Heavy Weather Tactics

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Scores of books have been written about heavy weather sailing, but few of them address the particulars of multihulls and their individual considerations. Monohulls have more commonalities as a group, therefore there are more general guidelines. Storm tactics for multihulls will depend more on the capabilities of crew and vessel than any other factors.

Barreling along at 18 knots in strong winds can be thrilling and is a highlight of multihull sailing. Making no seamanship errors will be as important as the simplest rules of keeping all lines neatly organized and kink free. Often tangled lines have gotten sailors into more trouble than anything else. Keeping a neat cockpit and thinking ahead are the cheapest insurances against mishaps.

In heavy weather the boat should be set up with appropriate safety lines and attaching yourself to them must be mandatory, even if one only ventures briefly into the cockpit. All crew should wear full gear and always have their life jackets at the ready. Each member should have a strobe, knife and whistle permanently attached and there always should be a big knife with a serrated edge mounted in the cockpit to quickly cut a jammed line, if necessary. Basic safety drills, location of life saving equipment, rafts and throw-able MOB devices must be known to each crewmember. Everyone on board must understand the crucial function of EPIRBs, VHFs, firefighting equipment, as well as engine operation and bilge-pump system. It is all really common sense.

If in the highly unlikely event that you capsize, stay with the boat at all costs. Rig one life raft or dinghy to the underside of the bridge deck, fly a kite and wait for help. Never, ever separate from the mother ship as your chances of being spotted will be close to zero in a raft. Staying warm, hydrated, and clear headed will be as important as keeping crew morale up. Salvage as much food and water as you can and secure them, as waves in the interior will wash them out any opening. It has been suggested to await help in the upturned vessel, but unless it is a perfect calm, it will be impossible. Wave surges in the cabins will be violent and there will be leaking battery acid, foul smells and floating objects that will force you onto the upturned platform of the bridge deck.

Storm strategies will depend on the sea state. The shorter and higher the wave faces, the more critical correct seamanship will be. It is my opinion that the use of sea anchors should be carefully weighed and avoided if one can actively deal with the conditions. In theory, they work well if conditions do not change. The crew can rest and the multihull will make nominal drift downwind, provided there is minimal searoom. But the sea is a chaotic environment and waves do not always remain in one and the same pattern, direction, and period. The forces and loads on the boat when tied to a parachute type device can be huge.

True and Apparent Wave Height

Imagine your boat hanging off a sea anchor and suddenly a wave from a different direction slams into the boat from the side. As the boat is not moving, actually drifting slightly backwards, it will not have any possibility to handle this odd rogue wave. The catamaran might be overwhelmed and rotate around its longitudinal axis and flip. Most cruising catamarans that have capsized were constricted by sea anchors. In one well-documented incident, the parachute's lines caught under the rudders and turned the boat.

A sea anchor might lull you into a false sense of security and your vigilance will be reduced. Being caught with your guard down is the most dangerous situation, and I feel it is better to actively deal with storm conditions, rather than letting the boat drift off a sea anchor. Besides, retrieval and deployment are risky, and if not done properly the first time, they can subject crew and boat to more risks.

This is not to say that a parachute anchor does not work. On the contrary, many multihulls have ridden out hurricanes with these devices. Personally, I would want to position the boat to sail with the seas if there is sea room. The vessel's speed should be adjusted to the wave period and therefore would reduce the relative impact of waves. If one's cat sails too fast, even without sails up, a drogue or warps could be dragged behind the boat. Streaming warps off a stern bridle will also be helpful if the boat has lost steerage. It will keep the bows pointing downwind. Ideally, seas should be taken off the rear quarter in order to present the longest diagonal axis to them. This will be the most stable attitude, and a good multihull will be able to handle the most severe conditions. A well-working autopilot, an alert crew, and a strong boat will get you through anything. Concentration will deteriorate as the conditions worsen and any mistake will be very difficult to rectify. Your margin for error will be minimal and advance thinking and anticipation will be key. Approaching a safe harbor during heavy weather can be nerve-wracking and should be carefully weighed with the risk of running aground and encountering much rougher than usual inlets. Often standing off will take discipline but be safer.

Again it should be mentioned that everyone manages differently with storm conditions and there is not necessarily only one right or wrong way to do it. Making the vessel's speed work for you and being able to

Wave heights make great subjects for sea tales, but the altitude of seas are often overestimated. Especially on smaller vessels, when the horizon is hidden, one feels that the seas are steeper than they actually are. The apparent gravitational pull makes one think that the boat is sailing parallel on the horizontal plane. Usually however, the boat is already ascending the next wave, leading to estimation errors as high as 50% in judging wave heights.

Safely slowing the multihull is accomplished by streaming warps or trailing a special drogue. A large bridle is either fastened to the windward hull or to the sterns.

Streaming Warps or a Drogue to Slow Down

Streaming Warps or a Drogue to Slow Down outrun a system will reduce your exposure time. Drifting slowly downwind tied to a sea anchor will expose you to bad weather longer. The advantage of a fast catamaran should be used to get you out of trouble, or even better, by using today's advanced meteorological forecasts, you might be able to avoid it entirely. Yet, once you are in storm conditions, slowing down the boat to retain full control will be challenging.

If there is no sea room, or one is forced to claw upwind, reducing speed to minimize wave impact is imperative to the comfort of the crew and safety of the boat. Finding the right groove between stalling and too much speed is important. You do not want to be caught by a wave slamming into you, bringing you to a halt. This could end up in a lack of steerage and, in the worst case, you could be flipped backwards. Always keep on sailing at a manageable speed and if your boat has daggerboards, both boards should be down one third only. Head closer to the wind towards the top of the wave, and fall off as the boat sails down the slope. This will aid in keeping the sails drawing and boat speed in check. Structural shocks upwind in very strong winds can be very tough, so find the right speed. Reducing your main to 3 or even 4 reefs and furling your headsail for balance will drive you to weather. We all know that this will not be comfortable, but if there is no choice other than to windward, one will manage until conditions have abated. Flatten sails as much as you can to depower the boat. If you need to tack, plan ahead, do it decisively, and with plenty of momentum. You do not want to be caught in irons while drifting backwards. Loads on the rudders with the boat going in reverse can damage the steering, leaving you crippled.

Running off at a controllable speed is the safest way to handle a storm. If you are deep reaching or sailing downwind with the storm, retract both boards if your boat has daggerboards. In the event that the catamaran is skittish and hard to steer, lower one foot of daggerboard on both sides. Long, well balanced, high-aspect-ratio hulls, especially ones equipped with skegs far aft, will track well, even without boards. A tiny amount of jib sheeted hard amidships might be all that is needed to point the boat downwind. Reduce the boat to a speed where you are just a fraction slower than the waves.

Keep in mind that the term "slow" is relative as this could still mean that you are traveling at well over 15 knots!

Sailing with the beam to the storm and seas should be avoided at any cost. If, because of say navigational issues, one has no choice, both daggerboards must be lifted to assure sideways slippage.

Heaving-to is a tactic which lets the boat sail controlled, almost stationary, and should be used only if one has no more alternatives.

This could be caused by crew exhaustion or mechanical issues with the boat. When heaving-to, the helm is locked to windward, a tiny scrap of jib sheeted to weather, and/or a heavily reefed mainsail can be set. The traveler should be let off to leeward and, theoretically, the multihull will steadily work herself to windward. At 40 degrees, she will either be stationary or slightly fore-reach. This does not work on all multihulls and different mainsail and jib combinations should be tested. Also letting the main or jib luff slightly will take speed off the boat, if

far right Boarding via the transom platform, any guest will easily find his/her way to the spacious cockpit by walking down wide, teak-covered steps. Notice the lack of any sail controls or helm station - they are all located out of the way, on the flybridge above.

so desired. Catamarans with daggerboards should only have very little windward board down to avoid tripping.

Similar to "heaving-to" lying-a-hull differs from boat to boat. In this attitude the boat will carry no sails at all and fend for herself. In case of daggerboards, retract them. Most boats will take the seas on their beams (not my favorite) and let the waves pass under them by surfing sideways. Just as trying to avoid the use of sea anchors, this tactic should only be reverted to if one has exhausted every other possibility.

There are a few generalities that will help you learn about heavy weather sailing tactics. Fine-tuning the sails will help depower the boat. As the wind increases, move the mainsail sheeting point to leeward. This is one of the best features of multihull sailing. Multihulls have wide travelers and an extensive sheeting base which allows for more choices for sail trim than narrow boats. Ease off the traveler to move the main to leeward and use a strong outside rail attachment point, such as a cleat or toe rail track to move the jib to leeward. As the wind strengthens, reduce camber and flatten the sails. Double up preventers and reef lines to create backups and divide the loads. In the end, knowing when to reef and how to control your cat is the most important skill to develop to prepare for heavy weather sailing. Practicing maneuvers in strong conditions will raise your level of confidence and prepare you for the worst Mother Nature might have in store for us.


Heaving-to is an important "parking" technique that should be practiced by every catamaran owner. One tacks from a close-hauled position and either luffs the mainsail or furls it completely. Once on the other tack, the jib is left on the "wrong" side and the helm is turned hard to windward. Every multihull will behave differently, and one has to experiment how hard the headsail must be sheeted in or how far the rudders must be turned. Keel catamarans will behave slightly differently than daggerboard cats. The headsail will keep the bows turned away from the seas, while the rudders will prevent the boat from presenting her beams to the waves. In the heave-to attitude, the catamaran will fore-reach and slightly drift to leeward.

Catamaran WavesLeopard Catamarans And Heavy WeatherLeopard Catamarans And Heavy Weather

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