Surviving the Storm; What to Do When You're Stuck Out on the Water
If sailing is your passion, experiencing a storm out at sea isn’t a case of “if,” but “when!”
Plan for it.
Here are the top things to consider when anticipating heavy weather out on the water because, when it comes down to it, it could mean the difference between life and death (for you and your crew) – and it could save your precious boat too!
There’s far too much sailing ahead of you for it to be cut short by a storm, right?
1. Prepare your Boat
While you can weather a storm with the basics, some extra gear will give you more options and opportunities when sailing a stormy sea.
The following gear is recommended:
- EPIRB (emergency position-indicating radio beacon) or emergency VHF antenna
- Storm sails (storm jib and trysail)
- Extra fasteners in the cabin and on deck to prevent things from falling, breaking or causing injury
- Drag devices like a drogue or sea anchor
Don't stop there – once you've fitted extra gear to your boat, make sure you know how to use it - practice, practice, practice! Some techniques and survival strategies are tricky to get right, even in calm conditions. Having the gear is very different from knowing how to use it to your advantage – you’ll be so glad you planned ahead on this one!
Perform general maintenance on your boat regularly – things like draining old fuel can prevent your engine from getting clogged and dying when you need it the most!
2. Prepare your Crew
You may think that as long as you know how to handle storms, you'll make it through. In reality, storms can rage for a few days in which case; fatigue will quickly become your worst enemy.
The best solution to this problem is sailing with a crew that you trust and who know how to sail through storms and follow directions. If your crew is inexperienced, train them yourself or sign them up for a sea survival course – it may just be the most important investment you ever make.
If your crew is experienced, make sure that they know YOUR boat – each boat has different gear and will handle storms differently from others – don't overlook this crucial point.
3. Read the Weather
Avoiding storms in the first place is your safest strategy. If there is even a remote possibility of a nasty storm out at sea, wait until later and leave when conditions have cleared.
Follow weather reports closely but, accept that there is always an element of the unknown (and nasty surprises!) when it comes to Mother Nature. Weather that was all clear when you left the dock may not be all clear three days later on a longer voyage.
Follow weather forecasts religiously so that you’re always aware of the wind speeds and any changes headed your way.
Don’t forget about the old-fashioned (yet reliable) approach of reading a barometer. Tracking the air pressure will provide valuable information regarding changes in the weather; that when combined with the wind speed will give you some idea of how much time you have to prepare for a storm and how hard you will be hit.
Tides and Currents
Be aware of the weather below you as well as the weather above you. Wind directions combined with strong sea currents can make the waters “steeper” and trickier to sail through – anticipating these conditions will help you develop a survival strategy.
Clouds and Lightning
Take note of the weather changes you can see with your own eyes, cloud formations often warn of the type of weather system up ahead, and lightning can pose a risk to both your boat and your crew. Disconnecting power sources (except for the bilge pump batteries) can help protect your hardware and power from lightning strikes. Hiding out in the cabin is the safest option for you and your crew.
4. Look for a Port
Some skippers prefer to ride out the storm while others always prefer to avoid as much of the storm as possible. If there’s an accessible port or mooring location nearby, move towards it. Before you travel, make a note of any hurricane holes and ports on the way to make this plan feasible. Depending on the magnitude of the impending storm, it may even be worth turning your back on it and riding the waves to shore. It’s a game of risk.
5. Make a Plan
With a clear idea of the weather up ahead and the sea surrounding you, it’s time to craft a plan.
Your plan will depend on your experience, the number of crew you have, the gear on board, and the severity of the storm.
Here are some general survival tips (rules of thumb) for sailing during a storm.
By using devices such as a sea anchor, you will be able to control your position more effectively in extreme winds. The slower your boat moves, the more easily you can maneuver it - this is especially useful if you don't have much sea room.
If you find yourself without a sea anchor, a line attached to the handle of a bucket can work.
The less the wind can grab hold of your boat, the less opportunities there are for your boat to be thrown about in the wind. The force the wind exerts on your boat is exponentially (squared) greater than the speed of that wind – i.e. it packs quite a punch!
Remove the sails or lash them up like crazy (the normal ties won't hold, and you don't want your sail to unfurl in the midst of hurricane winds – yikes!). Raise the storm jib and trysail before the bad weather hits. Consider the contents of your deck – is there an inflatable raft that can be stowed safely? Rig a few extra lifelines and strap down the essentials – leave the deck as neat and empty as possible.
Position, Position, Position!
As best you can, point your boat into the wind and swells (15 degrees is the best angle of approach) – steer clear of breaking water. Water repeatedly crashing across your deck can do a lot of damage, threaten lives and cause your boat to capsize!
The lost art of heaving-to can allow you to maintain your position in a less energy-sapping way. This maneuver involves practicing beforehand as each boat has its own "sweet spot" when it comes to heaving-to and some boats don’t heave-to as well as others.
Know your boat and know how to execute these life-saving approaches before the storm season hits – it’s life-saving knowledge!
Whatever strategy you have decided on, stick to it and make sure that everyone on board knows it, understands their role, and can execute it properly.
Communicate your position and possibly issue a Mayday call if things are looking bad – emergency communication has saved many lives. Play it safe and keep communicating (every 15 minutes if possible). There’s a chance your systems might go down in worsening conditions so, don’t wait – the peace of mind alone is worth it!
7. Be Practical
In all the fuss of preparing to face extreme conditions, don't let go of common sense – at the end of the day, it might save you and your boat!
- Eat a good meal before the storm hits – you’ll need strength to sail safely through a storm. Food is comforting and boosts morale; this is huge when you're about to face a life-threatening storm.
- Consider dishing out sea-sickness medicine – vomiting and dehydrated crew members won’t be able to help sail you to safety.
- Spend time securing the contents of your cabin – items crashing around can injure crew members (hello broken ribs!) and other parts of your boat, not worth it! If it isn’t tied down, pack it away in a cupboard that can be secured. Even salad bowls can turn into an arsenal during a nasty storm!
- Check drain holes on deck, and bilge pump filters; water collecting on your boat is a recipe for disaster in stormy (or any) conditions. Keep those bilge pumps pumping and that deck draining!
- Along with warm, waterproof clothing, wear your life jacket and make sure the rest of the crew do too.
- Add lifelines to keep your crew on board (attempting to rescue a man overboard is a nasty situation to deal with) – if possible, create a space where you can strap yourself down so that you can rest a bit when someone else takes over the sailing. Remember that some storms can last for up to a week!
8. Be Aware
In stressful situations, it’s easy to forget the basics.
Understand that sometimes plans change, and that's okay – make smart decisions that prioritize the lives on your boat. Keep reading the weather and make adjustments accordingly – and don't forget to communicate any changes with your crew!
9. Prepare for the Worst
While it isn't something you want to consider, abandoning your boat can be your last chance of survival at sea. If the worst happens, you need to be prepared for it.
- Make sure your life-raft is in good working order and accessible in an emergency.
- Have a waterproof “ditch-bag” ready to go at the first signs of an approaching weather system (while hoping you won’t need it, of course!).
Items store in your dry bag include:
- Fresh water
- Dry, waterproof, and warm clothes
- Emergency gear like a medical kit, flares, flashlights, etc.
- Something useful to discourage curious sharks (seriously – it happens)
10. Damage Control
You’ll be about ready to collapse but, once the storm clears there are a few things you need to take care of.
- Check your position and communicate over the radio – knowing where you are is vital, especially if there’s damage to your boat.
- With that in mind, go through your boat diligently checking all fasteners, lines, and crucial equipment. Is anything seriously damaged? Is the boat dry? Repair and secure whatever you can – you never know when there’s another weather system around the corner.
- Make sure your crew is well, and any injuries are dealt with properly – the adrenalin that pumps through your body can make you unaware of cuts and bruises during the storm itself.
- Get some nourishment and rest – your body will be completely spent, the memorable act of sailing through a storm will definitely take it out of you. Be smart and be kind to yourself.
These tips won't necessarily mean you can ride out a storm unscathed, but they will improve your chances! Don't bury your head when it comes to facing storms at sea – but if you must, then bury your head in sea survival stories and strategies.
In the world of boating, there is always more to learn and more to understand – knowing that, makes you a better sailor and captain. If you prepare to face a storm, you will sail with peace of mind knowing that you have a plan and the ability to face the harshest that the elements can dish out!
Happy boating, storm-riders!