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Keep Calm and Heave to

Posted: Wednesday, January 15, 2020 Joe Bassani

Professional Advice.

“Heaving to is not just a storm strategy, it’s also a vital seamanship skill.” – John Kretschmer, Sailing a Serious Ocean.  

In my opinion, the best strategy for dealing with storms is to avoid them.  If you are docked safely in your home port, stay there. If you are on a cruise, find a protected anchorage and button up to ride out the weather.  Unfortunately, it’s not always possible to avoid storms. If you find yourself in storm seas, consider heaving-to as an option to safely weather the storm. 

What is Heaving To?

Heaving-to is one of the first skills a keelboat sailor learns during her basic sailing instruction.  It is a time-honored storm strategy that, along with more active techniques like forereaching and running off, is an important part of a sailor’s heavy weather “tool kit”.

Heaving-to is a simple maneuver that places the vessel in a balance of forces, allowing it to “fend for itself” while sailing slowly and under control.  This allows the crew to take a break and conserve energy while waiting for the storm to pass.

How is it Done?

Photo taken from American Sailing Associations “Basic Coastal Cruising” textbook used for the ASA 103 course.

From a close haul, the helm should announce her intention to tack and heave-to.  The crew signals readiness for the maneuver and the helmsman initiates turns through the wind to the new close-hauled heading. The previously working jib sheet remains made off and the jib backs or fills with wind on the opposite side.  In calm winds, the captain may wish to let the main sail out to stall; in heavy seas and high winds, it may be advisable to douse the mainsail.  

Finally, turn the tiller to leeward or the wheel to windward so that the rudder is counteracting the force of the wind on the jib. Adjust the rudder as necessary to achieve the proper balance that will ensure the vessel travels slowly (1-2 knots) along the new close-hauled course with very little heel and noticeable leeward drift.  

Several factors affect the ability of a vessel to heave-to, including amount of freeboard, keel type, sail size and wind speed.  It is a good idea to practice heaving-to on your boat, in fair weather, to understand the design characteristics that are unique to your vessel and the optimal rudder and sail adjustments required for a stable heave-to.  If at first you struggle to achieve a satisfying heave-to, don’t give up. Every boat is different, and practice is the key to success. 

Why We Heave To.

Heaving-to is a great storm strategy, but it is also a useful fair-weather technique for loitering or holding in a particular area without anchoring:

  • When arriving at a destination at night and waiting until daylight to enter unfamiliar waters
  • During repairs that require a steady ship
  • While waiting to link up with other yachts for a flotilla or start of a race
  • When the crew needs a break

Becoming proficient a heaving-to is an important skill that will make a keelboat sailor’s time on the water safer and definitely more enjoyable.

If you’d like to learn more about this or another sailing-related topic, visit us at Sail Monterey or call us at (831) 742-7245

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