How to Heave To

Heaving To is one of the most important maneuvers you can carry out on your sailing yacht. This maneuver can be used for such simple tasks as "stopping for lunch" to "riding out a storm". Heaving to is a sailing yachts equivalent to a powerboat putting its engines in neutral. 

A power boats engines will be on a ready to go at a moments notice but there is no forward thrust, instead the boat drifts through the water at a slow pace. In a sailing yacht, heaving to accomplishes the same things; the sails are up and ready to power you forward, but the boat simply drifts along in the water at a slow pace. 

In the simplest form of explanations, heaving to is accomplished by backing the headsail. This means that the headsail will be sheeted on the windward sheet as opposed to the leeward sheet. During normal conditions, the leeward sheet is the working sheet and the windward sheet is the lazy sheet, but when heaving to, the roles are reversed and the windward sheet is the working sheet pulling the clew of the sail into the wind and backing the headsail. 

With the headsail backed into the wind, it will pull the bow to leeward and serve as an air brake to any forward movement. If the headsail were the only sail set at this moment, the yacht would be blown to leeward, jibed, and then set on a run. 

To counter this force, the mainsail is set to oppose the backed headsail. As the headsail pulls the bow to leeward, the mainsail comes into the wind and pushes the bow back to windward. This constant tug of war between the sails results in no forward movement. 

The mainsail is trying to turn the yacht into the wind while the headsail is pulling the yacht to leeward, the end result is the boat sits still and makes no forward progress. Since the wind is hitting the yacht on the beam to bow, the wind resistance offered by the yacht causes the whole system to drift in a leeward direction. As the yacht drifts to leeward, a slick of disturbed water will form on the windward side of the boat and this slick has wonderful properties that will be discussed later on. 

So, the basics of heaving to are: 

  • The headsail is backed to windward
  • The mainsail is set to leeward
  • The helm is turned to windward

In the simplest of measures the combination of these three settings will make the sailboat heave to or at least come to a stop. 

If you are in the middle of a body of water with no risk of collision with land masses or other vessels and you want to stop for lunch, simply tacking without switching the headsail will usually bring the yacht into a hove to position.  The yacht will be sailing along quickly, and then it will pretty much come to a halt and begin to drift backwards at a very slow pace.

This technique is frequently taught as a standard maneuver during a Man-Over-Board recovery, by heaving to, the yacht will stop and the victim can swim towards the yacht or crew members who are still on board can devise a method to retrieve the victim as they slowly drift to leeward. 

In both of these situations, the yacht will stop or at least greatly slow its forward progress through the water which can satisfy the needs of a yacht who wishes to stop for whatever reasons. If you are wondering why you can't just release your sheets and let your sails flog to stop the boats movement if you wish to come to a stop during a lunch break or a MOB recovery situation. The answer has two important points. 

First, flogging sails will cause a lot of noise and the sheets whipping through the air can pose a serious hazard to your yachts gear and crew members. If you are trying to relax during a calm meal on a nice day, the sound of sails beating in the wind might not be what you had in mind. In the more stressful situation of the MOB recovery, the flogging sails will add stress, confusion, and anxiety to an already stressful situation. Hearing commands and relaying information will become very difficult over the noise of the flogging sails.  

Second, flogging sails will quickly work harden the fibers in the sailcloth and lead to early destruction of the sails. A sail violently flogging in a storm will rip to shreds in a few minutes! Deliberately setting your sails to immediate destruction will ruin any plans to sail further when you are ready. For these reasons, heaving to is a much better protocol as it will stop your vessel and protect your sails.

While heaving to during a storm, you need to capitalize on the lateral drift of the yacht through the water which will create a slick of disturbed water to windward. The slick of disturbed water that will appear to windward will settle and calm any approaching breaking wave and transform it into a gentle, though large, roller. If you are fore reaching slowly, you will move out of the protective slick and the bow of your boat will be at risk of being hit by a breaking and boarding wave. If you can remain in your slick, you will be able to rid out a storm without having to take any water over your deck.

Getting the yacht to stop fore reaching can prove easy on some yachts and more challenging on other yachts, but regardless, it can be done. To get the yacht to stop fore reaching and remain in a hove to position, you need to play with various sail configurations to find the setup that works best for your yacht.  

In general, you want to maintain a balanced sail plan with a backed headsail and a set mainsail. This will be the best starting place for configuring your sail plan while hove to. Matching your sail size to the present conditions is also an important consideration.  

If you are heaving to in light airs for lunch, a full headsail and aims ail will work just fine. The yacht will be balanced and will probably hold its position just fine. If you are heaving to in a storm because of incliment weather, full sails would be a death wish for your yacht! Reefing your sails accordingly is very important as it keeps the amount of sails area exposed manageable and heaving to a controlled and predictable operation. A good rule of thumb is that you should heave to with the same amount of sail that you would be willing to fly if you were sailing in these conditions.  

Five knots of wind would allow you to heave to under full sail. Twenty five knots of wind would behove you to heave to under reefed sails. If you are planning to ride out a strong gale, storm sails would be crucial to your survival.

Once again, you will need to test out various sail combinations on your own yacht during strong conditions to see what works best for your setup. During strong winds you might not actually need a headsail set to heave to. Furlers, rigging, deck gear, and freeboard can act as a backed headsail and push your bow to leeward, precluding you from the need for setting a backed headsail. If this is the case, adding a backed headsail will cause your bow to be pulled off the wind and set your yacht beam to the seas. Ideally, you will wish to remain with your bow between thirty to forty five degrees from the wind as this will allow your bow to cut through the approaching waves and keep vessel motion under control. 

Behind the mast, you will want to fly a trysail, as this small scrap of sail cloth will keep your bow into the wind and the vessel's motion steady. I recommend starting with a storm jib and trysail set hove to, and if you find that you have trouble keeping your boat at the ideal angle to the wind, douse the storm jib and lash it to the deck. The bow will begin to turn up into the wind better and the yacht will ride through the seas more comfortably. 

With your yacht turned into the wind, it will attempt to tack. The backed storm jib or deck windage will keep your boat from completing the tack as it stalls and drifts back into ideal posture to the wind and waves. Since the yacht is stalled out as it tries to move to windward, it will be at the mercy of the windage on the entire yacht as it is slowly pushed to leeward as a whole unit. The boat will gently ride up into the wind and then fall off as it slowly drifts laterally through the seas. This lateral drift will generate the protective slick which will calm the approaching seas help you survive the storm in comfort.  

You might be concerned that the small amount of sail up will cause significant heeling and possibly knot the boat down! This is not the case. With the proper amount of sail exposed during a storm, you will be able to ride comfortably through the seas without much heel. We have ridden out several storms with strong winds and minimal heeling.

One storm we had in the ocean had winds of thirty seven knots for more than 14 hours. We attempted to sail during the storm but resistance was futile. We were uncomfortably heeled over while flying only our staysail and trysail. As soon as we hove to, the yacht straightened out and we were only heeled over around ten degrees. 

Another more violent squall hit us where we hove to under just our trysail for around an hour in winds of forty knots and were only heeled over around five degrees. While hove to, the yacht remains relatively straight and the motion of the vessel is very comfortable. There is no jerking or lurching which can cause some crew members to regurgitate their lunch and their morale. Instead, the entire experience becomes a waiting game, where you sit around and find things to do to pass the time as the storm blows over. 

A yacht that is hove to is pretty much the equivalent of a champagne cork. It may be tiny as the seas tower around it, but it floats along without a care as it rides over the crests without much motion. It doesn't move fast during the storm but it does float the whole way through. Heaving to during a storm will convert your yacht from a finely tuned machine that soars through the waves into a cork that floats along mindlessly. Once the storm has passed and the sea state calmed, you can set your sails for performance and race towards your destination once more without any damage nor loss of morale. 

Heaving to is a crucial skill that should be learned, honed, and mastered. It can mean the difference between weathering a storm and surviving a storm. Likewise, it can prove to save your yacht and extend range by granting you the ability to sail in any condition that nature may throw at you.