Storms at sea are inevitable. This is a simple truth.
If you are going to be out on the water for any length of time, the weather will eventually change. When it does, it will either improve or degrade. No one seems to complain when the weather improves, but everyone wonders what happens when the weather gets bad!
The answer is simple, you ride out the storm!
There are a few key requirements you need to safely survive a storm:
- A tether and jacklines
- Storm sails
- Enough water to drift in
The tether and jacklines will keep you attached to the boat and safe. Jacklines should always be rigged and you should always clip in, especially when the weather gets bad. During severe weather, we clip in even when we are sitting comfortably in the cockpit. You never know when a boarding wave will wash across the boat and float you right out of your protected cockpit and into the unprotected storm seas!
Storm sails are very small sails made out of very heavy sailcloth material. They are specifically made to handle heavy weather and a crucial part of your storm plan. Flying regular sails is very dangerous in very high winds, the sails can overpower the boat as well as shred in a powerful gust. Storm sails should always be ready to raise when they are needed.
The last part of the equation is having enough water to drift in. A properly setup boat will drift along in the roughest of waves and strongest of winds indefinitely and not sink during the process. There is no amount of equipment that can prevent a sailboat from breaking up on a lee shore if it runs aground.
During a storm, the most dangerous obstacle you can encounter is land! Most boaters head for shore when a storm approaches, but if you can't make it into a safe harbor in time, you should do the opposite and head further out to sea; putting as much distance as possible between you and land before the storm strikes.
In our situation, we found ourselves in a river, with land on all sides and a severe storm approaching. I expected the storm to be a low pressure because the clouds had been gradually building and becoming lower throughout the day. Low pressure winds tend to build gradually as you get further into the storm. Low pressures also suck you into them, knowledge which I planned to use to my advantage!
The river may look wide, but the deep water is very narrow. Most of the water near the shore is actually very shallow and the river is littered with crab pots and obstructions! Not the best place to get caught in a storm.
To make the most of the narrow water we had, we moved our boat towards the southern edge of the deep water. I expected the low pressure approaching from the North to pull our boat in a northern drift across the river at a slow rate. This would give us enough time to drift while hove to while the storm moved past.
We sat waiting with our storm sails rigged, ready for the winds to draw us in!
As the storm approached, a stiff cold wind struck the boat. This was not a low pressure, but instead a high pressure with strong cold winds blowing away from the storm. This meant that we were not going to be drawn North across the river, but instead we were being pushed South onto the very close shallow water. We hove to and waited to see how the storm played out.
As soon as the high pressure hit, I set the sails to heave to. We were flying the trysail and the staysail with a reef in it, acting as our storm jib to balance out the trysail. Getting the boat to heave to was frustrating at first, but once we got in our slick, everything calmed down on board our sailboat, Wisdom.
We were drifting through the water at 0.5 knots with only 0.25 nautical miles to shallow water, meaning that in 15 minutes we would run aground! The choice was made, to claw our way off the lee shore and work our way out into the river toward deeper water in winds of 35 to 40 knots.
Once out into the middle of the river and with more water to leeward, we set the sails to heave too again.
We hove to during the storm with more water to leeward as the storm continued to build. The winds stayed at 40 knots for almost a half hour as the waves continued to build, luckily they were calmed by our slick to windward, so any breaking waves would come upon us as gentle rollers.
The end of the storm seemed magical! Sunlight began to pierce through the clouds as if to tell us that it was over and we survived!
Even though the storm had passed, we still had the storm sails set and ready for more. We are firm believers in "Reef early, shake late"; meaning you make your sails smaller before it gets bad, and you wait a while before you make them bigger again in case bad weather returns. As pleased as we were to have made it through that torrential storm, the clouds on the horizon never cleared up and the blue skies seemed to be swallowed up again. This was only the beginning of the series of storms that would fall on us!
We continued sailing along under trysail and staysail until the storm was much closer. Maddie and I decided that we would try heaving to under trysail only this time to see how that felt. We don't sit around and dream of sequntial storms to test out various storm tactics, but when the oppertunity presents itself, why not experiment a little?
We made it through the first storm with 40 knots of wind hove to under the trysail and storm jib, but we did feel that we were heeling over a bit much and the boat had trouble keeping its bow into the wind. The decision was made to try this storm under just trysail, hoping that the gear and junk on the deck will provide enough wind resistance to keep our bow from riding through the wind.
The second storm was equally as powerful, with winds holding a steady 40 knots as well! This proved to be an excellent test for our storm tactics as we could compare heaving to under trysail alone and trysail with storm jib on the same tack, same day, and same conditions.
You can hear from the calmness in Maddies voice that the severe storm is not of concern. We were both calmly waiting for the storm to pass as we slowly drifted through the seas.
During the first storm (hove to with trysail and storm jib) I stayed at the helm even though it was locked over. I was ready to take the helm should the situation arise because I did not feel completely safe. We were close to shore and heeling over very far. During the second storm (hove to under trysail alone) I felt much safer! Maddie and I both huddled up under the dodger to stay out of the rain. Neither of us was at the helm because we felt no need to be. We knew we were safe as the boat gently rose and fell through the waves during a steady 40 knot blow!
We did have one concern during the second storm, and that was a bouy that was near by. We turned the chart plotter to face forward so we could watch our position relative to it on the screen as we slowly drifted through the water. Visibility was null, so we were unable to see it with our eyes, but we decided that we would run if we got too close to it, get past it, and then heave to again. That was our biggest concern during the storm. Not "will we sink?" "will we capsize?" "will we survive?", no, simply "where is that bouy?"
As stated before, staying clipped in to the boat, with the right sails set up, and plenty of water to drift through is the key equation to safely surviving a storm at sea. They are very easy steps that will ensure you are safe and happy while your boat floats through the water until the storm finally passes.