What is it like to sail through a storm?

Seamanship with Wilfried Erdmann

Various tips and experiences based on question and answer. In addition to the detailed explanations, the short tips can be read here.


Storm sailing

I have "ridden off" a few storms - drifting in front of the top and rigging, turned down with the help of a sea anchor, walked under sail and faced several times. It was always pretty wet, pretty exhausting and, above all, pretty depressing.

Every skipper and every type of boat reacts differently to bad weather. And if you also change sailing areas, you will have different experiences every time. Reliable advice and firm rules are illusory. In addition, the term "storm" is used a lot. Seven wind forces are a real storm for a small cruising boat, and a hard breeze for a 16-meter-long sailing yacht.

Usually you need a lot of guts the first time, then it gets easier. But never easy.

You notice: a broad question. I'll narrow it down to the seas off our coasts. First, and wherever: Not having small areas of sail on hand in an upcoming storm is the worst that can happen to you. That already partially answers the question, because our seas are basically too small to be carelessly turned around or drifted around - a storm tactic that can be used on the vast ocean.

So we leave relatively passive storm behavior to the ocean sailors. We here in the limited European seas must / should strive for active encounter. The better you can handle your sails, the more pleasant a storm becomes. That means, those who can reef enough have a better starting position. "Normal storms, that is, winds around 8, I usually weathered in the cabin. Of course, after the work on deck was done - big reefed, storm jib set, wind pilot set." One of my standard sentences on the subject of storms. Storm tactics always start in preparation. Since I've been able to afford new mainsails, they all have three rows of reefs. So sailing in stormy weather is simply more carefree. I have several options.

For example: When leaving the Skagerraks, I am surprised by a west storm, so I can turn around under a close-knit large. On the upwind course. The distance ahead will be - as I said, only a few square meters large. The movements and loads are bearable. The drift insignificant. The best storm tactic, as long as you cannot walk in front of the storm lakes and the boat is a certain size. Feasible with ships from ten meters in length - even with lightweights, because it's just louder on board.

Or the other alternative: run out before the storm. Do not drive faster than hull speed and use small, distributed areas of sail. The boat can thus be held more controllably. The risk of getting across the waves in the gusts is lower. If it comes to a patent neck, small areas of the cloth do not cause any damage. They are also easier to handle in rough seas. A light short keeler will have advantages with this tactic, he will not break out, he will pick up speed quickly and thus take away some of the strength of the breakers. These courses - with clear or aft wind - I always steer by hand. It is so easy to write now. Every time it was hard, wet, long, infinitely long wakes. In no case did I want to get across to the storm lakes, because they mean danger.

When I plunged into the sea for the first time in the mid-1960s, I chose the sea anchor variant. So I threw the one-meter-long funnel-shaped canvas anchor over the stern and waited for things. That worked well in normal storms too. Only when I had lost all the cables and the sea anchor in the course of a hurricane (at the end of March near the Azores) did I notice that I could do without it. The boat, the 7.60 meter long KATHENA, was easier to steer and no lakes filled the cockpit as before, although the storm continued unabated. Since then, a sea anchor for seagoing ships has belonged to me in the museum.

In summary: If there is sea space, sail out storms at maximum hull speed. Is it tight, with a triple reefed big against you? A good option is to drift in front of the top and rigging. A sloop will then be at a 60-degree angle from astern to the waves.