Ocean Sailing: Rough Days

Rough weather is an unavoidable part of sailing. You can plan to avoid major systems or closely watch the forecast, but at some point you will get caught in bad weather. I must emphasize though, it is a minor part of sailing and most sailing is done under full sail in calm conditions!

Maddie and I did a trip during the summer which took us down the Chesapeake Bay and flanking the coast as we made our way offshore as far south as Kill Devils Hill, NC. I find it hard to say that we sailed to North Carolina as the closest we got to it was 4 miles offshore. 

We sailed in July because it is a very calm month according to the pilot charts. Winds should be around Force IV most of the time and the chance of gales was minimal. I figured this would be a good time to introduce Maddie to ocean sailing!

Most of our trip was calm, but when a storm would roll in, it was serious! The amazing thing about ocean storms is they are predictable and you have plenty of time to prepare for them, you just need to know what the warning signs are.


Clouds are your best warning to approaching storms. They tell you what the weather will hold for your immediate area and warn you from miles away. When this photo was taken, we were sailing along under full sail in winds blowing 10 to 12 knots. The large fluffy clouds along the horizon tell you that the weather is rather stable and the winds will be light. Then you can see the large towering cloud on the left. That is a storm in development and the top of it tells you which way its going. The top end of the cloud is being blown by the upper higher level winds and points in the direction the storm is going to be moving. 

We spotted this storm during one of our half hourly scans of the horizon. We saw that the storm was far away and blowing in our general direction, so we devised a plan. We lowered the main sail, raised the trisail, and hove to for the night (when we expected the storm to hit). If it were earlier in the day, we would have continued sailing under reduced canvas and watching the storm and its movement. Since it was late and we were ready to go to sleep, we decided to end our day earlier and heave to now.

The wispy clouds in this picture are the biggest talkers in the sky. They tend to indicate that a front will be rolling in tomorrow or the next day. If you see just a few of these cirrus clouds, then don't listen to them, but do take the clouds seriously when they begin to fill up the sky. This picture was taken looking off our starboard side and the anvil cloud (storm cloud in the first picture) was off our port side. The combination of all these clouds made us decide to rig the storm sails for the night even though it was only blowing 10 to 12 knots. 

We must have looked like idiots flying our storm sails in a gentle breeze, but the key to ocean sailing is preparation. I would rather rig the storm sails and float around in calm weather than to await the storms approach and rig the sails during the storm. We slept very peacefully that night. Every hour I would poke my head out the companionway and see how things were developing. Conditions deteriorated that night and by the following day we were sailing in a nasty storm.

By that night, it was blowing 20 knots. By the next morning 30 knots. The storm peaked around 1pm, blowing around steadily 37 knots. Strong storm wind will kick up the seas, and the longer the storm blows, the larger the seas will become. This is why a squall with 50 knot winds and a duration of around 15 to 20 min will not have seas as high as a lesser storm that blows for days.

In the early morning, the seas were already rather large. Look at the water on the left and right side of the picture and you can see that this is a large wave coming up on us the height of our stern rail and not just the horizon in the distance.

In the early morning, the seas were already rather large. Look at the water on the left and right side of the picture and you can see that this is a large wave coming up on us the height of our stern rail and not just the horizon in the distance.

There are two schools of thought when it comes to storms at sea:

Light displacement sailboats that are capable of avoiding the storms
Heavy displacement sailboats that are capable of riding out the storms

I personally feel that the middle ground boats are not optimal in the ocean. They are too heavy to escape the storm yet too light to offer the comfort of a heavy displacement in a storm.

Wisdom is a heavy displacement sailboat so her motion is slow and lumbering. This translates into a calm ride in rough seas. We never get slammed around and the full keel keeps us on track as the seas rise and fall around us. 

As the day progressed, the seas also continued to build. We all stayed calm because we never felt that we were in danger. We had plenty of warning that the conditions were going to worsen and took the appropriate steps to maintain our safety.

When we saw the signs in the clouds, we reduced canvas and set course for further offshore. The only dangers that we would encounter during the storm would be breaking waves and a lee shore. Breaking waves can be calmed by the slick when hove to and the lee shore can be avoided by keeping enough seaway. 

Rough sailing is not the norm when it comes to ocean travel, but it will occur at some point. The way to keep them from becoming the highlight of your ocean voyage is to be properly prepared and take the necessary steps to ensure the safety of the crew and vessel. This way, the stories will be about the voyage and the destinations; rather than being about the storm that took the ship.