5 things to take into account in a storm
This post is also available in: Italiano (Italian)
This article deals with the most important aspects of a topic on which entire volumes have been written: how to overcome rough weather at sea.
Many yachtsmen consider a storm as the most unfortunate event that can happen at sea. We are all scared of having to sail through a storm during strong wind gusts and rough sea!
The things to be done during a storm are many and vary according to the scenarios you may face BUT the issues you have to worry about are only five: you, your crew, your boat, the wind and the waves.
First of all I want to tell you my most significant experience in particularly bad marine weather conditions, with more than 60 knots of wind. Then, precisely thanks to this and other events I have experienced when sailing, I want to give you some advice about how to sail safely through a storm.
8th September between Aegina and Athens
A sailor always thinks about the worst sea conditions he may face and, in case, if he is really prepared to cope with such an extreme situation.
Thanks to my personal experience I know how to sail in case of bad weather conditions and how important is to be prepared. As the Latin saying goes “Amat Victoria Curam”, I agree that nothing must be left to chance when the achievement of a good outcome is at stake.
8th September. We were lying at anchor on Kithnos, then we set sail for a tour in the Aegean Sea.
After having checked the weather forecast and our checklist we decided to set sail from Kithnos in the morning. The sea was so calm and the sky so blue that, once Kithnos is behind us and we were sailing near Kea I decided to calibrate the autopilot.
As the wind gradually picked up, I cautiously hoisted mainsail and genoa. Three knots, then four, then five up to a speed of 7.5 knots as we were cutting through the sea like a knife through silk. It was a great feeling! Until…..
Suddenly an ugly cloud from Peloponnese appeared over Aegina. It was exactly where we were sailing to, towards Moni, to sea wild deers and peacocks. I did not allow myself to be intimidated, therefore I checked wind direction, weather forecast and satellite monitoring and decided to head straight towards our destination. Based on the weather forecast I was 90% sure the cloud would go on its own way, and we ours.
Sailing among large boats we were almost at the end of the Piraeus corridor when, right in front of us it started thundering, heavy thundering!
The picture above, taken during that storm, gives you an idea of the purple colour typical of these exceptional events.
I can tell you, sailing in a thunderstorm is really very scaring…. A suggestion I can give is that the best way “not to be stricken” by a thunder is simply to go on sailing. Thunders are more interested in water than in our mast and in 99% of cases, we will be safe simply by continuing moving.
In the meanwhile the cloud had turned into a black monster that had swallowed the earth and the sky. So, as the horrible cloud was moving towards the Cyclades, I decided to head towards Salamina. And everything was fine until the coming storm decided it was time to change direction… and guess which one it took? Ours, of course!
That made little difference as blows over 40 knots had already hit our boat. Your stomach knots up when it seems the mast is going to bend to the sea, but it lasts a few seconds and then it slowly moves back in position.
We decided to furl the sails, first the jib, then the mainsail. I cast an eye at Marina and switched the engine ON. She was providing lifevests for the kids and cats below deck. While we were joking here was the wind….and the first side wind gust was over 45 knots! Gentilina, almost ahull, was tilting and we saw its masthead standing three meters over the sea. It was right then that we realized it would be a tough experience. I managed to make the boat steer in the same direction in which the wind was blowing and we started to ride the storm, as the Doors once sang.
Gentilina was “flying” at the wonderful speed of 12.5 knots – never seen before – over waves that pushed us like mad horses. Maybe I cannot find the words to explain, but in such a situation your senses get over-excited by the sea, the wind, the deafening noise, the light, and you are aware that you are there! Past and future disappear and only the present moment exists. In my mind I was surprised not to be scared. Almost everything around you is purple. It is as if you were sunk in the core of a thunder.
My job is to keep the boat downwind while Marina had first of all to take care of the children, bringing them in the cabin and reassuring them. Then she rushed out of the companionway to reach the mainsail as the lazy bag had torn and a small portion of mainsail was free. While she was trying to close the lazy bag, a genoa sheet became loose (… all the ropes had just been replaced…) and a tiny part of fabric unrolled and started to flatter stronger and stronger until also the other sheet became loose thereby totally freeing the sails behind the bow. Our genoa 150 had turned into a dangerous whip governed by the wind.
Marina run back to the cockpit to recall the furling genoa and to try to roll the sail up again.
After half an hour wave riding Marina and I, shouting as we tried to understand what we were saying beyond the sea and wind noise, agreed upon turning 180° and start to sail up storm. This because we had travelled more than 6 miles and if we went on sailing in the same direction we might risk to land directly on the Acropolis… The last stern side speed reading showed 47 knots which, added to our speed of about 12.5 knots, made a total speed of 60 knots. Then wind speed was increasing and the rain beat down heavily on our backs and on everything else. To give an idea of how heavy the rain was, as the companionway was open, the rain reached the children’s beds at bow….
However, under these particular circumstances, the big ships in transit are the highest risk you are exposed to. You have to face poor visibility and out-of-service plotter due to heavy rain and so you only hope to be visible on the ships’ radars and AIS.
Ok, now we were turning. It was not without an effort that I turned the rudder trying to push the boat windward down a wave. Now we were sailing up storm until we were out of the storm at last!
It all lasted less than an hour, but we felt as if only a couple of minutes had passed. When everything was over Leilani and Valerio left their cabin to say “We are hungry….”.
We moored at Agios Marina, Aegina and made the damage bill: torn lazy bag and genoa, etc. We learnt that wind force 12 had struck our boat, a hurricane wind, about 130 km/h. As well as a very strong rain. Luckily waves were not higher than two meters and this, somehow, helped us, more than we could realize.
In conclusion Gentilina proved to be a boat able to face any test, Marina and me to be a cohesive team and our kids to be true sailors who trust their master as well as their first officer…..
This experience was frightful and wonderful at the same time, an event raising something that had been long dozing inside us.
In the middle of a storm the awareness of our limits faces us and becomes real. The fear not to be able to match the challenge grows smaller and almost disappears to turn into the sweet awareness you feel when you are proud of yourself.
Advice on how to face a storm
It must be said that thanks to weather forecast and apps nowadays available it is very difficult not to be informed about approaching bad weather. However, the further you are from the shore, the least reliable weather forecast is. If you are going to sail extensively, sooner or later you will have to fight against bad weather. Here are some tips on how to face bad marine weather conditions.
We always hear that during bad weather boats can withstand to be struck by wind more than people on board can, so think in advance what measures have to be taken so that both the crew and you can sail safely.
A master always needs to remain calm and show confidence, even if he has to face the worst adverse weather event. Remember that at the time of need you are everybody’s leader. If you are the first to panic, the whole crew won’t trust the master anymore.
Think about the next step. Do not start running all along the boat trying to do everything by yourself. Giving precise orders is the best thing to do both for you and for the crew. If the storm is long-lasting, develop a plan in order to make the best use of the hours-to-come.
Often talk to the people on board in order to reassure them and be aware of how they are feeling.
Mentally focus on the situation. How is the crew going? Is the boat ok? Does the wind always blow in the same direction?
Learn to trust your boat. There is no better time than bad weather to discover how strong the hull of your boat is.
Always wear lifevests during saling. New models are often provided with a safety line to be connected to the jack line so you can safely move from bow to stern. Make sure all what you may need is close at hand: VHF, Epirb, satellite, papers.
If you are sailing near the coast, tune VHF on the local weather service.
Make sure each member of the crew has a role to play during emergencies. Someone is tasked with the liferaft, someone has to take the grab bag, someone else is in charge to send the distress call, and so on. It is essential to prevent the crew from being scared and being busy doing different activities may help to distract people’s attention from the sea. Safety measures shall be explained before problems may arise.
According to your instructions schedule watchkeeping shifts and rest periods in case bad weather lasts for a while. In any case, people have to eat and rest.
The worst thing during a storm is to get totally wet. Make sure you and your crew are adequately dressed for the weather.
When you are scared it is normal to assume the worst. Trying to joke and be in a good spirit despite the storm may help to lift the mood of people on board.
The first thing to do is to start the engine. In case all the sails get torn, or, even worst, the boat is struck by a thunder, at least you can count on a means that can bring you home.
If a thunder strikes the boat, you can say good-bye to the entire boat electronic system and therefore also to the chance to start the thruster, so, make sure it has been turned ON before something serious happens.
Make sure all what is on the deck is ready to face the worst of the situations. Nothing should be more important than to have a liferaft ready for emergencies. Liferafts may be placed differently on each boat: ensure that the person in charge of the liferaft knows the procedure to be followed in case of emergency.
If the dinghy is on the deck, check the ropes and fixing parts that keep it in position. If you think you have time, it is better to deflate and stow it. In short, remove from the deck all what in your opinion may constitute a danger.
Make a floating anchor ready to be streamed in water and, if you think it is the case, close the bimini and remove all movable covers. Secure the anchor properly.
Jerk sharply the jackline to be sure it is well fastened. Make sure nothing is moving inside the peaks. Does the manual bilge pump work? Check it, too!
Remove all the ropes you do not need. Should they unfortunately release, they could be a major problem.
Solar panels? Check the fasteners. Wind turbine? Better to block it, although new models stops automatically in case wind blows over 30 knots.
Turn all wind scoops towards the cockpit in order to prevent water from entering. Make sure all portlights, hatches, skylights and other openings that reach outside are tightly closed.
Close the companionway above decks as well as all the seacocks below decks, especially the WC ones.
Check that there are no heavy objects in the cabinets and in the peaks, which may injure people by falling off. Lock the drawers, if any.
Lock also the door of the upright refrigerator, if you have one. Very probably it will open and its door will break. Moreover its content will be spread everywhere, thus causing troubles.
Check if the bilge pumps work. Make sure all the lights and navigational instruments are ON.
In case no instrument to monitor the direction and intensity of the storm is available on board, call VHF for information and to communicate the vessel’s position.
Wind speed is estimated by means of the Beaufort-scale, which has 12 classes. The Beaufort scale is not an exact nor an objective scale as it was based on visual and subjective observation of a ship and of the sea. Therefore the described sea conditions may vary depending on wind direction and how far from the coast the boat is.
Expert sailors have learnt to estimate wind speed simply by looking at the sea surface. For example when the wind speed is about 10 knots (19 Km/h), class 3 Bft, the famous “white horses” – this is how they are called in English – start to become visible. Over 20 knots (37 Km/h), class 7 Bft, waves swell and the sea is now rough. From 35 knots (64 Km/h), class 8 Bft, the weather takes a quick change for the worse…To give you an idea, it is the wind that shakes trees in town, big trees, and make their branches fall on the streets.
From then on you cannot infer wind speed simply by looking at the sea surface but you need an anemometer (an instrument for measuring wind speed), or, at least, I personally need one.
The last class of the Beaufort scale is the 12th, which states: very high waves, the air is filled with foam and spray, sea is completely white with driving spray. A approval category – sea STORMY SEA 10 – Severe and widespread damage to ship’s structures.
Remember wind will be strong until the storm is over. When a storm is approaching there are two things that can be done: avoid it or sail offshore.
As already said it is difficult not to be informed about approaching bad weather and so you have time to prepare. As a general rule stay away from the shore and sail far from the storm. However, if you are inshore and can return to port safely, do it immediately! Do not wait for the wind to pick up or worse.
But, to return to port safely, you must exactly know what to do as a mistake while entering the port with rough sea may cause a disaster in a nanosecond! So, if you decide this option is too risky, you should try to maintain a course that keeps you in the middle of the storm as short as possible.
Your aim is to face the storm trying to avoid an emergency situation and not to expose both the crew and the equipment to risks.
The first thing to do is to reef the mainsail. If you think the storm will be very bad, do not hesitate to reef lines even three times or, in case of a rollable mainsail, keep out (just) a small triangle of sail. Do it as soon as you can, as this is dangerous to perform when the rain is heavy and the wind is strong. Being a cautious sailor does not make you an unexperienced sailor!
Roll the jib tight and leave only enough sail to maintain constant speed.
Now the wind is surely exceeding 40 knots. Any storm sail on board? A storm jib, for example, is a good option as it has been specifically designed for the purpose. What is important is that it can maintain the boat at such a speed that allows the rudder to keep waves under control.
In case you are already offshore, you have two options:
- To sail with wind astern and try to gain speed in order to stand up to waves.
Broad reach is a very good point of sail for this strategy. Remember to provide a boom vang to avoid big blows on the equipment.
- To heave
There are two ways to bring the boat to a standstill: leave the jib to back, reef and spill mainsail and luff rudder but, should the storm last two hours, the sails will be seriously tested and they could be damaged. Nowadays the most common way to heave is to haul aft the already backed mainsail and block the rudder sideway.
So the boat will slowly drift and you can catch your breath.
Big waves are scaring. To determine when waves are bigger than three meters, an empirical method is used: if you can see through a wave, then this is over three meters high. In Norvegian this is called grønt hav, i.e. green sea.
Regardless of the point of sail, I recommend you to avoid breakers as they may capsize your boat. What is important is, as I was saying before, to try to maintain the boat at such a speed that allows you to keep waves under control.
If you want to turn, try to do it only where the sea is very flat.
Waves just slip off a clear deck without damaging anything. A floating anchor (as well as slipping a long rope in the sea) may help to keep waves under control.
In the end, as you may have guessed, there is not just a strategy against bad weather that works for any boats and for any storms.
A situation is always different from the other and maybe the best tactic is to try to avoid bad weather and not to leave the port in case conditions are against you.
With this article I intended to give you the basic information you may need to face these situations. The best way to train yourself to these events is to try to perform specific manoeuvres when the weather is fine in order to be prepared for the worst. Learn as much as you can about your boat and, generally speaking, read a lot about this topic.
… and while you are putting into practice all what has been here mentioned, take some time to think about how wild nature can be.
Fair winds to everybody!
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