Preparing for storms at sea


With modern weather forecasts, we usually have ample warning of approaching bad weather, even at sea. That doesn’t mean we can always avoid a storm or gale, but at least we can prepare for it. Looking back through our passage logs, we have been through five Force 10 storms at sea in our 13 years of cruising, and maybe twice that many Force 8 or 9 gales.

As long as we have time to prepare and a lot of sea room, Nine of Cups, our Liberty 458 cutter, handles the rough weather pretty well. Our preparations begin with a checklist. With our first storm, we knew a day or two in advance that we were likely to encounter storm conditions. We wrote down a list of the things we thought we needed to do to prepare for it. When the storm was over, we reviewed and edited the list, adding comments and notes. We now keep it in a notebook at the nav station.

After weathering 60-knot  conditions that left them with a shredded main, David and Marcie Lynn now prepare for a storm even when a gale is forecast.  

We make sure we know where everything we need is stowed. Our checklist includes not only every action item, but also has notes on where some of the seldom-used items are stowed.  

We also make sure we remember how to do everything on the checklist. Rigging the storm trysail took some trial and error the first time to get the height correct and the sheets routed optimally. Even though we have sailed with it a number of times, my memory being what it is, I have a sketch with the checklist that shows the details.

We also try to make up “kits” with related items. Using the trysail example, we keep the sheets, clew line and necessary snatch blocks together in the trysail sailbag so we don’t have to root around in the forepeak locker trying to find lines to use as sheets. The sheets and clew line are pre-attached to the sail. The clew line is the correct length to make sure the sail is hoisted to the optimal height, and has an eye spliced in the end which we attach to the reef hook on the boom.

Our checklist has five categories.

Category one: Sails and rigging. Nine of Cups is a cutter rig, and we start by replacing the staysail with the storm jib. The staysail is much easier to remove than the headsail in a breeze with a short-handed crew, and Cups sails and heaves-to better in strong winds with the storm jib on the staysail track than it does on the headsail track. Next, we lower the mainsail and lash it to the boom. We have a boom crutch, and the boom is lowered onto and lashed to it. We have only a single sail track on the mast, so the mainsail must be completely removed from its track prior to mounting the trysail. Initially, we thought we might add a second sail track for the trysail, but we don’t find it that difficult to remove the main. The sheets for the trysail are rigged, and it is hoisted into place and trimmed.

Category two: The deck area. We inspect the lifelines and jacklines. Using duct tape, rags, and/or modeling clay, we cover or plug all openings like chainpipes, and seal all the hatches and portholes. We cap the dorades. Fuel cans, anchors and other deck gear are double-lashed. The dinghy engine which usually sits on the aft starboard rail is moved inboard and double-lashed as well. The dinghy is deflated on the foredeck and heavily lashed. We remove and stow the bimini and dodger, and lash the supports. Any loose gear in the cockpit is stowed below. The wind generator is tied off. A few extra lines are fished out of the forepeak locker and stowed in an accessible location. Lazarette hatches and deck boxes are latched closed. We inspect the life raft and re-familiarize ourselves with the technique for deploying it.

Category three: Preparation below decks. Obviously, anything that can slide, fall or go flying needs to be stowed or lashed. Every locker is checked. Canned goods, bottles, pans, or loose gear that can slide around inside a locker will be very annoying later, and potentially act as cannonballs if a locker door somehow flies open. We make sure that everything is restrained and padded using rags or towels. We secure all the floorboards and horizontal hatch covers, like the fridge/freezer lids. Laptops, tablets, cameras, etc., are stowed in their protective cases and tucked away safely. We make up the seaberths and attach the lee cloths.

We inspect and check a number of key items to ensure they are working and where they should be: flashlights and batteries, spotlight, ditch bag, extra flares, EPIRB, bilge pumps (both manual and electric), rigger’s knife, Leatherman tool, etc. We have a series drogue, and we prepare it for deployment. The AIS system and radar guard bands are set up and checked. The tools and cutters we might need to cut away the standing rigging in the event of a dismasting are checked. The wood for covering broken portholes, portlights and hatches is made ready.

Category four: Engine checks. If we do need to start the engine during a storm, it will be due to some emergency like a ship bearing down on us, and we want to be sure we won’t have a problem with it. We check the oil and coolant, and inspect the hoses and belts, electrical connections, etc. We run it for an hour or so to make sure the batteries are charged, then, since we use a day tank, we make sure it is topped up.

Category five: Personal preparations. We dig out and check the foul weather gear, PFDs and harnesses. We also locate our dive masks and snorkels. The driving rain and spray are sometimes so intense, it is impossible to face into it, and if we have to go forward to handle some problem, we will actually wear our masks and snorkels. We will quite likely be seasick, so we take our seasickness medications. If we aren’t sick, we will want to eat, so Marcie makes up a big pot of stew that can sit on the gimbaled stove and be reheated as needed. We store energy snacks like granola bars and nuts where they can be reached easily. We fill a few water bottles and the tea kettle. We fill a thermos with hot water. We request all the latest weather forecasts. Then we try to get rest.

Once the storm arrives, our strategy depends on the direction of the winds. If we can sail with the wind, we will continue sailing, reefing the storm jib as needed, until the apparent wind is 40-plus knots. The trysail cannot be reefed, so if our speed is too high, we douse the trysail and continue under bare poles. If the winds continue to increase, or our speed gets too high, or the waves start to break, we deploy our series drogue. This is the type of drogue that incorporates many small cones, 180 of them in our case, attached to a very long line. We did a lot of research on storm tactics, and this type of drogue, deployed from the stern, seemed to make the most sense to us. Also in its favor is that we could make it ourselves. Its biggest drawback is that the cockpit is quite likely to get pooped, so once it is deployed, we button up the cockpit, go below, and keep an eye on the radar and AIS, peeking out occasionally to make a visual check.

If we are sailing to windward when the storm arrives, we heave-to once the winds get much above 32 to 35 knots. Trying to beat into the wind and seas when the wind is any stronger is hard on the boat and the crew, with little to no headway to show for it. It is much more comfortable being hove-to. Once the wind gets into the 45- to 50-knot range, we deploy the drogue, drop the sails, and bear off to leeward.

Of the five storms we have experienced at sea, in only two of them did we sustain any significant damage. In the three storms we experienced in which we were fully prepared, we sustained no significant damage.

David and Marcie Lynn have lived aboard Nine of Cups, their 1986 Liberty 458 cutter since 2000 and have sailed more than 70,000 nautical miles in their ever-so-slow world circumnavigation. Find them at


By Ocean Navigator