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Storm tactic tested by Pardeys off Cape Horn

Jan 1, 2003
From Ocean Navigator #123 July/August 2002

From Ocean Navigator #123 July/August 2002

In their book Storm Tactics Handbook, legendary voyagers Lin and Larry Pardey devote a chapter to discussing the science and art of heaving to, the ancient, nearly forgotten, according to the Pardeys, practice of turning a boat to weather and riding out a storm. They offer several diagrams that show various ways to handle a boat in towering, breaking waves. They argue that just about every vessel, provided it is designed to be at sea in the first place, can be hove to, and by experimenting with different sail plans, and possibly sea anchors, one can determine what configuration works best in which conditions.

Lin and Larry Pardey have spent 35 years wandering the world's oceans under sail aboard their engineless cutters, first Serrafyn and now Taleisin, boats they built themselves. They recently rounded Cape Horn and tested their theory of the effectiveness of heaving to as a storm-survival strategy. The Pardeys assert that any vessel can be made to heave to, provided proper adjustments are made to the rig and rudder configuration. They use a para-anchor in extreme storms.

Their argument for the need to understand how to heave a boat to is fairly straightforward and convincing: If you spend enough time at sea on long passages, they argue, sooner or later you will encounter conditions that can overwhelm your boat — unless precautions are taken.

Until recently, the couple had never been around Cape Horn, inarguably one of the world's most volatile patches of ocean. The Pardeys had weathered countless storms at sea aboard their engineless, deep-draft cutters Serrafyn and Taleisin in their more than three decades of wandering the oceans, but they had always made their transits around the globe by transiting the Panama and Suez canals. While most sailors might think that deliberately avoiding certain hardships would be prudent, the Pardeys felt that rounding the Horn was a goal they couldn't resist, they said in several interviews via telephone and email following their rounding of the Horn in March and April of this year.

The Pardeys felt that some of the methods they espoused in Storm Tactics needed further proof, further demonstration that the methods they were proposing were actually viable in extreme survival situations. Most notably, a section that describes how a hove-to vessel forms a slick in the waves to windward of the hull — thereby reducing the chance of toppling waves overwhelming the boat — would be put to the test during the passage around the Horn — east to west, against prevailing weather conditions. They found their methods of heaving to worked as they would have hoped.

The Pardeys departed Puerto Deseado, Argentina, in mid-February and then tacked their way through the Straits of Le Maire while staying close to the coast, taking advantage of the minimal currents that were the effects of neap tides. (They had planned to arrive in the Straits of Le Maire between Feb. 20 and 24, a time they knew the neap effects would be most pronounced.) They made a five-day stopover at Puerto Williams on the eastern side of Tierra del Fuego and about 75 miles north of Cape Horn. It was there that they interviewed several charter-boat captains who regularly operate trips between southern Argentina and Antarctica. "They told us that they couldn't work down here if they couldn't heave to, couldn't hold their ground when conditions got too bad, that it impeded their progress. And we spoke with five skippers, their boats ranging in design from more traditional, full-keel boats like ours to more modern boats with high-performance keels," Lin Pardey explained. "In the Straits of Le Maire, we actually got the weather we expected at Cape Horn: 70-knot winds that turned the surface of the sea white."

After departing Puerto Williams for their rounding of the Horn, the Pardeys elected to establish plenty of sea room between themselves and the Cape as they tacked their way west. While tacking through the Straits, they hugged the coast ("until the bowsprit was almost touching the kelp beds"), but around the Horn they heeded the warnings of the 1888 Rutters and their well-worn copy of Ocean Passages, which both recommended keeping plenty of sea room to make steady westing until reaching 80° W, before turning north. "It's good we did. We were hit by a storm, again with 70-knot winds, that stretched from Antarctica to north of Santiago, Chile. We kept at least 120 miles of sea room at all times until we reached 48° N, when it was time to turn east for Chiloe," Lin Pardey said.

The Pardeys used a storm trysail and what they call their "toys'l," a 40-square-foot staysail. "When we were hove to, we would carry the trysail or a reefed trysail, whatever configuration that would keep us from going forward and moving out of the slick the hull creates." They also carry a para-anchor with a bridle arrangement. "Basically, we find that we have only needed to add the para-anchor to hold a boat hove to in extreme situations. Nine out of 10 times the storm trysail alone is adequate," the Pardeys wrote in an email message.

Two camps of thought about how to effectively react to storm conditions at sea have emerged in recent years. While the Pardeys have consistently recommended the need to understand methods of heaving to, others have advocated the responsible way of dealing with storms is simply not to encounter them, to sail in boats that are fast enough to outrun storms and to carry sophisticated forecasting equipment that can assist in this high-speed getaway. Regardless of who is right (Can anyone really be considered "right" about such a thing?) the Pardeys can now sleep a little easier, knowing that their obligation to round the Horn is behind them.

"One of the reasons I was going around the Horn was because Larry really wanted to," Lin Pardey said. "But now I can wake up in the morning and know that I don't have to go around the Horn anymore; I've already done it. It was exciting, scary even, but really it went by too quickly. We spent 10 years talking about it; two years of planning, and 21 days later, it's all over."

The Pardeys see their adventure as a success for their belief in the need to heave to. "I gleaned what I know about heaving to from the old timers," Larry Pardey said. "It's something that's been kind of neglected, mostly by racing sailors, I guess, who have to keep moving. But if I couldn't heave to — give the boat some shelter — I don't think I'd want to go sailing."

The Pardeys will continue to sail Taleisin, after a break in New Zealand, where they keep a home, using traditional methods of navigation, including taff-rail log, sextant, shortwave radio and a Negus calculator ("For checking Larry's numbers," Lin Pardey said.) that they bought "new in the box 35 years ago."