As good luck would have it, I’ve never had to heave-to at sea due to storm conditions for the simple reasons that either the storms have been blowing from astern or we opted to change course to run with it. But, I have had to heave-to for the night when making landfall on a foreign and unfamiliar harbors that I didn’t want to enter blindly.
Heaving to is a useful technique that every skipper should know. In simplest terms, you heave to in a modern sloops that most of us own by rolling up about half of the head sail and leaving the sail sheeted when you tack the bow through the eye of the wind, thereby backwinding the headsail. Lower or deep reef the mainsail and lock the wheel with it turned all the way to weather. The jib will push bow off the wind to about 40 degrees and the rudder will hold the bow more or less in this position.
But two problems immediately arise. First, on most boats, the windward, backed jib sheet will chafe vigorously on the windward side stays and will be sawn in half in no time at all. To avoid this, you have to lead a lazy sheet from the genoa clew inside the side stays and hope you can get a fair lead to the sheet block. If not, you’ll have to rig a temporary snatch block to create the fair lead. In terrible sea conditions, all of this can be hard to do.
The second problem is the strain on the steering system, which is the most vulnerable part of the hull. If the wheel brake gives way, the boat will fall off the wind an become exposed to the large waves breaking on the beam or even rolling the boat. If in a lull, the bow rounds up too far into the wind and waves, the boat can be shunted backwards violently putting huge strains on the rudder post and bearings, perhaps to the point of failure. Finding just the right rudder angle for your boat is one preventative step and tying the wheel with a stout line is another.
Finding out how your boat heaves to in mild conditions is the only way to understand how it will serve you when things get really rough. Have you ever had to heave to and do you have advice or experiences that would be useful to share with all of the Cruising Compass family? Email me at: George@bwsailing.com