What to Do When Sailing in a Storm: The Complete Guide

It’s your worst nightmare come to life. You’re sailing along in perfectly calm weather when suddenly, the skies gray, thunder booms in the distance and the waves get choppy. Even if you never end up in such a scenario, it’s still a good idea to be ready just in case. What should you do when sailing in a storm?

To stay safe on your sailboat in stormy conditions, remember these tips:

  • Make a storm preparedness plan before you venture out
  • Don’t freak out, especially when you’re sailing with other people
  • Put on your life jacket if you’re not already wearing it and tell your crew to do the same
  • Learn how to recognize a storm
  • Seek a path that avoids the storm
  • Lie ahull, in which you ride out the storm with the sail down
  • Use your storm sails to maintain control and steering through rough conditions
  • Heave-to, in which you trim your jib and then the main while lashing your helm for steerageway
  • Check the weather forecast to avoid future dangers

In this in-depth, complete guide, we’ll walk you through all the above points in much greater detail. Let’s get started.

Sailing in a Storm? 9 Tips for Safe Travels

Have a Storm Preparedness Plan at the Ready

As a sailor, you have to anticipate every possible scenario you might encounter on your boat, even the most unlikely and awful ones. Having a plan to get out of such situations gives you peace of mind. You’ll also have a set of steps to act on so you can hop right to it when trouble comes.

If you often sail with a group of others, sit down with your crew and come up with a storm preparedness plan. You might ask some crew members to man the back of your sailboat and others the front, or someone might unleash the storm sails and others the luff. Whatever it is you want to do on your sailboat, make a plan.

Having a storm preparedness plan doesn’t mean you can’t ever deviate from it. In some situations, it may be more appropriate to heave-to or sail away from the storm, and if so, that’s what you should do. 

Stay Calm

If this is your first storm aboard a boat, then it’s natural to feel nervous and very unsettled. That’s to be expected. Even seasoned sailors aren’t particularly comfortable handling storms, but they do what they have to.

If you’re captaining a crew especially, you must maintain your poker face. Internally, you can feel turmoil, but outside, you must be stoic, calm, and ready to tackle anything. Even if you’re by yourself, freaking out does nothing but misguide your energy towards your panic. You could also get yourself so worked up that you can’t think straight, causing you to make critical mistakes.

Remember the storm preparedness plan you came up with. Begin completing steps per that plan. Once that starts coming together for you, you should surely calm down. 

Besides feeling panicky, make sure to prevent discord among your crew members. They may have agreed to work certain stations when you created your storm preparedness plan, but now that the time has come to actually enact the plan, some crew members might get annoyed or argumentative about their assigned tasks.

Remind your crew that everyone’s lives are at risk until you can get to safety. That should help them recall that there are more important things to worry about right now than who gets to do which task. 

Wear Your Life Jacket

Make sure that when drawing up your storm preparedness plan that you remember to include life jackets in there somewhere. There should be enough life jackets for yourself as well as anyone else you have onboard your sailboat.

Not all life jackets are made the same. The U.S. Coast Guard approves of several types or classes of life jacket. 

For potential sailing emergencies, we’d recommend Type I, or offshore life jackets. These are ideal when riding in remote waters, rougher seas, and open ocean when you may be stranded for a while. The reflective tape and eye-catching color grab attention. Also, if you or a crew member were to become unconscious after a storm-related boating accident, a Type I life jacket would turn you over so your face is up and out of the water. 

You might also invest in a Type II life jacket, which is a near-shore vest. Don these life jackets if riding in inland waters where the conditions are calm and you may be rescued fast. You won’t necessarily be flipped up by your life vest if it’s a Type II, so all your crew members must be conscious when wearing this life jacket.  

Know How to Recognize a Storm

You’re no weatherperson, but if you’re a trained sailor, then you should have a knack for predicting storms. Well, predicting maybe isn’t the right word, as you’re using your senses to gauge your surroundings and determine when a weather event may come. 

How do you do that? Here are some signs that a thunderstorm could soon roll in on the water:

  • The cirrus clouds travel quickly. If you don’t know, cirrus clouds are the shorter, singular clouds that have edges like hair. These clouds are also always at a higher altitude. 
  • The moon or sun develops a halo around it. This is a sign of humidity, which is typically a predictor of a storm. Look at the brightness of the halo to get a feel for what kind of weather you’re expecting. If the halo is dimmer, the storm won’t be that bad, but a bright halo indicates very inclement weather ahead. 
  • Look at the birds in the sky, especially the puffins, tropic birds, cormorants, frigate birds, sea ducks, and gulls. Are they all moving away from the sea towards the shoreline? That’s happening for a reason. A storm is imminent.
  • Invest in a barometer, a weather tool that tracks your air pressure. If the barometer suddenly gives you a low reading, then the air pressure likely decreased because of an impending storm. 

Move from the Storm If You Can

Now that you know a storm is on its way, you have some decision-making to do, and fast. You can either head towards the open ocean or towards shore. Which choice is the smarter one will vary depending on how far you are from the shoreline and the storm. If the shore is 100 miles away but the storm is 25 miles, then veering from it towards open ocean is your smartest bet. 

If you have your heart set on getting to shore, make sure you have a clear path in that direction that doesn’t intersect with the storm. If your sailboat gets gripped by tough winds or hard waves, it could catapult into the shoreline, causing massive damage. Sometimes, it’s better not to risk it.

If Not, Lie Ahull

You can’t always avoid or maneuver away from the storm, especially if it comes on suddenly and you weren’t gauging the weather using the tips above. If not, then add the next three tactics to your storm preparedness plan as a Plan B, C, and D.

Lying ahull means you and your crew undo all the sails and lay them flat against your boat. This will prevent the wind from wrestling you in an unintended direction. Otherwise, you just sit and wait for the storm to pass.

Just because your sails are down does not mean your sailboat can’t capsize or that you’re in total control. You’re still at risk, so you should choose when you want to lie ahull strategically. If you’re expecting a day of moderate yet frequent storms, then lying ahull is a good idea. You and your crew can easily pull the sails down, and doing so doesn’t exert much energy.

Once the storms are finally over, you can begin making your way back to shore, hopefully without sustaining any damage to your boat. 

If you’re caught in a particularly nasty storm, we would not advise you to lie ahull. You’re essentially a sitting duck when you do this, so conditions must be relatively safe. Otherwise, you’re much better off trying a few other tactics. 

Or Use Your Storm Sails

For example, you can rely on your storm sails. If you’ve never used your storm sails before, here’s an introduction. The storm sail or jib attaches to an inner forestay, which is removable if necessary. 

Some sailors use a flat-cut headsail as a storm sail and others a reefed roller genoa. The latter is generally not recommended. Since it’s not flat, the roller genoa can become baggy when the sail’s draft moves. This can also make your sailboat heel.

To lift your storm sail when needed, use a halyard. Your storm sail should be sheeted so it’s in a close-haul position. Jot down where the sail’s track is so you can determine pennant length at the stay base. When bad weather calls for you to use your storm sail, you can then connect your pennant to your stay base, hoisting your storm sail when you do. 

The International Security Assistance Force or ISAF has published a set of rules known as the Offshore Special Regulations for Storm and Heavy Weather Sails. The rules encompass your sailboat’s storm sail, so keep these in mind when using the sail:

  • Cut the luff by almost half (40 percent) when raising a reefed mainsail instead of a trysail.
  • Measure the foretriangle to height squared. Then, ensure your staysail, also known as a heavy-weather jib, doesn’t exceed that height squared by more than 13.5 percent.
  • You also need to know your forestay length, as the luff can’t be more than 65 percent of it.
  • Calculate your foretriangle in height squared, then confirm your storm jib isn’t more than five percent of that.
  • You must be able to sheet your trysail without the boom. 
  • The boom length by the luff length must be larger than the trysail, which needs an area less than 17.5 percent.
  • You can’t rely solely on your luff groove when attaching the storm jib.
  • You cannot use a high-tech fiber sail as your storm sail. 

Or Even Heave-to

The third strategy we’d suggest when sailing in a storm is the heave-to. This is a means of stopping your boat, especially in conditions where the air is especially heavy and your sails could use a break. 

If you’ve never done a heave-to before, first, you want to trim your jib so it’s facing the opposite (and yes, the wrong) side it usually does. Next, you want to trim your main, doing so hard. By lashing your helm after that, your sailboat has steerageway. This is just the least amount of speed needed for your helm to work. 

Your sailboat, which moves up to get steerageway, will also go forward. This happens because your jib attempts to put downward pressure on the bow. Your bow then moves away from the wind, allowing the main to fill and propel your sailboat. 

As you move, your lashed helm should move you in the direction of the wind. Your main sail will also soften. That’s when the jib goes into action, moving the bow as it had tried before. Your main sail fills back up so the rudder moves the bow towards the wind. 

Your boat should be far enough from the wind, at least 60 degrees, that your speed is reduced to no more than 2 knots. Your sailboat also becomes more stable, especially compared to lying ahull. 

You may have issues with the heave-to depending on which sails are up and how blustery the winds are on that particular day. You might need a sea anchor, attached near the bow, to keep your boat mostly still for the heave-to. 

Never Sail Without Knowing the Weather 

Using the advice and information in this article, you were able to navigate your sailboat safely back to shore in stormy conditions. You and your crew all admit it was quite an experience, and not one you’d like to repeat again anytime soon. 

You don’t necessarily have to. Long before you ever have to look at the clouds and the birds around you to determine whether it will storm, you can use a weather app or website. We would recommend you make this a habit on the days you plan to set sail.

It’s not enough to check the forecast earlier in the week and then head out on the weekend. Weather forecasts change all the time, and you must be prepared. Look at the forecast at the beginning of the week, sure, but then also two days before you go out. 

The night before your sailing trip, check the forecast again. Look hour by hour to see what kind of weather is predicted in your area. If your weather service offers a radar, use this too, as it shows when storms may roll in and when they would be their worst. 

If inclement weather is on the forecast, we’d strongly dissuade you from sailing. Yes, there’s always a chance the forecast might be incorrect, but is it really worth chancing it? All it takes is surviving one scary experience at sea in a storm to say no, it isn’t. 


Is a storm a-brewing while you’re out on the sea in your sailboat? The best way to avoid a storm is to never go out in inclement weather at all. If it’s already too late for that, then you can try a variety of tactics to get through the storm, such as the heave-to, lying ahull, or raising your storm sails. In some cases, you can sail back to shore or into open ocean to dodge the storm altogether.

The most important element of storm survival on your sailboat is the full understanding, communication, and cooperation among you and your fellow crew members. Stay safe! 


I am the owner of sailoradvice. I live in Birmingham, UK and love to sail with my wife and three boys throughout the year.

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