How to Sail through a Storm: Waves, Sails, Tactics

On the open ocean and in the middle of a storm is when your will, strength, and endurance are tested to their bitter limits. The natural elements from the huge swells to the gusty winds are just a few things you have to worry about. There will also be exhausted crew members and passengers.


Finding yourself sailing in big waves is when you make sure your best steereris at the helm.  Big waves in a storm will test the most experienced sailor.

Try not to sail on a reach across big breaking waves as they can cause a boat to roll.  Always keep your speed up to aid steering and try to move toward flat spots.  To minimize the risk of a wave washing across the deck only turn the sail in thesmooth water.


Should folding of the sail not reduce enough speed, you should use the trysail and storm jib (storm sails).  Storm sails are small, but the sails are perfectly proportioned for high winds.  Newer boats have the trysail attached to the boom, with the storm jib set forward of the mast – this keeps the boat balanced.


When facing a storm, there are two possible scenarios – avoid it or head for more space in the open ocean.  Storms these days hardly ever arrive unexpectedly due to technological advances and satellite tracked weather patterns.  There is a clear danger in being caught up by the storm should you decide to avoid it.  And with less maneuvering space, there is a chance of being blown on shore the closer you find yourself to land.  The rule of thumb is to stay away from land and to sail away from the storm – looking for a clear path.


There are numerous storm tactics to choose from, and all with the same purpose.  Tactics aim to lessen the strain and fight it takes to get one of the boat’s ends to point towards the waves.  There is no one storm tactic that works for all boats in every storm.

Sailing with storm sails is one option as the sails provide enough power to allow you to steer and gain control in the waves.  You can also try to steer the boat ahead of the storm towards the waves.  However, you will need a lot of space and constantly steer into the waves.

Another tactic is to lie ahull.  This entails you to fold down all the sails and lie and wait it out.  It is a less reliable tactic but one that does not require a lot of work or strain.  Your main concern is losing control of the boat and end up with the side of the boat facing the waves.

Ultimately, the best tactic or way to sail through a storm is to avoid it entirely…  Storms are cold, wet, miserable and highly dangerous out at sea.  It is a truly unforgettable experience but does not confuse a sense of adventure out on the seas with a dangerous situation.  Never comprise on the safety of your crew, passengers and yourself.


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  1. Hi.. i had to endure a 3 day cyclone of new caledoni in a 25 foot wooden boat….it was hell….i tried sea anchor off the bow…no good.. i would have lost my rudder… i hove too…. i could see i would get rolled… i then tried bernard moitesieur (joshua) method… running before….with drogues…. it was the answer…. bare boat… no sails. It slowed me down…i had stearage… and was a lot more comfortable… it took alot of concentration……you hsd to keep the stern dead square to oncoming huge seas… we did surfed…. luckily i had sea room….. how i survived…. only my FATHER in heaven knows… quit a few boats went missing…..

  2. I certainly wouldn’t have my crew sitting along the rail like a load of Hooray Henry’s racing around the buoys! All but the helmsman and one other on deck, the rest below avoiding hypothermia and being washed overboard. The skipper in that photo was obviously an amateur.

  3. Heaving to properly is an age-old seamanship skill when confronted with storms. This is not the same as lying ahull with bare poles. Lin & Larry Pardey provide extensive instructions on how to heave to properly for different types of hull shapes and rigs, with and without a parachute sea anchor. Running with the storm for too long can lead to getting pooped by a huge wave that will cascade tons of water over the boat and possibly cause the vessel to pitchpole. This scenario has been documented by many seasoned bluewater sailors who continued to run with a storm too long because of a false sense of security from the boat handling well and with a stern wind feeling less intense.

    Here’s one account by Bernard Moitessier from his book, The First Voyage of the Joshua…
    “… the boat was running exactly stern on to a fast approaching wave, nicely curved but not excessively large, on the point of breaking … or maybe not breaking …I was wide awake, I think I was even extra lucid at that moment. The stern lifted as always and then, accelerating suddenly but without heeling the slightest, Joshua buried her forward part in the sea at an angle of about 30 degrees, as far as the forward edge of the coachroof. Half the boat was under water. Almost immediately she emerged again…. We had almost been pitchpoled by a slightly hesitant wave–I would not have believed it possible.”

    The above example is taken from Seraffyn’s European Adventure (3rd Ed.), Appendix C, Some Thoughts on Heavy Weather. Authors Lin and Larry Pardey document 7 different instances of seasoned sailors sailing 5 very different types of boats, running too long under bare poles. All got into trouble with no warning and with dreadful suddenness. The Pardeys explain that heaving to can be a much safer alternative if the vessel and crew are properly prepared for this maneuver in gale force conditions. In their Storm Tactics Handbook and Video, the Pardeys go into detail about proper techniques and equipment for heaving to and other storm tactics. For more info visit http://www.landlpardey.com/ and https://www.thesailingchannel.tv/product/storm-tactics-pardey/

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