The most frequent reason for being caught out in heavy weather is lack of time. When planning a cruise, allowance should always be made for an element of time to be used for the purpose of sheltering in bad weather. In this way the necessity of sailing when it would be more prudent not to do so may be avoided.
Given the availability of weather forecasts a yacht should never have to face heavy weather without some prior warning. Even without a weather forecast, the tell-tale signs in the sky and a quickly falling barometer will give early warning of deteriorating conditions ahead.
When it is obvious that the weather will deteriorate, there are a number of precautions and preparations that the prudent skipper should make. One of the most important is to decide on how much sail is to be carried. This must always be done in advance of immediate necessity, for the longer the decision to reef or to change headsails is deferred, the harder it will be to carry out. A cruising yacht should carry enough sails to suit the squalls and gusts, not the mean force of the wind, which may sometimes be much less. When sailing off the wind, there is an inclination to carry more sail than is prudent in the conditions. In heavy weather it is good seamanship to carry only sufficient sail to suit close-hauled sailing, whatever the actual point of sailing. This enables the helmsman to react immediately in any emergency and be in complete control even if having to round up head to wind.
Bad weather usually brings poor visibility, and every effort must be made to determine the yachts exact position, and then to keep an accurate plot of dead reckoning (DR) and estimated position (EP). The fact that leeway will be more pronounced in strong winds should be allowed for when calculating EP.
If no suitable shelter is available within a reasonable distance the only safe alternative is to stay at sea. In this case it will be necessary to have plenty of sea-room and be well clear of the shipping routes and shallow water.
All the crew should wear warm clothing, safety harnesses and life jackets, and all gear on deck, especially halyard and sheet ends, should be checked and made secure. The bilge should be pumped dry and checked regularly, and the engine checked for easy starting in an emergency. Moveable gear below should be safely stowed away, and safety items such as torches, flares, foghorn, warps and reefing gear be readily available. Cockpit drains must be checked and the main companionway closed and washboards fitted. Meanwhile sandwiches or similar food and vacuum flasks of soup or coffee should be prepared before conditions make it impossible to work in the galley.
As winds and seas increase it may be impossible to make any real progress and it may become necessary to heave-to. Most yachts, especially long-keeled types, will heave-to satisfactorily, but this is something that should have already been practiced under less demanding conditions. It is quite surprising how comfortable a yacht can be properly hove-to even in a gale force wind.
As conditions get even more severe it may be necessary to lie a-hull, that is with all sails lowered, and the yacht allowed to drift as she pleases. As seas will break on board, the crew should stay below if possible, and be well prepared for violent movement of the hull. Even in less severe weather in the Baltic, for example when sudden violent line squalls pass during comparatively easy sailing weather, it is often advisable to lie a-hull for the short period that the squall will last, with no discomfort and no danger of sails or rigging being damaged.
Provided there is ample sea-room to leeward, it may be an advantage to run downwind under bare poles, streaming warps over the stern in order to reduce speed and keep the yacht end on to the sea. To have any effect the warp must be the longest and largest available and towed in a bight over the stern, each end being made securely fast to opposite quarters.
A more modern concept of riding out gales in light displacement vessels is to run at speed under much reduced canvas with the seas being taken on the quarter. This manoeuvre requires a good deal of sea-room and some skill and experience on the part of the helmsman, and is rarely advisable or even possible in the restricted waters of the Baltic Sea.
Anyone who has read accounts of sailor's experiences of storm conditions will be aware that not all advocate the same course of action. However, two points are common to all recommended methods for dealing with such conditions: the boat must be properly prepared, crew properly dressed and warm, everything lashed and stowed, sail plan adjusted to the conditions and plan of action; and there must be plenty of sea-room.
All pictures courtesy of K Pilsbury