"Heaving-to: safety valve at sea" By Lin
& Larry Pardey
August 1982 Sail Magazine

Heaving-to is a sailing tactic that buys you time: time to stop and rest; time to wait for the fog to clear; time for daylight to arrive so you can enter a new port safely; time to double-check your navigation; time to make repairs. You can heave-to and wait near another ship while you transfer people or supplies. You can heave-to in rough sea conditions to make it easier to take an important sight or bearing. Finally, when everything goes wrong and you are caught 100 miles off a lee shore and breaking waves prevent you from beating off, you must heave-to to hold on to your searoom. All sailors, even those who advocate running before a storm, should know how to heave-to and be prepared to do so.

To me, hove-to means your boat is no longer sailing forward. It is stopped and making leeway with its bow about fifty degrees from the wind. The most erroneous statement I have read about heaving-to is, "Simply back the staysail and set a reefed main." This method does work on some boats in some conditions. But in strong winds with heavy seas, the bow of most boats is forced off by the backed staysail, and the boat usually ends up slowly sailing along the trough of the waves. If the boat is making headway, in my opinion, you are not hove-to, you are sailing!

Since all sailplans have different fore-and-aft balance and all hulls have a different center of lateral resistance, you must experiment with your boat to find out how to hold its bow into the wind. Practicing in moderate to heavy winds and seas will give you an educated guess about what to expect in stronger storm conditions. Lin and I have lain hove-to quite happily in our 24-foot cutter, Seraffyn, with reefed mainsail only. Two of the ketches we delivered lay hove-to in Force 10 winds (48-55 knots) with just their mizzens sheeted in flat. Some fin-keel-and-skeg boats heave-to with a storm jib on the backstay; others are happy with a storm trysail set; still others need a sea anchor or drogue to hold their bow up near the wind. Experimenting teaches you more about your hull and sail balance and will make your voyaging safer, more comfortable, and therefore more enjoyable.

Heaving-to in light to medium winds (up to 25 knots) is easily done by trimming your rudder and sails so your boat is headed into the wind and sea as though you were close hauled. Seraffyn heaves-to with a full mainsail and the helm tied to leeward about ten or fifteen degrees. In the gusts, the mainsail luffs a bit but still does not have enough power to tack the boat through the wind. This is the stall point you want to achieve to heave-to correctly. In light to medium winds it is not vital to have the bow of the boat headed close to the wind, but you motion through the water should be stopped. Preventing this forward motion becomes very important when you are hove-to in breaking seas, however. A boat with a long keel and moderately cutaway forefoot would probably be able to heave-to the same way. Tie the tiller so the boat will stall before it tacks. Some fin-keel-and-skeg sloops are so lively that they will tack in the lightest winds if you keep the full mainsail up alone. To combat this tendency, try reefing the main and adjusting the helm more amidships or backing a staysail or small jib.

No matter what type of boat you are trying to heave-to, be sure to adjust your tiller at least a bit to leeward. If the tiller is tied to weather at all, an increase in wind strength could bear the boat off and cause her to gybe accidentally. Tie your tiller with heavy shockcord so the cord absorbs some of the stress that would otherwise be exerted on the rudder assembly. Furthermore, for long-term cruising safety, have rudder stops.

Heaving-to in heavy winds (gale to storm force) when the seas start to build differs from heaving-to in moderate winds; in these conditions you want to use the wake or slick of your boat to confuse the breaking seas. The key to heaving-to in these conditions is to get your boat to drift dead downwind. In this way you stay directly behind your amazingly protective slick. We lay hove-to in Seraffyn 400 miles east of England for thirty hours in a full force 10 storm (50-55 knots of wind). Storm-force winds were reported in all European sea areas from Iceland to northern Spain. By the second day the waves had built to long over-hanging crests, which were breaking dangerously on either side of our slick. Yet in the afternoon our foredeck was only damp from spray and the side decks had actually dried off in the September sun. No green seas had broken against our hull. Occasionally broken-down white foam would skid across the slick to slap ineffectively against the bow. We'd lost only twenty miles of the weathering we'd worked for two weeks to gain. I think this particular incident convinced Lin and me that as long as we had searoom and we chose our sailing seasons carefully, we could weather almost any storm. When things did get rough, we could simply heave-to and feel as though we'd pulled over to the side of the road and parked.

Figure 1 shows how generally to hold a boat hove-to in those storm-generated seas. Your boat may require different sail or helm adjustments from the four illustrated. The most important factor is to make sure your boat is stopped and drifting down-wind behind its slick. If you find you are forereaching, try tying the tiller more to leeward. The force of the wave action on the angled rudder pushes the stern of your boat down and the bow up. That is why tying the tiller to leeward helps stop the forward motion of your boat. In the same wind and sea conditions, a fin-keel-and-skeg sloop might need a backstaysail. If this doesn't work, try a drogue or parachute sea anchor in conjunction with a backstaysail to keep your boat behind its slick.

Once we have any boat we are on properly hove-to, we usually hit the bunk. If we are in a fog or concerned about ships we leave a strobe light flashing at the masthead. One of us goes on deck every hour to check for chafe on any storm gear and the set of the riding sail. But most important, we watch to see if the boat is forereaching. If your boat moves forward from behind your slick, a large sea could break onto your bow. To be sure we are not forereaching I drop a couple of paper towels into our slick. If the boat is staying directly to leeward of the slick, the paper towels will drift dead up wind. If the towels end up farther and farther aft of the boat, it means the boat is sailing out of its protection. You can see these white pieces of paper quite easily at night with a flashlight.

If your boat is determined to forereach, you should set a sea anchor of some sort. Although there are a variety of sea anchors available, we prefer a parachute anchor. This large diameter drogue will definitely stop any forward motion so you drift directly behind your protective slick.

We used a para-anchor with a triple-reefed mainsail on Seraffyn in the Gulf of Papagayo off Mexico and in the North Pacific during storms with winds reported to range from strong gale force to hurricane force (between 40 and 70 knots). Our nine-foot diameter, coarsely woven nylon para-anchor is much stronger and easier to stow than the smaller diameter, traditional, iron-hooped, canvas-coned sea anchors described in older cruising books. The nylon para-anchor used with a nylon rode is more elastic than its canvas and manila counterpart, and the nylon rode absorbs the shock of the boat surging against the sea anchor. This gear helps a vessel lie hove-to safely fifty degrees off the wind even after the winds increase beyond storm force. Our para-anchor is a surplus Navy cargo chute. They are used extensively for this purpose by the fishing fleet around southern California and Mexico. Our supply source is Gerrard Fiorentino Marine Sales, 311 22nd Street, San Pedro, CA, which has twenty-four-hour service. The para-anchor's come in nine-, sixteen-, twenty-four-, and twenty-eight-foot diameters.

The first time we hove-to with a para-anchor and triple-reefed mainsail, Seraffyn lay almost head-to-wind in the manner described in the book, The Venturesome Voyage of Captain Voss. We were continually woken up when the mainsail luffed violently as the para-anchor jerked us head to wind. The action was hard on the sail and on our nerves.

We later figured out how to lie in a close-hauled position even with the para-anchor set. Our keel then provided the slick to break down the seas so they would have less force on our hull, ruder, and the para-anchor gear. We rigged an adjustable fairlead as shown in Figure 2, using gear we already had on board. This fairlead let us control the direction of the para-anchor strains in relation to the direction of the wind. Now we could lie fifty degrees off the wind. If any wave did sneak into our slick area, its force would first be exerted on the boat's bow. The bow would fall off to leeward, stretching and tugging on the nylon rode and para-anchor. They would absorb most of the shock, so the rudder received little strain.

This position also has another advantage. You are now presenting the corners of your cabins and hatches to the force of the sea, and these corners are much stronger than the flat side or front of your cabin. Some people have hove-to stern to the wind and sea. This position is less safe because your relatively weak cockpit, sliding hatch, and companionway doors or dropboards are then vulnerable to a breaking sea.

Once you are lying to the para-anchor, you must adjust the length of the rode so the boat and anchor crest their individual waves at the same time. If the boat crests one wave while the para-anchor is in the trough of another, the differences in the wave action will cause an uncomfortable, gear straining jerk.

One of the most important uses of a para-anchor is to cut your rate of drift. A boat running toward a lee shore, even if it is trailing warps, loses valuable searoom at the rate of 3 knots or more. A boat lying hove-to drifts to leeward about one nautical mile in an hour, possibly less.

The first time I set our para-anchor, I used the trip line and attached a long line from it all the way back to the boat. The para-anchor twisted on its connecting swivel and wound up the trip line and anchor like spaghetti. After this experience, we eliminated the whole trip line. Although retrieving the sea anchor took longer without the trip line, it was still not too difficult. When it was safe to get underway again, we used our anchor windlass to grind in the rode. As the boat and para-anchor lay in the trough of their waves, it was quite easy to winch in six or eight feet of line. As the boat reached the crest of the wave, the line tension increased, so we'd hold on and wait for the next trough. When the para-anchor was next to the bow, we hooked it with a boathook and pulled it on board.

Setting the para-anchor was even easier than retrieving it. We laid it out on the foredeck to make sure none o fits lines were tangled, shackled the second anchor bower (a 300-foot-long, 5/8-inch, three-strand nylon line) to the 3/8-inch galvanized swivel and then fed the para-anchor, cover first, slowly over the bow. I eased out the line as the boat drifted slowly downwind. As soon as the rode was snubbed, the para-anchor filled and started working. It did not need any weights and it always opened as soon as the strains came on it.

A question we are frequently asked is: How do you know when it is time to stop and heave-to? When we are beating, the decision is usually made for us. Waves start breaking against the weather bow and progress becomes extremely uncomfortable. Most cruising folks stop going to windward about this same time, but racers frequently press on.

To heave-to from a beating position, simply drop your headsail and adjust the sails and helm to hold your boat in the close-hauled position while drifting dead downwind. Once the boat is lying comfortably, I like to set up the main topping lift to take some of the strain off the leech of the reefed sail.

If we are beam-reaching, we heave-to before the seas break hard against the hull. We often heave-to earlier on a beam reach than we do on a beat because the flat side of our cabin, the portlights, and the dinghy, which is stored on the cabin top, are particularly vulnerable to seas breaking on the beam. To heave-to from a beam reach, drop your headsail and sheet in your main, mizzen, or trysail as you round up on the back side of a wave. Try to choose a time when you will not hit the next breaking wave before the boat is stopped.

Choosing when it is time to heave-to is more difficult when you are running. We usually don't like to heave-to then because we are making great time towards our goal. Running with the wind and seas also gives us a false sense of security. The decks are quite often dry, the waves are not slamming against the hull, and the motion is usually more comfortable. So our rule is, heave-to before the seas start to crest. It is often hard to judge, but you'll realize it's time to heave-to when a sea breaks right under your stern and the boat is given an uneasy push. In other words, the power of the seas is starting to control the boat's normal progress through the water. Do not confuse this situation with ordinary surfing or acceleration down the face of a wave. If the boat is steering well, surfing is great fun. But as the seas get larger and more overhanging, your chances of broaching are increased. Remember, the decision about when it is time to heave-to depends completely on the shape of the waves, not the speed of the wind. Theoretically, you could run under bare poles in winds of 100 knots if the sea were flat. On the other hand, in a rough situation such as that often found in the relatively shallow waters of the English Channel where wind opposes tide and creates steep, breaking seas, running in Force 7 winds (28-33 knots) could be dangerous. So the classic rule is, heave-to as soon as you think about it. A falling barometer, wind clouds, and tired crew will confirm your decision to heave-to early.

When you do decide to stop running, drop your headsail, sheet in your reefed mainsail, mizzen, or trysail and round quite quickly into the wind. You'll probably take a good bit of spray on board as you round through the beam-reaching position. The boat will heel sharply, but there is no danger if you decide to heave-to before breaking waves make the boat feel uneasy.

Once you are hove-to and have the boat settled down, study the size and power of the breaking waves. When you are lying hove-to, it is a real temptation to start sailing before it is safe. You seem too comfortable, thanks to the calming affect of your slick and the relaxed feel of your boat now that it is no longer thrusting through the water. So you are sometimes lulled into a false sense of security. Be certain that the waves have decreased in size and power before you start sailing again.

It is my firm belief that heaving-to has become an unused art because most modern yacht designs are for racer/cruiser-type hulls, which are not usually as stable as older, long keeled boats. Added to this is the fact that many of those older boats were gaff-rigged. Their sailplans did not move foreward when they were reefed like sailplans do on modern marconi rigs. This sail area well aft helped hold their bow up into the wind, and the long keels held them steady so they hove-to quietly and easily. There was no fussing with backstaysails, drogues, or sea anchors; they just dropped the jib and sheeted in the mainsail and relaxed. Also, the older generation of sailors worked all year round. Fishing boats hove-to while the pulled their nets, pilot cutters hove-to and waited for ships, square-riggers hove-to to wait for the fog to clear before they closed the land. Weather was no deterrent. Those working sailors had to be out there. Today's yachtsmen who are sailing for pleasure can organize their races or holiday cruises to coincide with most favorable weather and wind conditions. So can those yachtsmen who sail the world west about with the prevailing winds. These people can choose to sail.

But even with the best of planning, there will be times when you need to know how to heave-to. Although boats have changed, sailors have not. They still get tired and need rest. Modern boats can be made to heave-to, but since they don't balance the same as their working ancestors, try experimenting with backstaysails, sheeted-in mizzens, trysails, and para-anchors so you can take advantage of the sailors safety valve.

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In a storm at sea, luck is highly biased toward
the sailor who has a plan.” So write Lin and
Larry Pardey in this, the third edition of their
highly regarded Storm Tactics Handbook. As
in the first two editions of this book, they
describe their concerns about the tendency
of modern sailors to discard the classic
methods used to bring sailing vessels
of all sizes—from vast clipper ships to
tiny yachts—through amazingly strong
winds and heavy sea


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