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Nigel Ridgway reflects on what he has learned from his encounters with gales offshore.

As you cast off the lines to embark on an ocean passage, there’s little time to consider whether you’ll cop a gale on your voyage — but it’s never far from the back of your mind.

Skippers tend to begin passages in settled weather. This allows time to stow last-minute stores, get the sleeping arrangements sorted out and to clear the decks of unnecessary equipment not immediately needed for the trip. The yacht settles down, a moderate breeze fills the sails and enticing aromas come drifting up from the galley. The barometer is noted and logged along with the daily run and position. Life is very pleasant and you’re at peace with the world and yourself. It’s a grand feeling to be in control of your destiny, in command of your own little ship.

After a few days, the weather forecast changes, the barometer begins to fall and the tension rises. What will it be like if a gale hits us? Will we (you and your little ship) be able to handle it?

We’d better make sure we can reef easily and have the storm sails handy. Time to make some hot soup for the flask and dig out that fruit ‘n’ nut mix for energy — and to grab some muesli bars.

The above is the sort of scenario I experienced before the gales I encountered at sea arrived. The gales seemed to come in two categories: a) The steady increase in wind and seas and b) The sudden gale that’s on you very quickly.

There’s an old sailor’s couplet about this:

Long foretold, long last

Soon foretold, soon past.

Or: The sudden storm lasts not three hours

The sharper the blast, the sooner ‘tis past!

The first type of gale is easier to handle because there’s time to do all the things I mentioned. The reefs can go in early and the furler can be rolled up progressively. The gales I experienced at sea were also either behind the boat, or from ahead.

From behind

Let’s take a look at a gale from behind. Firstly, the increase in wind can be deceiving. Before you know it, the yacht is charging along at high speed and may begin to surf on the crests. The autopilot starts to complain. Anything over 20 knots means get a reef in quick. My boats could be reefed downwind so there was no need to round up into the rising seas — just pull down the luff to the second reef point, hook it onto the gooseneck and haul the leech down at the clew, tie off and tidy up the loose line. If running poled out, ease the pole forward and roll up the furler until there’s only a little bit out. If the wind continues to rise (and the autopilot still complains), time to get the third reef in. The main is now tiny; the headboard below the spreaders and only a handkerchief of furler is out. This was okay to about 30 knots. If the wind continued to rise, I’d dump the main completely, tie it down securely onto the boom (now in the middle of the boat) and roll up the furler to the tiniest “snot rag”. I found that the yacht would run happily in 35-40 knots with this arrangement. I don’t like having to round up to reef — boat movement is horrible. Running downwind, the boat is much more stable.

What are the seas doing while all this reefing is going on? You look back at great walls of water, the tops falling off and rushing down the face of the wave.

Luckily, most is not heavy green water, but lots of froth of bubbles. Most of the crest rolls back down the aft side of the wave. I have seen a few break in the distance, like waves on the beach — the roar is deafening. If one hits the boat, it’s a broach or pitch-pole. Fortunately, in the deep ocean, waves like that are rare — otherwise it would be too dangerous for any small yacht to venture offshore. Fully breaking waves tend to occur around shoaling water.

Down below, the motion is not too bad downwind — that’s if your boat doesn’t roll like a pig! Lotus was pretty stable. The noise was scary at first, especially when a crest broke and the surfing was on. I’d look out the cabin windows with the sea bubbling and frothing at deck level and yell, “Shit, look at that!”

From ahead

The ones I encountered were both off South Africa, not too far from the continental shelf where the Aghulas current runs the strongest, a very dangerous area. Luckily, I wasn’t caught out crossing the shelf — one of the most feared areas in the world. Many yachts have come unstuck here. While I was in Durban, a Swedish single-hander came in after being rolled crossing the shelf in rough weather. He lost his mast, dinghy, everything on deck. He was fortunate to be able to get his engine going and limp into Durban. He told me they were the roughest seas he’d encountered in 35 years of cruising! But I digress . . .

The gales from ahead were up to 55 knots — which is probably too strong for running safely. My method was to heave-to under a triple-reefed main and no furler (Jon Sanders, WA’s most famous solo triple circumnavigator, advised me to do this before I left).

What’s it like? Scary, very scary to begin with. The seas look much bigger and more menacing head on. Lotus would heave-to about 50 degrees to the wind, forereaching at about 1.5knots. She would rise up, up, up until the full weight of the wind was felt on the crest, heel right over, then slide down the back of the waves. I never had a solid green sea break right over the boat but the tops would topple over the bow and rush aft — some going into the cockpit, the rest into the sea. Any water in the cockpit was rolled out on the crest. I sat and watched the boat for a couple of hours during my first encounter with a gale ahead. I was just amazed at how well the boat handled the seas. The tiller was lashed down to leeward, keeping her head up. There was nothing more for me to do. (My crew, Jeff, was able to sleep soundly in all the noise — how I envied him!).

In the cockpit, I was tethered to a strong point with my harness, wearing my full foul-weather gear. What fascinated me was the way the seabirds were loving it — screaming up the face of the waves, getting blown back, then having another go. Once I realised we were going to be okay, I went below too but found it hard to sleep with all the racket.

The other gale ahead was also off Africa — this one was going home and I was single-handing. I was given a good weather window by the SA bureau and got going pretty quickly after all the paperwork rigmarole of that country.

I managed to get 100nm offshore, over the edge of the continental shelf into deep water, when the gale hit. This one was sudden; I hove-to with the third reef in and just rode it out. Contrary to the sailors’ couplet, this one lasted two days and I was pushed 68nm north of my position, going crabwise, I guess, because I ended up almost the same distance offshore. At 55 knots, the waves loomed large and menacing but the little Dunc 29 rode them well. I was at the beginning of a solo passage Durban to Fremantle; I hadn’t got my sea legs so I was really crook. Kneeling on the companionway steps, I vomited straight in to the cockpit over the second washboard! It was horrible!

During this same gale, a fully crewed sail-training yacht left just after me and was washed ashore somewhere between Durban and Richards Bay. All crew were rescued safely.

Further considerations

If you cross oceans you are probably going to encounter a gale at some stage. You need to try out heaving-to so that you know your boat can do it. The triple-reefed main set-up works well for long keels — with a fin keel it may be hard to keep her head up. When we set-off for South Africa, I had only two deep reefs in the main — unbelievably naïve because Lotus was overpowered downwind. We ran for 2000 miles from Cocos to Rodregues with a storm trysail and tiny furler (the main was lashed down onto the boom). We had a stopgap third reef sewn in during our stay at Mauritius, which helped. In Durban, North Sails put in a really deep third reef that was bulletproof and dead
flat when set. 

Would I lie ahull? Yachts do — but I find the concept frightening because you are then completely at the mercy of the seas, with no control at all.

Another old weather couplet I found to be quite accurate was:

Wind before rain, soon be fine again

Rain before wind, sails and halyards mind!

I experienced six gales in that year of cruising the Indian Ocean and by the time the sixth one came along, I was much more confident at handling the boat and myself. In fact, it can be quite exhilarating in a gale when you know you’ve got a good boat under you and you’re confident. A fully fledged storm would be different, of course. Yachts do survive but it’s something a sailor may never encounter in a lifetime of cruising — thank goodness!

WIND AND THE BEAUFORT SCALE

Below is the range of winds I logged in the Indian Ocean, based on readings from my anemometer. The strongest gusts were up to 55 knots. Sea conditions, I assume, were pretty close to the scale.

Force 5 Fresh Breeze 16-20kts (seas 2m, 6-7ft)

Force 6 Strong Breeze 21-26kts (seas 3m, 9-10ft)

Force 7 Near Gale 27-33kts (seas 4m, 13/14ft)

Force 8 Gale 34-40kts (seas 5.5m, 18ft)

Force 9 Strong Gale 41–47kts (seas 7m, 23ft)

Force 10 Whole Gale 48-55kts (seas 9m, 29ft)

THIRD REEF VS STORM TRYSAIL

This has been a subject of much discussion among sailors for years. Having used both, I would say the third reef is much quicker and easier to set. It’s attached to strong points at the luff and foot and it’s easier to control. The trysail slides have to be fed into the mast after removing the main (this is awkward). Once set, the clew can be lashed to the end of the boom (as we did – it gives you some control) or to a strong point right aft. If you had a separate track for the trysail on the mast, you could leave it in a bag at the foot of the mast – then you wouldn’t have to remove the main slides. I found it much easier to pull down the main to the third reef. It was tiny. North Sails (Durban) sewed in reinforcing patches, extra slides and a heavy-duty headboard. The whole triangle was sewn around with tape and extra stitching. It seemed bullet proof – and stayed put in up to 55kts.

Full-length or leech battens? I have discussed this before. Unless you can afford very expensive cars at the mast, leech battens are much easier to reef downwind. I have found full-length battens to be awkward reefing downwind.

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