What is 'Heaving To' and When Would You 'Heave To'?

Heaving-to is an extremely useful technique that every sailor should know at an early stage in their ‘career’. 

The process is simple enough. Basically, to heave-to the helm must put the boat through a tack but, critically, the headsail sheets are not touched, thus backing the headsails and balancing the boat on a working, probably trimmed flat, mainsail and backed headsail. The critical part is to make sure that the boat is pushed off the wind after the ‘tack’ and then the wheel is pushed hard over to the wind again so as to act as a drag and stall the boat. Very much like you might accidentally do after a broach in heavy weather.

Most boats heave to most efficiently when the headsail and mainsail are trimmed in hard. However, each boat will have its own characteristics and some lighter boats might be so eager to pick up and sail even with an over-trimmed mainsail that the crew might need to find additional ways to depower the mainsail. A useful technique, especially in a large cross sea where the boat is in danger of rocking and gybing an overly dumped mainsail might be to ‘scandalise’ the boom by dumping the vang and raising the topping lift.  

It might take you a little time to find the best technique for reliably heaving to but it’s worth taking the time to get it right. One day lives might be at stake!

Larger, heavier sailing vessels with deep keels will usually heave-to well, especially in big seas and for this reason the decision to heave to is a credible heavy weather tactic for some vessels. In my opinion, heaving-to in a light boat in high seas is just asking for trouble, and this is where I think a properly deployed sea anchor might be a far better bet.

Of course, heaving to is not just for heavy weather. There are other reasons why a well-timed heave-to might prove very useful and here are a few;

Man Overboard!
Every skipper’s nightmares are filled with the fear of losing a crew mate overboard, especially in heavy weather. It’s no surprise then that sailing courses require competent skippers to simulate the pick up of a man overboard under engine and/or under sail

In recent years the danger of a clipped-on man overboard has featured heavily in the yachting press with several well reported and tragic examples of what can go wrong when a crew member falls overboard and is dragged (and effectively drowned) by his own tether. This has even re-ignited the debate about whether clipping on is the best idea. Well, I’ll settle that notion right now. Clipping on IS the best idea. But you need to have a plan to deal with a tethered man overboard scenario!

The heave-to is that plan. If your crew goes over the low side, heave-to. This has two useful consequences. It stops and stabilizes the boat and it brings your tethered casualty from the low side to the new high side, thus helping to pull him from the water. Once hove-to immediate first aid and even mouth to mouth resuscitation might be possible which in the case of drowning may well make all the difference.

Of course, if your crew goes over the high side heaving to may not be the best plan . Pinching the boat to windward to slow the boat and keep the casualty out of the water might be your best plan, but don’t guess at it, practice some scenarios so that you have a tried and tested plan for every eventuality.

Climb the Rig!
Climbing a rig at sea is a fairly gnarly experience for even hardened yachties, especially in a bigger sea. In most cases a risk assessment will conclude that you stay on deck until later but sometimes it just has to be done. In these instances the ability to heave-to allows the yacht to be balanced and more stable during a mast ascent, thus mitigating the forces at work on the climber and keeping risks low. 

Stop for lunch!
OK, so we aren’t all rock stars climbing rigs and saving lives. But all of us enjoy a pleasant lunch at sea. If only we could slow things down a little and stop the slamming we might even enjoy a small glass of vino without spilling it all over the teak.

Guess what? The heave-to is made for this. When consuming (or even preparing) lunch at sea, a well-timed heave-to can make everything so much more pleasant. To make life easier on yourself, heave-to from a port tack so that you end up hove-to on starboard. This makes you starboard vessel which might also help you enjoy lunch without the constant need to alter course for stand-on vessels.  Just remember that you are still underway - and you are still moving, either downwind and/or downtide!

I hope this makes the case for the heave-to. If you aren’t sure how to do it, ask one of our experienced instructors when you are next sailing with Jolly Parrot. Just make sure the lunch is ready first!