Heaving To

What is it?

"Heaving to" or being "hove to" is a way of slowing a boat’s forward progress and bringing it almost to rest. In sailing the helm and sail positions are fixed so that the boat does not need to be actively steered. The terms are also used for a vessel under power when it is brought to a complete stop.

In a sailing vessel the theory of heaving to is to use the mainsail and the headsail (usually the jib) to work against each other to balance the boat at an angle to the wind. This involves "backing" one or more sails so that the wind is driving against the forward side of the sail rather than the aft side, as it normally would. This is balanced by the drive from the other sails, resulting in a slowing down or stopping. The rudder is positioned so that if the boat moves forward it will be turned into the wind to prevent forward momentum building up and the boat holds a steady position. So the boat is stopped almost completely with the sails still up and maintains a steady position relative to wind and waves.

Heaving to has it’s origins in the early days of sail when crews rode out strong winds, heavy rain and high seas in the heave to position.

How to do it

  • The starboard tack is the preferred one on which to heave to, simply because you are still a vessel "underway" and as such you are the "stand on" boat. Other sailing boats on a port tack must give way to you or stay clear.
  • Trim in the mainsail and jib, bringing the boat to a close-hauled point of sail. In storm conditions reduce your sail area down to a manageable amount.
  • Tack across the wind, but without releasing the jib sheet.
  • Once on the new tack, turn the rudder to keep the boat towards the wind.
  • Adjust the mainsheet and rudder position until the forward and backward forces balance each other and the boat stays steady, usually about 60 degrees off the wind.
  • Lash the wheel or tiller to keep the rudder in this position.
  • Practise the technique in calm seas and light winds.

The boat is now hove to and should stay roughly in this position, moving forward at maybe 2 to 3 knots and making leeway, unless thrown off by a sudden gust of wind or a large wave. The turbulence created by this drift decreases the sea’s aggressiveness, the pounding motion is reduced and the boat does not heel as much and feels much more comfortable. Be aware, however, that not all boats behave in the same way and you may need a measure of trial and error before perfecting the manoeuvre.

Why is it useful?

There are many uses for this simple but under used technique:-

  • Take a break – just stopping and having some time-out can take the stress out of a long passage or give the crew a much needed rest. Or if you are not on a tight schedule, just heave to and enjoy the peace and quiet or take a swim. (NB - For safety, make sure someone is left on board or take a safety line with you while you are swimming. The boat may drift faster than you can swim).
  • Go below deck – for a solo or shorthanded sailor it allows an opportunity to visit the heads, have a coffee or lunch break, check the chart, write up the log, or do a quick repair.
  • Emergency stop – the recommended method as a quick stop for emergencies such as "man overboard".
  • Ride out a storm – if you are caught in a sudden and unexpected storm it is often safer to heave to and wait for conditions to improve rather than battle on. The danger of being at sea usually increases when you are near the edges, and it is sometimes a better option to heave to in deeper water, a safe distance offshore, than to run for shelter.
  • Wait for a change of situation – it may be more sensible to wait for the tide to change by heaving to rather than struggle against it and make no progress, or wait for daylight before entering an unfamiliar port safely.
  • Rendezvous-ing – when meeting up with other boats or picking up crew from a dinghy, it is safer to do it while hove to, if you have to do it at sea. Make sure though that the conditions are settled and the sea fairly calm, or some of the crew may be lost and you’re into a man-overboard situation.

Points to remember

  • Keep a lookout – other vessels may not be watching out for hazards, so do not go below for too long at a time and regularly look around for other boats in the area.
  • Keep an eye on your position – monitor the direction and speed of your drift and check the chart for any hazards in the area, such as dangerous rocks or sandbanks.
  • Space – remember that you will need enough space around you when performing the necessary manoeuvres to come out of the hove to position.
  • Difficulties – some vessels, in certain situations, cannot be left hove to in very rough weather. If the wind and waves can push the bow off the wind, it is possible that the boat will gybe and with the rudder lashed, it will sail itself violently round in a circle. Vessels with longer keels tend to behave better than those with deep dagger or blade keels, or flat bottoms. Large genoas can complicate heaving to procedures as they can wrap behind the shrouds and add to the forward motion. Mainsails often need treating in different ways, some reacting better when eased, while others may need to be reefed or hardened to accomplish a satisfactory heave to.

Continuing on course

  • Unlash the tiller or wheel.
  • Take in the slack on the leeward sail and release the windward one.
  • Bear off the wind using the rudder to get the boat moving and manoeuvre her onto the desired course.
  • An alternative method for use in light winds is to put the helm to leeward and the boat will come out of the hove to position in a controlled gybe.

There are few sailing techniques that have so many and varied uses.

Don’t forget the simple art of "heaving to" whether you are in fair weather or foul. Happy sailing!

Author – Dee White

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