Posted by: Dan Sprague | January 18, 2012

To heave-to

How can a sailboat under full sail slow down or stop? A technique called “heaving-to” is how it can be done. By using the wind in the sails and the rudder of the boat to work against each other the boat will slow and can hold position in open water without dropping the sails.

A power boat can slow its motor down to an idle and hold its position in open water without much difficulty, but a sailboat cannot shut down the wind. Heaving-to is a way a sailboat can hold position in open water without dropping the sails. You do not come to a stop but forward motion is reduced way down. This is done by positioning the rudder and trimming the sails so they work against each other and this slows the boats forward motion. The forward motion is replaced by a slow drift to leeward.

To heave-to, first, turn up-wind to a close-hauled position. Next, you must back-wind the jib. This can be done by tacking and not releasing the jib sheet as the bow comes through the eye of the wind. Once the jib back-winds, you must push the tiller to leeward and keep it there.  What happens is the boat tries to turn and tack but the back-winded jib on the bow keeps the bow from turning through the eye of the wind. A back and forth S-shaped course is established as the tiller and the jib keep the turning of the boat in check. The forward motion of the boat slows and you can hold your position in open water with a slow drift downwind.

Heaving-to can be very useful. By heaving-to the boat can sail itself while you do other things like eating, checking a chart position, and pulling in that big fish that hit the line you were trolling behind the boat. It also impresses the Coast Guard if they want to pull alongside to talk.  Bear in mind that you must have enough sea-room to leeward to accommodate the drift.

If the boat is heeling excessively or the wind is building you need to reduce the amount of sail before you heave-to. Each boat is different and it may take a little work to get the trim right in the heave-to, so the tiller and jib complement each other smoothly. It is well worth learning how to heave-to, and it is not a hard maneuver to learn. It lets you safely hold a position in open water without having to drop the sails.  In rough, stormy conditions, the reduced motion of being hove-to can enable you to wait out the worst part of the storm in relative comfort before continuing on your journey.


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