What is heaving-to?
It’s a way to stop the vessel in the water without using the anchor! Once she is pointing about 40-60 degrees to the wind she will have virtually zero forward motion. Instead, she will drift slowly downwind because the driving action from one sail is countered by the other being backed with the rudder placed to hold the bow into the wind. The hull/keel makes a slick in the water that reduces the oncoming swell. The swell that does hit the boat will hit the strongest part of the boat.
What is fore-reaching?
It’s basically the same as being hove-to but due to the design of the vessel or the skipper’s choice, the vessel will be trimmed to slowly make way upwind. This is an advantage if the wind is blowing you onto a lee shore or if you are waiting for a tidal gate. You can in effect maintain your geographical position. The disadvantage is the vessel constantly moves out of its own ‘slick’ so the swell reducing effect is decreased.
Heaving-to or being hove-to can be used in these examples:
To quickly stop the vessel. It’s a recognised technique by the RYA in case of a man overboard emergency before checking lines in the water and starting the engine.
Allows a crew to take a break from steering especially in bad weather so you can eat, sleep or perform repairs on the vessel. Maybe you need to simply wait for a tidal change before entering a harbour or safe haven.
A storm survival tactic. A number of yachts have used this tactic in winds greater than force 10. In June 1994, during the infamous Queen’s Birthday Storm, all the yachts that hove-to survived the storm. Sabre, a 34ft cutter hove-to in wind speeds averaging 80kts for 6 hours with virtually no damage. In the 1979 Fastnet race of over 300 yachts, 100 suffered knockdowns, and 77 rolled at least once resulting in 15 fatalities. Not one of the yachts that hove-to capsized or was knocked down, turned turtle or suffered any serious damage.
For the purposes of this article, we will discuss being hove-to without drogues/sea-anchors. Some modern sport cruisers may not be able to heave-to at all as they do not have the necessary underwater profile. Fore-reaching is the same technique but with a different balance to the helm and mainsail trim, allowing the vessel to make way to windward.
“The difference between modern performance cruisers and classic cruising yachts when heaving to comes down to mainly a combination of displacement and keel length.
Like how modern, lighter yachts with deep fin keels tend to tack around their anchor holding, the directional stability you get with a longer keel makes it easier to heave too and keep your bearing. Keeping the bow or stern oriented towards the sea is key – you don’t want to lie beam to the sea in breaking waves obviously. A heavier boat will less likely be affected by breaking waves that will push her bow or stern around than a lighter displacement hull form and with the longer keel, directionally it will be easier to keep a heading for long periods.
Modern hull forms will tend to Forereach rather than Heave-to. Most modern boats will always make some headway even if it’s just a knot or two so technically they aren’t hove-to. Older, heavier designs will tend to have more leeway rather than headway so are more suited to heaving to.
If the waves get so large that the yacht gets becalmed in the trough, then another tactic needs to be looked at. Perhaps drogues….. and if that was the case, I’d rather be in a longer keeled, heavier hull form than not.”
Kevin Dibley – Naval Architect and Kraken Yachts Designer
How to quickly stop the yacht by heaving-to:
Using a jib (or trysail with a slightly eased reefed main) simply tack the yacht through the wind without tacking the foresail. Once the bow has come through the wind and momentum has reduced, turn the wheel to windward and lash it. If the yacht is fore-reaching, ease the main to reduce forward speed.
How to heave-to in unfavourable weather conditions:
- Back the foresail by trimming the windward sheet.
- Ease the reefed mainsail until the yacht stops all forward motion.
- Put the rudder hard to windward (tiller helm to lee) taking care the yacht doesn’t tack.
- Adjust the mainsail to maintain a good balance and angle to wind and waves, ideally 40-60 degrees.
How to come out of hove-to manoeuvre:
Simply ease the windward foresail sheet and windward helm – you are sailing again.
Maintain a good lookout for other traffic and check your sea-room, being very careful if you are anywhere near a lee shore.
If hove-to for a long period of time be careful the foresail isn’t chaffing on the rigging. A storm jib or trysail shouldn’t have this problem.
Like any technique or storm tactic, it should be practised before you end up in a gale. It’s important to know how your yacht will behave and how to get the right balance of the sail trim and helm. In a gale situation with building seas, it’s recommended to heave-to early in a controlled situation. If you are running with a big following sea turning into the wind and swell trying to tack through it may be impossible at best or dangerous at worst with a chance of knockdown.
Every yacht heaves-to differently and under different sail areas/plans. Know how your yacht feels hove-to with a reduced sail plan. Go and practise the next time you are sailing in a good breeze.
For further information and to learn more about this potentially lifesaving manoeuvre I’d highly recommend reading Storm Tactics Handbook – Modern methods of heaving-to for survival in extreme conditions by Lin & Larry Pardey. The whole book is dedicated to this technique for sloop and ketch rigged yachts. While Lin and Larry are adamant to not fore-reach, John Kretschmer is a firm believer and describes the technique in his book Sailing A Serious Ocean. Listen to their podcasts online.