Small Boat Storm Survival Tactics 

The annual Trailer Sailors Association cruise of 2006 started like many others. About three dozen small boats left Spanish Ontario on a clear, sunny day and couple of days of great sailing. However, on July 17 at 4:30 pm a freak storm swept thorough the North Channel and the Georgian Bay. Winds were over 70mph in some places. A 43 ft trawler sank. And a number of other large boats sustained major damage. When the storm hit, the TSA group was already tucked into a small anchorage. There was some dragging and some cussing, but as usual, TSA sailors helped each other deal with this unexpected event. This was a fast moving storm, and it quickly passed. Later we all got together and had a large dingy raft up and shared war stories. Many trees were downed and as the TSA group headed for Gore Bay the next day, we could hear the sound of chain saws a couple miles out. It was  several days before power was restored to some areas.

One advantage of sailing the inland seas or most coastal areas in a class C boat is the availability of many small protected anchorages. On the other hand, these harbors of refuge can become dangerous lee shores. I have often asked myself if I was prepared to weather a storm like the one in 2006. A recent reading of Lin and Larry Pardy’s book, "Storm Tactics Handbook" has helped focus my thoughts. What is your plan? Here’s mine.

Obvious stuff when expecting weather:

  • Make sure all crew are wearing PFDs; jack lines and a harness are not "optional equipment". 
  • Monitor the VHF for updated weather information.
  • Reduce sail as soon as you think about it. You can always shake out the reef later.
  • Make sure emergency equipment (signal flares, throw bags etc) is readily available.
  • In shallow waters be ready to deploy an anchor if needed.
  • Clear the decks of anything that can blow overboard or become a missile.
  • Secure anything in the cabin that can come loose.
  • Think about what would happen if your dingy turtles in high waves.
  • Check your charts for harbors of refuge, verify your position and make sure you know exactly how much sea room you have.
  • Consider what would happen if the storm lasts very long and plan accordingly. Food, crew rest and periodic checks of rigging and gear are essential. 

Storm Survival Strategy: Here's a brief overview of the most common approaches; which tactic fits the situation best? 

  • Reaching to weather. Maintaining control over a sailboat is easiest when reaching. In moderate winds many sailors prefer this tactic even if it takes them off course. Few small boat sailors maintain a storm sail inventory so reefing early is the best option as winds build.
  • Motor sailing/motoring under bare poles: Not a bad strategy as long as the waves remain small; however as they build, cavitation of the outboard can become a problem and loss of control is possible.
  • Running: If you can keep the boat under control while running, this tactic is easiest on the boat and crew. Depending on the intensity of the wind you may opt to drop all sails and run under bare poles. However, as the waves and wind build there is danger of pitchpoling and you may run out of sea room.
  • Lying a-hull: This can be a dangerous and uncomfortable strategy similar to running under bare poles, except the boat is kept beam-to the waves. Most boats will handle moderate rolling waves in this situation, but once the waves begin to break, the danger of capsizing is greatly increased. Also, sea room must be considered.
  • Anchoring:  If other tactics fail, an anchor may slow or stop the vessel from going aground until help arrives, the wind shifts, or you are ready to try the next tactic.
  • Heaving-to: This is a strategy that works best with sufficient sea room. My personal observation is that few small boat sailors heave-to for any reason.  Most boats heave-to about 45-60 degrees off the wind. This is more like "parking" the boat. In moderate winds you should be making little or no headway and drifting leeward about 2 knots.  It is important to emphasize that all boats heave-to differently and it's possible some small/light/keel-less boats do not heave-to well so it's necessary to practice this technique to see what works for you. Some sailors also use a para-anchor. This further slows leeward motion and calms the water off the bow. 

Conclusion: There is no "right way" to deal with extreme weather. The skill of the crew, the type and condition of the boat, how much sea room is available, the storm duration and intensity are all considerations. The most important point here is that the sailor has several options when dealing with heavy weather. Practice builds confidence; experiment with each option and  you'll greatly improve the odds of bringing  your crew home safely.  

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