope with heavy weather is to slow the boat down by reducing sail. This will give a more comfortable ride, and help the crew maintain their energy.

Keep Your Sailboat Under Control

When the wind gets over 25 knots, it takes surprisingly very little sail area to bring a yacht close to hull speed. In unstable gusty conditions it is best to choose sail combinations that give you the most control.

You must be able to cope with the peak gusts which can often be 40% more than the forecast or average wind speed. Don’t be afraid to use storm sails in these sailing conditions, they work a treat.

By choosing a balanced sail combination that will not overpower the yacht in the gusts, you will be able to control the speed traveled through the water to something close to hull speed, which in turn will help keep the helm light and easy to steer.

Use the Right Heavy Weather Sails

Choose a heavy weather sail combination on your boat that will:

  • give power to punch through the seas.
  • slow the boat for control on any point of sail.
  • balance the boat for “finger-tip” steering.
  • reduce pitching and yawing in all conditions.
  • provide crew comfort to help reduce fatigue.Make your sail choices based on the point of sail. Use the summaries below to find the best combination of balance and control.Beating (Close-Hauled) Courses
    If you are beating (close hauled), you will need to set a deep-reefed mainsail or trysail in order to make way to windward. Combine this with a storm jib (also called a “spitfire”) for good power and drive.Reaching or Running Courses
    If you are reaching or running use a trysail and headsail, or headsail alone. This makes sailing much easier and you avoid the worry of an unexpected jibe when running.

    One word of caution on any point of sail–if you have too little sail up, the steadying effect of the sail will be lost and the yacht will wallow at the mercy of the waves.

    This makes it difficult to move around the yacht as safely and the motion will fatigue your sailing crew in short order. Also if you slow the boat too much it will become difficult to maintain a reasonably steady course.

    In heavy weather sailing, choose sails that can keep the yacht moving through a wide range of wind strengths in gusty conditions. This will increase your enjoyment, decrease your work load, and maintain a relatively safe and memorable experience.

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