Storm tactics for small yachts


I chuckle every time I hear someone say, “You sailed around the world on that?” “That” is a 1966 Cal 30 sloop, which Bill Lapworth designed for coastal cruising and racing, not offshore passagemaking. However, her diminutive size, relatively short rig, and strongly constructed hull and deck structure have survived sustained gales, repeated groundings and a full knockdown, always emerging victorious against the elements.

To be sure, crossing oceans on a larger yacht offers certain obvious advantages. For starters, 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. This vessel is also easier to steer and control on open water and has higher freeboard, offering more protection from the seas during stormy conditions.

Smaller vessels, measuring 32 feet LOA or less, are more exposed to the ravages of storms, presenting certain greater challenges to crew. Contrary to what you might think, however, they also have some advantages. Who would think that slower sailing can actually, at times, be safer? As long as 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 the largest, most lavish mega yachts.

Weather window
The first and most obvious way to ensure a safe passage within 200 nautical miles of a major land mass is to check the five-day weather forecast. Now, when the skipper of an Oyster 60 says it’s time to sail, you should know instinctively that his weather window and yours are not the same. His vessel has a theoretical hull speed of 10.8 knots, which increases as the vessel heels under sail. A typical 30-footer has a hull speed of roughly 7.5 knots, giving the 60-footer an advantage of roughly 80 miles per day.

So, if you are sailing the 600 miles from Gibraltar to Lanzarote in the Canaries, making only 100 miles per day of progress in a light breeze along the coast of Morocco, you can expect a six-day sail. A five-day forecast leaves that sixth day of sailing up to a roll of the dice. I discovered this the hard way when a brutal southwesterly gale picked up, forcing me to motor-bash into heavy oncoming seas for 20 hours. Saltaire arrived, eventually, but her skipper was one nervous wreck when he took refuge at La Graciosa’s wind-swept, open roadstead anchorage at 0100 and rode out the storm for five days before continuing on to Puerto de Arrecife.

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 are actually advantages to being on a smaller boat.

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 Tahiti is pretty hard to screw up. 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 great shot from Fiorentino Para-Anchor showing a sea anchor deployed off the bow. In rougher conditions with longer period swell, the rode would likely be longer. 

Courtesy Fiorentino Para-Anchor

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° N 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. 

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 the Somali Bureau of Aquatic Tourism, 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. 

A sailboat hove-to with a bridle. 

Courtesy Fiorentino Para-Anchor

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.

Just to review quickly, 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 perfect 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. 

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.

Properly set up, a servo-pendulum wind vane, like this Hydrovane model, can provide steady steering during rough weather conditions. 

Courtesy Hydrovane

There are a number of drogue designs, given your preferences and the length and displacement of your vessel. The Galerider (no longer made but possibly available used online) offered several sizes of web cones, for example, that allowed 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.

Circumnavigator-author Bill Morris believes the best strategy for succeeding as an offshore voyager is to keep systems simple. Bill’s most recent book is The Captain’s Guide to Alternative Energy Afloat (Seaworthy Publications, 2019). 


By Ocean Navigator