Deploying a storm jib offshore - plenty of practice is required

Chris and Margie Wilkie discover that deploying a storm jib safely under adverse sea conditions and high winds requires some forward planning and plenty of practice.

Trying to pick favourable weather prior to commencing an ocean passage of more than a few days is not easy. We believe anyone who sails offshore enhances crew safety and that of the boat by carrying a storm jib and a storm trisail.

Since the introduction of roller furling, sail handling has become very easy if you want to deploy or douse a sail. However, the practice of relying on a partially furled headsail in heavy weather conditions often leads to a poorly balanced rig and places significant stress on the exposed portion of the sail. The net result is the sail becomes stretched and rendered less efficient when next used under normal wind conditions.

Cruising head sails are generally made from fabric that has a weight factor ranging between 4 and 8 ounces depending on the displacement weight of the vessel. Our storm sails are constructed from 10.2 ounce material and are heavily reinforced in all corners. In heavy weather the average headsail is no substitute for a purpose-built storm jib.

The first time we launched our storm jib we were safely tied up at our home port yacht club in Hobart Australia. On that day there was no wind and the sky was sunny and clear. We had  just taken delivery of a new set of sails for our 40 foot cutter, Storm Bay of Hobart, in preparation for a cruise to the South Pacific and beyond. When I looked at the storm jib two things occurred to me: first, what a tiny sail, (just over three square metres) and second, if we did need to set it wearing sunshades would be compulsory due to its bright orange colour.

Since the events of the 1998 Sydney to Hobart ocean yacht race, maritime safety authorities have urged sail boat owners to equip their vessels with bright orange coloured storm sails.

These are more visible against the back drop of the white crested seas that tend to accompany the need for their use. The second time we launched our storm jib was a very different experience.

Force nine from NZ

We had spent our first offshore cruising season in New Caledonia and Vanuatu in the South Pacific. With the approach of the southern hemisphere cyclone season we departed Vanuatu early November and headed south for New Zealand in a light north westerly. Around midnight on our second day the wind backed to the south east and increased to 20 to 25kts. We were down to a double reefed main and a staysail beating into a short steep sea and struggling to point high enough to maintain our rhumbline for NZ.

Over the next few hours the wind increased significantly, the seas grew steeper and closer together and when Storm Bay stuck her bow out into fresh air on the back of a particularly nasty sea then dropped like a stone into a black void we decided it was time to turn and run. Sensing our plight, the wind gods increased their efforts to a frightening howl that had us running under bare poles. Storm Bay is a heavy displacement craft with a full keel and the wind drove us along at better than seven knots. This gives some idea of the forces at play.

The Loyalty Islands lie to the north east of New Caledonia and were to the east of our current course. Margie, who is the ship’s navigator, established that if we could slide sideways across the direction of the storm, we might slip behind a headland into a sheltered bay on one of the islands. Her proposed track involved a reach/run which, under the existing conditions, would require a small amount of sail; so I retrieved the storm jib from the cockpit locker.

It should be added here that after hoisting the storm jib at our yacht club some two years prior I had folded it neatly and put it away in the sail bag provided and forgotten about it. Not particularly seaman like I know but then we are executive members of ‘WOW’ which stands for ‘wimps on water’ and a primary rule is to avoid any weather above 25 knots, unless it is going with you.

A cutter rig has many advantages when cruising offshore, one of which is that it provides an inner forestay that keeps the centre of effort of any sail set on it closer to the centre of lateral resistance than the forestay. This combined with a full length keel means Storm Bay is well balanced with a staysail alone or in this case a storm jib and tracks very well.

So back to setting the storm jib and at this point I should mention that judging from the sea state the wind was around force nine. We don’t have wind speed instruments but when facing the wind it was almost impossible to breathe, a bit like sticking your head out the car window on the open road. In addition to the high wind we were burying our bow into the backs of steep seas and taking a lot of green water over the foredeck.

With harness on and safety tether attached to the jack line I took hold of the storm jib bag and, loaded with adrenaline, started crawling forward along the deck.

The fun started when I reached the foredeck in a prone position. Along with the violent plunging and rearing and unbreathable air, there was a serious jacuzzi effect as the ocean climbed onto the foredeck causing me to float and slide around. Clearly a dive weight belt, goggles and a snorkel would have been useful at this point!

The first challenge came when I opened the sail bag which immediately billowed and made like a hot air balloon. At this point I realised there was no way to attach the bag to anything and it would be lost if I didn’t keep hold of it. Where was that third arm?

The next challenge came when I grabbed the tack tether thinking I should secure the sail to the deck fitting at the base of the forestay and, uh oh, there’s a shackle to be dealt with. Now I really do need more hands!

Did I mention it was still dark and of course I didn’t think to bring along a shackle key or a head torch!

Eventually, with the foot of the sail secured, I started to hank it on, another two handed operation as they are piston hanks. At this point I was wondering what happened to the notion of “one hand for the ship and one hand for you”, because between holding on to the sail bag, securing the piston hanks and trying to keep my body from sliding around the foredeck I was definitely short handed. Thankfully the water was warm.

With the sail flapping crazily and trying to climb up the stay I fought to get the sheets attached to the clew that was attempting to smack me around the head and get the halyard on.

Finally when all was done I scarpered back to the safety of the cockpit feeling like I was escaping from a monster.

Hauled up and sheeted in the storm jib set like a board, drove Storm Bay forward and gave us back the helm control needed to head for shelter.

It took five hours to reach the bay Margie had set course for, which proved a true haven with a daylight arrival, white sand beach, aqua green water and not a hint of what was ripping past the headland behind us.

Needless to say I had plenty of time to reflect on a better system for deploying the storm jib without repeating the dramas I had just been through and to reduce the safety risk of needing two hands to secure the sail.

Lessons learnt:

Number one is the sail must be stowed in the bag in such a way that the bulk of the sail remains in the bag while the head, tack and clew (which all need to be clearly labelled) are attached to their various lines, and the hanks are secured to the stay.

This is achievable with a standard top opening sail bag provided some care is taken to fold and stow the sail so the attachment points, including the luff with hanks exposed, are positioned at the open end of the bag.

If the jib does not come with its own sheets, make sure the bight in the knot is long so it can still be reached from the deck when the sail is set.

Secondly, the bag needs a tether so it can be secured to the safety line or similar and forgotten; this frees up one hand and several body parts.

One idea may be to attach it to the safety line, aft of your own clip, so when you run back aft the bag is automatically dragged aft with you.

The third change needs to be made at the tack/foot end of the tether where the shackle and pin need to be replaced with a snap shackle. This should be left in the open position when the sail is stowed so it can be closed on the anchor point one-handed.

The hanks should be of the torsion spring style and not the piston type because the former can be snapped on the stay with one hand.

Finally only after everything is securely attached, should the bulk of the sail be exposed to the wind. Even then the person on the foredeck needs to get clear quickly to avoid being struck by a flailing sheet or the metal ring in the clew.

For those cruising boats that are not equipped with an inner forestay and carry their headsail on a furler there are systems which allow a storm sail to be attached to the forestay without removing the furled head sail (see sidebar).

With the development of non-stretch ropes, such as Amsteel and other proprietary brands, it can be relatively straight forward to install a deck fitting, or make up a strop that fits around the anchor windlass, plus place a mast fitting close to the first spreaders and inner shroud attachment point.

This may allow a storm jib to be hoisted free standing, removing the challenge of a hanked sail and bringing the centre of effort closer to the centre of lateral resistance.

As I mentioned earlier the crew of Storm Bay prefers to sail in nothing over 25 knots but having cruised over the past 10 years from 420S to 600N, we have encountered the occasional piece of dirty weather. Knowing we have the right sails and the confidence to deploy them gives us a certain level of security when the inevitable happens on a long passage.

To us it makes sense that any serious offshore sailors would carry storm sails and practice the procedures for attaching and deploying them. This need for practice is true for all safety equipment bearing in mind that the serious use of such equipment occurs under the least favourable conditions.

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