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Storm Tactics

In his article Why Carl, John Kretschmer states that keeping way on, as in sailing 50 to 60 degrees to the wind, is the only storm tactic that works. However, in the Storm Tactics Handbook by Lin and Larry Pardeys, the authors suggest that heaving-to is the storm tactic best suited to any boat in any situation. Since both Kretschmer and the Pardeys are serious, seasoned authorities on seamanship, can you tell us what Kretschmer has to say about about this difference of opinion?

John Kretschmer responds:
Thanks for your question about storm tactics. As you know, this is a subject that stirs strong responses among sailors. First, I have great respect and admiration for the Pardeys. They accomplish long voyages without a lot of fuss or fanfare, and obviously have developed superb seamanship skills. Also, I am a great believer in the tactic of heaving-to. Heaving-to is a useful skill, ranking right up there with the ability to tie a bowline knot, and I am often surprised how few sailors know how to employ this tactic.

The main problem with heaving-to today is that modern hull shapes don't heave-to as well as older, long-keeled hulls with a lot of wetted surface. This doesn't mean that you can't heave-to in a modern hull—you can, especially if the wind is not blowing a gale. However, if it is blowing you will have a difficult time maintaining a steady angle to the wind and will constantly need to adjust the trim of the hove-to sails to prevent the boat from excessively pivoting around the short, modern keel section. This in many ways defeats one of the great advantages of heaving-to—the fact that for the most part it is a self-tending tactic. Also, there is a point in a severe gale when heaving-to becomes dicey—remember, I am talking about severe, as in hurricane severe.

Let me give you an example. Several years ago, I delivered a new Hylas 46 from Ft. Lauderdale to St. Thomas. My lack of patience caused us to get smacked by the remnants of Hurricane Mitch as it veered back across the Florida peninsula and out over the Bahamas. Our encounter was short-lived, about 24 hours, but it was a textbook case for storm tactics. The wind originally came out of the south, which was just forward of the beam on our point of sail, and built quickly to around 35 knots. By simply shortening both the roller-furled jib and main we continued on without missing a meal. It was in fact, great sailing. The wind gradually backed and increased and soon we had 45 knots from the southeast. I had a game, but very inexperienced, crew and no self-steering—in other words, it was a typical delivery.

After a long stint at the helm, I decided to heave-to. It was magical, like turning off the storm. But it was a struggle to keep the fin-keeled, Frers-designed 46 to maintain a heading around 60 degrees off the wind. Still it was wonderful to get some rest and I was not in the least bit worried about the boat. Later that day, however, the wind really began to blow, somewhere consistently above 50 knots, with certain hurricane gusts, causing the seas to become huge and dangerously steep. The boat would skid down the back-side of each wave, momentarily spilling the wind in the troughs, and then fall off to 90 degrees by the time the wind was again filling the sails. Believe me, I did everything possible to correct this situation because I didn't feel like steering. But after one wave laid us over at least 60 degrees, I knew it was time for my old trick of forereaching.

Forereaching, or just jogging along 50 to 60 degrees off the wind, is really a glorified form of heaving-to, except that by introducing a small bit of forward motion you increase stability dramatically. I brought the sails over and rolled in the main and jib until they were about the size of beach towels. A roller-furling main that is working well is actually pretty handy in this extreme situation because you can continue to fly a tiny bit of main and maintain better control than with a trysail. A roller-furled headsail stinks! And I longed for a staysail and storm jib, which should be standard fare on any sloop rig with furled headsails. Even so, jogging along at two to three knots eliminated the tendency toward a knockdown and actually allowed us to make progress toward our destination, which incidentally,does a lot to cheer up the crew. The problem was that I had to steer. The helming was easy, and an autopilot could have coped. I was able to lash the helm for long stretches but felt uncomfortable leaving it unattended. That scenario sums up the progression of heaving-to to forereaching in a modern cruising boat.

However, back to Carl, I just don't see any way how he could have survived Hurricane Lenny's 140 knot winds hove-to. I still believe that his only viable option was to forereach into the seas, accepting knockdowns as part of the equation and eventually, hopefully, moving out of the storm's path. I can't emphasize how much it helps your state of mind to take some type of positive action during a severe gale. In Carl's case, at least by forereaching he would have been able to steer a course that he knew was taking him away from the storm. This is the time when you understand why you spent big bucks on a self-steering vane.

As you can tell, I could go on and on, but I hope this helps. Remember, it is just one man's opinion. Cheers.

John Kretschmer is offline  
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