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We have once again been giving some thought into the whole weather-prediction thing, partially inspired by discussions in our last Seamanship class. On short coastal passages, of which we will, at least for the time being, be limiting ourselves to, it seems that one can pretty much pick a good “weather window” to avoid most nasty things. The exception to this seems to be squalls which can sneak up on you at any point in a passage, and from what I read, sometimes quite quickly.

How are these dealt with? This has been the subject of some reading on my part. Being the newbies that we are, we have not had to deal with this first hand. The general consensus seems to be to reef or reduce sail, if not drop them altogether. Some people suggest turning on the engines to maintain maneuverability. Some suggest rounding up into the wind to take it bow on while I think others suggest the opposite. It’s always nice to have such clear direction [sarcasm]. This may very well be a boat-dependent thing that we will have to figure out on our own.

Because squalls can sometimes happen at night I have read of people who preemptively reef their main sail at dark, accepting that they will lose a bit of speed to save the trouble of trying to reef in the dark if a squall should strike them.

If there is any good news in all of this it’s that squalls of the type that I am describing typically don’t last very long. After 10-20 minutes of chaos they can pretty much be gone so it seems that all you need to do is take the necessary steps to slow down, hang on and wait it out.

20 Comments

  1. We were caught in a squall several years ago on Buzzards Bay,on our friends 35 O’Day. We could see the squall line approach fast,”swallowing” up boats at a distance,disappearing into the squall. We hauled down all the sails ,fired up the engine and motored slowly towards the approaching line. We instructed the guests(first time sailors) to get below,and the squall hit while the captain and I were still securing the main sail. We just held on and waited,and in a few minutes it was gone.Our guest were impressed that we all lived through it!
    I was taught to bring all sails down and power up to avoid a breach while the squall passes.
    Also important to note is having all hatches secured. A charter boat was lost in a squall in BVI 2 years ago because the crew did not lower sails or turn upwind,and with open hatches in a knockdown,the boat was gone in minutes.Crew was,fortunately,rescued by a nearby boat observing the knockdown.
    I would guess a knockdown in a cat would be even more exciting!

    • Good first-hand-account Dan. Sounds like you handled it perfectly.

      And yes, we will try to avoid a knockdown in our cat. I don’t care to see what it’s like to stand on the overturned bridgedeck!

  2. Just curious: Mike, have you ever sailed a beach cat, like a Hobie 16? I can’t recall. A small dingy?

    I am fundamentally uncomfortable having anyone at the helm in “interesting weather” that did not cut their teeth in small cats or at least dingies. I don’t know if they will understand what they are being hit with and how a cat acts when over whelmed. There is simply no time to ponder what the book said. The best safety advise a large boat sailor can get is to spend time on a small boat, get whipped completely, and learn humility. I guess that’s true of much in life. I’ve been whipped a few times.

    There. I’ve said it. If you have done time in a small boat and been flattened, then this was not directed at you. Perhaps I am cautious because I spent the past 25 years sailing boats that could flip in a good breeze and in any squall, if not handled well. I’m glad of it. I’ve learned the dynamics of catamaran sailing and am confident I understand, on a gut level, how my PDQ will act when hard pressed. I don’t know of another way to learn.

    If you have not sailed a Hobie cat, I suggest bumming some rides on windy days this summer. You can learn a lot in a few days, if you push it hard. A Hobie in 15 knots is more touchy than the PDQ in 30 knots. Fun too!

    One last thought. Thunderstorms can pack micro bursts to practically any strength. I got hit with one JUST after landing my beach cat many years ago. It took ALL of the boats off the beach, and they were just sitting there, no sails. The weather station in the park recorded 92 mph. It was unreal. You will read sometimes of “bearing off” in a squall. Don’t do it. If it becomes very strong, you will not be able to round up without capsize or be able to drop sail, and it can pitchpole even a PDQ 32, if the sails don’t blow and cost you thousands. The wind force can reach about 15 PSF at 70 knots, or nearly 5,000 pounds on a stalled main sail alone. All of this will happen in about 4 seconds. No, most are nothing like that, but take your time deciding which ones are. The Atlantic seaboard in August brews the monsters that haven given rise to Bermuda Triangle legends.

    The article was very good. Remember, their boat was bigger than yours, too.

    • Hi Drew

      We have only sailed a hobie a couple of times and that was at a Mexican resort before we knew anything about sailing. We were more troubled with getting out of irons than we were preventing pitchpolls. 🙂 Rebecca grew up with a bit more sailing experience than I did as her family owned a laser. Don’t think she really got too into it though.

      In retrospect, it would have been great if we had grown up sailing small cats or dinghies. But unfortunately that’s not the case and at this point in the game, I’m not convinced that spending time on one now is going to be as valuable to us as learning how to manage our own vessel. If we do find the opportunity to play on a hobie before we set sail this summer we’ll no doubt jump at the chance. They look like a blast and given that we now have a bit of sailing experience, it would be cool to see what we could make it do.

      As for the specifics of handling a squall, from what you have written it sounds as if you are of the “turn the bow towards the wind” camp then?

      Mike

  3. I came on a bit strong. Sorry.

    For me, time at sea has bred as much caution as bravado.

  4. Yes, I’m in the “point into the wind and get the sails down” school. Add stay away from lee shores. I think one of the reasons is that the Chesapeake is known for being very hazy late summer and it is VERY difficult, in general, to see the shape of the squall. Often, you hear it before you see it. Sometimes your main warning is that you can’t see much to the west. I’m sure other areas are different; I know the Florida coast does not get hazy in the same way.

    If in doubt, consider just leaving the genoa up; you can make that disappear in seconds on any point of sail.

    Once you are motoring bare poles, you can probably go on any point of sail. If it gets crazy, you will know.

    BTW, if it gets hard to motor into a strong wind (at about 35-40kn the boat will stop), steer with the throttles, just like docking. The rudders won’t work, but the engines will point it the right way. No need to be straight into the wind, ever. 45 degrees should be enough, probably much smoother, less engine strain, and easier to control.

  5. sirius xm weather. You can see them coming.

    • Our new Garmin 546 says that is compatible with XM WX Weather & Radio. It lists it as only being available in the US though and it is another 30 bucks per month!

  6. Remember that a squall is a great time to catch fresh rain water!

  7. Mike & Rebecca,

    As in many things sailing and in life, the short answer is – “it depends…”

    Certainly the Great Lakes and the Eastern Seaboard of the US, AND the Chesapeake can brew some ass-kickin’ squalls. We have BTDT with lots of white knuckle hours. Most squalls will run from the W to E (with variations SW to NE or NW to SE).

    Evans has great advice, but most of his strategies are for dealing with blue water squalls. You will likely encounter coastal/bay squalls and your strategies there are more in the “it depends” category.

    By far the #1 strategy is to avoid squalls or to be safely at anchor in a snug & secure harbor. With NOAA alerts and a good idea of each day’s forecast, you should be able to use this to your best advantage. When you find yourselves in for a series of hazy, hot and humid days likely to generate late afternoon and evening T-Storms, limit your planned distance each day (so you can get anchored early) or stay put. The biggest threat there is going to be the run down the NJ coast and up the Delaware Bay with few good spots to hide, so this area is a great one to wait for “ideal” conditions.

    The Chesapeake, while notorious for its squalls has lots of great hiding spots. In general, if caught out in a Chessie squall, drop/furl your sails and motor into the waves at NO MORE than 45 degrees (I like to aim for 30, recognizing that some you will end up taking head-on and some you will take @ 45 or more as you get bashed about and the storm works its way across the bay). This assumes you are not hard on the western shore of the Bay and have the sea room. We have motored at nearly full throttle (on our monohull) to just stay in place. Running with it has its place, but you need to severely reduce sail or run with bare poles and have a very clear picture of where the lee shore is. If you choose to keep some sail up, having the engines running in idle is always a good idea. Most Chessie squalls are very short lived 10 – 20 minutes, but one squall may be followed by another in nearly half-hour sequences. Once you get through the first squall, find a sheltered harbor and get the hook down.

    The ICW will be very similar to the Chesapeake in squall intensity and duration, except you want to get anchored ASAP since you won’t have the sea room there. In North Carolina, you will really want to avoid getting caught in either of the sounds (Pamlico or Albemarle) during a squall. See rule #1.

    If you go off-shore getting south of the squall line is generally better than turning into it, but you need to be careful of getting pushed into the Gulf Stream. Unless the inlet is a Class A, I would avoid re-entering the ICW during a squall.

    As for reefing before dark, it can really pay. Reefing in the dark while being tossed up and down, trying to steer and see in total darkness just adds an element of danger that can be avoided for the sacrifice of a few miles/day.

    Fair Winds,
    Mike

  8. I’ve always been impressed with how good the weather services are, with Doppler radar, at tracking the really dangerous ones and getting the word out on the marine radio.

    There was a “cost saving” measure once talked about, canceling NOAA marine weather forecasting as redundant. It was beaten down.

  9. We’re not cat sailors, but would really second the advice to get small boat/dinghy time. That’s about learning to sail, rather than passage-make/navigate/DIY etc etc. The vast majority of the time when cruising, the sailing is actually pretty simple, and it’s important to maintain your wind awareness and so on.

    We got caught, not by a squall but a strong front arriving 6 hours ahead of forecast, in the very shallow estuary of the Thames, where the wind got to over 40 knots, lots of hail and just 6m of water over the sand banks. That blew up in just 10 minutes. For a little while there we thought we were going to have to go the Netherlands, but the wind dropped just enough to allow us to motor into it and make the (much nearer!) English coast.

    • It seems that everyone who has been “out there” for some time has some stories similar to this (similar in intensity if not in specifics). I’m sure no matter how hard we try to avoid it we’ll have some of our own too. Glad to hear yours ended up OK!

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