Into the Wind
by Jeff Williams

This is the first of what we hope will be a long line of insightful columns by Jeff Williams. Jeff is the proprietor of Skycraft Sail and Canvas - be sure to visit his website.

Heaving To

When I went sailing last week, I was surprised to see the large number of yachts put away for the winter. I guess I'm in denial. Maybe it's the West Coast sailing that I've done where waiting for a dry sunny day for sailing was an exercise in futility. It's there that I learned how to bundle up in woolies and fisherman's oilskins in order to enjoy an afternoon out on the water. With a cabin heater down below, you carry along a cozy berth where you can curl up with a book at day's end. Although you could do this at home, there is usually too much work to do, such as laundry, the lawn, etcetera, etcetera.

Anyhow, it was a glorious warm fall afternoon, and it seemed irresponsible to do anything but enjoy the outdoors. The boat was rigged in 15 minutes, and we were away, my wife as crew and our son crawling around in the bilge. I won't bore you with how we sailed here and there in the harbour; most sailing stories are rather dull until you get to the part where the storm or some other disaster threatens to strike.

Our 'disaster' began with our toddler no longer enjoying himself, obviously needing a nap. It would be a long slog home with a crying baby. To make matters worse, the following waves were causing the boat to have an awkward corkscrew motion, which was keeping us on our toes. What we needed was to just stop the boat for a few minutes.

Most sailors know that this isn't easy. With the sails up, a sailboat just wants to keep moving. Even when you're pointing into the wind, the sails flog viciously until the boat falls off to one side and starts sailing again. With the sails down, the boat will bob and pitch uncomfortably, and drift downwind, which in our case meant drifting into a shallow river mouth where we would be stuck.

The answer is to heave to. This sounds like a storm tactic that only deep-sea sailors use, but it's easy, and works for boats of all sizes. All you have to do is steer up towards the wind, and haul the jibsail over to the windward or 'wrong' side of the boat. You then fiddle with the mainsail and the tiller to make the boat balance. Usually the mainsail is let out until it's flapping a bit, and you tie the tiller so that it's steering upwind.

The change was dramatic. Instead of the giddy roll, the bow of the boat rose and fell predictably to the oncoming waves Steering only required that I keep my knee against the tiller to keep us headed up into the wind. We were moving ahead slowly, but wouldn't be near the far shore for 20 minutes or more. It was so calm that we rocked our toddler to sleep in a few minutes, and bedded him down on an extra lifejacket. If we had needed to, we could have easily reduced sail, had a snack or taken bearings. Since we were ready to continue, we let the jibsail return to the downwind side of the boat and continued on our way.

Heaving to is a tactic that is often practiced on big boats and big water, but it's a handy trick to have up your sleeve when sailing a small boat. Try it out for the first time in relatively light winds so you can get a feel for where the rudder and sails should be set.

Once you master this technique, you'll start to use it for a variety of reasons, from having a picnic to enduring strong wind and waves.