There will come a time when you either want or need to stop and park your boat in a place or under circumstances where you either cannot or wish not to deploy an anchor. This can be far out at sea where the water is simply too deep to anchor, or near shore when you simply want to stop your boat for a while.
Heaving-to is first and foremost a very viable storm tactic. It is used by all the more knowledgeable offshore sailors. When the wind and the seas become unmanageable, this is an excellent (albeit a mite boring) way to park your boat and wait out the bad weather. The fact is that after struggling to sail on in a storm, the act of heaving to has an almost immediate positive effect on crew. The boat’s motion eases, the fury of the wind seems to abate, and the stress on gear, sails and the crew’s morale quickly dissipates. It is truly a quieter and calmer situation that lets your crew prepare a meal, eat in peace, and get much needed rest. It also gives you an opportunity to calmly assess your situation, survey for damage, and effect repairs.
“Being hove to in a long gale is the most boring way of being terrified I know.”
Heaving to need not solely be a storm tactic. Stopping the boat at any time, to navigate, make repairs, or simply have a quiet lunch or dinner, is an option often overlooked. If you are not in a hurry, then stopping for a while can be a real pleasure. We used to practice heaving to in good weather just so we could perfect our technique (not that there is much to it). If we wanted to sit down for lunch on a beat, we would just park her for a while and put up the table.
When heaving to in storm conditions, you first reduce your sail area down to a manageable amount (storm jib and heavily reefed main, trysail or mizzen). To heave to you simply tack your boat without releasing the headsail sheet. It is a good idea to make the initial tack very slowly. Head into the wind until your speed has really come down before finishing the tack. At this point your headsail is backed and your main is trimmed for a close reach or a beat. This is where practicing is important so you can determine what works best for your boat – every boat responds differently.
Once you have come about you bring the helm over steering the boat to windward and fix it there. If your boat makes way, it will steer to windward, towards the oncoming waves. As the boat rounds up the main loses power. At the same time the backed headsail is pushing the boat to lee and fighting its forward movement. So your heading is a squiggly course to windward while the actual course made good is downwind, drifting sideways – at perhaps a knot or two. With its sideways motion, the boat is disturbing the water and creating a significant upwind slick, flattening any chop that might otherwise be there. With your boat pointing to windward it is at the same time riding up and over the oncoming swell at the optimal angle.
Each boat reacts differently. So practice this before you need it. Some boats heave to better trailing a drogue off the stern or even abeam. Practical Boat Owner published one of the best overviews of how different boats behave when hove to in 2011.
Contrary to what you may hear elsewhere, heaving to works very well on catamarans – and why not. Friends of ours, who own a catamaran and were told it would not work, let us talk them into trying it as we simply wanted to know the truth. Since then, they hove to many times in all sorts of weather – and loved it.
In modern masthead sloops of moderate to light displacement, another method of heaving to in heavy weather is under storm jib alone. To heave to, trim the storm jib to windward, force the bow off the wind and then tie the helm down to maintain a slightly upwind. The boat will seek an angle approximately 60 degrees off the wind and will then proceed forward at one or two knots. The course will be erratic as the boat rides over large swells and falls off again in the gusts at the top of the wave. The boat will occasionally take a breaking wave on the forward windward quarter that will shove the hull to leeward. Your progress under the storm jib alone will be a diagonal vector at about 130 degrees from the true direction of the wind, as you will be going forward at about two knots and going sideways at about one knot.
In a split-rigged boat, you can accomplish the same with a storm jib and reefed mizzen or trysail. On our ketch rigged boat we have to sheet the mizzen in very flat. Since each boat reacts a little differently, you should practice with your boat under various conditions until you are comfortable enough to deploy it when you need it most.
In our first crossing of the North Atlantic, we encountered six gales. We sailed through four of them and hove to in two others when the conditions became too rough. For 36 hours each time, we ended up reading, baking cookies (truly – peanut butter and they were great), and otherwise passing the time. We even had our first glass of wine at sea – our boat is dry while underway. We alternated between being terrified by the massive seas when going on deck to check our status and being hugely frustrated and bored when waiting for the time to pass below. We also hove to a third time in 30 foot confused seas to effect a repair on the Monitor wind vane self-steering. We couldn’t have dealt with it otherwise.
It was interesting how many people asked us where we would be stopping at night on several transatlantic crossings. A few actually asked about anchoring mid-ocean. Now we tell them gently about heaving to – the alternative to anchoring.
To heave to in a sailboat
- Sheet in the main sail. Reef first in heavy weather. (Or drop the main and use the mizzen on a ketch or yawl.)
- Tack the boat but do not touch anything on your head sail.
- When you finish the tack, your main has switched sides (normal) but your headsail is now set against the wind with its clew to windward instead of leeward as usual.
- Last, turn your steering wheel all the way to windward or push your tiller to leeward and secure it.
When you are ready to resume your normal course…
- Unlock your wheel or unlash your tiller
- Turn it all the way to the other side – falling off from the wind, jybe the main or mizzen and sail off on the original tack
- Let go the headsail and pull in on the lee side and complete the tack you started when you initiated the heaving to process.
Some other ideas for use of this technique
- Heaving to can be useful for reefing (or dropping) the main, especially if you don’t have an autopilot.
- When you want to have lunch in more peaceful conditions, heaving to can be very pleasant and lets the helmsman enjoy the meal as well.
- It can be also used when rendezvousing with a dinghy (if you sail in to pick up crew who were ashore). It makes getting the crew back on board from the dinghy a reasonable proposition. For this you obviously have to have enough sea room and the conditions need to be fairly well settled!
Lying A-Hull vs. Heaving to
There are some people who might choose to lie a-hull instead of heaving to. When lying a-hull the sails are (usually) taken down and the boat is turned beam to the seas and let take whatever course it pleases. One of the boats in “The Perfect Storm” did this with dire results for the crew, though the boat survived.
In theory, a sinusoidal wave, no matter how large, will not capsize a boat. However, this is not reflected in reality. In a storm there are always breaking waves. When hit beam on, a breaking wave has only to be higher than the width of the beam of the boat to capsize it. In a storm where waves will easily exceed 30 feet, it would seem fairly obvious that lying a-hull is not a desirable choice.