Storm Strategy—Fore-Reaching

Reading Time: 11 minutes

Comparing fore-reaching to heaving-to and streaming a Jordon Series Drogue as storm survival strategies as well as equipment and techniques required for safe fore-reaching.

Notify of
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Colin Speedie

Hi John
having grown up on the shores of the UK with its short steep seas in the kind of designs that you refer to, I have to agree with your argument that fore-reaching for any length of time is impossible for the average couple.
We frequently found ourselves well offshore in yachtsman’s gales (ie. not storm force conditions) and occasionally worse where heaving to was impossible or risky due to the wave patterns generated in tidal areas. In those days, we were a crew of young fit guys, all with reasonable helming skills, so were able to fore-reach safely and it was our preferred tactic every time. Until, that is, we got tired, usually about an hour for most of us, but longer with our No 1 helmsman. Until he got tired, mistimed the breaking crest and we became airborne and drove the port main longitudinal bulkhead from its designed position when we landed on our side in the trough. How we didn’t get rolled I shall never know. The Coastguard wanted to take us off by helicopter, but we managed to slow right down and steer her as carefully as we could. 30 miles and 15 hours later we arrived in shelter. One guy walked off and never sailed with us or anyone else again.

A couple of thoughts:

You need two people to do it right, one to steer, one to call the waves. Which rules out couples export for (perhaps) very short periodsI think our new (to us) She 36 will fore reach well, perhaps best under trysail or heavily reefed main. Which avoids the need for running backstays.Most supposed storm jibs (as supplied) are actually small working jibs -too big and not flat enough for really testing conditions. The last thing you need…We are currently planning with a rigger a new textile stay and fixing for a dedicated storm jib attached from just below the masthead to just abaft the forestay. Not perfect, but it will at least allow us to set a storm jib without the need for runners and sail if we have to.We have a drogue – the SeaBrake, same as we had on Pelerin and it is not designed to stop the boat as with the JSD, but I prefer having some steerage/speed in enclosed waters.And a healthy does of luck…..without which, all is chance….

Rob Gill

Hi Colin,

Thought I would drop you a note to say we have exactly your planned storm jib setup on our 47 foot masthead sloop. The inner forestay sets just below, and inside the forestay on a removable tang (inshore we remove this plate and pop up the mast to install for longer passages, as we have a 103% jib on a furler, not a Genoa).

The inner forestay is Dyneema in a sheathed outer hard wearing and shiny fabric, and it’s tensioned with a Wishard ratcheting forestay tensioner that came with the boat luckily ($$$). But we could equally use a Dyneema block and tackle back to a cockpit winch with a clutch I’m sure.

The storm jib has eyelets up the luff and we use hard shiny Dyneema soft shackles as jib hanks. We have used it once, more for trial purposes in 30 knots than in real need, but the sail launches and retrieves easily, and sets really well from our forward inner jib track.

Let me know if you would like to see any details and I can post a photo.

Colin Speedie

Hi Rob
yes – that sounds exactly what we plan to do. Any pics or comments would be very helpful indeed!
Thank you

Rob Gill

Happy to Colin, we are out coastal cruising for the week and the storm jib and inner forestay is in our attic at home. I’ll look it out and take a few photos. In the meantime here is the inner forestay double padeye with the forward eye for the inner forestay and the rear one for the jib tack. The padeye is backed underneath with a stainless wire stay, tensioned using a bottle screw.

Our storm jib is sized to meet Cat 1. It comes with a short Dyneema strop on the tack to keep the sail clear of any sweeping waves. It is also high cut on the leech.

I rig a down haul line running from the head through each soft shackle and then through the padeye back to the cockpit, so I can douse the sail using a winch in the cockpit. The Dacron cloth is very heavy and stiff and I don’t fancy ever trying to wrestle it to the deck in storm force winds. This worked flawlessly in our trial.

Best regards. Rob

IMG_4196 Large.jpeg
Colin Speedie

Hi Rob
thanks for that – the tack attachment looks just like the one we fabricated for our old Dufour 39.
On that boat we had a bottle screw attack he’d to al nth of chain that led to a stainless plate that was through bolts to the stem, so plenty of strength.
Like the idea of the downhaul, too, something I always rig on mainsail reef points if expecting strong winds. We used jib downhauls on old, traditional boats with widowmaker bowsprits, so why not?

Eric Klem

Hi All,

We use a downhaul on a day to day basis on our own boat and several others that I have sailed on and I am a huge fan. For most jibs, I find it best to lead the downhaul through 1-2 hanks at the top of the sail and then let it be free for the rest. Skipping all the hanks folds the head over and pulls it down when using the downhaul and tends to make the top hank bind up so that usually doesn’t work. Going through more hanks than 2 is fine but it increases friction a lot and can increase fouling if you get a lot of twists in the downhaul and don’t catch it. I have not used soft hanks so that may change this a bit. When not going through all the hanks, I like to have the downhaul spaced off a foot or so at the bottom so that it can be pulled taught and kept from banging loudly against the sail.


Rob Gill

Hi Eric, that’s really good input, from someone obviously not having a jib/genoa furler.

My experience with using the shiny Dyneema soft shackles in lieu of traditional sail hanks, is they impart almost no friction in the hoist or drop on the stay, nor when running a downhaul. And they are so easy to make and undo, and never corrode.

I do like the idea of missing out some of the lower hanks to avoid chatter, as it would also improve the lead to our first Allen stanchion fairlead – we have one on each starboard side stanchion, to run the downhaul safely back to our cockpit.

But I also really like having each hank encompassing the downhaul, so with our small jib sail area down-hauled fast to deck level, and the jib sheet pulled tight, the storm jib is completely snugged down, with no absolute need to leave the cockpit to add additional lashings.

Thanks, Rob

Dick Stevenson

Hi John and all,
Good article: lots of food for thought and reflection.
Heaving-to on a Valiant 42, a cutter (mast pretty much amidships):
In early days of learning about the boat we went out on Long Island Sound in offshore gale force winds and hove-to successfully: caveat, no real waves. Memory is that we drifted slowly downwind, but I am not positive of this as it was early days in my learning curve.
All other heaving-to was when we were waiting for dawn to go into an anchorage: 10-20 kn winds. During these times, there was a full main and a backed staysail and we were always doing what I called “fore-reaching”: bouncing slowly (1-2kn) forward. No amount of tweaking would get us out of fore-reaching. We were quite comfortable, but in no way sliding downwind with a slick to windward.
I kinda figured (and fortunately have not had the chance to test) that if the winds were more in the gale force range that we would be more successful at establishing that much talked about and looked-for upwind slick.
Closest experiences:
Being chased by a tropical storm on our way to Bermuda (on a LeComte NE 38 yawl) hand steering errors would cause us to fall off a wave: essentially belly flop from height onto the side of the boat. I hope never to treat a boat so badly again, and am impressed it held together so well even as I later decided it was not an offshore boat for Ginger and me. Once out of the layline of the storm we hove-to, quite easy on a yawl.
In 12+ hours of strong gale and storm force winds in the Med with the Valiant we ran downwind under bare poles at hull speed under an autopilot (now no longer made) that was initially designed (as I understand it) to drive the sleds under spinnaker from the west coast to Hawaii (so strong and quick). The AP did fine even in the quite confused seas for the first few hours.
My best, Dick Stevenson, s/v Alchemy

Eric Klem

Hi John,

Interesting, I have always had a somewhat different definition of fore-reaching although I can’t tell you where my definition came from, probably just the people I have sailed with. I have always thought of it as progressing extremely slowly ahead, often under a reefed main only with very marginal steering control, say enough to keep the true wind between 45 and 70 degrees but not really steer a nice course. This means that you are making forward progress and not staying in a slick although foils may be stalled on boats with a lot of foil area. With this definition, I have always figured that it stops working at certain conditions (and I have experienced this although that was about as strong as I have ever seen) due to the drive being insufficient to keep the boat moving and steering when a larger wave hits allowing the bow to get pushed off in a way that cannot be counteracted. This is a technique that I have used several times in non-dangerous conditions when wanting to ease up from sailing for a bit as our boat does it very easily in moderate >30 knot conditions.

What you are describing I have always defined as active sailing to windward where the boat is powered up enough to have steerage where you can adjust for each wave. Having never actually had the experience of doing this in a survival storm, it has always seemed like a promising tactic if you can get the boat set up right and if you have the helmspeople. In whitewater kayaking, it is amazing to me how much the angle to the wave matters and also how much momentum matters. You can punch through an amazing amount of breaking water provided you are not too far off the wind and you have some speed into it. There are quite a few youtube videos showing just this with low powered sailboats punching through large breaking waves leaving harbor entrances such as this: There are also plenty of videos of them in less bad conditions where they get pushed sideways and end up in a sidesurf often with the mast ending up in the water due to too much angle. I think the key here is just that you need to make it through the breaking portion and not get caught and pushed backwards down the wave. If you look at how the coast guard does surf training, they basically sit stationary bow into the waves and throttle up right before being hit with just enough power to punch through but no more so that they don’t get too airborne.


Dick Stevenson

Hi Eric,
This is much more the description of fore-reaching that I was referring to in my earlier post: not active sailing, 1+ kn forward motion (too slow for any real steerage), deeply reefed main and (usually) a scrap of back-winded staysail. The boat would bob in the water moving slowly forward and rise and fall to the swells as they traveled underneath: quite comfortable and stable. It felt like we could continue this way until the waves started to break and then we would go downwind with a drogue.
My best, Dick Stevenson, s/v Alchemy

Eric Klem

Hi John,

One more thought on steering. In case people are not aware, when you hit a breaking portion of the wave, the boat will act very differently than simply when you are going up the face of a very steep/large wave. The reason is that when you are in the non breaking portion of the wave, all of the water is moving at about the same speed relative to you so the turning force on the boat is moderate. When you hit the breaking portion, it hits only the bow first and is pushing anything it touches down the face very quickly so it pushes the bow down the face rapidly while the stern is still stuck in the non-breaking portion of the wave. You can end up beam on by the time the breaking portion reaches midships and then you are likely going to get knocked down. This is something I have run into kayaking a lot and run into when dinghy sailing some as I grew up sailing across a shallow bar that can be quite dangerous to cross and finally in bad wind over tide.

For this reason, I handle breaking and non-breaking waves quite differently even if the size is the same although I can’t say that I have a ton of experience doing it in open ocean on cruising size boats (little breaking crests do not count, I mean really breaking waves). You need to proactively counter this, just waiting and reacting doesn’t work as it happens so fast. You can actually feel this same effect when sailing with the waves where the boat gets pushed around some by non-breaking waves but it is the breaking ones that really try to spin you.

This is actually just like crossing current lines where different portion of the boat are in different current which causes the boat to want to spin.

As you say, the great thing about the JSD is that it basically steers you appropriately automatically.


Rob Gill

Really appreciating this quality discussion on an important survival tactic. Thank you everyone and great comment Eric.

Our storm jib is set on a removable inner forestay directly behind the forestay. We have tested this sail in around 30 knots upwind, which showed we are well balanced when the main is reefed right down, or our trysail set.

So can I ask, in 40 knots plus, does the normal lift and weather helm we might usually expect in more wind pressure as you crest a wave, just not happen?

Do the different forces at play in breaking waves that Eric describes above, reverse normal weather helm, and require a purposeful change to the sail plan and sail shape?

Many thanks. Rob

Michael Lambert

Since the pandemic I’ve been going down a rabbit hole of foiling, one discipline of which is downwind SUP foiling, where you paddle up onto foil using a particularly steep swell, then try to remain on foil by predicting where to be at all times to be where the water is rising. One of the key pieces of knowledge to make this work is how “sets” of waves work. Surfers call them sets, but in deep water they are apparently called a packet of waves that are bigger than surrounding waves, and within that there will be one that is biggest. But that title of biggest wave transfers continually from one wave to the wave behind. Wave speed is 1.5 x period, but the speed of a packet is actually half that. So, when waiting for one to paddle into, the best practice is to look downwind, not upwind at the waves, because the biggest wave won’t be there until it is. When the tail of your board drops down a particularly steep windward side of a wave, that’s when you paddle because the energy is transferring to the wave behind you. There’s a lot of videos of people paddling up into waves that spring up below them from nowhere. This is in maybe 10’ waves and 30kts and below for most people, so the scale and tempo of survival waves will be different, but I thought it was an interesting tidbit that might inform helming at night…..

Jorge Bermudez

As John Klem says above I also had the same impression regarding fore reaching. I want to say it’s how Hal Roth describes it, slowly advancing to windward under reefed main alone but I don’t have his book handy to verify.

Colin Speedie

Hi Jorge and John Klem
that’s what I was referring to – actively sailing the boat at manageable speeds with the main. Using the storm jib if set, will be well forward well and high off the deck which has two effects, little feel (or even lee helm – horrible) for the hemsman and the boat gets pulled around a lot on the crests especially – very hard on the rig and the nerves of the crew. A storm staysail, set well inboard is much better – ion you have one.

Under main the power is more controllable and it keeps the boat on her feet and with enough power to climb the steeper waves, then bear way as you reach the crest and speed up again down the back of the wave on a diagonal course. A good helmsman makes this look easy, but it takes practice and confidence.

On boats that don’t like being left to their own devices and/or with lots of helmsmen it’s a good option, Short-handed, too, but for limited periods of time.

If you are short of searoom, or trying to avid shoal or very tidal areas it has its merits.

Colin Speedie

I should add that so much of what is possible depends on your boat – some sail well with a storm jib, others less so. This is something to try out in strong but not dangerous conditions in advance.

Robert Hellier

Hi John,

I’ve no heavy weather experience but in conditions up to 35 kts and deeply reefed (with my former sailboat) I found by accident/trial and error the classic sailing technique of “Up the fronts, down the backs”. Thanks for that handy mnemonic BTW which I will use with my better half next time we find ourselves with the opportunity to train for that. At 35 knots it’s exhilarating for a few hours. After that it gets pretty tiring, especially at night. I can’t imagine how draining it could be in real storm conditions lasting a day or two.

My current “poor man’s OVNI” (multichine swing keel – but in steel) is better set up for storm conditions than my last boat. It’s a solent rig forestay set-up, with split back-stay, double spreaders and with fore and aft lower stays. All standing rigging is oversized. A beautiful gay-glo orange storm sail can be hanked onto the inner stay, as well as a 100% yankee cut jib for intermediate conditions. For the main? Well I’ve got in-mast furling by Z-Spars. Do you have any advice for in-mast mains in heavy weather?

I’ve never been on a boat with running backstays so, although I know what they are, their practicalities and value are a bit lost on me. But my rig is very stiff as it is. Is the in-mast furling helpful in at least one respect, in that the cross-sectional modulus is higher (therefore stiffer) than similarly sized masts used for slab reefed sails? Given the current rig, is it worth considering running backstays, if we were going to venture out into blue-water conditions?

You also mentioned autopilots and self-steering. My boat has a Cap Horn windvane but it was installed before a substantial arch was added with solar panels, as well as an enclosed hard dodger. I’ve not used the Cap Horn but am deeply suspicious that it might not work well or at all with all that new disturbance of the airflow. I recently installed a B&G Zeus chart plotter and wind instruments and was thinking of adding an electronic autopilot to that. Now I’m wondering if the CapHorn – as beautiful and well thought out as it is – is really worth keeping, especially knowing how much it limits the crew’s use of the sugar scoop. Maybe it could find a more deserving home on a less encumbered sailboat owned by a traditional sailing purist!

Rob on Mayero 2

Colin Speedie

Keep the Cap Horn – or, at least try it first.

I have helped install and set up lots of wind vanes and they can usual;ly be trimmed around arches etc, and it’s surprising how little effect such things have on the boats I have sailed.

Maybe try a slightly larger vane air blade – that may help. If Cap Horn agree…..

Alastair Currie

Just some real world experience.
Fore reaching, Sigma 41, NW Coast of Spain, 45-50kts apparent. Sail plan was deep reef main and storm jib in luff foil groove. The seas were big and we had a lee shore quite some distance down wind, but near enough to be a concern, also traffic from various cargo vessels heading northwards, we were sailing southwards. I needed to keep moving to manage lee shore and traffic. The boat could easily be powered up and over powered, as likely a tri sail would have been better, so a lot pinching was used to kill power. Slamming was not really an issue but I do remember some big slams. Key was keeping the speed up as we climbed the wave and not to pinch and stall on the climb. The boat managed well but it was exhausting. If I had to bare away the boom would have hit the water as we healed and sheeted itself in. hence, the tri sail would have been better.
Heaving to, Contessa 32m, Loch Fyne, F9 gusts, seas about 2 – 3 meters. We had been doing heavy weather training and the wind started gusting sustainably beyond what what we expected. Storm jib and deep reefed main. Tacked boat, let the storm jib back, tiller down to leeward and main out to the quarter where it was de powered and supplied no forward drive but did not flap. I do recall the slick to windward and of course the boat was very stable, just bobbing up and down. I can’t recall if there was any forward drive at all. The Contessa 32 is an incredibly wet boat beating to Woodward, and heaving too stopped all that, the motion was pleasant and the situation safer than fore reaching.

When teaching I default to heaving to as a method, as it provides a calm, safe motion compared to sailing in those conditions, and out of all of the many boats I have sailed, all can be made to heave to. However, I have not tried on a wide stern mono hull, with twin rudders and high top sides (form stability), so can’t offer any knowledge in that space.