Storm Tactics

Almost every sailor who has thought about heading offshore for an ocean passage of some sort has given at least some thought to the possibility of being caught out in a storm. But no matter how much he or she has read about storm tactics and no matter how well equipped the boat, there will be situations in which a sailor must adjust to the conditions at hand when the storm arrives. My two-man crew and I ran into a nasty North Atlantic storm in the middle of the Denmark Strait between Greenland and Iceland in July 2005 and had to decide on our best storm strategy on the spot.

At the time, we were in the process of a trans-Atlantic passage via the northern route from Baddeck, Nova Scotia, to the west coast of Scotland via Newfoundland, Labrador, Greenland, Iceland and the Faroe Islands in my J-46 auxiliary sloop Cielita, and with a total of three of us aboard – all experienced offshore sailors.

We exited Prins Christiansund on the east coast of Greenland on a beautiful sunny day with following winds and the intention of sailing north for a couple of days to explore some of the east coast of Greenland before heading off to Iceland. Although we had spent the night before our departure at the weather station at the eastern end of Prins Christiansund and enjoyed a nice breakfast that very morning as the guests of the keepers of that station, we had been unable to obtain useful weather information from our hosts, whose only duties were to support the equipment provided by the Danish government for trans-Atlantic air traffic information, and who had no weather prediction expertise of any use to us mariners.

As the day progressed, we found ourselves being pushed farther and farther offshore by increasing amounts of berg ice and growlers drifting south along Greenland as the winds built to more than 25 knots. We found ourselves going faster and faster though the ice fields in building seas on our starboard quarter, despite greatly reduced sail.

Fields of growlers
By late in the day, we were some 30 miles offshore and moving at more than 9 knots under heavily reefed sails, weaving our way through growler fields with less than a boat length between chunks of ice the size of cars and houses. We were feeling very much out of control and in significant danger. It was patently clear that it would be extremely unwise to try to close the coast to port due to the conditions of ice, wind, and sea state, and that our only choice was to head out to sea to starboard, away from the Greenland coast, in the hope of finding ice-free conditions.

By the time we decided to head east for Iceland, we were well out of range for VHF radio contact. And no stations in the North Atlantic still monitor 2,182 kHz on the SSB. Although we could receive radiofax weather information via SSB, this all came from England, way to our east, and gave us little information about the weather headed our way from northern Canada to our west. And as it happened, our Internet connectivity was down as well, due to a problem with our ISP’s server, so we couldn’t get weather data via grib files for several days. To top it off, our newly installed satellite-based unit was not properly programmed to receive signals in that part of the world either.

But as it turned out, it wouldn’t have mattered even if we had known a storm was headed our way in the Denmark Strait, because we were forced to head out to sea by the conditions of ice and sea state, and we would have done so even if we’d known what was coming in the way of nasty weather. Fortunately, in those latitudes north of 60° in mid-July there is no darkness.

Everything went well for the next 24 hours or so – until we were about 200 miles out into the Denmark Strait, when the weather deteriorated significantly, and that body of water lived up to its reputation as a very nasty place to be in a small boat – or in any boat, for that matter.

Gale force winds
As the winds built to gale force, we reefed down and eventually struck the mainsail altogether. We were caught on the north side of a North Atlantic low moving from west to east and producing winds from the northeast in our sector. On our easterly course we were confronted with winds and seas on our port bow. For a time, we continued on under reefed No. 3 jenny. But eventually the roller reefing line parted, and we had to strike the jib altogether and set our storm jib on the inner forestay.

By this time the wind velocity was exceeding 50 knots, and the head seas had built to enormous proportions. For the next 36 hours we were to be confronted with headwinds of 55 knots at the wave tops, and the head seas were actually breaking every third or fourth wave. We estimated the wave heights at more than 40 feet. None of the three of us had ever encountered conditions this severe, and we huddled over which of the available strategies to consider.

Considering a sea anchor
We talked through all the available storm tactics available to us. We had aboard a parachute-style (Paratech) sea anchor and associated rode; and although we were familiar with the techniques for deploying it, we realized that doing so would commit us to this tactic for the duration of the storm. Furthermore, we were concerned about the risk to our large spade rudder, should the boat surge backward going up the face of a wave. The prospect of losing our rudder in mid-ocean was not appealing. And retrieving a sea anchor under these conditions would have been impossible. Had we needed to abandon this technique, we would have had to cut the sea anchor away and kiss it goodbye. So we decided to keep this option available, but to consider others.

Deploy a drogue?
We also had aboard a good drogue (GaleRider) with its associated rode, so we considered deploying this and running before the seas under bare poles. But the danger of being pooped by one of the huge breaking waves we were encountering was a real concern. One of us would have had to hand steer using this technique, and none of us wanted to be the guy at the helm when and if we got pooped. Furthermore, this technique of running before the seas would have taken us in a southwesterly direction toward the center of the low and almost directly away from our desired course. So this technique was ruled out – at least for the time being.

Lying ahull
The option of lying ahull under bare poles was also considered but quickly abandoned. It seemed all too likely that this technique would result in a knockdown or roll with ultimate dismasting, given the size of the seas and the fact that many were actually breaking. It is hard to imagine that this technique would ever be wise in a boat like ours in conditions like these.

Heaving to
The option we considered most seriously was an attempt to heave to. But there were a number of problems with this idea. First of all, we had never tried heaving to in this boat under similar conditions. I had occasion to heave to for brief periods with this boat before, but not with 55 knots of wind and 40-foot breaking seas, and not for a prolonged period. Furthermore, prior to going to sea we had not rigged the storm trysail on its separate track on the mainmast. In order to heave to, we would obviously need some kind of sail set aft of the mast to keep us pointed upwind and balance a backed jib. This meant either the storm trysail, which would have been ideal, or a triple-reefed main. We realized that setting either sail would have put one or more of us at serious risk of injury or being washed overboard in these conditions, and the prospect appeared daunting at best.

Deciding to forereach
So the default strategy was to do none of the above. In the end, we concluded that the safest thing to do for the ship and crew was to forereach into the teeth of the wind and seas under storm jib alone. Surprisingly little seems to be written about the technique of forereaching in storm conditions, but at the time it seemed our best option. And in retrospect, I think we did the right thing.

We remained close-hauled on port tack at about 45° to 60° to the apparent wind most of the time. But every time we saw a breaking wave approach, the helmsman would head the boat straight up into the breaker and then fall off quickly as the wave passed in order to regain some momentum before the next breaker was upon us. This was exhausting work – to say nothing of wet, cold and frightening – and it required that one of us stay on deck and actively hand steer at all times. But it worked, and the boat handled it remarkably well.

Some shortcomings
Having said this, however, there are some shortcomings to the technique we chose, which should be noted. It did require one of us to steer at all times so that the boat could be headed up into the oncoming waves that looked like they were going to break over us – or roll us if we failed to do so. This required tremendous concentration and could only be managed by each of us in turn for an hour at a time. This meant that each of us had to steer for one hour and go below for only two hours. Had we needed to continue this watch schedule for much longer than 36 hours, we’d have become too exhausted, and we would have had to resort to one of the other storm tactics.

Furthermore, had there been any significant darkness during this period, we would have been unable to see the oncoming breakers and would not have known when it was necessary or prudent to head directly up wind into them. As it was, we all wore ski goggles while on deck in order to see anything through the spray that was almost constant. And if any of the three of us had not been experienced sailors with a feel for when to head up, how to get the boat moving again and avoid going in irons, this forereaching would not have been possible.

Lessons to be learned
As with any experience related to storm conditions at sea, there are always lessons to be learned. It is always prudent to do one’s best to obtain accurate weather forecasts before going to sea, particularly before heading out into the open ocean of the North Atlantic, which is known for the never-ending sequence of lows that march across from northern Canada to Norway at about 60° north latitude pretty much year round. On the other hand, the likelihood of encountering some foul weather on a five-day passage of some 700 miles in these latitudes is extremely high almost no matter what you do, so it is wise to expect the worst and be prepared.

If I had it all to do over again – and I may well some day – I would seriously consider bending the storm trysail onto its track on the mainmast and having it ready to hoist at the first hint that we might be getting ourselves into storm conditions. Not having done so definitely influenced our decision not to heave to, which would probably have been our best option if impending darkness had been a consideration or if the storm conditions had lasted longer than our physical ability to continue forereaching.

I was also probably remiss in my decision not to dismantle and stow the dodger. The decision not to do so was based on our desire to have it in place for reasons of personal comfort while on deck in the cockpit. Even after it was damaged by the heavy seas we were taking over the bow and cabin trunk, it continued to afford the helmsman at least some protection from the nearly continuous spray blowing into our faces while standing at the helm and steering the ship into the big breakers.

But at the end of the day, we did a lot of things correctly. And it turned out that the little-known technique of forereaching as a storm tactic worked well for us. Having a good sea anchor and a good drogue aboard, each with its own dedicated rode, even though neither was put to the test, was nonetheless a great comfort because they permitted us to at least consider these options and have them available as alternatives. It should be said, however, that both of these pieces of gear should be deployed and tested in advance of ever having to use them in storm conditions.

Although the storm conditions we encountered may be rare in most parts of the sailing world, they are not so uncommon in high latitudes. But every sailor who puts to sea and heads for the open ocean should be prepared to deal with extreme, adverse weather conditions. Having a solid boat that has been well maintained and is well equipped, and having an experienced crew who are knowledgeable about storm tactics – including the option of forereaching – is all certainly a part of good seamanship. 

By Ocean Navigator