Some days you will be out on the water sailing in perfect conditions. Your sails will be full, but not strained. You'll be heeling gently, but you will not feel like you are going to fall off the windward rail. The sun will shine on the water that is as blue as crystal and everything will feel calm and relaxing. 

Then there are the days where the decks are swamped with water, the wind is blowing cold rain into your eyes, and the sun is nowhere to be seen. Storms and heavy weather are something that all mariners will have to deal with at one point or another. Knowing how to handle less than ideal or even dangerous conditions is an essential part of being on the water. Taking the proper precautions and preparation can be lifesaving in the event of bad weather when sailing.

Below are some methods to get you ready for storms, from before you head out of the harbor to when you are in the midst of the storm. 

Check Your Boat Before Sailing

Before you even think about having fun on the water, you should make sure that your boat is well maintained. This means ensuring that your lines are sturdy and unworn, that your lifelines are secure, and that you have all the emergency gear on board and up to date. In addition, always check the weather on the days that you are planning to go out. The forecast is not a perfect prediction of conditions on the water, but it can provide you with helpful guidance when making decisions on whether or not to go out, and how far you should go. We included some useful marine weather apps in our best boating apps guide, and your VHF radio should also have a weather station.

One of the key parts of controlling your boat and crew in heavy weather is to be prepared for anything. This means having your boat rigged so that you can access anything you need quickly. Sometimes you can see a storm coming from miles away, and sometimes you're in the thick of it within seconds.

What to Do While Sailing in Bad Weather

When you and your crew are ready to face the storm or period of heavy air, do as follows:

  • Reef your sails. If you do not know how to do this, check out our guide on the subject.
  • Pump your bilges dry. You may have to repeat this process several times over the course of the storm, depending on its severity.
  • Close all hatches, ports, and windows. This protects the cabin from both rain and high seas.
  • Secure all loose gear — everything onboard your boat should have its own place — and ensure that your emergency gear (such as pumps or sea anchors) is close at hand so that you can reach it with ease.
  • If you have time or the opportunity, alter your course to make your way to sheltered waters. However, if an entrance to a harbor is difficult, it will only be even more difficult and dangerous under stormy conditions, so it might be safer to stay out in open waters. Keep this in mind when making a decision about where to sail to weather the storm.

These steps will help prepare you for the oncoming storm so you can minimize any damaging impacts before it hits. The job is far from over, however; once the wind and waves catch up to you, you will have a lot to do to stay safe while on the water.

How to Take Control of Your Boat

Most heavy wind is accompanied by heavy seas, so be prepared to deal with waves of alarming heights. Take on the waves at a 45-degree angle. This will make the least possible impact, which will make the boat more stable and safer to operate. It will also reduce the chances of you and your crew becoming seasick.

If conditions become dangerous, with the wind too powerful for even a reefed sail and a close heading, it is time to take down all sails and secure them. This is only for dire weather, so do not take this step unless you absolutely have to.

In addition, if there is someone more experienced than you aboard, do not hesitate to give control of the helm to that person. Stormy conditions are no place for pride; the best thing you can do for yourself and anyone on board is to have the person with the most experience guide you to safety.

In an ideal world, not one of us would ever have to face these sorts of conditions, but the reality is that if you want to be out on the water you will run into some miserable weather. It's best to prepare yourself with experience and knowledge to avoid any tragedies or accidents on the water when the weather is less than ideal.