Heavy weather is inevitable When it arrives, don’t forget to keep your boat

September, 1998

By Dodge Morgan
There is absolutely no single definition of heavy weather even as we can, of course, define a hurricane, a storm, a whole gale. There are no practical heavy weather standards to guide us on the way up to the obvious Force 10 lulu. Heavy weather is an extremely subjective state with many, many variables and among them are the sailor, the boat and the location in addition to the wind force and sea state. The best definition of any single heavy weather situation is when the sailor can say that “anyone who does for fun what I am now doing is either crazy or masochistic.” This occurs at very different times for each of us. One sailor’s terror is another sailor’s inconvenience.

Sailing through heavy weather is inevitable for anyone who sails. Sailing through a storm is inevitable for any sailor who often goes off shore. I have the reputation as a sailor with an uncanny skill to find heavy weather, but as defined by others if not by me. So many times I have sailed through weather to find that others with equally strong boats in the same piece of ocean have lost it. I know what makes the difference.

The most important factor is the attitude of the sailor. One should understand that each time the mooring pennant is dropped the boat becomes one’s total existence, a world totally isolated. One should believe that no one will come to the rescue. There is no Coast Guard. The life raft will not inflate. The EPIRB will not transmit. With this attitude, one will become a fiercely intense boat keeper, and keeping the boat is the whole point.

Factor number two is making friends with one’s boat to master what she is. Sailors who have made true friends with their boats seldom get into trouble with them. And no friendship is solid that has not been tested by tough times. Sailing into heavy weather on purpose, just for the experience, makes enormously good sense. Captain J. C. Voss sailed around the world in a 30-foot hollowed-out canoe and was considered the master of “hove-to” techniques by Nathaniel Herreshoff. Robin Knox-Johnston sailed around the world alone without stopping in a wooden, 32-foot, gaff-headed ketch. Just last year I met an Israeli who happily arrived in Bermuda during a gale sailing a 5.5-meter boat held together with C-clamps, powered with sails cut from a department store awning and bailed with a cloth bucket.

It is true, however, that sailing is unlike sex in at least one important point, which is that you can better understand it by reading about it. By far the best book on heavy weather sailing is, in fact, “Heavy Weather Sailing” by Adlard Coles. It is the best book because in each true story Coles describes the boat, the crew experience, the weather conditions and then then the results. If you simply want to scare the shit out of yourself and only maybe learn something, read “Fastnet Force 10” by John Rousmaniere. If you want to read how very heavy weather can be a piece of cake with the right boat to face it, read my book, “Voyage of American Promise.” “Storm Sailing” by Gary Jobson and “Heavy Weather Guide” by Kotsch and Henderson are good primers as well.

One of my favorite sailor’s lines came from the English solo sailor Sir Francis Chichester, who had logged more ocean storms than most. His answer to a reporter who asked for his most harrowing moment at sea was, “When I pulled the second-to-last pint of beer from the bilge.” Clearly, there was a sailor who had the right attitude and the boat friendship and the coping knowledge.