Select Page

Sailing solo into a storm – some lessons learned

Weather forecasting has become increasingly accurate in recent years, thanks largely to weather satellite technology and ever increasing computer power. As a result, those of us who go sailing on a regular basis, myself included, are inclined to trust three to five day forecasts more and more and make our plans accordingly.  24 hours forecasts are even more accurate.

However, we also know that forecasts are rarely 100% accurate and that it pays to include a margin of error for planning purposes. Despite allowing for this, I was caught out recently by a forecast that considerably underestimated the wind strengths, with the result that I sailed single handed into a Force 8 gale with gusts of 42 knots (Force 9). It proved to be a challenging experience.

The plan

A few months ago I began to make plans for a four day, late September rally to Poole harbour for fellow members of the Contessa 26 class association.

Five boats signed up for the rally, all based in different Solent harbours on England’s south coast. The plan was for us all to meet in Cowes and then sail in company the next day to Poole, a distance of about 30 nautical miles. I would be sailing the 18nm from my home port Chichester to Cowes single handed, where I would be joined by two friends Mike and Barbara for the sail to Poole.

I reserved visitor berths for us all at the Parkstone Yacht Club, who welcome visiting yachtsmen to their excellent club in Poole Harbour by arrangement.  Parkstone YC would be our base for two days of sailing before returning to our respective ports in the Solent.

No matter how well organised and detailed a sail cruising event is planned, with careful consideration given to tides, berthing and catering arrangements, the weather is always going to be the critical unknown factor, even in the summer months.

As the departure date drew closer I kept a daily check on the forecasts. The day before I was due to depart for Cowes a front was approaching from the southwest with winds forecast to be Force 6 gusting Force 7. I decided to head down to the boat the evening before, aiming to leave before high tide in the morning in order to cross the Chichester bar at slack water and pick up favourable tides down the Solent.

At 19:00hrs I rowed out to my mooring in the Bosham Channel as dark clouds approached in a strengthening breeze. Within minutes of arriving at the boat the heavens opened and I was relieved to get all my kit below in the nick of time as thunder cracked and rumbled overhead. The thunder eventually moved on but the wind and rain continued through the night. It seemed the front was passing very slowly.

The passage to Cowes

In the morning the rain had stopped but the wind was still blowing from the south southwest at around 20kts. I had to decide over a cup of tea whether to postpone the sail to Cowes, as the forecast was now for winds up to 30kts and beating into 30kts single handed is quite hard work. If I hadn’t been meeting up with the others in Cowes then I would probably have delayed my departure for 24 hours until the front had moved on. Go for it, I said to myself.

So I kept to the plan, stashed the dinghy below and put a reef in the main. Timing was critical as I needed to avoid a wind against tide situation as I crossed the Chichester bar directly into the wind. I hoisted the main before casting off at 08:30. I phoned Mike to tell him I was about to leave and should be with them in about six hours.

Once I left the shelter of the Bosham Channel the wind really picked up and I decided to motor sail out of the harbour rather than try and tack out of the narrow entrance. As I headed out towards the Chichester bar with wind on the nose I could see some large waves ahead with breaking crests and wondered to myself what on Earth the conditions would have been like if the tide was ebbing. Things got very bumpy and pretty unpleasant as we went into the steep waves. Everything down below was being thrown about and there was an ominous crash when the cool box, full of provisions, somersaulted its way down the cabin, spilling its contents everywhere.

We finally cleared the bar at 10:30 and moved into deeper water. The windspeed indicator continued to climb until it remained well past 30 knots. Now I could bear away and with the genoa furled in a few turns and the main reefed I felt confident that Sulali would manage the conditions, thanks to her long deep keel and narrow beam. It was a question of keeping the sails balanced and riding the waves. The wind, however, had other plans for us as I realised we were now in a proper Force 8, with sudden gusts well over 40 knots that took us into Force 9 territory. Controlling the headsail in these conditions proved very hard work and it was also proving increasingly difficult to sail close hauled – a storm jib would have been the answer but it was too late, this was not aboard. I found the only way to maintain control was to furl the headsail more and sail further off the wind to prevent the sails from flogging.

Two hours later, as we approached Portsmouth, I thought of heading into the harbour and to wait for the wind to calm down. Looking ahead, the skies were lightening and I could even see the odd speck of blue sky in the distance. I also realised the soaking I was getting was from spray rather than rain, so I decided to continue. I noticed that the conditions looked slightly calmer towards the Isle of Wight so thought it would be a good idea to head south towards the island shore. This entailed crossing the shipping lane into Southampton so decided it would be best to furl the genoa and use the engine to help us across. After a minute or two the engine began to stutter, lose power and then cut out completely – not good. My immediate thought was the bumpy conditions had stirred up dirt in the fuel tank and caused a blockage. There was nothing I could do under the circumstances except continue under sail towards calmer waters in the lee of the island and if necessary call for a tow when I approached Cowes harbour.

I eventually made it across the shipping lane without further mishap and was relieved to find that the sea state near the island shore was indeed calmer and the wind speed was dropping to a more manageable 25-30kts. This was a big relief all round and as I headed towards Osborne Bay I called Mike and gave him an ETA of 16:00. We agreed that I would give them another call when I was half an hour from Cowes and that he would come down to the marina and take my lines. Now my big hope was that in the calmer waters the fuel might have settled down in the tank and my trusty Beta 14 engine would come back to life. To my great relief the engine did indeed start, so I left it running on tick over in the hope that it would sort itself out. Thankfully, it did.

It was 16:30 by the time I entered Shepard’s marina in Cowes. Mike was waiting to take my lines, which was very much appreciated.

Change of plan

Later that evening I discovered that the other boats had not made it across to Cowes and that the forecast for the next 24 hours was improving slightly. We all agreed that we needed a change of plan and should abandon the passage to Poole as it was going to be rough going. Instead, we kept in the eastern Solent for the next couple of days and enjoyed some excellent sailing in company.

Lessons learned

One of the great things about sailing is that you never stop learning. It is very important as a single-handed sailor to know and work well within the limitations of both boat and crew. I have sailed to Cowes on countless occasions but can safely say that I would avoid sailing in those conditions again if I possibly could. Yes, you do feel a sense of achievement when you arrive at your destination in one piece, but in hindsight I should really have studied several weather forecasts in more detail (not just one). A storm jib would have made a big difference and I should keep it on the boat.

Fire prevention on boats

  Fire prevention on boats - common causes of fire: • Smoking below decks • Galley cookers • Build-up of butane or...

Boat surveys

A full boat survey assesses the condition of the hull, mechanical gear and means of propulsion. The survey is carried out with the boat...

Antifouling for leisure boats – Part 2

To prepare for antifouling, as soon as your boat has been lifted out and pressure washed, you need to check all the surfaces of the hull below the waterline, remove any remaining barnacles and check for blisters.

Avoiding personal dangers at sea

In order to stay safe at sea, we need to know the risks we are facing and to be aware of any personal dangers we could possibly encounter. Here are six of the most common potential dangers individual crew members should be aware of.

Avoiding collisions at sea – how to stay safe on the water

Boats have many blind spots, including the headsails of sailing boats. Always keep a lookout, stay safe and remember that...

Common medical emergencies at sea

A medical emergency aboard a boat at sea requires immediate attention to ensure the safety of the casualty and the crew in general. The skipper needs to know which crew members, if any, have had medical training or have a first aid qualification. All boats should carry first aid handbooks to help an untrained crew cope with a medical emergency.

Understanding your boat’s compass

Article submitted by Mike Rossiter, Certificated Compass Adjuster. Since the magnetic compass was first used by the Chinese...

Steel hull maintenance

A steel boat owner’s biggest enemy is corrosion. You don’t have to worry about osmosis or rotting timbers, instead rust is the number one issue that will keep you awake at night.

Essential Knots: Sheet bend

Essential Knots: Sheet bend Use: Joining two ropes together. A sheet bend is particularly useful for joining two ropes of different...

Marine engine electrical system

The typical basic electrical system associated with a marine engine includes a dedicated engine starting battery, a starter motor, a charger in the form of an alternator, a solenoid and some engine sensors and instruments.

Boat Handling – anchoring

Anchoring your yacht or motorboat Anchoring is one of the most important boat handling skills. If you can set an anchor...

Boat interior inspection and checks

While a boat is ashore, the most critical interior checks to carry out are those that concern the safety of the boat. This entails the integrity of all through-hull fittings and seacocks, the gas system and the electrical system.

Sailboat rig checks – Part 1

Sailing boat rigs need to be checked regularly to reduce the risk of rig failure at sea. In part one of Sail boat rig checks we run through a series of useful checks that owners and skippers can carry out.

Five dangers a vessel may encounter at sea

What are the main dangers a vessel may face at sea and what should skippers do to reduce the risk of these happening?

Sterndrive maintenance

Sterndrives are a popular form of propulsion in the powerboat market, but require a fair amount of care and maintenance. The main factors to be aware of are salt water corrosion, lubrication and regular inspection of the bellows, the condition of which is vital to prevent water from entering into the hull.

Essential Boat Safety Briefing

Skippers Responsibilities Skippers are obliged to give a safety briefing to the crew even if they are a regular crew. At...

First aid at sea – four common emergencies

In this blog we look at what to do in the event of a crew member choking, drowning, or suffering from hypothermia or fatigue. Knowing how to cope with them could well save a life, while not knowing could result in an avoidable tragedy.

Seized fixings and fastenings

Maintaining a boat can be a rewarding experience but at times it can also be frustrating. A prime example of this is when you come across a seized fixing or fastening that refuses to budge. Read our tips on how to release and fix them:

Tools and spares for your boat

It is wise to have a comprehensive and well-organised tool kit and a supply of spares for your boat. This is both for routine...

Jester Challenge 2022 – Sailing single handed from Plymouth UK to the Azores: Part 7 – Motivation

Jester Challenge – A modern experiment in old-fashioned self-reliance, self sufficiency, and personal responsibility. This is the seventh of a 10-part post where solo sailor, Bernie Branfield, shares his first-hand account of his single-handed, 2022 Jester Challenge, from Plymouth, UK to the Azores, in his 26′ Invicta Mk2, Louisa.

Weather forecasting resources and tips

All competent sailors need to have a good basic understanding of how to interpret a weather forecast. They also need to be able to interpret the actual conditions they are experiencing.

Sailboat rig checks – Part 2

In part two of Sail boat rig checks we run through some useful rig maintenance tips and then finish with a brief look at what a professional rig check involves.

Man Overboard Drill

How to respond to crew overboard under sail • Keep the MOB in sight • Tack into the heave-to position, do not adjust the...

First Aid Afloat – jellyfish stings

  Wherever you are boating in the world I am sure you will be using a pilot guide to aid your navigation. Often in the...

Boat batteries

Under-sized battery banks are one of the key factors behind power failure at sea, as well as the premature failure of batteries, so make sure that your boat battery measures up to the use you want to put it to.