This article was originally published on SailNet in March 2001.
Sailing in fresh air is always a balancing act between speed and control. Letting her rip can be such a joy that intentionally slowing or stopping a boat may seem boring. But when you try heaving-to, you'll probably find it to be as satisfying a feat of seamanship as it is a necessary one.
In this balancing act, sailing is like another inherently risky pastime, downhill skiing. There, an "expert" is defined not as the fastest or flashiest skier on the mountain, but as someone who can safely negotiate all slopes in all conditions. The challenge is to be able to ski both fast and slow, and to stop quickly, too.
One way to slow a boat in a gust is to let the sheets fly, but that eventually leaves her dead in the water with her sails luffing so violently that they seem likely to explode. Feathering and forereaching are much more satisfactory techniques because they keep the sails in control and leave the boat with steerage way, so you can dodge the next wave or a passing boat if the need arises.
To stop a boat under sail so that she's comfortable but can still get under way quickly, heave-to. In terms of skiing, it's like slowing down drastically in order to take in a mountain view or carefully negotiate a patch of ice (you can see that I ski in New England). Usually associated with riding out storms at sea, heaving-to in fact has many uses in many conditions, for example, to ease the boat's heel and motion under a crew that is eating or reefing.
The traditional way to heave-to is to back the jib when the boat is on a close reach (or you can tack without releasing the windward jibsheet). The mainsail leech and jib luff then work against each other to balance the boat, the mainsail pushing up and the jib pushing down. Adjust the sheets and mainsail traveler until boat speed is very low, there is some leeway, and the boat steers herself, usually with a line making the wheel or tiller fast in one position. The proper sail geometry varies with the boat; an overlapping jib may have to be rolled up partway, and you might be able to heave-to under mainsail alone.
A newer way to heave-to (which I call the Rod-stop because it was developed by Rod Stephens) requires pushing the sails out. On a close reach, ease the mainsheet and pull the boom all the way forward to the leeward shrouds with a preventer (see sidebar). Cleat the preventer and luff or roll up the jib. Flatten the mainsail by tightening the outhaul and other sail controls or by reefing. The mainsail will flags with the wind, alternately filling on its two sides to push the boat along slowly with swoops to windward and leeward, usually without requiring a steerer.
The Rod-stop is good in light to fresh winds and keeps the boat level, which makes it an excellent way in normal conditions to quickly pause to in case you need to navigate, make lunch, take a photo, or change a diaper—whatever.
You'll need a preventer for the Rod-stop, but you should have one aboard anyway to keep the boom from swatting crew. Except for the liquor locker, the boom is potentially the most lethal item on a boat that's underway, and like booze it must be secured. A simple preventer is a line whose end is secured at the boom a few feet aft of the gooseneck. The line is led through a block on the rail forward of the chainplates, then aft to the cockpit near the main sheet cleat so the sheet and preventer can be adjusted simultaneously. The leeward preventer should be tight always, in all conditions. I rig port and starboard preventers so that when we change tacks there's always a line holding the boom out and away from my skull. I'll fill you in more on boom control devices in my next article.
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