When we plan our ocean voyages, we all picture smooth sailing with fair winds and following seas. The truth is, most of your days will be in these conditions; some of your days will not.
When we first noticed the clouds approaching us, we turned the VHF radio over to the WX channels to listen to the forecast. When we left, the winds were supposed to be from the North to North West the entire voyage! This is great as we were heading South and this would put us on a run to broad reach the whole way. Then the forecast was calling for a bit of a storm for two days, blowing 20-30 knots from the South.
Maddie and I discussed our options: We could beat into the weather for two days under reduced sailplan, or we could heave to and relax for a few days, continuing our journey once the winds were in a more favorable direction.
We chose to heave to.
At first, the winds were just as predicted, 20-30 knots from the South, pushing us North at 0.5-1 knot. We rocked around as we slowly drifted through the water. In a 48 hour storm, our drift would only be 24 to 48 miles, easily recovered on our next day of good sailing. We made the choice to simply wait it out and ride the storm inside the cabin where we would be warm and dry while the boat hove to and looked after us.
At nightfall on the first day, the winds began to build. They intensified from the 20-30 knots up to 30-37 knots. This doesn't sound like a huge change, but the power of this added wind caused the seas to rise up and we were glad to be hove to! The next day, the winds had climbed even further, holding at a steady 40-45 knots with gusts over 50 knots. The seas became huge towers that made our home bob up and down like a cork in a washing machine!
This is when the situation changed. The winds were different from the forecast, blowing stronger and also blowing in a different direction! Instead of being blown North, we were being blown East. Normally, this would not be a problem, but for us it was!
Our anchor had jumped out of the bow roller and had gnawed on the headstays deadeye. Dyneema is very strong, but its weakness is in chafe resistance. The anchor severely crippled our headstay, making it risky to fly any jib on that stay. If we lose our headstay, the mast will want to fall aft and present us with a whole new world of problems.
Being 50 miles off the coast at this time, we decided that we needed to start limping our way back to shore to carry out repairs of our crippled headstay. This is where knowing how to sail in big seas and high winds pays dividends.
The first thing you want to do is have the appropriate amount of sail flying. If it's blowing 40 knots with 30 foot seas, don't go full sail! You need to reef down for comfort and for safety.
The mainsail should be reefed down as far as it can while still providing you drive to windward. Your headsail should be reefed down to balance out the sailplan and provide control to the helm so you can power through the seas.
If you are sailing off the wind, a trysail would be a better fit instead of the mainsail for a few reasons. First, it spares the mainsail from any stress caused by the high winds. Second, it removes the boom from the equation which makes jibing safer and less stressful. Third, the sheets are run to the toe rail, making the risk of an accidental jibe much less likely.
With the right amount of sail up, the boat will handle normally, just like if you were sailing along on a nice calm day! The difference between a calm day and your current day are obviously going to be the seas. Large waves present a few problems. They will cause your speed to fluctuate and they will rob your wind.
When you are in the trough of huge waves, they will actually steal your wind! You will notice this if you are flying your trysail, as its head is usually around the height of your spreaders. When the waves are taller than your spreaders, your sail will go limp in the trough as it has no wind. When you climb to the crest again, the wind will hit your sail with full fury!
The other issue has to do with your speed, and your ability to make way to windward. Your keel depends on speed through the water to provide resistance to leeward. If you are not moving fast enough, you will begin to slide sideways and not move in the direction you are pointing or desiring. You may have to sail further off the wind than you would like simply to keep your speed as you ride up and down the waves.
When climbing a wave, your speed will decrease drastically. As this happens, you want to fall off to help keep some of that speed and keep your keel working. As you fall down the wave, you will pick your speed back up and can point higher than you need to. Sailing with large seas is a constant give and take as you rise and fall, where you will fall off and then pinch on each wave you encounter.
This can be very tiring after several hours, not to mention days, which is why we choose to simply heave to and wait for more favorable winds to return. If conditions demand that you sail though, this is the way to do it and practice is the only way to perfect the skill.
Having a basic understanding of what is needed to make your yacht perform is critical as you will need to interpolate all your knowledge to get your yacht to move in a safe and desireable direction.