Storm tactics – the options

I’ve encountered heavy weather several times in my years of sailing small boats but for the purpose of discussing storm tactics I’ll highlight two occasions which may be of some benefit:

The first instance was sailing a Ron Holland designed Swan 42 from Annapolis to Newport when a storm that the forecasters had missed caught us off the coast of New Jersey on our second night out. We were a crew of six reasonably fit men all with some sailing experience so we battled on for several hours progressively reducing sail until we were down to triple reefed main and No3 jib, the smallest on board. Eventually four of the crew succumbed to sea-sickness and it was clear they would be of little help in keeping up their watches. We decided to heave-to.

The Swan 42 of this era had a deep fin and balanced spade rudder and was of moderate displacement. We tacked the boat without releasing the jib sheet and at first she settled into the classic hove-to mode, about 45 degrees off the wind, slowly fore-reaching. After a few minutes, however, she came up into the wind and tacked herself. We hove-to again and this time slacked the main slightly and this did the trick. She settled into a fairly comfortable position, helm down, jib aback and the triple reefed main slacked off somewhat.

We took to our bunks and the boat lay like this for the next eight hours. We would regularly here the swoosh of a large wave as it broke down the windward side, pushing the boat over so that the leeward ports were underwater for a few seconds before the boat settled again to await the next assault. Wind reached a steady 50 knots, gusting to more than 60 knots at times. The seas were very rough but wave height was probably less than we would have experienced in a storm that had been building for a longer period. Still, it was a pretty impressive sight with the wave tops being blown off downwind in explosions of spray and the surface of the water a wildly undulating sheet of white spume.

With the wind down to 30 knots or so we got underway again in what was still a huge swell and completed the journey without too much difficulty. The head of the main and the jib were slightly damaged and the ensign was shredded but we had no damage to the boat and no injuries to the crew. Heaving-to had been the right tactic under the circumstances.

The second occasion of interest was when I was caught in a very severe storm off Cape Town, South Africa. In fact it was the worst storm experienced by the Cape for 20 years at that time.

The boat in this case was a locally designed and built 43’ sloop with an almost flush deck not unlike the Swan 42 of the previous incident but with a semi-full keel and skeg mounted rudder. Aboard were the boat’s owner and his son, me, my wife and our daughter.

We had motored all afternoon from Dassen Island off the west coast of the Cape towards Cape Town in an eerie, oily calm that was the harbinger of a massive black sou’easter. As we came alongside Cape Town harbour, heading towards our destination of Hout Bay, a few miles further on, the wind arrived. At this very moment we ran out of fuel – faulty fuel gauge claimed the owner afterwards. The wind rose inexorably to hurricane-force – the anemometer was pegged at 64 knots. The newspapers subsequently noted that it was gusting over 100 knots at the airport. The seas very quickly became massive, so that fishing boats racing for safety in Cape Town harbour were disappearing from view in the swells.

We had been carrying full main as we motored south but we had hauled this down as the wind arrived and now we lay a-hull. This was an uncomfortable and dangerous situation as we were almost beam on to the waves and in imminent danger of capsize.