The ocean is your parking lot (published July 2012)
For centuries, heaving-to has been the most reliable trick in a sailor’s arsenal for “parking” a sailboat at sea. Throughout that time, sailing vessels have changed and sailors have changed with them, but one fact remains—heaving-to is an important and necessary skill every sailor should master.
On ships of yesteryear, heaving-to was somewhat complex due to sail size and vessel maneuverability. In contrast, heaving-to in a modern sloop is quite easily done with minimal effort. By using a headsail, mainsail and rudder, we have the ability to heave-to for hours or days if required.
WHAT, WHY, WHEN?
Simply put, heaving-to is a maneuver used to slow a sailboat’s progress and calm its motion while at sea. When successfully “hove-to,” a sailboat will gently drift to leeward at a greatly reduced speed. The reasons for heaving-to are numerous and often situational. When teaching students the maneuver, I impart the three Rs of heaving-to: Rest, Repairs and Reefing.
When sailing in rough seas (especially shorthanded), there will come a time when you need rest. Resting could mean sleeping, eating, or simply completing tasks that might be difficult or dangerous while underway. Making coffee or a warm meal, using the head, waiting for daybreak outside a harbor and navigation fall into this category. So too does one of the main reasons sailors heave-to—waiting out rough weather. Heaving-to is a completely acceptable storm tactic during the passage of a moderate squall or large front, especially when compared to riding out a storm with bare poles in a heavy sea.
Your need for calm could also come in the form of repairs to your vessel. Working over a diesel engine is far easier when hove-to than when beating into a punishing sea. Also, if a shroud were to break, heaving-to opposite the broken rigging will allow you to assess the damage and possibly make a repair.
When reefing, it may be necessary to send a crewmember forward to use lines near the mast or to attach a luff cringle on the reefing hook. Heaving-to makes this considerably safer and much easier for crew to move forward and work on deck.
HOW TO HEAVE-TO?
One of the best ways to heave-to in a modern sloop is to use the tacking method. Start off close-hauled or on a close reach. Turn the bow of the boat through the wind slower than you would during a normal tack and DO NOT release the jib. The goal here is to let the jib backwind and stall the boat’s momentum.
When the bow has passed through the eye of the wind, the jib will be backed to windward. As pressure on the backwinded jib forces the bow to leeward, ease the main and feather the boat into the wind. If you have too much momentum, the bow will want to tack back through the wind, so go slow. Eventually your speed will diminish to a point where the rudder will lose steerage and stall. At the same time the rudder stalls, the bow will blow down. When this happens, turn the helm hard to windward and lock it in place. If you are on a tiller steered boat, push the tiller to leeward and lash it down.
Another acceptable method for heaving-to is to sail close-hauled and tension the windward jibsheet while easing the leeward jibsheet. Once the jib is backed to weather, ease the main and start feathering into the wind to reduce speed and stall the rudder. When the bow blows down, turn the helm hard to windward and lock it. This option is more physically demanding in heavy weather and can be difficult when sailing short-handed.
When hove-to, the sails are essentially canceling themselves out. The rudder and main are trying to drive the bow into the wind, while pressure on the backed jib keeps the bow pinned down. The boat will settle in and drift slightly forward and to leeward. Look down at the water over the windward side of the boat and you will notice turbulence being created by the keel and rudder. This turbulent water is helping to break the oncoming sea as it gets to your boat, thus making your ride more comfortable.
The ideal way to lay hove-to, especially in heavy seas, is at a 45° angle to oncoming waves. Laying abeam can be dangerous and unpleasant. To ensure you are not laying broadside to the swell, trim in the mainsail. Tensioning the main will bring your bow into the swell at an angle and make the boat’s motion more comfortable and safe. It will also keep the main from flogging noisily and causing unnecessary wear to the sail.
When you are ready to get underway again, there are a few good options for getting out of being hove-to. If your intended course is the one you were on prior to heaving–to, unlock the helm and turn it hard to leeward. This will turn you downwind and eventually to a gybe. Once you have safely gybed, you can easily continue to any point of sail on your original tack.
If your desired tack is the one you hove-to on, bring the rudder amidships, release the windward jibsheet—allowing the jib to blow through—and tension the leeward jibsheet. From here, you can steer and trim for your intended course.
THINGS TO REMEMBER
Just because you are successfully hove-to and comfortably making a sandwich down below does not mean you can jettison good seamanship. Always keep the following in mind when heaving-to.
Every sailboat responds differently when hove-to. Try different sail configurations and reef the sails as necessary for a given wind strength. Also, vessels with a full keel will have a more comfortable motion and will drift slower when hove-to. Fin keel and bulb-keeled boats tend to skitter across the water faster due to the lack of lateral resistance below the waterline. If you plan to stay hove-to for a while, be sure to note how fast and in what direction you are moving.
Make sure you maintain a good watch and always consider how much sea room you have before heaving-to. In the middle of the Atlantic you could lay hove-to for days, but in Narragansett Bay you could be on a collision coarse with another vessel or on the rocks in minutes. In areas congested with other sailboats, try heaving-to on a starboard tack and you will maintain right of way over those on port tack.
If you plan on being hove-to for a while, inspect the rig for places where lines and sails may be chaffing. On boats with an overlapping genoa, the sail will lay against the shrouds and spreaders. To relieve this, reef the sail or ease it slightly to move the clew off the shrouds.
Having the ability to heave-to in your boat or on a charter is an absolutely essential skill to master. Heaving-to is not hard, and just like many sailing maneuvers, it gets easier with practice. Try it the next time you go out and then again in various types of wind and sea states. Once perfected, you will notice how the maneuver differs in varying conditions— and how much happier your crew is while eating lunch!
Andrew Cross, a USCG licensed captain and US Sailing certified sailing and navigation instructor, is also the editor of www.cruisingcompass.com. After putting thousands of miles under his keel on the East Coast and in the Caribbean, he and his wife Jill now reside in Seattle and are looking forward to cruising the Great Northwest and beyond.