Sailing in a Storm: It’s Not as Difficult as You Think

Things About Heavy Weather Boat Handling You Should Know

Any boater would rather avoid sailing in a storm than have to face its challenges. But despite the best-laid plans, it’s possible to get caught in unexpected heavy weather while on the water.

The most important thing to know if this happens to you is to stay calm. You may find yourself on the water with bad weather approaching faster than you can get away from it. But there are some key steps you can take to keep everyone on board safe and make it back to port.

In this blog, we will detail the signs that the weather is turning stormy, how to prepare for a bad weather encounter and the first key steps to take fast. We’ll also list some heavy-weather boat handling techniques and tips for recreational power boats and sailboats in storms.

>> Also, be sure to check out our emergency boating kit checklist

Can You Avoid Sailing in a Storm?

When at all possible, try to avoid being on the water during stormy weather. The best way to avoid getting caught out is by checking the marine weather forecast before any planned trips. The forecast contains marine weather for current conditions and predictions for the next 48 hours, so check at least a day ahead of your trip for any storm warnings.

If a strong storm is coming into shore, even boats moored at a marina may need some protection. These 10 tips to stormproof your boat are a good starting point.

Once you are out on the water, you can continue to monitor the marine weather forecast over your VHF radio channel 21b (storm forecasts will be relayed on the coastguard channel 16 also). Remember to keep an eye on the horizon for signs of heavy weather too. 

Some signs of bad weather approaching include:

  • Clouds: flat clouds getting lower and thicker, vertical clouds that are rising, or dark clouds are all warnings of bad weather.
  • Temperature: watch for sudden temperature drops.
  • Wind: sudden increase in the wind or significant direction change should be noted.
  • Flashes on the horizon: indicate a lightning storm.

Spotting these changing weather patterns soon enough may allow you to get back to land before getting caught in it.

Be Prepared for Bad Weather on the Water

Being prepared will help you to sail successfully through a storm. Educate yourself about heavy weather sailing techniques, what to do if someone goes overboard and how to report a Mayday situation.

Ensure required emergency equipment is on board and easy to access should you need it, including:

  • VHF radio 
  • Sound signaling equipment
  • Lifejackets or PFDs for all passengers
  • Anchors – in addition to a regular anchor, a sea anchor may be helpful in a storm. Sea anchors are cones of canvas material that are attached to the bow and slow downwind drift.

For more information about the safety equipment that you are legally required to carry on your vessel, check Transport Canada’s Safe Boating Guide.

Before heading out on a cruise, research protected anchorages in the area in case you need to seek shelter. This list of protected anchorages in the Gulf Islands is a good starting point. 

What to do When a Storm Hits Without Warning

If you do find yourself sailing into the wind and heavy waves, take these steps right away:

  • Have everyone onboard put on a lifejacket.
  • Reduce your speed. This gives you more control and makes it less likely your vessel will slam into a wave.
  • Turn your running lights on so you are visible to others.
  • Chart and log your current position.
  • Find the closest safe port on the charts. Don’t try to get back to your home port if there is another option close by. 
  • Passengers should go into the cabin and sit in the centre of the boat. If you are in an open boat with no cabin, passengers are to sit on the floor in the centre of the boat, away from metal objects.
  • Close all hatches, ports and windows to prevent water from getting into the boat.
  • Pump the bilges. Too much water on board can unbalance the boat in big waves.
  • Tie down or store any loose items, so they don’t move around and cause an injury risk.

On a sailing boat:

  • Reef your mainsail to make the surface area smaller and slow your travelling speed.
  • Alternatively, switch to storm sail and jig.
  • Ensure everyone on deck has a harness and is attached to jack lines/lifelines.

Heavy Weather Boat Handling and Sailing Techniques

Once you have done all the immediate things required to keep your passengers safe and have a handle on your position, your main aim is to get to a safe mooring or place to shelter. 

Here are some tips for handling your vessel in rough water:

Heavy weather boat handling for the recreational motor vessel:

  • Slow your speed to equal the speed of the waves, this will help prevent broaching and put less pressure on the structure of the boat.
  • Point the bow of the yacht into the waves at a 45-degree angle to avoid tipping or swamping.
  • Tack the boat if needed to prevent sailing parallel to waves.
  • Don’t sail too close to shore unless you are approaching moorage. There is always a risk of being blown onto shoreline rocks.
  • If you run out of fuel or suffer engine failure, deploy your sea anchor and regular anchor to hold a safe position without tip
  • ping. 

Heavy weather sailing techniques for sailing boats:

  • Point one end of the boat towards the waves 
  • If you haven’t already, switch to storm sail and jib. These small sails help to slow the vessel significantly while still allowing directional control.
  • Deploy a sea anchor from the bow to prevent the sailboat from tipping. 
  • If the storm becomes too heavy to ride out or you need physical rest, consider ‘Heaving To.’ This technique positions the sails, so they work against each other and hold the boat in place. Add an anchor to prevent drift.

Remember to continue to monitor the emergency VHF channel and keep a watch out for obstacles or other boats in the water. If you are in an emergency situation, taking on water, have hit an object, or have a man overboard – make a mayday call immediately.

A Safe Port of Call at Van Isle Marina

If you need somewhere to moor your yacht when a storm is in the forecast, look no further than Van Isle Marina.  Located in Sidney BC, there is plenty nearby to keep you busy on your no-sailing days.

Drop in or contact us for more information about moorage fees and availability.