February 24, 2024

11 min

Skills & Seamanship

How to heave to in a sailboat

yacht heaving to

You’re out on the water in great breeze, close hauled and flying along. Having a yacht weighing many tons being sped along by the wind can feel effortless at times. It is exhilarating to tune the sails and make small adjustments to the helm to go ever faster or ever closer to the wind. Yet there comes a time when one needs to stop, and suddenly all that effortless power and speed becomes something that needs to be contained. Upwind, the yacht will be pounding and heavily healed over. Beam on, the boat will be rolling and vulnerable to breaking waves. Downwind and the boat will be speeding along, and liable to broach and end up beam on to the seas with all the inherent dangers involved in that.

A key part of every yachtsman’s toolkit is to know how to heave to in a sailboat, or literally park the boat at sea. It may be that repairs need to be made, that the crew need a rest, sea room is limited and a lee shore needs to be avoided. It may be simply that everyone on board wants to stop and eat together. These are all opportunities to heave to. It is a manoeuvre that almost instantly takes all forward momentum out of the boat. From pounding upwind, rolling around or careering downwind, after heaving to the boat will suddenly be tightly under control, moving little if at all and immeasurably more comfortable to be on. Done properly, it is also a remarkably safe and defensive option when everything feels like it is getting out of control.

In this Pro Series article, we look at when to heave to, how to heave to and the dangers to watch out for. Read and study the information so that if and when the time comes, you and the crew can feel reasonably confident about how to heave to. We would also advise you to get out there and practise. The time to be attempting to heave to for the first time, or trying to heave to in a particular yacht for the first time, is not when there’s a breakage, the wind’s blowing north of 30 knots with a big sea state and you’re tired and short-handed.

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Key Takeaways

  • There is no one way or other way to heave to. So long as the vessel ends up 20-40 degrees off the wind and with minimal forward motion, you are well hove to.
  • Heaving to is a key technique for heavy weather and storm tactics but can also be used in various conditions and simply to rest for a while.
  • You must practise heaving to and have an idea at least of how your vessel will heave to before you need to execute the move for real.

 What is heaving to?

There is no one way to heave to or definitive definition and that is critical to understand. A properly hove to boat will have its bow about 20-40 degrees off the wind and will be making minimal if any forward motion. How you achieve that is entirely up to you, your boat and the conditions at the time. You may have a headsail up, or you may not. You may be using the engine, you may not. You may need to actively steer and work with the boat to keep it in that profile, or you may not. There are so many factors in play concerning how to achieve the desired effect that anyone who says there is one way to achieve simply does not know what they are talking about. If your sailboat is off the wind and seas, but not close to beam to or any further downwind and is making zero to minimal forward speed, it is hove do. Job done and congratulations.

When should I be hove to?

As is our recurring theme with much of our instruction on sailing, there is of course no set time when you should be hove to. It is a technique that you can add to your toolbox and use as and when you feel you need it. Some scenarios in which you might wish to use it are:

  1. Rest and Recuperation: Heaving to offers an opportunity for the crew to rest and recuperate, especially after prolonged periods of sailing or amid challenging conditions. From pounding upwind, the difference once hove to is remarkable and conditions can seem more than manageable. By giving yourself a rest, you conserve energy and can prepare for the next leg of the journey. We will often heave to even in relatively good weather for a lunch break or dinner if we are on an upwind beat. It is transformative.
  2. Repairs and Maintenance: When necessary, heaving to enables sailors to perform repairs to the sailboat or equipment with everything under control. Whether fixing a damaged sail, addressing a minor mechanical issue, or checking for potential hazards, heaving to provides a stable platform for maintenance tasks.
  3. Storm tactic: The danger to a sailboat in bad weather is not primarily the wind, but the waves caused by the wind. In particular, breaking waves that are at least, in height, 30% of the length of the yacht. These are the waves that can cause a knockdown and are a real danger. Once hove to, the bow of the boat is held 20-40 degrees off the wind and is thus far less susceptible to any chance of a knockdown.
  4. Low-Visibility Conditions: In low-visibility conditions, heaving to keeps the sailboat stationary until visibility improves. By avoiding forward movement, there is less risk of collisions or grounding on unseen obstacles.
  5. Coordinated Sailing or Rendezvous: When sailing with other vessels or waiting for a rendezvous point, sailors can easily maintain contact with other boats or synchronize their movements by a quick hove to.
  6. Man Overboard: Should someone fall overboard, the very first thing the helm must do is stop the boat, and this is done by heaving to.

Understanding the Principles of Heaving to

When a sailing boat is in the hove to position, it essentially stalls and then maintains a stable position relative to the wind and waves. Several forces are at play during this manoeuvre:

  1. Wind Force on the Sails: The wind exerts a force on the sails, but because the sails are adjusted to counteract each other (for instance, you have a backed headsail), this force does not propel the boat forward.
  2. Wind Force on the Hull and Superstructure: Apart from the sails, the wind also impacts the hull and any above-water structures of the boat. This can force the bow away from the wind but can also create a small amount of forward drive and leeway.
  3. Hydrodynamic Resistance: The hull’s shape and its interaction with the water create resistance. When hove to, the boat is positioned in a way that maximizes this resistance to forward motion, helping it to stay relatively stationary.
  4. Keel Resistance: The keel resists sideways motion (leeway). When hove to, the position of the boat relative to the wind ensures that the keel helps to keep the boat from being pushed sideways.
  5. Rudder Force: The rudder is usually turned towards the wind. This, combined with the slight forward motion generated by the wind on the hull, creates a turning force that counteracts the tendency of the boat to turn downwind, again keeping the boat relatively stationary.
  6. Wave Action: Waves can push the boat around, but when properly hove to, the boat is positioned at an angle to the waves that minimizes their impact and helps maintain a steady position.
  7. Currents: Underwater currents can move the boat, although when hove to the effects are usually minimal unless the currents are very strong.

Executing the Heave-to Maneuver

  1. Approach Close-Hauled: You can start the heave to manoeuvre from any wind angle, however you need to get the boat close-hauled course (as close to the wind as possible without stalling) before you can actually hove to. Your sails should be sheeted in hard. In heavier weather, you will likely also have at least one reef in, although a reef per se is not essential. It goes without saying you can end up hove to on port tack or starboard tack.
  2. Tack the Boat: Tack the boat, but do not release the jib sheet, which will be the windward sheet. This means you turn the bow through the wind, but leave the jib on the original side, backwinding it. The backwinded jib will help stop the boat’s forward motion.
  3. Turn the boat back into the wind: Once you have tacked, using the tiller or wheel, turn the boat back towards the wind, while keeping a backed jib. This action will cause the boat to try to turn into the wind, but the backwinded jib and/or wind on the bow will prevent it from doing so, thus stalling the boat at around 20-40 degrees off the wind.
  4. Adjust the sails: You only need your head sail up if there is not enough wind on the bow to counter the effect of the rudder. In a really strong blow, you may well find the bow has enough windage and no headsail is required. This will save the sail and prevent the inevitable chafing of the sheets on the standing rigging. In any case, if you are heaving to in heavy weather you will likely find that you already have a triple reefed main and are using the storm jib. The main sail should be trimmed in or eased to a position where it balances the boat. You may need to experiment with this a bit and the relative sizes of the fore and aft sail area will also affect this. Certainly, if you have a full main you may find you simply have too much sail up to heave to effectively. The goal is for the mainsail to help keep the boat’s bow turned slightly away from the wind, offsetting the backwinded jib.
  5. Monitor and Adjust: Once you’re in the hove-to position, the boat should settle into a gentle, slow, sideways drift, healed way from the windward side. Monitor the boat’s behaviour and adjust the sails and rudder as necessary to maintain this stable position. The boat should be making minimal forward progress and should be comfortably riding the waves. If there are breaking waves, it is particularly essential to try and stop any forward motion. As you slowly drift downwind, you will see you leave a slick of smooth water with swirling eddies. This slick, first emphasised by Larry Pardey, reduces the power and impact of breaking waves. If you have any forward motion, you will move out of this slick and reduce your protection. If you are struggling to stop forward movement but need to, you might try trailing warps or a drogue. How well your boat heaves to is dependent not just on your technique, but also on the hull shape and keel type. Modern yachts with a fin keel are far harder to bring to a complete stop than a more traditional shape and a longer keel.
  6. Fore reaching. If you are not in storm conditions and are simply hove to for rest or other purposes, some forward movement is likely irrelevant. You will be on a close reach but with a backed head sail. This is called forereaching and can be done with full sail. It can be a useful technique should you wish to continue sailing forward but with much-reduced speed.
  7. Monitor Your Surroundings: Just because you’ve ‘parked’ your vessel, it doesn’t mean you can switch off. Always keep a lookout for other vessels, navigational hazards, and changes in weather conditions. Remember, the legal definition of whether you are on starboard tack is whether your boom in on the port side of the vessel.

 Resuming sailing

When it’s time to start sailing again, you have two options. You can ease the head sail (if it is in use), pull or push it through to the other side (the leeward side), sheet in and get going again. Alternatively, you can turn away from the wind and wait for the boat to jibe around, eventually coming back to steer whichever course you wish.

Additional Considerations

Sail Shape and Material: The type of sail and its material can influence the heaving to technique. Dacron sails are generally more forgiving than laminate sails, and older sails may require more adjustment to find the ideal trim.

Sail Area and Weight: Sailboats with larger sail areas or heavier hulls may require more careful sail trim and rudder positioning to achieve stability when heaving.

Experience and Confidence: Heaving requires practice and experience to master. It is crucial to practice and be confident in your ability to heave to and resume sailing before you need to execute the move in anger.

Ensure you have enough sea room: A well hove to vessel will drift downwind at 1-2 knots. It is essential therefore that you have sufficient sea room to allow for this drift before you reach shallow water or rocks and risk serious damage.

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