Sailing Yacht - Owner’s Guide - Part 2

The second part of our yacht owner’s guide looks at advanced sailing skills required for sailing in heavy weather. Learn more about guarding against sickness and fatigue as well as how to read the weather.

As you get to know your yacht and your handling improves, you will find your confidence builds. You may want to start planning longer cruises and venture further offshore, in which case it will be wise to work on some advanced skills. Doing the RYA courses is important, but so is putting in the practice on your own boat.

Clearly, the safety of your crew and vessel is your top priority at sea. For some yacht owners, the very thought of getting caught out in high winds and rough seas is enough to keep them sailing close to home in fair weather and gentle breezes. However, if you want to be more adventurous then understanding heavy weather sailing management will instil greater confidence and allow you to plan longer trips. Keeping everything under control in heavy weather is really important. This means knowing when you will need to adjust your sails and ensuring your crew and vessel are well prepared for changing conditions.

Seasickness and fatigue advice for yachting

Even the most experienced sailor can suffer from seasickness and it can be demoralising for everyone on board if one or more of the crew are having a bad time. One of the skipper’s responsibilities is to keep an eye out for the early signs and to hand out seasickness pills well in advance of bad weather, or suggest other remedies.

The skipper has to keep a check on crew fatigue as well as seasickness, as the two often go hand in hand. This means organising watches and ensuring that those off watch get some sleep, especially if bad weather is approaching. It’s also important to have adequate hydration and nutrition, both of which are all too frequently neglected when under way. The latter is doubly important for those who normally live a sedate desk-bound life – on a yacht by mid afternoon you may already have used as many calories as during the whole of a normal day, which can result in low blood sugar unless you’re eating more than usual.

 sailing yacht illustration

Sail plan and trim

Keeping a boat sailing efficiently requires monitoring the wind strength and sea state and making adjustments accordingly. This avoids being overpowered by the wind which can cause excessive heeling and weather helm. It will also allow for a more comfortable ride.

When it comes to reefing sails and adjusting trim, the time to do this will vary with different boats. It is good to know how your own boat will behave in a variety of wind strengths at different points of sail. Share this knowledge with your crew so they will know what to expect if the conditions are forecast to change.

Here is a typical reefing model suitable for a modern Bermudan rigged cruising yacht:

Wind strength Upwind Downwind
Force 5 (17 - 21 knots) First reef in the main; genoa 10% furled First reef in the main; keep genoa full
Force 6 (22 - 27 knots) Second reef in the main; genoa 25% furled Second reef in the main; genoa 15% furled
Force 7 (28 -33 knots) Third reef in the main; genoa 40% furled Third reef in the main, genoa 30% furled
Force 8 (34 - 40 knots) Deep reefed main / storm trysail; genoa furled, storm jib deployed Deep reefed main / storm trysail; genoa furled, storm jib deployed
Above 40 knots Steer close hauled using storm sails. Consider heaving to; deploy sea anchor if necessary Use storm sails or bare poles. Consider heaving to; deploy drogue to reduce speed

Reef in good time

It is a good idea to practice reefing in calm conditions, so that the crew will feel confident in both reefing and shaking out the sails quickly and calmly. Make sure that they become familiar with first, second and third reefs, and while it is extremely rare for storm sails to be used, do this at least once in calm conditions to avoid having to learn how in a gale. Markers on the genoa can help ensure that the crew furl in the correct amount of sail, without having to double-check with the skipper.

Most sailors follow the rule of thumb that putting in a reef is best done sooner rather than later. A yacht sails more efficiently when the angle of heel is less and the rudder is not halfway out of the water. If the boat is flatter, it will be faster, safer and properly under control.

Controlling the sails on your yacht

sailing yacht sail control

Another skill to learn and practice is the technique of powering up and de-powering your sails, by making adjustments to the mainsail controls including mainsheet traveller, boom vang, outhaul, backstay and the Cunningham. This only really comes with practice and although constant adjustment is not really necessary when cruising, it will pay you to master tuning skills in order to keep fully in control on all points of sail.

Heaving to

If you are a safe distance from land and everyone wants a break from pounding through heavy seas - for a meal for instance - then heaving too can provide a welcome relief. It is not a difficult manoeuvre, but another skill worth practicing in light winds - just back the jib and tie the helm to leeward (see illustration).

When heaved to it is important to keep a lookout and monitor the speed of your drift and to ensure you are not drifting towards danger, such as a lee shore.

Forecasting the weather at sea

Always study the weather forecast thoroughly before going afloat in order to remain safe and to make an efficient passage plan. Before departure, download forecasts to cover the anticipated length of your passage. Be prepared to delay your departure or change your destination if the weather forecast is unfavourable.

Once committed to going, ensure that you have the means to get regular, reliable weather forecasts if you are at sea for any length of time. This will allow you to change your plans and head for a safe haven if the forecast is for stormy weather, and to take advantage of detailed weather information when planning your route.

Towergate Insurance have teamed up with Safe Skipper Apps to create a free to download boating app with invaluable tips and practical advice for on boat preparation, checklists, equipment, communications and emergency procedures. Check out the app at Safe Skipper.

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