Bad Weather Strategies

A ship like the MIR is underway in all weathers and during all times of the year. She is built for this and normally does not suffer any harm from this. Nevertheless bad weather always puts a test on the seamanship that is carried out on board and this is especially so on sailing ships. The best way to deal with dangerous situations is not to get into dangerous situations at all. For this it is necessary to reduce sail area in good time before the trouble starts and eventually to take away the sails at all. That takes a close observation of the weather situation and planning a passage accordingly. Unfortunately this is not always possible as due to schedules not any storm can be avoided.


Most dangerous for any ship under sails are squalls. This is especially so on tall ships where in contrast to a yacht one cannot easily take the sails away if one sees bad weather coming. Here many hands must work together and eventually a part of the crew first needs to be woken up to help take away the sails.

As a rule a ship always sails with all sails that can be set in the prevailing wind. If then the wind gains force unexpectedly with or without a change of direction – a squall – the ship gets laid over seriously. Alone this can lead to problems and injuries, e.g. with crew members who were below decks and tumbled and fell against something, or in kubricks or cabins where suddenly things fly around. Especially dangerous it becomes for those on deck who now try to take away the sails. On the lee side there is serious danger of falling over board.

Heavy gusts out of the blue sky can even capsize a ship, especially if they are connected with wind shifts. Whereas a ship in squalls coming from the same direction as the wind was coming before can usually compensate the increasing heel by luffing up, the situation is much more serious in squalls from other directions. It happens that the ship does not react to the wheel any more and runs completely out of course. Taking away the sails then not only gets difficult but eventually even impossible. If one is lucky the sails tear away. If not, it can be necessary to cut away the sheets.

To avoid such situations it is good seamanship to prepare the ship in good time before the squall hits. The watch officer must be able to anticipate the signs of an oncoming squall. At the first sign that a squall might be on the way (what can be a strange looking cloud, an unusual colour of the sky, ripples on the water in a distance, a significant radar echo, a steep rise or fall of the barometer, something starting to clatter high up in the rigging or even a feeling that all your hairs are rising up on your spine and “something is in the air”) it is necessary to take away all upper sails. If it gets obvious that this is not enough, also the lower sails and finally all sails get clewed up. For a square rigger especially a squall hitting from dead ahead is problematic. If the square sails come aback it is impossible to clew them up. The watch officer must in any case try to avoid this to happen and must order the helmsman in time to bear off and to take the wind parallel to the yards.


While yachts stay in port in winds of more than 6 Bft, for tall ships the fun only starts then. The ship achieves good speed and in most cases still all sails can remain set. 7-8 Bft is also not worrying much. You take away some sails and the ship starts rolling, but that’s it. From 9 Bft on things get serious. The ship prepares for bad weather:

Which sails are now still set depends on the planned strategy to weather off the storm. If it is getting really bad and the storm raises to 12 Bft or more there are 4 main tactics that have proven to make sense over the centuries:
Which of those tactics are chosen depends on the force of the storm, the sea area, the experience of the crew, etc.
As a rule it is always tried to sail against the wind as long as possible, eventually with help of the ship’s engine. For this one would set fore stay sail, fore lower topsail, main lower topsail and mizzen sail. Is that not possible and given there is enough sea room available one would try to run before the wind. In any case one would try to avoid taking the seas from the side

this page was updated 10/07