Offshore Weather: Sailing Near the Limit
Last Updated on 05 August 2016 by Eric Bretscher
Sailing over 55,000NM in seven years on board the 9-metre sloop Yarra between the Arctic and the Antarctic resulted in a fair share of strong winds and rough seas at times. I managed to wear a set of hanks on my storm jib and pull my new #2 jib out of shape.
Even so, wind is just wind and sea conditions that caused concern only eventuated less than once in two years in average. What I define as causing concern is when survival is being challenged, when that confidence of arriving intact on the other side is suddenly being undermined and nothing is so sure anymore. This is heavy weather.
Everything else is just strong breezes and sometimes rough seas and – with a few pre-emptive decisions and a good sea boat – business as usual under reduced canvas. It doesn’t always take a strong wind for an accident to happen offshore either.
The threshold of heavy weather is not an absolute limit that applies equally to every boat and everyone, and it tends to recede further with experience.
What follows is a brief account of a few interesting moments that took place at sea over the years and became very relevant later in the context of yacht design.
Leaving Iceland for the Azores at the onset of winter in the North Atlantic, we rapidly got into sea conditions that exceeded everything experienced or imagined before
Too concerned to do anything else most of the time, I had spent many days watching and feeling the little sloop punching into waves of unbelievable speed and power while forging a route south. There in mid-Atlantic, for days on end, the wind remained firmly set to the west, hovering up and down through the gale force range and driving a phenomenal sea composed of a variety of wave systems from the western quadrant. Some of those waves rose to steep vertical faces or formed pyramids that towered above the surrounding seascape without any warning, sometimes crashing down just as the boat engaged into them. So much water engulfed the deck at times that the howl of the wind in the rigging died and all became eerily silent down below for several seconds. The deck hatches were under solid water. A bath towel forced into the gaps around the sliding hatch helped limiting the amount of salt water pouring in just aft of the galley. Finally, the noise of the water rushing off the deck as the hull resurfaced was followed by the howl of the wind in the rigging again.
One vivid memory I still have today is the strength it took to keep control of the top washboard in the wind when lifting it to go outside – as rarely as possible. At times, I just quickly climbed out vertically through the sliding hatch only so the board could stay in place and slammed the opening shut behind me, but this meant getting onto the highest point of the deck instead.
Understanding how the combination of heel, forward momentum and angle in the sea could protect the boat in those seas was fascinating, if such a word can be used in conditions where the only concern left was lasting through the day or night while making some progress towards more manageable latitudes. When things get that bad, I find it is as if the future contracted down to just encompass the next few hours and all focus goes towards still being around after that.
Seas were so long that we were literally sailing uphill and downhill for surprisingly long durations, often sailing through smaller waves while still climbing or descending. From the crests, the seascape was one of mountains and valleys streaked with foam. The distance to the next wave crest was unbelievable; the sloop never felt that tiny and insignificant in the sea. With the sharp contrast between the cold dark steely grey water and white foam, the scenery looked more alpine than maritime. At times, wave tops seemed to collapse from underneath the boat, leaving it as suspended in the air, then dropping for what felt like several seconds until the shattering crash of the bow side impacting the water ended the fall. I was worried sick about smashing the hull forward, but apart from the shattering blows now and then, we were doing rather ok and changing tactics could easily have compromised that.
One morning, such a top coming from an odd direction must have exploded just next to the boat; it hit into the low cabin side on the weather side like a giant fist, with such violence that I was bewildered not to find a gaping hole.
During those days, confined in a damp bunk down-below for most of the time, blindly feeling the motion of the boat in the sea, I spent hours pondering whether I should slow down, point slightly higher, or adjust anything, but never did. In such conditions, you think twice before reviewing a working formula, even if you are left wondering how it can actually work. I kept punching at speed even though it was very hard on the boat. I was worried about the hull, about rigging loads, about chafe up there, about anything letting go and suddenly letting the danger from the sea right in. Slowing down appeared extremely hazardous: without the momentum to cross through the breaking crests, the little sloop would have been thrown back and rolled. Stopping – in any conceivable way – would have meant guaranteed total loss within the next half-hour, and this would have been the outcome for any common size of yacht for that matter. That sea would have obliterated a 40-tonne vessel just the same, by picking it up and dumping it.
We were sailing upwind, but with plenty of speed rather than pointing as high as possible. When caught in a breaking crest, the sloop seemed to heel over heavily and absorb the hit by skidding sideways while being carried through by its momentum. The deck got swamped every time, but that hardly mattered.
Some years earlier, in the early 1990s, I was skippering for a well-known French sailing school in North Brittany. We had left Falmouth in the south of England late one afternoon with a strong NW forecast to cross the English Channel when the situation evolved very rapidly into a solid 45 knots from the SSW, dead on the nose. With the violent tides sweeping through, sea conditions can become quite hard in the Channel.
Our 35′ keeler was a rental production yacht supplementing the normal fleet and, due to the furling headsail arrangement, there was no way of carrying a storm jib. A few unkind words had been said about this before leaving. We slowed it down to about 4 knots and just punched into it under a single deep-reefed mainsail and we were very comfortable. Troughs were a few metres deep at times, the sea quite short, the wind was howling and we just kept one person at the helm outside. Some of the crew were seasick and the safest place where to be in heavy weather is inside.
A young lady was helming outside in the darkness and I was sitting in stand-by in the companionway. Suddenly, a wave reared up into a vertical face and she luffed hard into it, hitting it head on. It felt as if we had smashed into the side of a container ship. I barely escaped getting thrown onto the cabin floor and I felt rather glad that everyone else was stowed horizontally just at that time, it would have easily resulted in broken bones.
She said the wave was so steep we couldn’t have climbed over it and she had read it was better to take those “head-on” and so did exactly that, putting the helm hard under in a split-second decision. Because I didn’t expect some waves to be dealt with differently, I had never issued specific advice. From this point on, we just shouldered normally into everything coming our way, the word was passed to every helmsman, and there were no further incidents. We just heeled over, engaged the bow on occasions and took on some water on deck.
In the morning the sea was considerable by coastal standards, but the wind started easing by noon, the sun got out and we made land in North Brittany by the end of the day.
Back in the North Atlantic, fighting upwind day after day for every mile south, ocean current and leeway pushed us irresistibly towards Porcupine Bank off the west coast of Ireland. With no intent of going there, I had no charts for the coast and, in such conditions, real concerns had time to develop about getting close to the bank. Eventually, we managed to reclaim some westing as conditions eased in the lower latitudes and reach Ponta Delgada in the Azores, 19 days after leaving Heimaey in Iceland.
The Yarra took a very small number of other hits along the way in the following years, but never to that extent again. When I left Iceland, I fully expected to run into heavy weather. When I discovered what was out there, I realised heavy weather was something I had never seen before. The ultimate is reached when the party begins on a sea that is huge already, in mid-ocean with near unlimited fetch and water depth, and the wind doesn’t abate for days on end. One could spend a lifetime cruising and still never witness something like that. It only happens in the very wrong places.
Another interesting moment took place many years later after leaving the bottom of New Zealand to cross the Southern Ocean westwards to Tasmania
Time and tens of thousands of miles had gone past, and basically I was going to risk it again to a lesser extent. The 900NM westbound passage around 45ºS was expected primarily upwind, but a situation developed with a low pressure system centred further north in the Tasman Sea and a strong south-east gale sprung up a few days out. While the sea never had time to build to the proportions experienced in the North Atlantic, the wind blowing hard against the prevailing ocean current and swell raised steep breaking seas after a few hours only. It got to the point where nearly every wave was breaking into a white-crested roller. While originally broad-reaching, I was forced to take the mainsail in altogether and gradually bear away until running dead downwind to mitigate the risk of broaching.
The Arpège was never most at ease on the run. Its short waterline and rounded hull shape didn’t promote course stability downwind and very real concerns about broaching and getting rolled in a breaking crest didn’t take long to develop. However, unlike many so-called cruising designs, the ageing little racer was always able to accelerate, keep its bow up and remain in front of steep crests when needed; its deep, narrow rudder blade was effective.
In this instance, it quickly became a critical matter because the sea clearly had enough power to cause damage or even capsize. I considered turning around and punching into it, which would have been safe, brutal and highly predictable, but on the other hand the idea of sailing against a favourable wind was unpalatable and we were running before the sea quite fine. The issue with running is that everything tends to be quite fine until suddenly it was not. Then you are left to deal with an aftermath or some sort.
The #1 jib was on the forestay when the mainsail came down, but with the south-east building up solidly the 20m² of the sail became far too much. The sloop was regularly accelerating to 10 knots, and while running dead straight, it couldn’t be steered and was getting unmanageable.
Hoisting the main again downwind in that force of wind was not an option and the challenge was keeping enough drive under bare pole to keep steerage and stay ahead of the breaking crests while changing to the storm jib forward. After careful consideration, I eased the boom with the furled mainsail all the way out to increase the windage and took the jib in. The steering vane kept managing the helm without issues until I had the storm jib up. Without any canvas, the speed dropped into the 4-knot range in the troughs, but the boat still accelerated ahead of the steep crests.
Securely wedged in the pulpit and busily changing sail, I was keeping an eye on the curly ones chasing the sloop dead downwind.
We ran before the sea for about 36 hours, getting driven further north than desirable, before the sea state made it safe again to resume course. During this time, we somewhat broached once, got caught in the crest and dumped forward, landing on the turn of the bilge with an almighty crash. Assisted by the storm jib forward, the boat returned on course immediately. I was down below, I didn’t see it and, once the emotion of the moment cleared, didn’t think too much of it. A few months later I inadvertently discovered that the bottom of the moulded fibreglass lining inside the port seat locker in the main cabin was fractured. The impact had been sufficient to flex the solid GRP hull.
It illustrates the hazards of running before a breaking sea with a boat that isn’t really comfortable doing it. In light sea conditions, the Arpège would run quite happily up to a speed of 6.8 knots. Exceeding this placed a lot of strain on the gear and course stability suffered greatly. In a big sea, additional speed was afforded by the slope of the waves rather than drive from the rig and this limit could be exceeded quite widely and readily, but the helm would get so hard that control wasn’t really possible; the boat would just launch itself into a straight dash and outrun the crest in a roar of white water.
A balance of both very good upwind and downwind performance is absolutely essential for an offshore cruising yacht. I have sailed designs that fell somewhat short either way. Some lack one completely, or even lack both: I simply wouldn’t take them offshore.
Look and think before you jump
As a result I have very little advice when it comes to heavy weather sailing, other than:
Never, ever, shunt the process, and keep re-evaluating this way continuously. Every situation, every instance is different, and what was adequate an hour ago may no longer be now.
There is a huge, inept and ever-growing body of so-called heavy weather literature available, aimed at pre-empting decisions or channelling the decision process into a small number of pre-defined avenues. The only interesting heavy weather book I ever came across is the old classic “Heavy Weather Sailing” by Adlard Coles. It is a good book because it doesn’t formulate any answers and wasn’t written from the point of view of someone who owned a particular type of boat. By presenting a collection of cases with first-hand accounts and showing what happened, it takes the reader through the steps above and seeks to increase his/her wisdom ahead of it being needed. Study it carefully, think about it and one day you will donate your copy to someone. You won’t need it again.
Out of the five points above, there is only one you can actually prepare for, ahead of facing the situation: understanding what happens with yachts in heavy weather, how and why. You can’t anticipate what you don’t understand, and you can’t make good decisions without anticipating what might happen, why and how.