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I was just curious, as there appear to be many offshore experienced sailors on this site, how do you prepare and deal for heavy weather sailing (or worse weather than you have ever seen) without the experience of having encountered it?

I was on a website that does charters between Hilo, HI and BC, Canada. It seems like a great opportunity to learn about passagemaking from an experienced hand? Have most of you crewed first or was it "baptism by fire" ?

I have read alot on the subject but Im not that naive to think that book smart would translate into competance, but maybe just another resourse to draw on.

Many bios I have read on the site seem to promote learning as you go, which to me appears like a dangerous strategy yet many off you are still here posting....
 

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On the hard
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My first one was trial by fire in a new to me boat on her maiden voyage. After that it was "Let's go play in the crap to increase our skills". I would start crewed in an SCA, not a Gale and in protected waters.
 

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Sab-

This is one reason we often go out in SCA weather....to practice heavy weather sailing skills... sailing under double reefed main, etc...
 

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I have very little ocean experience, but a fair bit of SCA and gale experience on Lake Ontario, and I concur with the above posts. If you go out in 20 knots rigged for 30 knots, the boat will go more slowly, but you can practise sail changes, reefing and steering in more forgiving conditions (try gybing for "action") than the real thing. Later, rig for 40 and go out in 30. Odds are good that double reefed and storm jib will satisfy you quite well at even 30, but you can go at the end of a squall and shake out a reef early if you want that "40 knot feeling at 30 knots".

Hey, it's your money!

Another way is to take out a dinghy in progressively heavier air until you get the hang of how wind forces multiply as the knots grow more numerous.
 

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I am a big fan of mentoring. That is to say, when it comes to longer distance ocean voyaging, crewing with experienced skippers is a great way to build your own experience levels. It doesn't have to be trial by fire -- sometimes the learning environment is more conducive when all the weight of command isn't on your shoulders.

In time you can take on that responsibility, but it will be a more rewarding experience if you're not simultaneously cutting your teeth on your first off-shore passage.
 
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Do they offer cruises in both directions to/from BC? The big West Coast Race for Canada is the Victoria BC – Maui race (I believe that it is only run in even numbered years). You may or may not always get the rough weather you are looking for on this course as the North Pacific High usually settles in right between the two and the racers have to “sag” more towards North America to skirt around it. The summer gales that blow off of Oregon and California are a result of the relationship between the upper and lower level highs of that system. Returning yachts from Hawaii often put into Victoria when the gales block access to San Francisco. If its wind and waves you’re looking for, why don’t you come down to San Francisco? The Gulf of the Farallones is where they filmed Dashew’s Heavy Weather Sailing DVD so why not learn in the “textbook” conditions?
 

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Paloma has endured two Force 10 storms in the Gulf and from experience, here's the formula: It's 25% strong boat that can take that kind of whipping and 75% sailor that knows the boat inside and out, can keep a clear head and can handle the failures and setbacks that come at the worst times in heavy weather. When I say heavy weather, I'm not talking about 30 knot winds and 15-20 foot seas - I mean full gale, 50-60+ knot winds, 30+ foot seas - if you and your boat aren't prepared for that, don't venture very far afield, because the more time and longer distances you are far from sheltered waters, the more likely you are to encounter some very trying circumstances.
 

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When I say heavy weather, I'm not talking about 30 knot winds and 15-20 foot seas - I mean full gale, 50-60+ knot winds, 30+ foot seas - if you and your boat aren't prepared for that, don't venture very far afield
It is my considered opinion that nothing can prepare you for the first time you're in full charge of your own boat and you come up on deck in a shrieking 60 knot wind and see breaking 30 foot waves stretching from horizon to horizon.

Baptism by fire is the only way you'll experience this because no sucker is going to take you out in such conditions for a mentoring session and when you get into such conditions, you'll learn real fast the first time or you'll not get the opportunity again.

I had sailed for many years before I experienced the described conditions and when I did, it scared the [email protected] out of me but I managed and I survived and next time I won't be as scared and I'll manage better. I sincerely hope the next time takes as long to come around as the first one did.

One absolute constant in ocean sailing - when you're out there, you deal with whatever gets chucked at you and interestingly, most of us survive. Learn whatever you can from the books that are available because it'll all help but the final lesson is a practicle one that can only be gained from your own experience.
 

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Very sound advice. By the same token, Hollywood stunt men don't usually have instructors beside them when they flip their first exploding car <g>. What not to do is clear well before that point.
 

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Now this is a great thread! Good responses from all. Thanks for the great insight and advice.

Good job Sab30!
 

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Well

This year a LOT of people got there "baptism by fire" on Wed night races in the harbor

We had waterspouts ,hail more waterspouts,and all manner of things i have never seen :eek: except on storm chasers TV
 

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Grey or even black clouds don't scare me...they concern me, but don't scare me much. But when they are "bruise-coloured" (yellowish, purple or greenish), they usually mean harm.

Here's a few from my home waters and from Southern Ontario.









See how calm the water looks? Heh. That can change in 30 seconds from 10 to 50 knots. You only have time to let off the sheets and lock the companionway and try to clip on. Luckily, it doesn't usually last long.
 

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I certainly would not go out to practice it. Somehow that seems a contradiction to me. What if we get shipwrecked practicing?
At the week-end we had a force 9... about 45 kt.
I stayed in port and listened to it howl.
I guess you could practice by going out a bit over canvassed in lighter airs.
 

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I prefer going out undercanvased when high winds are predicted, but have yet to appear. And to rig a downhaul on the foresail...it makes things significantly more controlled and yet is a simple thing to rig.
 

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Although not as impressive as Valiente's some of our afternoon thunder storms here in central FL. can produce winds in excess of 60 knot's for a short time. I chickened out and dropped sails and let this one pass.
 

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Sab 30,

You've asked three questions. I'll take them in reverse order.

Re "book learing" -- I read for 15 years or more before I bought Billy Ruff'n. You can learn a lot from "standing on the shoulders of giants". Reading will only take you so far, but it can help you prepare for passagemaking and heavy wx sailing. For example -- keeping a list of things experienced sailors do to prepare and the lessons they learned from mistakes will help you develop a "Hvy Wx To Do List" for your own boat. Procedural things, like hanking on the storm trys'l well in advance of a storm's arrival, and marina/mooring projects like designing and fabricating the means of securing your batteries, lockers and floor boards in case of a roll-over. Reading helps prevent being in a situation where "you don't know what you don't know". It can't tell you how to handle every situation, but it can help you envision what might happen on passage in a storm. From there you can start the process of preparing for it.

Re gaining "passage making experience" -- I started by crewing on OPBs (other people's boats). Once you have your own boat you do overnights and then longer passages of 2-3 days. If you learn to safely do a three day passage there's no reason to think you can't do a much longer one. A ten or even twenty day passage is in many ways just a series of overnights except you need to carry more provisions, ration your crew's energy, fix things when they break vs when you get to port, and generally have your head more out into the future -- thinking about / planning over a time horizon that you know will get you to safe harbor. The longest passage I did on OPBs was 7 days. The Hilo to BC trip you mentioned is probably twice that, but crewing on something like that will definitely help you prepare for your first offshore trip as skipper.

Re preparing for heavy weather -- there are two types of preparation that need to be considered: preparing the "physcial" stuff -- the boat, gear etc, and "psychological" preparation of skipper and crew.

As I mentioned above you can learn a lot about preparing the boat from reading, and undertaking projects on the boat that get the boat ready for heavy weather long before it's experienced. Things like those mentioned above, keeping your rig and gear in top condition are good places to start. Things like rigging your storm sails and sailing with them in moderate conditions, learning to heave-to, practicing deploying your storm drogue / para-anchor, etc. -- all these things help you prepare the boat and yourself before any 'trial by fire'. While much of this type of pre-work and practice can be done in moderate conditions, I think it really helps to have actually sailed your boat in strong winds (gale force) because that's the only way you learn how the boat and gear behaves when it's under real stress. I don't advocate going out in a gale to learn how to sail in one. But if you haven't gotten the experience in other ways, forcing yourself out on a day when it's really snotty may be the only way to get the experience you seek.

I think psychological preparation for heavy weather offshore is equally important. I find that the one of the hardest parts of sailing offshore in bad conditions is knowing that it's going to last for a while and that it may get worse before it gets better. It's knowing that it's bad and you really can't control things -- you can't make it better and that you can't make it go away -- that's what can really wear you (and your crew) down. Fear is your worst enemy and at times seems to be your constant companion. How do you prepare for that?

Training helps a lot. Confidence in the boat and crew are also important, but there's probably no real substitute for doing it. The first and only time I've experienced 60-70 kts at sea was on a really big ship. The worst storm I've experienced in my boat was a 3-day, 40-50 kt gale in mid Atlantic. Neither was any fun.

First priority is always to avoid bad weather. I've avoided many more gales than I've sailed through. The rules are simple:
1.) be in he right place at the right time (i.e. stay out of the hurricane box in hurricane season);
2.) pick a favorable weather window for departing on passage. Don't be in a hurry to leave;
3.) when you're at sea and there's bad weather ahead of you, change course to avoid the worse of it, slow down or stop (heave-to) to let it pass.

If you're at sea and bad weather is going to overtake you (i.e. you can't avoid it) -- make sure you do everything you can long before it arrives. I tend to over-prepare --I'll put in one more reef than is likely to be needed 6-12 hours before I expect the wind to get strong and I'll leave it in 12 or more hours longer than is needed. If it's forecast to blow 35-40 knots from abaft the beam I'll take the main down completely and run on a reefed jib or stays'l alone. The boat slows down the motion is less violent -- the crew can get better rest... stress on boat and people is less. Storms at sea will usually go away faster if you are going slower.

To conclude a long winded post -- Reading helps, sailing offshore with experienced people helps a lot more, but in the end -- you just have to do it. If you sail a lot you'll end up sailing in bad conditions. Hopefully, you have a few 30-40 knot experiences before you have a 50 kt experience. Don't let the fear of the 50 knot experience keep you at the dock. When (if) you find the 50 kt gale, remember two things (things I told my wife when we found ours): 1. boats float if you keep the water out and that's easier when you batten down and slow down; 2. storms go away eventually -- never lose hope that 'this too, shall pass'!
 

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Billy,

Wow. This is one of the best, most thorough posts I've seen on this subject. Thank you very much for taking the time to walk us through it. This is exactly the kind of thing we newbies need to really learn how to deal. You're the man.

Smack
 

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Great post, BR.

When learning to sail as a kid, I would never go out if a single whitecap was visible -- I was terrified of ... what ... failure, capsize, death, loss of control? Then one day my cousin talked me onto the Sunfish in 30 knots. We dumped it 15 times that afternoon, and our greatest risk of drowning was cuz we were laughing so hard. By the end of that day, we were staying mostly upright and surfing like pros. And ever after, I looked forward with mad piratical gleam to those days when you just knew the rail would be dragging all the time.

Which is not the same as recklessness, exactly. I just enjoy sailing in the upper half of a boat's limitations. Knowing those limitations (and your own) is absolutely critical to surviving on those days when you WANT a nice gentle ride but get hammered instead. Something I learned in my motorcycle days -- there's only one way to learn how far you can push before your back end unhooks, and only one way to learn how to recover from it. No matter how gingerly you ride, one day you will break loose, and this cowboy would rather have practised for the event ahead of time.

It was alongside that philosophy I dragged our SJ21 up to a notoriously windy lake a month ago -- I wanted a chance to push it a little, see how it (and we) responded. We got our sustained 40-45 mph winds, alright. The boat was nowhere near troubled. Perfectly in hand. Kinda wish we had tested the headsail better, pushed the boat even harder; crew isn't up to snuff in that department yet. But now we can put a check in the box for "Gale, small waves, conservative tactics" and know we and the boat can manage okay. Baby steps, but I want a sense of where the edges are -- on our terms. (Now, don't even ask about my anchoring skillz.:eek: Need practise on that.)
 

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This may seem strange but I learned a lot about heavy weather sailing on a fishing trip aboard a 40' commercial charter fishing boat. We set out into the Pacific about 2am across the Gray's Hbr bar in 40K of wind and 20+' breaking seas. Almost everyone except the crew (and myself) were terribly seasick immediately. All night long we crashed into huge unseen waves, those in the foc'sle frequently in midair. The next morning as daylight broke it was a surreal landscape of giant waves as far as you could see when we were on top, and a dark, quiet trench when we were between the swells. I was exhausted from lack of any sleep, scared because of the size of the waves, and concerned for several of my fellow "fishermen" that were basically comatose. At this time the skipper proceeded to start cooking a big breakfast of eggs, sausage and hash browns. This did not help the profoundly sick passengers at all. The most interesting thing about this was that the skipper just put the boat on autopilot and was cooking looking aft the whole time like this was no big deal, do it all the time, cracking jokes about the sickest of his charges and telling stories about the sickest people he had ever had on board (definitely a sadist, if I could have figured out a way to get some of my fellow fishermen off that boat they would have gladly signed the deeds to their homes over to me). It was at this time that I started relaxing and enjoying the ride, we were just riding up, and then down the huge waves like a cork. We were approaching 100NM offshore and we were doing about 8-10 knots quartering into the SW swells that were occaisionally breaking (20-24' @ 16 seconds IIRC). How he managed to cook eggs in that to this day I don't understand, but they tasted pretty good ( I was the only one that ate, and kept it down, that entire day). It was the fact that he was so nonchalant about the seas that made me realize that we had survived the night before and we were merely riding up and over huge, steep waves. At that point I began thinking that my then 34' Northsea could do the same thing if caught out in it. Since that time I have been in some nasty weather and some large waves, and I have been able to remember that a boat is just basically a cork in those conditions, you just need to keep the water out and quarter the waves one way or another and you will more than likely be OK. Of course there are more extreme storms that require more advanced techniques, but the principle is the same. If you reduce sail and speed enough, and have enough sea room, more than likely the boat and you, are going to survive. Having said that, it is prudent to avoid these conditions at all costs whenever possible.

John
 

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"how do you prepare and deal for heavy weather sailing (or worse weather than you have ever seen) without the experience of having encountered it?"

Well, if you work your way up to it by going out in worsening wx with mentors aboard--that doesn't count since you are encountering it.

There are only two known ways that human beings pass on knowledge to each other: Speech and writing. So, you pick brains, attend lectures, and READ UP. The local library won't have any of the classic sailing books (if they did have them, they've long since been stolen) but at least with the web you can buy them secondhand.

Reading up won't give you the muscle-memory of what to do, or how to tie reefing lines without looking at them, but it gives you the chance to train for that. Reading up will give you the concept that everything that isn't secured, WILL LAUNCH AS A MISSLE and that includes your ribs getting smashed into a table or counter corner.

Reading up won't teach you "Yeah, I think it is time to reef now" but it will make you aware that you're better off reefing BEFORE you think you need it, and developing a firm policy like "When the wind speed reaches 16 knots and is building, WE REEF NOW."

So, I'm a big fan of reading up. Somewhere there's a thread of classics. Coles on Heavy Weather, Fastnet Force 10 to see what kind of judgement errors even experieneced sailors are fooled into ...

And one other thing you may or may not find mentioned. Even if you have rock-steady nerves, if you think the wx is really going to stink, think about taking seasickness meds a good hour BEFORE that weather hits. Try the meds at home, on a wekeend, when you can always sleep it or or get help if you react badly. Look at the serious meds--like scop and compazine--as well as the electric releif bands and the OTC meds. If you do one per weekend, or two per month, that can still take 3-4 months to check out. You'll find one works well for you, one is useless, a third puts you to sleep and is worse than useless.

There's nothing like working up to it with a trusted mentor--but so many great authors have witten so many good books, that you should be able to cut a lot off the learning curve (and enjoy some good reading) going through a pile of classic used books, too.
 
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