Heave To Maneuver


I don't care what anybody says, one day or another, on charter, you will need to take action to protect yourself and your vessel against an unexpected strong squall, higher seas, etc! And you better know what to do!

Or more commonly, after beating hard for 3 hours in the St Lucia passage, you will need to take a break to go to the loo, refresh your cold coffee or simply before your wife starts to threaten with divorce.

What to do then? Well... you heave to! Blue-water confirmed sailors know this relatively simple technique well, but charterers do not use it often, because they just don't know what in the world I am talking about here. OK here it is.

What is "Heaving to"?

When a sailboat is set in a heave to position, she slows down considerably and keeps moving forward at about 1 to 2 kts, but with a significant amount of drift. The drift creates some turbulence on the water, and that disturbance decreases significantly the sea aggressiveness. The pounding felt when going upwind in strong seas almost miraculously disappears and the boat does not heel as much. This is MUCH more comfortable. It's a little bit like "parking" the boat on idle speed. The limitations of this technique are: a)you need enough sea room because of the important drift; and b) beyond a certain level of wind, other measures need to be taken (we won't get into this here since not too many charterers get caught in 50kts winds. Hopefully!)

How To Do It

Let's say you've been beating hard upwind for quite a while on a port tack in 4 to 6ft. seas, no reef on your sails, the wind is about 16kts. You're the only one on board to be able to steer and you want to take a break. Or you're hit by a squall with 30kts wind gusts, and you would be more comfortable waiting until it passes. Here is what to do:

  1. Sheet in the main sail tight. You're already going upwind so you may just have to give the main sheet a few turns on the winch.

  2. Tack the boat but do not touch anything on your head sail, jib or genoa (I know, this is the weird part.) It is a good idea (unless you know exactly what you are doing) to make the initial tack very slowly: head into the wind until the speed has really come down before finishing the tack.

  3. When you finish the tack, you're now on a starboard tack, your main has switched side (normal) but your headsail is now in a position you have not seen before: the head sail is set against the wind with its clew is to windward instead of leeward as usual, meaning that even though you're now on a starboard tack, the clew is on the starboard side of the boat.

    Note: If you do not know what a clew or a starboard tack are, do yourself a favor, take on roller skating and forget sailing :-)

  4. Lastly, turn your steering wheel all the way to windward and lock it. To make things clear, since you are now on a starboard tack, turn your wheel all the way to starboard. If your boat has a tiller, push the tiller all the way toward your main sail and lash it.

You now notice an uncanny change in the boat attitude (obviously!): the pounding against the waves has stopped and the boat is slowly moving and drifting in a smooth and comfortable behavior, at about 45°off the wind. Isn't this the greatest thing since sliced bread?

Now, one bit of caution: not all boats react the same way to a heave to position. So if you intend to use this technique, we suggest you try it in smooth waters with moderate winds.

Some Other Ideas for Use of This Technique

  • Heaving to can be useful for reefing (or dropping) the main. In fact, if conditions are rough or you don't have an autopilot, heaving to whilst reefing comes in pretty handy.
  • When you want to have lunch in more peace & quiet, and you are not up against a particular schedule, heaving to can be very pleasant, and lets the helmsman enjoy the meal as well.
  • It can be also used it when rendezvous-ing with the dinghy (if you are single handed sailing whilst crew were ashore in dinghy) - it made getting the crew back on board a snap. For this you obviously have to have enough sea room clear of a lee shore and the conditions need to be settled or you may lose some of the crew!

How to Get Out of It

When you are ready to resume your normal course, do this.

  1. Unlock your wheel or unlash your tiller.
  2. Turn it all the way to the other side (it was locked to starboard, so turn it all the way to port.)
  3. The boat will turn almost to a complete 360° and you will find yourself back on the port tack you were on before the beginning of the maneuver.

This is not rocket science. It is a very simple maneuver, which every self-respecting sailor should know for his/her safety and comfort.