A Perspective on Heavy Weather

In the last few months news accounts have been filled with images of severe offshore weather, damaged boats and loss of life. Sailing offshore is not risk free – but neither is driving your car down the street, or taking a bath (last year someone a couple of miles from our house in Tucson was electrocuted by lightening while using his dishwasher!).

Here’s some perspective from our direct experience: In over 200,000 miles of sailing in the past 20+ years, including several roundings of the bottom of Africa, half a dozen or so trips around Cape Hatteras, and numerous trips to and from New Zealand, we’ve been in less than 72 hours of severe weather. It is probably worth mentioning that a majority of this sea time was without benefit of SSB or weather fax – most of our forecasting was done the old fashioned way, by watching the barometer, sky, sea state, and wind trends.

The first real blow came off the South African coast, towards the end of our passage from Mauritius to Durban aboard our 50-foot ketch Intermezzo. We were in the grip of the southbound Aghulas current when we were visited by our fourth southwesterly gale of the passage. These are usually short-lived, blowing themselves out in six to 12 hours, but this one lasted a day and a half. It never blew that hard – maybe a steady 50 to 55 knots, but as it opposed the current the seas were steep, and frequently breaking. We didn’t want to run off as that would take us away from Durban, so we beat slowly forward under storm staysail and deeply reefed mizzen. On the wind like this the seas frequently swept the deck, but could not get a real grip on the hull to knock us down.

The second situation occurred during a fall passage from the Chesapeake Bay towards Florida. We’d actually been sitting at Hampton Roads at the mouth of the Chesapeake waiting for some nasty weather in which to test this new design (a 62-foot Deerfoot). It was cold – just above freezing – and finally tired of waiting we took off in what appeared to be stable weather.

Eight hours later, during the early evening, we picked up the rain bar of a fast moving frontal system at the edge of our radar range. We went from a light beat to storm force winds behind us in a matter of minutes. Over the next 12 hours the breeze built to a steady 60 to 65 knots, gusting considerably higher, somewhat more than we desired for our “test”.

In the open ocean this would not have been a big deal. But once again we had a wind against current situation. While we were on the inside edge of Gulf Stream, with “only” a couple of knots opposing the wind, it was enough that every wave was breaking. The boat did fine, and by the time we turned the corner out of the stream at Cape Hatteras the breeze was down to a more reasonable 50 knots.

While we did not have problems in either situation, the potential was there for difficulty. We’ve probably been in a couple of dozen gales during the years, but none of them ever presented more than vigorous or in some cases uncomfortable sailing.

Today, with the Internet, weatherfax, and top notch amateur weather routers like Herb Hilgenberg, sailors have far more options to help them avoid bad weather. However, none of this will help unless you have a basic understanding of weather analysis, forecasting, and tactics. We feel strongly that this knowledge is more important to safe, comfortable cruising than anything else. It is more important than invertors, high speed inflatable dinghies, fancy electronics, or microwave ovens. And when the time comes to make those budget decisions the top priority should go to your ability to receive timely weather data – hopefully via weatherfax. It is always difficult to budget time when getting ready to go cruising. But learning weather should be at the top of the list – and where that precocious free time goes before spending it anywhere else.

The next ingredient to staying out of trouble is boat speed. The faster you go, the less time you spend at sea and the less you are exposed. Most cruisers don’t understand how to make their boats move efficiently. In terms of overall cruising fun, safety, and mental comfort, being able to sail quickly is right at the top of the list. When you’re making those budget decisions keep in mind that it is the sails which make the boat move most of the time.

Finally, one’s definition of heavy or dangerous weather is very much a function of experience and the ability to handle your boat when the going becomes more difficult. There is no way to acquire this experience except by going out when it is blowing and pushing hard. Reefing, setting storm canvas, tacking and jibing, and balancing the boat under self steering when it is rough out should all be learned before heading offshore.

(excerpted from February 1999 issue of Latitude 38 magazine)

Posted by Steve Dashew  (February 28, 1999)

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