Bermuda is one of the great cruising destinations, and because of it, during the busy season (late spring as sailors head from the Caribbean to New England or Europe, and the fall when they head back south), it can get pretty crowded. Nonetheless one of the best times to visit is September. It was late September one year when I found myself tied to the dock in St. George's Harbor. The days weren't as hot as mid-summer, and the nights were cool for sleeping. I recall that the view from my deck was spectacular; puffy cumulus clouds tinged with pink towered overhead in the early morning. It was a red sky in the morning and like a good sailor, I had taken warning. September is a great time to visit Bermuda, but it's also hurricane season and I was awaiting the passing of Hurricane Florence, which was due to skirt the island the next afternoon.
While Bermuda Harbor Radio crackled with hurricane updates, I thought about storm sails. Remember those two unused sails stacked under the foc'sle bunk—the ones you hope you never have to use? Well just in case you have a need for them on your next offshore passage, let's take some time to discuss how they work and what are the best ways to trim them. Not only is this good seamanship, it's knowledge that can save your life.
Let's start with the storm jib and begin by making it absolutely clear that a rolled-up headsail reefed down to storm-jib size is not an adequate storm sail. It's probably not built to take the abuse that a gale can dish out and if it is, it will not be of any use to you unreefed. You need a sail that is properly designed and engineered for storm conditions, and you need a firm and fixed place to attach it. That means, if possible, an inner forestay (without a rolled-up sail on it) and two padeyes on deck for the sheeting points. There's a product called the Gale Sail (see sidebar) that conveniently fits over a rolled-up sail, but for my money nothing beats an old-fashioned, hanked-on storm jib.
Many sailors leave storm preparation until it's too late and the approaching storm is upon them. I too have been guilty of this. Apathy often gets us into trouble and sailors who have a rolled-up headsail to get down before setting their storm jib will find themselves with greater difficulties as the unrolled sail becomes unmanageable.
Before a storm approaches—and if you're truly prudent, before you leave the dock—it's a good idea to set both storm sails so that you are familiar with their sheeting positions and can mark reference points on the halyard and the deck. These reference points will allow you to know exactly where and how the sail sheets before the conditions get rough and it's too late for trial and error. What you do is hoist your storm jib and make sure that there is a short strop or pennant at the tack so that the sail is up off the deck allowing waves to crash underneath it. With the strop in place, make sure that your sheeting point on deck is in the right location. If necessary, lengthen or shorten the strop so that the sheet hits the padeye when the sail is trimmed tightly.
I always recommend that storm-strength padeyes be mounted on the deck of an offshore cruising boat for sheeting points. If these are adequately supported by backing plates and the sail is hanked on, then you shouldn't have to worry about anything breaking. I would also suggest that you have a separate set of storm sheets permanently attached to the storm jib so that you are not looking for sheets and trying to attach them once the wind is up. Also, the sheets will have less wear and tear on them this way, giving you the peace of mind that they are strong enough for the job.
There is some debate about the merits of the storm trysail, but I believe it all comes down to the balance of your boat. On my own boat there is no need for a trysail. The boat balances fine and maneuvers well with just the storm jib, so I do not set the trysail. I would venture that many boats sail well in storm conditions with just the storm jib set, and the risk-benefit ratio of setting a storm trysail leads me to favor leaving the sail under the foc'sle bunk. Unless you have practiced setting the trysail and know exactly how it's going to be used, I would say that the dangers encountered trying to set the sail far outweigh any benefits, particularly if you're doing so in full storm conditions. On the other hand, if you need the sail area aft to balance the boat, by all means use a trysail, but follow the same rules that you did with the storm jib—practice setting the sail on the calm day, feel the balance of the boat, check that the strop at the tack allows the sail to be set above your mainsail lashed on the boom, and have two secure padeyes firmly mounted on deck for the sail to sheet to. Sometimes the best place to sheet a trysail is the toerail, but be sure that it's strong enough. You always set the trysail independent of the boom and preferably on its own separate track on the mast. Equip it with its own set of sheets and make sure that they are long enough to run through the blocks and to the cockpit where you can easily access them.
Many old salts will tell you that it's a good idea to run the trysail track all the way down to the deck where you can leave the trysail in its bag with the slides permanently mounted on the track. There is definitely some merit to this, but I would point out that in over 200,000 miles of offshore sailing, I have only had the occasion to set a storm trysail twice. So, keeping it on deck means the sail will spend a lot of time getting in the way and baking in the sun. On the other hand, it will be there when you need it, so it's really up to the boat owner or skipper to decide—and it depends on that person's nature and the kind of sailing they plan to do.
As Hurricane Florence continued its approach to Bermuda, I was happy to be tied to the dock there. There would be no need for storm gear that night, but if there had been, I was ready. I have done a dry run, practiced setting the sails at the dock and I knew where both sails were intended to be sheeted. My advice to you is that next time the wind goes light and you are wondering what to do, freak out your neighbors by setting your storm sails. At least you will be prepared when the next gale comes your way.
Considering the Gale SailThe Gale Sail, which is designed to hoist over a roller-furling headsail, is a reasonable compromise as a storm jib. You'll encounter some inherent difficulty in hoisting and lowering it—due to friction and a cumbersome hank system—but it is nonetheless a vast improvement over a reefed roller-furling headsail or the need to get one down in a storm in order to set a storm jib.
Made out of heavy Dacron by ATN, the Gale Sail has been around for just shy of a decade and comes in three sizes for boats up to 55 feet LOA. The manufacturers recommend that you hoist it on a spare jib halyard or spinnaker halyard, adding that there's no need to worry about chafe since the luff of the Gale Sail covers such a large portion of the roller-furling headsail. If you're interested in purchasing a Gale Sail, log on to the SailNet Store—they are available there.
Requirements for Shorthanded Mainsail Handling by Beth Leonard
Storm Tactics by John Kretschmer
Christmas Winds Teach Lessons by Beth Leonard
SailNet Store Section: AirForce Sails