Heavy Weather Myths Debunked

Before getting into fitting-out for heavy weather and preparing for storms before they arrive, let’s debunk a few common myths.

Excerpt from Sailing A Serious Ocean by John Kretschmer

Before getting into fitting-out for heavy weather and preparing for storms before they arrive, let’s debunk a few common myths. First, the notion that with today’s excellent satellite-weather forecasting, you can essentially avoid heavy weather. This sanguine notion is the voice of inexperience. If you plan to sail across oceans and cruise the world, you will encounter heavy weather. Think about how accurate local forecasts are in your hometown. Now add the vagaries of the ocean environment and the uncertainties of changing climate to the mix and you can pretty well count on encountering some unexpected storms in your travels. The Azores approach storm of 2007 was not forecast and caught much of the Atlantic crossing fleet by surprise.

The second myth is that you can outrun heavy weather if your boat is fast enough. While there is some truth to the notion that you can limit your exposure to storms by taking aggressive steps to sail out of harm’s way, particularly if you know the path of the storm, generally this is not viable for most cruising boats traveling at 6 to 7 knots. Time is better spent preparing for the ensuing blow. I do have to admit, though, that I have never understood why boats lying in the predicted track of a tropical storm don’t move out of the storm’s way rather than assuming the bunker mentality and hunkering down for the blow. If you are at anchor in Antigua, in the Leeward Islands of the Caribbean, and a hurricane is a couple of days away and tracking west, why not make all haste south to Grenada or, better yet, Trinidad? It’s 300 or 400 miles due south, and in two days you can be completely out of storm’s swath of destruction. Today’s tropical storm track models usually very accurate, at least in the big picture, so the choice of where to sail is usually very clear. I think this is a better strategy than doubling and tripling your mooring lines and offering prayers and bribes to every available deity in hopes that the storm will change course.

The 2012 tragic loss of the replica tall ship Bounty in Hurricane Sandy points to flaws in both strategies mentioned above. If there ever was a time for hunkering down, this was it, as Sandy spread terror across the Atlantic like a malignant tumor. While I understand the skipper’s angst about having the storm surge damage his ship in port, the potential for losing the ship and the crew by taking what in reality was a movie prop to sea in hurricane conditions was a terrible combination of arrogance and negligence. Captain Robin Wallbridge and crewmember Claudine Christian paid for this mistake with their lives, and only heroic actions from the Coast Guard prevented more loss than life.

There was no way the Bounty was in a position to outmaneuver Sandy, but what’s difficult to understand is why she didn’t at least try. With the storm tracking northwest toward the New Jersey shore, the Bounty cleared out of New London, Connecticut, and, after rounding Montauk Point on the east end of Long Island, laid a course right toward the approaching storm. NO attempt was made to outflank the storm by sailing east. Nobody knows for sure why Wallbridge sailed back toward the coast and ultimately collided with the storm off Cape Hatteras.

John Kretschmer has logged more than 300,000 offshore sailing miles and his new book, Sailing a Serious Ocean is filled with not only stories of his voyages but sailing tips and advice, no sailor should be without. To purchase Sailing a Serious Ocean, go to Practical Sailor’s website now.

Darrell Nicholson
Practical Sailor has been independently testing and reporting on sailboats and sailing gear for more than 50 years. Supported entirely by subscribers, Practical Sailor accepts no advertising. Its independent tests are carried out by experienced sailors and marine industry professionals dedicated to providing objective evaluation and reporting about boats, gear, and the skills required to cross oceans. Practical Sailor is edited by Darrell Nicholson, a long-time liveaboard sailor and trans-Pacific cruiser who has been director of Belvoir Media Group's marine division since 2005. He holds a U.S. Coast Guard 100-ton Master license, has logged tens of thousands of miles in three oceans, and has skippered everything from pilot boats to day charter cats. His weekly blog Inside Practical Sailor offers an inside look at current research and gear tests at Practical Sailor, while his award-winning column,"Rhumb Lines," tracks boating trends and reflects upon the sailing life. He sails a Sparkman & Stephens-designed Yankee 30 out of St. Petersburg, Florida. You can reach him at darrellnicholson.com.