Sailing in a Storm

During storm conditions, you set and fly storm sails; this sounds logical, but which storm sails should you set and why?

Most people think of the storm trysail as the storm sail. When heavy weather approaches, sailors will lower all their sails and set only the trysail. Then these boats find it incredibly difficult to continue sailing during the storm, attributing it to the storm and not to the fact that they have their sails set incorrectly.

When sailing on a brisk day, would you raise only your mainsail, leaving your jib furled up or on the deck? Never! Sailing bald headed will make the boat horribly unbalanced and hard to control. You need some sail forward of the mast to move the center of effort closer to the center of lateral resistance. This will balance the helm and allow the boat to sail under more control and more comfortably through the water.

The same holds true during a storm, raising only a small scrap of sail, also known as a trysail will set the center of effort well aft of the center of lateral resistance. This small sail will provide some control during the storm, but not very much. As irrational as it may seem, you actually want more sail during the storm to balance out the sailplan and afford you more control during the storm. This additional sail is known as a storm jib.

The storm jib works in synchronous with the storm trysail to balance out the sailplan and allow you to continue sailing under control and comfort during wicked blows. Storm jibs come in a variety of styles, due to the varied nature of headsails. The most common styles of storm jibs are those for:

  • Sloops with roller furling headsails
  • Sloops with hank on headsails
  • Cutters

Sloops with roller furling headsails are not able to take their headsail off during a blow and raise the small storm jib. Instead these storm jibs hook over the rolled up headsail. This offers an easy way to set a storm jib while also insuring against the headsail un-furling during the storm. The downside to this system is the headsail can chafe on the UV cover of the furled headsail. 

Sloops with hank on headsails simply lower their headsail and raise a dedicated storm jib. This is the cleanest way to set a storm jib as there is minimal resistance from the bare stay as compared to the massive wind resistance of a furled headsail



While both of these options provide a suitable headsail for storm conditions to balance out the storm trysail, they are not in the best of locations. Setting a storm jib on the headstay means that the center of effort has been moved very far forward. This will make control and comfort less than ideal, but still better than flying only a storm trysail.

Cutters have the advantage of having an inner forestay. This stay usually flies a staysail, which looks like a small jib. The ideal is to remove the staysail and a storm jib set on the inner forestay. This would place a small storm jib ahead of the storm trysail to balance the boat, but still keeping the sails low and centered to the hull, improving control and comfort during the storm. With a balanced sailplan during the storm, you will be able to sail in extremely high winds in a similar fashion to when you are sailing in lesser conditions.

While the staysail is small, it is usually too large to function as a storm jib when paired with a storm trysail. Our staysail produces too much lee helm and overpowers the trysail, making it impossible for us to sail to windward during strong storms. For this reason, we had our staysail made out of very heavy sailcloth, allowing it to serve as our storm jib when we tuck in a reef. 


Not the prettiest of reefs, but the storm was approaching and I had other matters to attend to.

Not the prettiest of reefs, but the storm was approaching and I had other matters to attend to.

A reefed staysail made out of very heavy sailcloth (storm sail grade) will serve as an easy to set storm jib that will balance the storm sailplan and without needing to take the staysail off the stay, bag it, pull out the storm jib, and hank it on. A mousing was tied on the snap shackle to avoid accidental openings during the storm. 

With this sailplan, we were able to claw our way off a lee shore during sustained 40 knot winds. Once further from the shore with enough water to drift through, we lowered the reefed staysail and hove to under the trysail alone.

With the staysail raised, we were able to sail comfortably, but had some difficulty heaving to. With the staysail lowered, our forward motion slowed and we hove to easily; the boat drifted sideways through the water and kept the bow towards the weather. This made weathering the rest of the storm very easy for us!

The difference between the storm jib and trysail, vs trysail alone was dramatic! If you plan to make headway off a lee shore under only a trysail, you will find yourself facing an impossible task. You will need the balance and drive provided by the storm jib and trysail to work your way to windward in an emergency.