My friend Kevin is tough. Tough enough that I have heard him called Kevlar. A veteran of tens of thousands of ocean miles, both racing and cruising, Kevin has seen some seriously nasty weather.
Some time ago we were drinking the last of a post dinner bottle of wine and telling sailing stories, some shared, some not: The Bermuda Race when, as we punched into a 30-knot wind and steep seas in the Gulf Stream, the fuel tanks ruptured pouring 40 gallons of diesel into the boat’s shallow bilges—the only time I have seen Kevin puke, although not as often as I did; the two day motor back to port on a dismasted ocean racer rolling so quickly and heavily that the crew could barely stand up (another pukeathon); and the infamous ‘79 Fastnet. (I did not share either of the last two with Kevin, thank God.)
Finally, another guest asked, “So Kevin, what was the worst?” After a moment’s thought, Kevin told us of a late fall double-handed delivery from Newport to Bermuda. The autopilot went out the first day and the wind built and built leaving no option but to hand steer the big powerful Swan for four days in ever increasing seas. “So how hard did it blow?”, someone asked. “Oh seriously hard, 30 to 35-knots, gusting higher.” I could almost hear the thinking around the table, “That’s all? Doesn’t sound like a big deal to me.”
A few facts: A full gale (sustained 34-knots or Force 8) is a serious blow that can make it difficult to stand on deck. Even a sustained 30-knot wind—sustained is the key word here, I am not talking a few gusts—can build a significant wave height of 20-feet, which means that there are a few monsters around of 30-feet or better; and that’s without the influence of a current like the Gulf Stream, which can turn such seas into truly dangerous breakers. Add to that a short-handed crew and the need to steer in big seas and you have a tough situation that will tax even the strongest sailors.
A few more facts: Our own Morgan’s Cloud is a powerful 56-foot metal cutter designed by Jim McCurdy to sail offshore and take punishment, but she will not sail to windward offshore when the sustained true wind exceeds the high twenties; at least not with me aboard—we heave-to. When sailing off the wind, sustained winds in the high thirties build a sea that makes a broach a real danger. Once again, we park and wait for it to get better.
Yet the reader of many books and articles about offshore sailing or the listener at many cruising gatherings can be forgiven for assuming that any real sailor happily sails his or her boat into gale or even storm force winds and thinks nothing of it. So when new cruisers get caught out by their first gale they are often stunned by the experience and feel secretly diminished, assuming that their struggles and fear in such conditions are a show of inadequacy. I’m thinking that they would feel a lot better if they had listened to an honest offshore sailor like Kevin who does not exaggerate wind speeds.
So let’s be honest: Gale force is a lot of wind and no sane sailor beats to windward offshore when the wind gets above the high twenties. Hell, no sane person ever beats to windward offshore if they can help it. (Chay Blyth and his Challenge sailors just prove my point.)
Here’s some good news: In around 100,000 miles of offshore sailing over 30 years, much of it in the high latitudes, I have experienced sustained gale force or worse conditions—we are not talking a few gusts in a squall here, or a brief frontal passage—less than two dozen times. So be prepared for the worst, but enjoy offshore sailing knowing that sustained gale force conditions do not happen that often—at least not to those that check the weather before going to sea—and that many of the tales you hear have grown in the telling. Finally, it’s OK to be anxious in a gale at sea; I know I am.