Storm tactics for small vessels

The Galerider is a drogue formed from high-density polymer straps, which will keep a vessel safely sailing downwind in heavy weather.
The Galerider is a drogue formed from high-density polymer straps, which will keep a vessel safely sailing downwind in heavy weather.
The Galerider is a drogue formed from high-density polymer straps, which will keep a vessel safely sailing downwind in heavy weather.

When we leave the safe, predictable environs of our local cruising grounds, we find ourselves learning, sometimes the hard way, how to survive storms at sea. During my 2000-05 circumnavigation on the 1966 Cal 30 sloop Saltaire, that’s how I learned to survive gales, groundings and even a full knockdown, always emerging victorious against the elements.

Crossing oceans on a larger yacht certainly offers obvious advantages. We all know a larger craft is more stable in a seaway, cutting through swells smoothly rather than bouncing over their crests, and offering a smoother ride for her crew. In a small harbor, a large yacht is more difficult to steer and control. On open water, though, with its greater weight and higher freeboard, crew and passengers are guaranteed greater protection from the seas during stormy conditions.

Smaller vessels, measuring 32 feet LOA or less, are more exposed to the ravages of storms, posing obvious challenges to crew and passengers. However, contrary to what many say, these small vessels also have some advantages. Believe it or not, slower sailing actually can be safer. Provided you have a strong, well-designed craft, understanding your small vessel’s abilities and limitations in rough weather will permit you to make the same ocean crossings as larger yachts.

Weather window
If you are within 200 miles of a major land mass, the first and most obvious way to ensure a safe passage is to check the five-day weather forecast. When the skipper of a 100-foot vessel says it’s time to sail, you should know instinctively that his weather window and yours are not the same. His vessel has a much higher theoretical hull speed, which increases as the vessel heels under sail. A typical 30-foot sailboat has a theoretical hull speed of only 7.5 knots, giving the 100-footer a huge advantage in speed and stability on open water.    

If you are on a small sailing vessel crossing from Los Angeles to Honolulu, making only 100 miles per day of progress in a light breeze, you can expect a roughly three-week sail. With only a five-day NOAA Weather forecast, that leaves 16 days of sailing up to a roll of the dice. I faced the harsh reality of beautiful forecasts followed by many days of pain many a time during my circumnavigation. Saltaire eventually arrived at the next port, but her skipper was more than once a nervous wreck when he finally took refuge at the local watering hole before licking his wounds and gathering the energy and nerve to pursue the next leg of the voyage.

Sailing within 200 nautical miles of any coast requires ample local knowledge and sailing on a small vessel brings this to bear with greater immediacy. On offshore voyages, though, there actually are advantages to being on a smaller boat.

Broad reaching back and forth every 24 hours can help prevent capsize when running in steep seas.
Broad reaching back and forth every 24 hours can help prevent capsize when running in steep seas.

Downwind sailing
Running before the wind, particularly on long Pacific passages, is quite literally, “a breeze.” As long as you control how much sail you hoist, the voyage from Panama to the Galapagos and then on to Tahiti should be an easy ride. Just pole out the genoa, set your self-steering system, pour yourself a glass of inspiration and enjoy the tuna fishing and golden sunsets.

A winter crossing of the Atlantic, however, is quite another matter. Sailing guru Jimmy Cornell, who organizes the Atlantic Rally for Cruisers (ARC), says in his book, World Cruising Routes, “You can cross the Atlantic any time of the year, except January.” So, naturally, yours truly crossed in January.

As I angled my bateau petit onto latitude 15 degrees north and headed out west toward the Caribbean, a winter gale kicked up, throwing steep seas — some over 20 feet high — against Saltaire’s stern for two weeks. When I saw how closely she was sliding toward the backsides of waves, I started turning the boat roughly 30 degrees off the rhumb line, gybing back and forth every 24 hours.

By sailing a broad reach, zigzagging my way across the Atlantic to Martinique, Saltaire enjoyed two advantages: she created a longer, flatter swell and, by heeling to one side, produced a longer waterline, which added to her speed and offset the greater sailing distance. If you split a watermelon lengthwise and cut out a piece crosswise, you get a deep “U” shape. If you cut a diagonal piece, it will have the same height but with a much longer curve. On the water, the longer curve effectively flattens the waves, making it far safer to sail. By sailing at a faster speed, alternately beam-reaching between port and starboard across the Atlantic, Saltaire arrived safe and sound after 25 days of sailing. Columbus had the good sense to “discover” America in only 21 days. But then, he left the Canaries in early December.

Though I was fortunate not to face the worst, a stronger wind with higher following seas could have spelled disaster. If I were to do this again, I would take along either a Galerider or a Jordan Series drogue to keep the boat sailing downwind without the fear of capsize.

Larger vessels, 40 or more feet LOA, are exposed to a major disadvantage on a downwind sail. Their greater waterline length yields greater speed, exposing them to the possibility of pitchpoling, which is the capsizing of a boat stern over bow — the worst cases of which can result in the sinking of the vessel.

Bashing to weather on a small boat in huge seas can be extremely difficult, if not totally untenable. Generally speaking, areas prone to such conditions are well known to sailors, so we plan our voyages to avoid beating to windward in those corners of the world. Imagine crossing from Martinique to the Canaries along latitude 15° N, any time of year — virtually impossible.

But sailing headlong into oncoming seas can occur, such as on a sail from Kochi, India, to Oman, which I eventually altered, favoring a smoother crossing to Port Aden. Well, it was smooth, until Saltaire was boarded by Somali brigands, but that’s another story. Except for that little setback, it was a pleasant sail all the way to Port Aden.

In the northern Red Sea, about 60 miles south of Hurghada, Egypt, I was forced to heave-to under trysail for several hours, ultimately suffering a knockdown before high-tailing it back to Hurghada, where poor Saltaire could lick her wounds. 

The ability to smash headlong into oncoming seas and still maintain a respectable speed over ground is obviously one major advantage of a large, heavy-displacement vessel. A deep-keel craft weighing 10 tons or more has the capacity to build up enough momentum to cleave oncoming seas and maintain speed in a light gale. We on the little boats generally heave-to in headwinds exceeding 30 knots, depending on the weight and design of the vessel and the crew’s level of experience.

Servo-pendulum self-steering
One sure way to keep your vessel “in the groove” in storm conditions is to install a servo-pendulum self-steering system on your boat’s transom. There are numerous other dependable types of self-steering systems available, but a servo-pendulum system — such as one of the models offered by Aries, Fleming, Monitor or Sailomat — provides a high degree of stability when surfing down high seas in storm conditions.

To review, a servo-pendulum system functions by employing a tilting wind vane to transmit changes in wind direction to a submerged servo blade via a push rod and a pair of bevel gears. As the boat veers off course, the vane tilts, slightly turning the servo blade, which pulls the tiller or wheel steering until the boat is back on course. As the velocity of both wind and vessel increase, the servo system operates faster and with greater force.

The servo-pendulum’s capability of increasing force and precision with greater wind speed makes this device particularly effective in keeping the vessel on track when sliding down mountainous seas. At the moment the vessel turns ever so slightly to one side, the servo blade immediately signals the helm to turn in the opposite direction, keeping your vessel surfing “on rails.” It is rather entertaining, though sometimes scary, to look up at the wave behind you and witness the perfec t trough of foam you have left starting from the top of the hill — quite exhilarating!

Again, even with the servo-pendulum you should be sailing on a broad reach, not a run, when surfing down steep seas. The servo system keeps your boat on track, but obviously it cannot override the vessel’s innate limitations, which include exposure to pitchpole when running before the wind.

The Jordan Series Drogue creates drag over a long distance, keeping the vessel on a downwind course in a gale.
The Jordan Series Drogue creates drag over a long distance, keeping the vessel on a downwind course in a gale.

When the wind and seas build to a level well beyond the navigable range, but you still want to make headway downwind, consider deploying a drogue off the stern to keep the boat making headway, however slowly. Drogues come in many interesting designs, the simplest of which is two or three car tires bound together with chain and tethered off the stern with three-strand nylon anchor line. Storing a stack of tires aboard your yacht may be an imposition, but at least you will have that last-ditch option. Check out YouTube to see some of the zany sea anchors some die-hard sailors are using out there but bear in mind there are more workable solutions available.

The more common type of drogue takes the form of a heavy canvas or web funnel, which can be folded and stored easily in a small hold belowdecks. The drogue is weighted down with an anchor or some other heavy weight, along with a short length of chain, and then tossed over the stern where it slows the vessel down to navigable speed, preventing pitchpoling or broaching and capsizing.

Saltaire carried a canvas drogue during her five-year circumnavigation, but thankfully it never saw service. Theoretically I could have used it in that storm in the northern Red Sea, but with all the ship traffic, I needed the option of steering away quickly from cargo ships to avoid getting run over. On open water in inclement conditions, where the sea state rules out heaving-to or lying-to, a drogue can prevent capsizing or pitchpoling, allowing you to maintain headway.

You can choose from a number of drogue designs available on the market, given your preferences and the length and displacement of your vessel. Galerider offers several sizes of web cones, which allow water to disperse through the entire length of the drogue. Fiorentino of Newport Beach, Calif., offers an array of offshore safety equipment, including a heavy canvas drogue design, which is paired with a beefy coupling system designed to weather the worst of storm conditions.   

If there is one major concern regarding drogues, it is the danger in deploying such a device manually while sailing at high speeds in stormy waters. It is too easy to lose a finger or even a hand while paying out line and then securing it to a deck cleat. Even when controlling the towline with a deck winch, the stress can be overpowering. It is best to practice this procedure in settled conditions before attempting this in a full gale.

Sea anchors
A safer and easier way to ride out sustained gale conditions is with a parachute sea anchor, which you deploy off the bow in much the same way as a regular anchor. A typical sea anchor comes equipped with a heavy steel harness, swivel and retrieval line. Fiorentino has been building tough, dependable sea anchors for over 60 years and has garnered quite a following for its high-quality safety systems.

Fiorentino offers its Para-Anchor for both commercial vessels and yachts, designing its products to fit the demands of different sizes and applications of inshore and offshore vessels. The Offshore Para-Anchor, which has been awarded 14 international patents, uses a steel ring and a patented heavy tackle system to keep a large parachute submerged during deployment. The Para-Anchor’s retrieval system encompasses a trip line and an exclusive Fast-Pak design, which allows the whole parachute anchor system to be rolled up “in two minutes or less.” Fiorentino offers 10 sizes of parachutes, the largest having a diameter of 40 feet for vessels more than 65 feet in length; custom chutes can be made for larger vessels.

Less expensive parachute anchors are available from other retailers, some for under $200, but most appear to be better suited to coastal use where the Coast Guard is only a VHF call away. A sea anchor, or drogue if you prefer, is a must on all offshore vessels, both motor and sail. Find which works best for your vessel and remember to practice use of the device before attempting this while offshore in storm conditions.

Surviving storms offshore can be just as safe, if not safer, for the small yacht as for the gin palace. Knowing how to adjust to a changing sea state and deteriorating conditions with the right skills and techniques is your key to a successful ocean crossing.