In recent summers, severe storms accompanied by gales (or even hurricanes and tornadoes) have hit even the most popular sailing destinations in Europe, such as the Croatian and Greek coasts. To avoid your holiday turning into a nightmare, it's a good idea to know the most reliable way to ascertain whether a storm is approaching, how to prepare your boat and crew and how to sail safely into port in challenging windy conditions.
The ancient Romans believed that storms were the result of an angry Jupiter throwing lightning bolts fashioned in Vulcan’s forge. Native Americans believed it to be a thunderbird sent by the Great Spirit. Either way, people have always had great respect for storms and still do today. For sailors, every storm signifies heightened danger and a test of skill. That's why you need to know as early as possible how strong it is and when it will hit, and either avoid it (if you have time) or prepare your boat and crew to weather it safely.
Storm avoidance and preparation
Definitely don't wait until the storm clouds gather. What precautionary steps should be taken to secure and prepare the boat for unexpected situations such as a storm?
Consistent monitoring of conditions and weather
The skipper has to continuously monitor and evaluate forecasted and current weather and sea level conditions, preferably from multiple sources if possible. How should this be done?
KEEP YOUR EYE ON THE SEA AND SKY… LITERALLY
The most basic type of observation since the time of ancient mariners is to keep a weather eye. It sounds simple, banal even, but it is the most reliable method of detecting meteorological conditions. The most important is cloud observation. This is because thunderstorms are linked to cumulonimbus clouds, commonly called storm clouds. If you see this form in the sky, expect a thunderstorm. Other important factors to keep an eye on are sea level and waves. The relationship between wind strength and sea level is elegantly illustrated in the Beaufort wind force scale.
Wind speed in knots
|Sea like a mirror.|
|Ripples with appearance of scales are formed, without foam crests.|
|Small wavelets still short but more pronounced; crests have a glassy appearance but do not break.|
|Large wavelets; crests begin to break; foam of glassy appearance; perhaps scattered white horses.|
|Small waves becoming longer; fairly frequent white horses.|
|Moderate waves taking a more pronounced long form; many white horses are formed; chance of some spray.|
|Large waves begin to form; the white foam crests are more extensive everywhere; probably some spray.|
High wind, moderate gale, near gale
|Sea heaps up and white foam from breaking waves begins to be blown in streaks along the direction of the wind; spindrift begins to be seen.|
Gale, fresh gale
|Moderately high waves of greater length; edges of crests break into spindrift; foam is blown in well-marked streaks along the direction of the wind.|
|High waves; dense streaks of foam along the direction of the wind; sea begins to roll; spray affects visibility.|
Storm, whole gale
|Very high waves with long overhanging crests; resulting foam in great patches is blown in dense white streaks along the direction of the wind; on the whole the surface of the sea takes on a white appearance; rolling of the sea becomes heavy; visibility affected.|
|Exceptionally high waves; small- and medium-sized ships might be for a long time lost to view behind the waves; sea is covered with long white patches of foam; everywhere the edges of the wave crests are blown into foam; visibility affected.|
64 and more
|The air is filled with foam and spray; sea is completely white with driving spray; visibility very seriously affected.|
STUDY SYNOPTIC WEATHER CHARTS
These maps show current weather conditions and include features such as atmospheric pressure patterns and fronts. This is a really essential resource for weather analysis. On a synoptic map you will find isobars, which are lines connecting points of equal barometric pressure, pressure patterns (areas of high and low pressure) and the position of fronts. Storms can be identified on these maps by isobars which are very close together, which indicate areas with strong winds.
Example of an isobar map.
TAKE ADVANTAGE OF SMART APPS
Modern times bring modern tools. Every sailor with a mobile phone or tablet uses a variety of apps from an Anchor Alarm to charts and weather forecasts. Among the most commonly used apps for storm, wind and gust forecasts is the Windy app. However, make sure you take everything with a pinch of salt as this is a mathematical weather model and nothing is 100 % accurate.
DON’T FORGET ABOUT LOCAL FORECASTS
It's also quite useful to check local websites and forecasts. When in Croatia, for example, you can check the Croatian Meteorological Institute's website, which has the latest weather forecasts. In Greece, you can find all the information you need here.
2. Check the boat
Equipment and parts of the boat should be checked regularly to avoid any mishaps and having to do an initial check when conditions are worsening.
CHECK THE RIGGING
From the moment the charter company hands over the boat, as well as during the voyage, the skipper should take time to check the rigging to ensure that all shackles, hardware and even the mast are firmly attached to the deck, nothing is wobbling and there are no rigging screws missing, etc.
KEEP LINES TIDY
Lines should be kept organised at all times. This will prevent them falling into the water and getting tangled in the propeller, or a crew member tripping over them in the cockpit.
SECURE THE TENDER AND LIFEBUOY
When sailing in a storm, but also under normal conditions, the inflatable dinghy must be firmly secured on deck. Of course, this is especially important during a storm. Towing the dinghy is not a good idea, as it is very difficult to pull it on board when it’s windy and the dinghy rope can easily get tangled up in the propeller.
A rescue island in a capsule mounted on the ship's deck.
3. A well-schooled crew
As the saying goes: ‘’What is difficult in training will become easy in a battle.” This is especially true when practising emergency drill procedures like man overboard (MOB) or sailing in more severe weather conditions. Before you raise anchor, even inexperienced crew should be trained on the following points:
Every crew member should know where to find life jackets, harnesses, first aid kit and other safety equipment such as lifebuoys, flares, foghorn, etc.
MOB RESCUE PROCEDURES
The MOB (man overboard) procedure can be considered part of the safety equipment. Every crew member should know each step of this rescue procedure and know where the MOB button is located on the boat. A good skipper always practises the MOB procedure with the crew immediately after setting sail, using a fender to represent a drowning person, for example. In addition, they will recommend how best to prevent similar accidents.
PRACTICE HOISTING STORM SAILS
Good seamanship demands that you practice hoisting storm sails. Be honest and admit who among you has raised storm sails and has experience with them. If you don't feel like getting the storm kit out, at least see where it’s located on the boat and let the crew know.
USING THE MARINE RADIO
Obviously all crew members will not have a VHF licence, but that does not mean they shouldn’t know how to use the radio at all. At the very least, show them how to turn the radio on, how to talk into it and how to tune the channels. It will come in handy in an emergency.
YACHTING.COM TIP: Using the radio correctly and efficiently can save your life and the lives of other crew members. For captains this should be a given, but if you want to master this skill as a crew member, we recommend taking a marine radio SRC course.
HOW TO AVOID BEING SICK
A very practical precaution against seasickness is to put one crew member in charge of ensuring that everyone gets regular food and drink. The worst sufferers of seasickness are those who haven't eaten properly and whose stomachs are naturally a bit "anxious". It is also better to eat smaller portions regularly than to starve for hours and then stuff yourself. If you expect conditions to worsen at sea, avoid heavy fried foods and large amounts of meat, which take longer to digest.
Preparing for a storm
If we know a storm is coming, or is almost upon us, we need to take several steps to ensure the safety of the boat, crew and surroundings.
Preparing the boat
The boat must be prepared for the worst and the skipper must count with the fact that the situation can turn on a dime. It’s therefore essential to have everything prepared in advance in order to limit the number of tasks that need to be carried out during a storm, when the boat is being tossed about like a cork on the waves. This will ensure that there is no, or very minimal, damage to the boat.
TIDY THE SALOON AND CABINS
Nothing should be left lying around in the saloon that could break or injure someone. This applies not only when sailing in challenging conditions, but sailing in general. Make sure to calmly delegate to one crew member the task of putting everything away in the saloon cabinets, washing and putting away the dishes, making sure there are no knives left on the galley counter and the oven is secured in case of heel. Also tidy up in the cabins. Backpacks or other items lodged behind doors, for example, can prevent them from opening and you may not be able to get into your cabin.
EVERYTHING OFF THE DECK!
Watch out for fishing rods protruding off the boat, they could fall or come loose during a storm and you don't want a fishing line tangled in the propeller. Also have the crew remove any clothes, towels or sheets drying on the railing. A flyaway towel is not exactly a maritime disaster, but the fewer things a yachtsman has to deal with in a storm, the better.
TAKE DOWN THE BIMINI AND TIGHTEN THE SPRAYHOOD
Make sure the sprayhood is correctly and securely tied to the deck so that it does not come loose during a storm, start to billow in the wind and obstruct the view. The sprayhood is designed to protect the crew from waves breaking on the bow, so can withstand strong winds, but the bimini can be blown off in those conditions and should be stowed.
CLOSE ALL HATCHES
Entrust one crew member to close all windows on the boat. The last thing you want is to have your cabin flooded with water which has splashed over the bow.
STOCK THE COCKPIT WITH SUPPLIES
If you have a table with storage space in the cockpit, stock it with drinks, food (energy bars are recommended), as well as a headlamp and keep the GPS inside the table or in the cockpit locker. This means you can avoid having to continually go inside in really heavy weather.
CLOSE WASTE VALVES
If there is a risk of the boat heeling, we recommend closing all waste valves in the bathrooms. Otherwise there is a risk of the contents of the waste tank spilling into the bathroom. You can usually find the valves under the floor, but have the charter company show you their location at check-in.
DON’T FORGET TO KEEP A LOGBOOK
Don't forget to make an entry in the logbook when you change course and when conditions change. It is especially important to record the exact time, position and course in case you’ll need to deduce the boat's position and when calling a Mayday.
It is often said among sailors that the boat itself can withstand almost anything. Heavy weather causes the biggest problems for members of the crew, or even the captain themselves. So what do you need to do to ensure that everything goes well for those on board?
KEEPING WARM IS KEY
Make sure the crew has warm, waterproof clothing close at hand. It's also a good idea to turn on the boat's heater so that the crew have somewhere to go to keep warm in a storm. A thermos of tea is also a smart move.
If your boat has a safety line, attach it to the deck along the side of the boat. Take life jackets and harnesses out and place them in the saloon. Life jackets are sometimes hidden under the mattresses in the cabins and you'll have a hard time poking around in there during a storm.
LICENCE AND INSURANCE
You should bear in mind that most skipper's licences are only valid up to a certain distance from the coast, as well as in certain weather conditions. Unless it’s absolutely necessary, do not take your boat further than your licence allows, as you will not be able to claim insurance if something goes wrong.
When the storm breaks
You did everything you could to make sure you detected the storm before it hit, you moved to a safe place, you secured the boat and crew. But what do you do when everything happens too fast and the storm catches you off guard at sea?
To keep the boat under control at all times, hoisting storm sails (aka trysails) is a good idea. These sails are made of stronger material and have a smaller surface area than a traditional genoa and mainsail.
In the yachting world there are as many theories on how to avoid a storm as there are skippers (and there are a lot of them). There is no magic recipe for sailing safely in a storm that works 100 % of the time and the following tips are really just for inspiration. Every skipper has to find their own way.
HIDE, BUT WHERE?
This seems like the easiest option, of course, but don’t be fooled. Generally speaking, if you have time, space and a bay nearby, hide from the storm there. However, this does not apply when the expected wind direction in the bay is unfavourable, meaning that you will not be sheltered from strong winds coming from that direction. It also does not apply when at anchor, which is riskier in a storm than docking your boat in a harbour with moorings. If you have the opportunity and time to sail to a marina, then definitely do it.
There is an old mariner's saying that goes: "In a storm it is better to stay at sea," or "Sailor, protect your ship from the shore and she will protect you from the sea." This, of course, may or may not be true, but it’s fair to say that the boat will not run into anything on the open sea and it is less dangerous than being in a cove surrounded by rocks. But deciding whether to shelter from a storm in a cove versus sailing to open sea is at the captain's discretion.
A skipper may have several reasons for heaving-to. Either the storm is so strong that he can no longer sail effectively, the waves are so big that the boat is rising and falling uncomfortably, or everyone, including the helmsman, is so exhausted that they don't have the strength to man the boat. How should it be done? Position the boat diagonally across the wind and waves, let her drift to leeward and turn the rudder upwind. Of course, it is imperative that you have plenty of room to sail. Sailors find this method a comfortable way to ride out a storm.
Did you know that in really strong winds you can sail downwind under bare poles? However, the danger of downwind sailing is that when the waves are big, the bow of the boat can get buried in between the waves.
YACHTING.COM TIP: Careful! Never position your boat broadside to the waves! The boat must be positioned diagonally across the waves. Today's modern sailboats are almost unsinkable. Thanks to the greater keel weight, they won't be blown over by the wind. But a wave breaking broadside, however, might well manage to capsize a boat.
6 principles of sailing in a storm
- Maintain calm
- Crew in life jackets and harnesses
- Don’t be afraid to reef
- Close the deck hatch
- Track position
- Prevent seasickness
1. MAINTAIN CALM
In addition to being a manager, leader, driver and commander, the captain is also a psychologist. As skipper, if you act like you don’t know what you’re doing, lose your temper and spread anxiety, your crew will become nervous and make mistakes. It's extremely difficult, but try not to show that you are afraid or that you don't know what to do, even when your life really is on the line.
2. LIFE JACKETS AND HARNESSES FOR CREW
Life jackets should be worn by all crew members whenever you set sail. However, we know from experience that this doesn’t happen. Nevertheless, in a storm, wearing life jackets should be a matter of course, as should the use of harnesses and safety lines when moving around the deck.
3. DON’T BE AFRAID TO REEF
There's a saying among sailors, "If you’re thinking of reefing, reef. If you’re thinking of hoisting the sail again, have a coffee and then think again." That about sums it up. It's not gutless to reef early, but it's a real bummer to reef too late, when it can’t be done properly or the sail gets ruined.
4. ALWAYS CLOSE THE DECK HATCH
In a storm, waves can go over the bow and unless you want to pump out litres of water below deck, make sure everyone knows to close the deck hatch.
5. LOCATION TRACKING
The skipper needs to know where he is at all times. At regular intervals, write down your position and plot it on a nautical chart. This will prevent you from getting disorientated and possibly running aground as a result of reduced visibility during a storm. In extreme cases, lightning can also strike the boat and blow out all the electrical equipment, including the navigation system. When this happens, you’ll appreciate having plotted your position on a traditional paper nautical chart.
There is a lot of advice out there on how to cope with seasickness. Some of the most popular methods include focusing on the horizon, making yourself busy (steering, for example), staying well hydrated, consuming ginger or anti-nausea medicine (Kinedryl, Torecan) and not going down to the cabin when it’s choppy. Different things work for different people, but it is impossible to completely prevent seasickness every time. Even the most experienced sailor can get sick sometimes.
Anchoring in a storm
CHOOSING A PLACE TO SPEND THE NIGHT DURING A STORM
Find a suitable bay. But be warned, as we already mentioned, the bay should be oriented so that the expected wind at night carries you out of the bay towards the open sea, not into the bay where you might hit reefs. You also have to take into account that if it were blowing really hard towards the shore, you could be trapped in the bay and unable to get out even if using an engine. Plus, the wind in a storm may not blow in the same direction for the entire duration of the tempest. Did you know that a gust can increase wind speed by up to three times?
CHECK THE ANCHOR WHEN IT’S UNDERWATER
Don't be lax, make sure you check that your anchor is properly set, holding tight and positioned according to which direction the wind is blowing in. The same goes for the buoy: check the rope or chain that the buoy is attached to as they are often abraded.
Many sailors have found it pays off to leave the fenders out as a precaution. You should try it too. You'll prevent potential damage if your boat accidentally breaks free in the bay and drifts into another vessel.
ACCESSIBLE ANCHOR WELL
Count with the possibility that there may be times when you may need to sail away quickly at night. Therefore you need to have easy access to the anchor well. Do not leave anything on the bow that could roll and block access to the anchor well and the anchor windlass. We know from experience that dinghies or paddleboards often like to get in the way.
TWO ANCHOR ALARMS
You should automatically use the anchor alarm when at anchor regardless of whether there is a storm or not. However, when a storm is expected, be sure to set two alarms, perhaps one on the chartplotter in the cockpit and an anchor alarm app on your mobile phone as back-up.
NIGHT WATCHES ARE ESSENTIAL
If you don't want to experience an unpleasant wake-up call, put your crew on night watch. Crew on watch must ensure there is no anchor drag which could cause the boat to drift onto the rocks.
KEEP A CLEAR HEAD
If you are expecting a big storm, abstain from alcohol. Piloting a boat is like driving a car — you’ll make better, more effective decisions with a clear head.