Why Is Sailing Close to the Wind Dangerous?

Written by William Porter in Beginner Info

Getting out of bed in the morning is dangerous. So is leaving your house. You can slip in the shower or get in an accident on the way to work. Sailing is no more dangerous than many other activities, and safer than many recreational supports as long as you're responsible and follow safe practices.

If you know how to sail, sailing close to the wind is not inherently more dangerous than any other point of sail. And perhaps it is one of the safer points of sail, because we can settle the most common problems with a single action - turn the boat into the wind.

Of course, sailing is not without risk and there are steps you can take to minimize risks on any point of sail. And if you don't know how to sail upwind, you can get yourself into trouble sailing too close to shore when the wind is in the wrong direction.

Risks of Sailing Upwind

Most of the risks of sailing upwind are directly associated with inexperience. It takes a certain amount of skill to trim the sails properly to keep the boat moving. And moving around the boat and operating while heeled and sailing to weather take time to get comfortable with.

Inexperienced sailors and the dangers of lee shore

If you do not know how to sail upwind, your biggest risk is being blown downwind onto a lee shore. If the wind is pushing you towards the rocks, you need upwind sailing skills to claw your way off the shoreline to give yourself sea room.

A lee shore is a stretch of shoreline that is directly downwind, or to leeward, of the boat. The wind will push a boat with no sails, engine, or ability to steer onto the shore.

A strong breeze towards shore usually has waves in the same direction as the wind. So getting off can be quite tricky, with the waves and wind pushing you. Trimming for upwind sailing will get you off that lee shore, but you have to know how to do it. Reaching, the easiest point of sail, will not usually help. Sailing on a reach will keep you running parallel to the shore if the wind is straight on shore, not take you further upwind and out to sea. If the wind is angled towards the lee shore and not perpendicular to it, you can sail across the wind to get off.

The best way to deal with a lee shore is to stay as clear of it as you can. Even if you're an excellent sailor, stay upwind from land. If you see an uncomfortable situation developing with the wind blowing you towards shore, sail upwind and get clear of land as quickly as you can.

If you are struggling to sail off a lee shore, start the engine if you have to and motor away from danger. If you don't have an engine sailing may be your only option if it is too deep or rough to toss out an anchor to keep you from running aground.

Blindness to leeward

Another risk of sailing upwind is a lack of visibility on the leeward side. When you're trimmed for upwind sailing, the boat heels. Crew sit to windward to add weight to the high side, and the sails block visibility. Without someone watching, you may not see a boat, government mark, or other hazard that is hidden behind the sail. This is especially the case with large, overlapping headsails.

It's important to keep an eye to leeward, whether it's someone ducking down to look periodically or sitting to leeward to keep an eye out.

Overpowering wind

If you are sailing upwind and the wind builds, you may feel the boat heel out of control and get overpowered. This can feel very frightening, and the boat may heel hard, speed up, and bury the rail in the water as you fight for control.

The quick and easy fix is to just turn the boat a little into the wind. Turning into the "no sail" zone, the sails stall and the boat de-powers. Don't turn too far; you don't want to tack the boat. But turning even a few degrees into the wind is enough to depower the boat and get it back under control.

With the boat in control, you can decide if you need to reef to take in sail area if it looks like the wind continues to build. You can also ease the traveler when the boat heels.

Moving around while heeled

The other risk sailing upwind is moving around while heeling. A boat tilted on its side is hard to move around, and there's a risk of slips and falls, dropping things overboard, and injuries. If you need to move around, do it carefully, and always wear sailing shoes with non-marking, high traction treads. And always move around the boat in the windward (high) side, so if you slip and fall you're more likely to stay on the boat.

Deep Downwind - the Most Dangerous Game

An accidental crash jibe is one of the scariest things you may ever see on a boat. When you’re sailing deep downwind, then the wind shifts or the driver slips up and WHAM, the boom swings suddenly and violently from one side of the boat to the other. This can break gear, but it can break heads and injure or kill people. Especially on smaller boats where the boom is down at or below head level.

I'm always most on edge sailing deep downwind or sailing by the lee. The possibility of a crash jibe is always on my mind, and my eyes never leave the sails and the masthead wind indicator. Sailing by the lee - with the wind slightly past centerline on the boat and on the same side as the boom, may be faster downwind, but it is also the most risk of a jibe.

To prevent a accidental jibes, try the following:

  • Rig a preventer, to keep the boom from gaining enough momentum to hurt people. Note that you can still accidentally jibe. But a jibe with a preventer on keeps the boom from slamming to the other side. It's awkward and may cause minor damage, but stops disasters.
  • When sailing deep, watch the boom for a "bounce." As the wind moves back on the main, the slight back winding may cause the boom to move up and down before a jibe happens. If you see a boom bounce, immediately turn the boat up to windward.
  • If you're sailing deep wing-on-wing, pole out the headsail. This will let you keep it full without sailing as deep, and lower your chances of a jibe.

Close Reaching with a Symmetrical Spinnaker

When racing or sailing aggressively, it's very common to sail up to a reach or close reach with a symmetrical in some conditions. Whether it's a point-to-point race or just very light air, it's a way to heat the boat up and sail fast. But it's a way of sailing that may be prone to a wipeout if the wind gets shifty or builds while you're doing it.

On a close reach or close to it, the boat is literally "on the edge" with the spinnaker pole almost on the headstay, and a big puff of breeze or a mistake at the helm can broach the boat and put the boom in the water. This is usually dramatic and surprising, and you may struggle to stay upright and hang onto the boat.

If you broach, ease the vang and the mainsheet to take the load off the mainsail and let the boat come up and start moving. If you're still struggling, drop the spinnaker halyard about 1/3 of the way down but don't ease the sheet. Do NOT let the spinnaker go into the water if you can avoid it, and once you have steerage get that spinnaker down quickly.

Close reaching isn't the only conditions you can broach a boat in, but it is the most likely point of sail where you're likely to dip your boom in the water.

Danger is as Danger Does

Most sailing risks on are preventable, and a lot of sailing wipeouts happen when you push a boat to the edge, especially while racing.

But sailing on the edge is a choice. If you aren't comfortable with the risks, you can always sail your boat in a safer and more sedate fashion. Of course, racing pushes the envelope on performance since you're trying to beat other boats. But you don't have to put the pole on the headstay when you're out with the family for a day sail. You don't even have to fly a spinnaker; it's a causal day sail, after all and nothing is at stake but a good time.

Not reefing and sailing the boat out of control is another dangerous way of sailing, but many will sail overpowered instead of reefing. Why? There can be a lot of reasons, whether it's skill because your crew doesn't know how to reef, inexperience when you don't know it's time to reef, or just adrenaline chasing because you love big breeze and fast sailing. And there is absolutely nothing wrong with sailing your boat hard, as long as you recognize what you are doing and know how to get out of trouble if you get into it.

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