How to prepare a yacht for sailing in heavy weather / storm conditions

Sailing in heavy weather is rarely something any of us choose to do but if you sail for long enough and far enough offshore, you will end up doing it whether you want to or not.

The key to sailing in heavy weather is preparation. Prepare your crew, allowing them to eat, drink (water!) and rest well before the weather arrives - and look after yourself as skipper.  Once it gets sporty you’ll be on call 24/7 (as if you aren’t already) and, if your crew are inexperienced, they will be looking to you both for reassurance and technical assistance. Downwind helming at night in a big sea can be a daunting prospect for the less experienced helm so expect to do your fair share and more on deck when it gets hard.

We’ll assume you have chosen the right crew for your passage and that they are well briefed, well rested and ready for a beating. So now we need to prepare the boat for the onslaught ahead. We’ve included a few points for your consideration. Many points assume you have set sail prepared for the worst and some assume you are on a larger vessel. In no particular order they are as follows;

Locate and (where necessary) test all essential equipment, grab bags and emergency kit.

E.g. Emergency tiller, storm sails, sea anchor, etc. Remind crew of their location and how to use deploy them.

Obviously - you did this before on your extensive shoreside safety brief.

If the liferaft is not deck mounted ensure it is safely stowed in the lazarette but easily reached in case of emergency - and tied to the vessel to avoid loss in case of inversion.

Stow all non-essential items safely below deck

There is little worse than being below deck when crew are cold, wet (and probably sea sick).

No doubt beating upwind, the yacht can quickly start to look - and smell - like a teenager’s bedroom. Get organised before the weather hits!

Prepare food for the coming 4 hours prior to the onset of bad weather. Prepare soup for warming and sandwiches / easily consumed / heated food for preparation and consumption in heavy weather.
Advise crew to take sea sickness tablets if they are susceptible. Ideally 12 hours before the weather deteriorates.
Allocate crew with secondary lifelines for severe storm conditions. Make sure crew know how to use them. How to deal with Sea Sickness.
Rig tri-sail on the second mast track (if available) Make it secure but ready to go. When the weather gets bad you don’t want to be rigging new sails ! Do it now, just in case.
Rig inner forestay for the storm jib (if available) and bend on sail and secure sheets and tack on deck. As above. Make sure sheets are properly secured above deck or run to the clew later, when needed. If applicable, remind crew of the need to reset the headsail cars and the sheet run as and when you change to the storm jib.
Consider rigging safety lines below deck to allow safer transit below deck in a violent seas. This is more relevant in a larger yacht.
Undertake an engine check in case you need to rely on the engine to assist you. You might need to recover an MOB or escape an imminent leeshore!
Consider how much sea room you are likely to need if you decide to run downwind or deploy a sea anchor. This may means deciding on alternate storm tactic. If you decide to deploy a sea anchor make the decision whilst you can still do it. Working on a foredeck and deploying a sea anchor in storm conditions is difficult at best and dangerous to crew.
Rig storm boards / weather boards in companionway and make sure they are securely attached with lanyards. If you are knocked down or inverted you want to retain hull integrity. If you have storm hatches for other parts of the vessel make them ready.
Brief your crew on what to expect and your plan for reefing down / changing sails. Plan ahead and act decisively but don’t be too cautious. Too little sail in a big sea can be as hazardous as too little too soon.
Keep up to date with weather forecasts and watch for worsening weather. Know what to expect and when.
Undertake a deck walk and check all standing and running rigging.

Make sure you have several sail ties available below decks and that each crew has one in their pocket. Consider tying in the third reefing pennant with a piece of spectra line so as to retain the third reef in the pennant snaps.

Have warps ready to stream in case you need to slow your progress downwind. Run them off winches to allow adjustment and retrieval.

Run generator to charge batteries and run watermaker where you have them in order to make water and charge batteries whilst water intakes are effective and not exposed to air locks caused by excessive heel angle in poor weather. Also check your gas bottle. From experience I can assure you changing a large gas bottle in a violent storm is no fun but might be necessary to keep a crew warm and fed.

Make sure the anchor and chain is secured and made safe in case of inversion. Secure anchor locker to avoid opening in an inversion.

In severe survival conditions consider reporting your position to a trusted contact ashore and have an agreed reporting procedure perhaps every 4 - 8 hours.  Just in case the worst happens - at least then you have a chance of rescue.
Reinforce passage bunks and lee cloths. Don’t underestimate how violent the boat’s movement can get when experiencing severe storm conditions.

Brief crew on location of EPIRB, etc

Consider changing the watch system to allow for frequent breaks below deck.  Especially in cold oceans and high latitudes. In very bad weather consider minimising crew on deck (perhaps 3) with most of the watch on call below decks ‘kitted and ready’ if needed.
Allocate crew to radio and radar / AIS watch in poor visibility. There is little more disconcerting than storm conditions and nearby shipping out of sight!
Run through a list of ‘what ifs’ in your head. What if we snap a headsail sheet? What if we get dismasted? 

Forewarned is forearmed.


Finally, once all you can do has been done, brief your crew, present a calm and relaxed demeanour at all times and work on keeping crew morale high - particularly when a crew is inexperienced and nervous of what is to come. If you have time, go to bed whilst you have time and rest. Give clear instructions on when to start reefing and when to wake you. 

It’ll all be over soon enough and then you’ll all have a story to tell over a different kind of dark ‘n stormy in the yacht club bar!

Sail safe.

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