How To Sail Through Heavy Winds and High Seas By Tracy Leonard
eavy air cruising. Well, those are three words that make stomachs rumble and second thoughts surface. But, alas, high winds arise, and sometimes unexpectedly. What can you do to maximize your chances of emerging unscathed should you find yourself in heavy winds and seas? Before you leave the dock, check the weather forecast for predicted wind speeds and chances of squalls and frontal passages throughout the time you plan to sail. If the weather seems unstable or uncomfortable, stay flexible. You may even wish to shorten or delay your sail. If high winds are in the forecast and you want to take on the challenge, ensure you are as well prepared as possible for what Mother Nature throws your way. Ideally, a good deal of practice using your boat’s systems—from raising, lowering, and reefing sails to operating the VHF and knowing how to operate other safety equipment—has already taken place at the dock and under light air conditions before your crew expands its skills and experience in incrementally higher winds.
According to Captain Kip Louttit, USCG retired and executive director of the marine exchange of Southern California, the keys to sailing safely in heavy weather lie in both a well-equipped vessel ready to take on the weather and a well-equipped crew who knows how to sail the boat and how to use the boat’s heavy weather gear. What constitutes a well-equipped crew? Each sailor should have a PFD, harness, and tether for heavy weather sailing, know how to use them, and don them early before the spray starts flying. Knives, waterproof flashlights, whistles, and personal locator beacons (PLB) complement the personal safety kit. Wearing appropriate foul weather gear plays an important role in keeping crew and boat safe. “The key to safety and performance in heavy weather is that you need to prevent getting cold and wet, or you won’t be able to perform and be safe,” said Louttit. Beyond pants and jackets, appropriate clothing can include warm socks and boots, layered fleeces, gloves, and watch
Websites for Weather Forecasts: • SpinSheet’s Chesapeake Weather Page spinsheet.com/weather • Passage Weather: passageweather.com • Maps of real-time lightning strikes: lightningmaps.org • Storm app: wunderground.com/storm 100 October 2017 spinsheet.com
caps. Even in late May or August, these items can make a cold squall more bearable. What constitutes a well-equipped boat? Sails, obviously. Boats sailing on protected waters should also carry a VHF and perhaps an EPIRB, PLB, flashlights, and charts. Boats sailing on more open waters will carry this equipment and may add on jacklines, radar reflectors, flares, a medical kit, a spotlight, storm sails, and a life raft as safety equipment choices. In addition, all gear needs to be secured above and below decks. Heavy weather has a tendency to lurch objects in unexpected directions, which can cause serious injury. If you expect to be in heavy weather for an extended length of time, it may help to take seasick meds before leaving the dock or before the heavy weather hits. Having easy-to-eat food and hot water already prepared can keep crew energy levels high. If you find you may be caught in a passing squall or thunderstorm, prepare early. Louttit advised, “Fly smaller sails than you think the boat and crew may be able to handle.” Scott Nixon, global offshore one design director for Quantum Sails, said, “Balance is the key when trying to sail in heavy winds and in heavy seas.” Some quick ideas for making the boat easier to sail in heavy weather include reducing
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