A SailNet reader has asked about the difference between "heaving-to" and "laying-to." "It appears that there are two methods, one with sails (storm trysail/storm jib) and one with bare poles and a storm anchor," writes John P. Reed. "There also seems to be two ways to ‘lay-to with bare poles,’ i.e. using a sea anchor (bow to wind) and using a drogue (stern to wind). Hopefully I will never be in the situation where these procedures are required, but I would like to better understand how they are done and when they are used. Would you please elaborate?"
These terms can be confusing and the tactics themselves are important. Each is a way to slow or nearly stop a boat, and not only in a storm.
To heave-to is to stop or all but stop a boat that has some sail set on a close-reaching heading. The boat is described as being "hove-to." To heave-to, under jib and mainsail (or storm trysail) sail about 50 degrees off the wind on a very close reach. Then back the jib by pulling on the windward sheet until the sail is trimmed quite flat on the wrong side. Alternatively, tack the boat without touching the jib sheet. Adjust the traveler and main sheet until the boat steers herself on a steady course at about two knots. Then lash the helm there by tying it in place with a length of line. Since the boat needn’t be actively steered, heaving-to is called a passive tactic. It is very different from lying-ahull, which means to douse all sail and simply ride with the waves. As most boats need to keep some speed on to get though waves, lying-ahull is generally not the tactic of choice.
Hove-to properly, the sails balance each other so the helm is neutral, the speed is low, the boat’s motion is comfortable, and she makes some leeway (slides sideways). The jib tries to push the boat to leeward and the mainsail tries to twist her to windward. It’s important to set both sails to keep the boat balanced. A mainsail set alone will drive her into the wind, while a jib alone will push her bow off until she lies dangerously beam-to the seas. (Winston Churchill was flying only a jib when she was rolled and then sank during last year’s Sydney-Hobart storm with a loss of three sailors.) The storm sails must be no larger than about 25 percent the size of the mainsail and foretriangle. Most storm sails are too large.
Because the boat is sailing slowly with little steerageway, heaving-to is not a good tactic when there are very many steep breaking waves. Then the boat should be sped up and actively steered around the waves, or lie-to a sea anchor or run before the storm towing a drogue. An excellent tactic for comfortably riding out a blow, heaving-to also is a simple way to slow a boat in moderate conditions using a different sail arrangement: On a close reach, pull the mainsail all the way out to the leeward shrouds with the preventer and roll up the jib. (See the March 1999 Seamanship column for more on this tactic, which I call the Rod-stop.)
Running before the wind
To run before it, as the name suggests, is to sail with the wind directly astern. It is an active tactic requiring a steerer. The trick is to be in control, which in a blow means reefing or even lowering the sails and perhaps dragging something astern to slow the boat. When sailing down a wave face, the boat should go fast enough so she’s not pooped (smashed on the stern by breakers), yet not so fast that the steerer loses control and the boat broaches or pitchpoles (plows into the back of the next wave and somersaults). Light-displacement monohulls and multihulls may be as vulnerable as they are exciting in these conditions because they go too fast, but every boat faces problems. The superb moderate-displacement 35-footer Wisahickon was cheerfully running toward the Azores before a small westerly gale when a modest rogue wave slapped our stern. The wave tore out a stanchion and a vent, ground the steerer’s face into the wheel, and dumped far too much water for anybody’s comfort through the small companionway into the cabin, where I was cooking dinner. A fast, thrilling, confident run was instantly transformed into something a little fearful.
The simplest drag device for slowing the boat on a run is a warp, a long length of heavy rope or chain (like an anchor rode) in a bight, with each end tied to the boat. There also are dedicated devices called drogues, which are small parachutes either alone or in a line. Careful steering is important when running before it. Even a conservative heavy boat may broach when an exhausted steerer makes a mistake.
Lying to a sea anchor
To lie-to a sea anchor (a passive tactic) means to stop the boat by putting her bow into the wind and waves and, under bare poles (with no sail set), stream a drag device ahead on a line. This device, a large parachute called a sea anchor or para-anchor, holds the boat’s sharpest portion into the wind and waves. Many multihull sailors favor this storm tactic. One risk of a sea anchor is that a violent surge aft may damage the boat's rudder. Another is that the boat may sail around the sea anchor and its rode just as she does around ground tackle (anchor and rode) in a shifty wind and so expose her side to the waves.
Although all three tactics have long histories of success, discussions of storm tactics often stray into bitter, foolish debates about the "perfect" tactic and the "perfect" drag device. In their quest for absolute answers, many people become purists, insisting on one tactic and damning the others. But anyone who has been out in a bad gale knows that there is nothing pure or absolute about a storm at sea except its danger.
Practice storm tactics
Conditions are constantly changing; different types of boats must be handled differently. The smart skipper knows all these tactics and not just for offshore sailing, for any of them will help you get through a sudden squall on a lake or a fast-rising frontal passage on a bay with a minimum of discomfort and fear. Give your boat and crew a present and practice these skills.