One of the many great things about sailing is that it is pretty simple, to learn, in the scheme of things. Companies offering sailing lessons abound, in, on or near almost any waterway. One can learn the basics of sailing, the nomenclature, wind directions, how to steer, pick up a mooring, reef and other basics in around 20-24 hours. After which most entities offer some kind of membership, frequent flier arrangement where, if you are “certified” then you may rent one of their boats. Repetition is really the best way to get better at sailing, so this is a sound idea.

Some elements of seamanship like navigation, anchoring, arriving and departing a dock or slip are sometimes covered, or are a second level course. The really big hole in conventional retail sailing instruction is handling your boat at sea and in hard weather. True, some old (and not so old) salts offer cruises on their own yachts from A to B where all manner of instruction may be had. And there are companies like Offshore Passage Opportunities where prospective voyagers can get sea time on another’s boat. But since we are admonished by almost everyone from our wives on down the line to stay safe (i.e. avoid hard weather) and like everything we eschew, and as I tell the kids when it’s blowing 20, if we don’t sail in it, we fail to learn how to do it. Managing one’s boat in heavy weather is, I suggest, one of the key aims of developing one’s skills in seamanship.

But one can read about “it.” Studying some of the classic passages and how the masters and crews handle heavy weather is better than doing nothing. Once is Enough by Miles Smeeton is the tale of he and his wife Beryl’s dismasting by pitchpoling in the Southern Ocean. The crew, there were only three hands aboard, the Smeetons and one John Guzzwell, he of Round the World in Trekka fame, after their endo, found themselves in the middle of the Southern Ocean, mast by the board boat, and the boat submerged to the gunnel. I am advised on sound authority that Beryl Smeeton, at the helm at the time, was washed overboard, and when the other two popped out of the cabin remarked, “I know where the buckets are.”

Humphrey Barton’s tale of, with one mate, making a passage from Lymington towards New York in a Vertue class yacht in the early 1950s is an easy and excellent read. The Vertues were 25-foot wooden yachts designed by Laurent Giles, in which firm Barton was a partner. Barton purchased a half-built Vertue, number 35 by sequence, with the view of sailing to the U.S. and selling her to get U.S. dollars.

The so named Vertue 35 was conventional carvel planked wooden construction, with a wooden mast, cotton sails, no engine, no VHF, SSB or sat phone. Comms with other vessels was by Morse and a big torch. Nav. lights were oil lamps, and they navigated using a towed Walker log and sextant. He carried nothing like the four pages of safety kit required for offshore races and strongly suggested for offshore sailing today.

Three quarters of the way across, they were caught in a blow subsequently determined to be a hurricane, in the Gulf Stream of course. Lying ahull in big seas, the boat was knocked on her beam ends, the largish cabin windows were blown out by the breaking sea and the main hatch torqued, preventing it sliding on its runners. With the Gulf Stream flooding the cabin to the top of the berths, Barton slithered out of the broken window and got the boat back on a downwave course while his mate inside was bailing. They made it to City Island, and sold the boat and Barton went on to sail aboard another of his firm’s yachts in the Bermuda Race of that year.

For experiences in high latitude sailing, there are the original greats of the game. Chichester, Knox -Johnston, Moitessier, Bill King come to mind. I grew up reading Adlard Coles’ original Tome, Heavy Weather Sailing. Coles did not venture into the Grey Wastes south of 45 degrees south, but he captured data on and reviewed and analyzed all the storms he sailed in over the course of his many years of sailing. These he analyzed and cross-referenced data with the UK Met office and wrote up his findings and views in The Tome.

The real information in these books is their accounts of strong – REALLY STRONG – winds (50-plus knots) and heavy seas, for these above noted guys regularly sailed in the Southern Ocean. This is not to say that heavy weather does not exist elsewhere, but that the Southern Ocean is the Major League franchise par excellence for this kind of weather.

Apart from my own experiences in properly hard weather, probably half a dozen episodes in all, conditions where one really had to pay attention, I once had the opportunity to weather a hurricane at sea.

I was a passenger on board a 750-foot container ship coming up from New Zealand to the U.S. I was aboard as the representative of the 65-foot sailing boat I had been hired to run that was deck cargo. The ship was caught in the crosshairs of H. Dennis, in August 1999, where else of course but in the Gulf Stream, eighty or so miles east of Diamond Shoals.

The ship was hove-to, not making headway, merely keeping enough power on to keep head to swell. I was on the bridge for possibly 12-15 hours except for meals. I had a bird’s eye view of the sea state of a Cat One Hurricane, 75-85 knots of wind and related sea state for the duration. Here is what I saw.

The ground swell was about two to three waves per ship length, so around 250 to 300 feet between peaks of the ground swell. I reckoned this swell to be on average about 25 feet high.

The wind chop on top appeared to me to be 12-16 feet with some bigger waves. This is from memory; the diary I kept of the episode is buried in the Cooper archives. The ship was locked down to the weather deck so a sense of how hard it was blowing, was only available through the bridge windows. The crew logged the conditions at Force 12 on the Beaufort scale – 64-plus knots – for ten hours. I came away from this experience thinking that a well found small boat, a small sailing yacht, well prepared and manned by capable hands would be OK in these conditions. Uncomfortable, anxious yes, but if nothing went too badly wrong, they would be OK. Which was good because I don’t think you could execute a helo evacuation in the conditions.

The Cruising Club of America celebrated its 100th anniversary in Newport in September last. Amongst the festivities was a seminar called Heavy Weather. Because we are regularly admonished to avoid heavy weather, apart from reading about such conditions, hearing about the experiences of sailors who have seen proper heavy weather is a fair way to get more information and a better understanding on just what this means.

The seminar was moderated by Frank Bohlen. Frank has a PhD from MIT and Woods Hole in Meteorology, is (has been) a Professor Emeritus of Marine Sciences at UConn seemingly forever, is a regular competitor in the Bermuda races, aboard his own boat as master and as navigator for others. He regularly gives weather briefings for races to Bermuda. He presented a quick PowerPoint on waves, the real culprit for damage at sea: how they are formed, how they get to Rogue Wave size, and some of the science behind the study of wave generation in the ocean. The focus was on waves because by and large the wind is not the problem at sea. It is the waves.

The CCA had invited four sailors with considerable individual experience in hard weather and collectively perhaps over half a million miles of ocean sailing as speakers. The panel was comprised of Rich Wilson, Jean Luc Van Den Heede, Randall Reeves and Steve Brown.

Rich Wilson is likely the most well-known to the WindCheck family, having won the 1980 Bermuda Race, and sailed two Vendée Globes and, more significantly for this discussion, survived a capsize just west of C. Horn, along with Steve Pettengill aboard Rich’s 60-foot trimaran. Jean Luc Van Den Heede will, for aficionados of solo offshore racing, need no introduction. For this seminar recording his twelve passes of C. Horn should be sufficient introduction. Randall Reeves, from California, is known to us from his unique Figure 8 passage around North and South America a few years ago. Steve Brown is a British high latitude expedition sailor, say like a British Steve Novak, regrettably not known to me.

Bohlen launched into the program with a definition, answering his own question: “What is heavy weather sailing?” It is, he suggests, a combination of wind and waves, equaling sea state, the boat, style and preparation, AND crew. And it is somewhat relative, subjective. A couple sailing their “normal” boat from New London to Block Island in summer, transiting the Race on the ebb against a hard easterly, is plenty hard enough for most.

The mechanics of waves and how they arrive at their diverse sizes are driven by several features. Fetch: the distance across which the wind is blowing. If across the harbor, not so much wave action. Mid-Southern Ocean, different story. Wind strength: the duration and direction of the wind speed and direction. Direction of and speed of current play a role. The boat and crew are self-explanatory. The above-mentioned family cruiser transiting the Race might arrive at The Oar feeling like they had taken a serious beating whereas aboard a 60-foot race boat it would be another day at the office, with the bow man/girl likely not even bothering about slickers.

I cannot be alone in reading the accounts in the commercial press and social media of the misadventures of people at sea when hard weather comes on them, stuff breaks, they cannot deal with it and press the AAA button. Rightly so, for no one ought to die at sea. I for one think you should go out and practice in heavy weather BEFORE you try to take your 30-footer out in the ocean with very little experience. I repeat, if you don’t sail in a condition, you really cannot get a handle on how to sail in it when it comes at you. Going to sea is a serious proposition, no matter how much fun we get out of it. Doing so with no planning and less preparation is serious negligence, I suggest.

The video coverage presentation of this seminar will be available on the CCA website. In any case, there is a mine of information on this site, garnered from hundreds of voyages around the world by CCA members. It is well worth the reading, by the fire as the winter storms rage outside. Dark and stormy indeed. ■

Australian born, Joe ‘Coop’ Cooper stayed in the U.S. after the 1980 America’s Cup where he was the boat captain and sailed as Grinder/Sewer-man on Australia. His whole career has focused on sailing, especially the short-handed aspects of it. He lives in Middletown, RI where he coaches, consults and writes on his blog,, when not paying attention to his wife, dog and several, mainly small, boats.