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How To

Dealing With Squalls

by Gord Laco

Contrary to many sailor's misconception, squalls don't happen suddenly. There is always plenty of warning, provided they are not hidden by rain or other bad visibility. If you think it happened suddenly, it means you missed the warning signs.

Recommended action steps to help one deal with an oncoming squall ...
  1. Approximately 30 minutes before the squall, you will see a large dark cloud with distinct darkness underneath to the west or northwest of you. Watch its direction of movement. Squalls are often quite local and it may miss you. Even in a sailing yacht you can dodge a squall by sailing across its line of advance if it is a local one and you see it early enough.
  2. 20 minutes before the squall, the wind (often light and variable) will steady and shift to the west or northwest. When you see this you should get life jackets and/or harnesses on the crew; take note of your position so that when visibility is gone you can judge where you are. Prepare to shorten sail. Close up hatches and dog them.
  3. Then, at the 5-10 minutes before the squall, you will see a whitish skirt or roll of low cloud appear under the dark mass, rather closer to the ground. Get all sail off unless your boat has exceptional stability, in which case you may leave a very little sail forward.
  4. About 1-3 minutes before the squall you will see the white skirt or roll moving over head... If there is land to windward you will see dust and debris being blown up...there will be a hard blast lifting spray off the water.
  5. Bang, the wind hits you, even when the evidence on the water is still a couple of hundred yards away.

Have a game plan
If you are in open water, you may have more cards to play than if your movements are restricted. Taking the first blast over the bow, then turning away may be a good tactic. By open water, I mean 20 or 30 miles under your lee. If you have land to leeward, you can't remain stern to the wind for long. You will accelerate dramatically, even under bare poles. After the first blast, round up again and take the wind on the port or starboard bow. The boat will stop either beam on to the wind or a little up into it. Hold the helm down and the boat will settle down with the wind over the quarter, hove to, making way across the wind.

Because you took note of your position before the squall, you will know which tack to heave to on; that is, which tack has the longest stretch of water ahead of you. If the tack you are on has land ahead you that you don't want to come upon while the visibility is bad, put the helm up. Your boat will quickly put her head down, you will jibe (painlessly because you have no sail up) and settle down hove to going the other way. The boat will heel - dramatically if it lacks stability, but will be safe.

If you have a reliable engine, engage the prop and run it at low speed, this will hold the bow up into the wind and actually slow your speed through the water. Be aware that some inboard engines don't lubricate themselves well at high angles of heel. Know what your engine will tolerate.

A quite dangerous thing to do is to allow the boat to run off at high speed down wind. Light boats can develop a lot of speed even under bare poles, some types will even drive their bows under and fill. In most coastal waters you will run out of water really quickly even at moderate speed; then you will find yourself coping with being wrecked on a lee shore in addition to the wind and the rain. Equally dangerous are the consequences of encountering another yacht in bad visibility and colliding with it.

What you want to do is keep speed down, and as best as you can prevent losing ground to leeward. Running out of room to leeward while running through zero visibility is poor seamanship, and completely preventable.

Make contact with somebody by cell phone and/or VHF. Let them know you are safe. Doing so will relieve needless worry at home and will be a help to authorities who may appreciate you standing by to help somebody who is in trouble.

After the squall eases off - typically 30 minutes (August 2, 2006 was longer), get sail back on and proceed.

Squalls can kill, but most of the danger can be avoided by preventative action. Clearly, if you can avoid being on the water during a squall, that is the first line of defense. But if you are going to be caught, make sure that you are alert and take basic steps.

Squalls happen by the dozen in our waters every year. Think about what you will do when you get caught in one. It will happen. Ask yourself hard questions about your boat and what she is capable of; remember that qualities that make a boat fun to sail in a strong wind during an afternoon racing rarely mean that she will be able to look after you when the chips are down. Know what category your boat falls into and make a plan that will allow you to play the cards your boat's strengths afford you as well as you can.

Happy Sailing ....Gord L.