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Survival techniques for handling a strong squall

Note:  Although this article directly applies to the W17 trimaran, the general techniques indicated should work for most small trimarans in the 5 to 10m range.   This is just a guide though, as we must always acknowledge that each design can have its particular quirks, so we need to experiment to learn what works best.


Because a trimaran like the W17 sails very efficiently on just a small sail area, I’ve already warned small boat owners to always reduce sail BEFORE going out if there’s a forecast of potentially strong wind.  But even the most experienced occasionally get caught and have to make the best of a potentially bad or even dangerous situation.     As I was personally caught this past summer in two such storms, I thought these reflections on the experience might help some readers.

(Incidentally,  I totally acknowledge that use of the term 'survival sailing' might well be over-the-top here, but it's to help handle a situation that is 'over your normal limit', whatever that is for you.   At least, it got your attention ;)

Here is how the situation unfolded.

I was off to visit with a friend about 8 miles away, mostly upwind.   I was sailing on part of a large lake that’s locally about 40km x 10 km wide with short steep seas.  The sky was full of cumulonimbus clouds but nothing too ominous, so I left with full sail in a steady 10 kt breeze.   Sailing alone with the full race sail is typically easy and something I do almost daily each summer.     I soon saw that if I took a 2 mile (3.2 km) leg straight out, I should then be able to lay my destination, making about 10 miles in all.  Well, I’d only sailed about halfway when a small but very black cloud suddenly appeared over the treetops about 2 miles to weather.

Of course, the thought of stopping to reef went immediately through my head, but the cloud was approaching fast and as I saw clear skies beyond, I decided I’d just work through it.   Within a minute, the ‘disturbance’ was throwing powerful wind-jets at me, and from varying angles up to 50 deg. apart.  One gust was so violent, that even with the main totally eased, the boat heeled to about 25 degrees, which is about the maximum I normally allow as the ama deck is then low to the water.   I jumped for the jibsheet and for about 10 seconds, totally let the jib go to relieve the load, but with the worst passed, pulled it partly back in to cut the flogging and recleated.

At this moment, here is what is important.   To retain control of where one is heading relative to the constantly varying wind gusts, one MUST retain good steerage way … but also, to give yourself time to react to wind and waves, you do NOT want to go too fast (unless of course you’re fully under control, have an experienced crew and perhaps racing).    Without a crew and no pressing need to go fast, maintaining control is the #1 priority.

One needs to maintain as constant a speed as you can and also aim for a nearly constant angle of heel.    This is achieved using the mainsheet and the tiller.   Under moderately-strong conditions, I usually opt to play the traveller in and out with the mainsheet firmly down.   But under such wild conditions, it’s often too hard to play the traveler and as one also needs to sit forward to keep the forefoot (lower stem) immersed, I find its best to leave the mainsheet-car far out on the track and just play the helm (tiller) and if need be, the mainsheet.    With the tiller, one then sails a very wiggly course that feathers away the biggest gusts by turning up to windward .. but only enough to limit the heel .. not enough to even come close to stopping the boat.   If you DO stop the boat, you can have a violent backing puff hit you side on and you risk to capsize before you even get moving again, so, keep the boat moving. so that you always have the ability to turn into the biggest gusts or waves.  But then, immediately bear off a little to get some speed back or you will not be able to luff up on the next big gust.    Also remember, unless your boat has a totally unstayed rig, you cannot totally weathercock the mainsail as the leeward shroud will support the eased sail and still allow it to partially fill.   But staying still is a ‘no-no’ and should be diligently avoided.   

So what IS a good speed?     I find that 4-6kts is about perfect in such conditions.  This is about 8 ft/sec and that allows the rudder to quickly react so that you can immediately bear off a few degrees when the boat threatens to slow, or point up a little when the boat starts to accelerate.  To keep a steady speed in such erratic conditions, DOES demand constant steering attention, but as such squalls seldom last very long, it’s totally worth the effort.    If you do this correctly (responding quick enough but not over-steering), you will find the boat heel will stay almost constant (10-15 deg) and the windward ama will ride just above most waves.    (As the ama will still slice through the high ones, you will come to appreciate why the W17 sectional ama shape is the way it is, as there is almost a total absence of slapping on the underside, a comforting feature that very few small trimarans enjoy).  If you now also keep your weight quite forward, the same quiet slicing will also apply to the main hull.  If you do get a ‘slap’, it will typically be when you’re a little too far off the wind and an odd wave rides in from the side, just at the very moment that the boat drops into a trough (see photo).  In this instance, it happened a couple of times in the 10 minutes this violent squall lasted.  Things soon settled down though and I was again happy to have full sail to complete my trip.

But my experience was not over.   Later that day I needed to sail the 8 miles home!     Once again, I checked the skies and while there were a number of grey clouds, I picked a departure moment when I estimated I had about an hour of predictable sailing but this time, I started out with 1 good reef in the mainsail.    A good decision as the weather gods had their own plan for the day.  The wind started to veer (move clockwise) about 120 degrees so I was soon sailing nearly on a beam reach, which was fine  ...... traveler fully out but with the mainsheet firmly sheeted to keep the sail flat.   

But then a large black cloud approached so I quickly donned the only light jacket I had on board.   That proved to be an important decision as it started to rain … and that rain was freezing cold !    Sometimes even in mid-summer, such storms can even bring down hail (ice pellets) and it’s no fun to be outside in that!    The gusts came in wild bursts and it teemed down with hard rain during which one has to pay particular attention as surfaces can quickly become very slippery. (Some anti slip on the cockpit floor is essential for such conditions and I typically just use sand, sprinkled into wet varnish).  I took a quick glance of my location just as visibility of land disappeared, but at least the hard rain temporarily flattened the waves.   I used this opportunity to roll up about ¾ of the jib, leaving less than 2 feet out to help balance the boat and make tacking possible should I need to.   

Rolling up the jib (on a wire that is not designed for reefing) in a high wind is nigh impossible, as the bottom turns without the top.   But there are some tricks that can make it work.   Letting the sheets TOTALLY free is the first step.  Then put ‘a firm pull’ on the furling line, but do not force it or only the bottom part of the sail will furl … and that’s a disaster for the sail.   Just hold the line under some tension and wait, and the sail will make just 1 full roll when/if the wind pressure momentarily eases off .... something you can help by slightly luffing into the wind.  Then, continue again with ‘another firm pull and a pause’ until a second full-height roll is taken in .. all the time with the jib sheets totally free.   After the 3rd one, it gets easier and it will typically 'just roll in', as the exposed area is now much reduced.    Once you’re down to only 2ft left out, firmly cleat the furling line and gently sheet in the mini-jib, but NOT tightly – just to stop it flogging. 

Though these wire-only furling systems are not designed for ‘reefing’ a foresail, if you sheet as I suggest and the sail is not a big one, you can get away with using a small amount of the jib to help sail balance and tacking.   If reaching in excessive wind, you can roll the jib up totally.    (If you leave the shore with a partly rolled jib, I would additionally suggest to add ties around it, as suggested at the bottom of this article on storm sailing).

But then, as the rain eased, it really blew and this lasted for a good 20 -25 mins.  The weather report the next day gave the gusts at 35kts and I believe them.   I still had too much sail for that level of wind, especially being alone and only weighing 70 kg, so I was back again to continuing the same zig-zag path as before.  (Compared to a monohull dinghy, the built in stability of a trimaran like the W17, makes sailing in rough stuff as an aging lightweight, far more doable, and safer too).  Sailing that ‘tight-rope’ track kept my speed moderate but constant so that I had good steering control and only a steady moderate heel.     It kept me so involved that I even forgot I was getting cold, as the rain had driven totally through the light nylon jacket I had on, though my foam lifejacket certainly helped.

Thirty mins. from home it was all over, the wind almost completely gone and what there was left could not make up its mind on direction.    Lack of body heat was becoming an issue though.     This became very apparent when I finally got to shore and slipped over the side to pull the boat in.    The water that had felt chilly when I stepped in that morning, now felt like a warm bath and I estimated it was about 15F warmer than my flesh temperature.   But it’s amazing what a good rub down and dry clothes can do.  

It’s worth noting from the above examples, that the best survival route was to sail sufficiently upwind that the large mainsail could be feathered into the wind like a flag when a wind gust was really excessive.  But enough speed for steering is essential to achieving this.   Running downwind is not a safe option unless sail area can be significantly reduced by totally taking down the mainsail as the speed will be too high, adding the much increased risk of either losing directional control or plunging the bows into a large wave that might result in either a violent broach or pitch-pole.  

If you DO have to run downwind to avoid some obstacle, I'd suggest this.   While still going upwind, slacken the jib a little and recleat, then do a tack and totally slacken the mainsheet.   The boat should then lay 'hove to' and be moving at 1-2knts only. Adjust the helm and the now 'backed-jib' a little, to stay about 30 degrees off the wind.   Then lower the mainsail.    Once rolled away, you can safely bear off under jib alone.  Sit a little back in the boat and enjoy the ride.   Reading Sail Tips-4 on 'sailing waves downwind' may help here.

Overall, it was still ‘another great day on the water’ and the refresher on ‘sailing the fine line through the rough stuff’ was both fun and stimulating.     Maintaining safe sea-room (space between yourself and a potentially hostile downwind shore) is greatly helped by a boat that can still work its way upwind in rough water, something the W17 has proven it can do very well if one sails efficiently and does not panic.  And if it's shallow, the W17 only needs about 300mm of board down too!   I should also add that even though the W17 is surprisingly dry, having a self-draining cockpit is a huge safety aspect that all open cruising boats should have IMHO.   In 7 seasons ... and sometimes 'pushing things', I have taken solid water over the main beam just 4 times, giving about 1" in the cockpit.    It was gone in less than 30 seconds with zero effort or concern from me.

I hope this will help to add to ‘your bag of tricks’ that we call experience.   At least I was still able to slip out my tiny YI-Action Camera and snap a few pics, and on Magic, I didn’t even get it wet ;)     Try that on a day like this, on a Windrider, Hobie or WETA !

Lake Champlain - USA, in sustained 30kt winds


Not sure about you, but my best think-time for Eureka moments is always when I first wake up. And this morning I woke with concerns that some dinghy-cruising monohullers who read this article will think I’m nuts!    The mere thought of slowing down to 5kts while going up-wind in waves’ is hardly something they will relate to, judging by articles I read, YouTubes I view or even youthful memories from my own dinghy cruising days.   The difference in upwind performance of a strong, well designed trimaran with good under-beam clearance, adequate ama (float) volume and efficient rig is really ‘night and day’.  Couple that to the ‘free’ stability that a trimaran offers and it’s a lot less stressful in such a boat than in a monohull dinghy where your personal location of weight is constantly critical just to avoid a capsize!     Although I plan to write a full article next fall on ‘the differences of cruising in a trimaran compared to a monohull dinghy’, let me explain here just one of the reasons I now love trimarans … especially as I get older.   I still want relatively high performance, but I’m no longer able to spend an hour hanging over the gunwale and getting soaked, just to get it!

With a trimaran, the leeward float does all the work for me in, by far, the most efficient way.   You’d have to load two 300 lb guys on your dinghy gunwale to get the stability my W17 (and others like it) offers and they’d also have to be agile enough to move in and out with the big puffs too.   My leeward ama does all that totally automatically … progressively adding more up-thrust from its buoyancy as the sail-load tries to heel the craft.    And this up-thrust has a near ZERO weight penalty, unlike the EXTRA 600 lbs of crew on the dinghy rail that additionally sinks and slows the boat.   With the trimaran, as the ama is pressed down, the main hull is slightly lifted out … automatically moving the center of buoyancy farther outboard where it’s now far more effective.

Couple that with good wave clearance, slim hulls and a more efficient rig, and you may start to understand how and why these boats are so rewarding to sail.    Yes, they can be tricky to tack in rough water but the good ones go upwind like a train. On my boat, 10-11 kts is common upwind in waves below 12” and that’s double the best speed of most cruising dinghies.  It’s also effortless and dry, so perhaps this will put the above article in better context.     Stay tuned for more on cruising these great boats.                 

Here is an introduction,  but look for many more on Cruising the W17, by the fall of 2022 ]

Mainsheet Cleat Adjustment:     This is an important thing to look after on ANY boat but particularly on a stable trimaran as we quickly get used to sailing these boats 'all cleated up'.    This is generally fine and I do it myself 95% of the time. But when we DO need to release, we need it 'quick and finite'.   This will only happen if the cleat is setup to be hard-to-engage but easy-to-release - and there are no tangles!    A quick, straight pull should instantly release the sheet and here is how to set that up.  

The mount for the camcleat must be set very high, so that a straight tug will easily & immediately pull the sheet 'down and out'. This will mean that you may need to even stand to LIFT it high enough to engage.  Check your set up and adjust to suit could well save a capsize or worse.   Jib-sheet cleats are more often set LOWER than the straight line, but should still release when the sheet is pulled straight.    But don't forget, even if cleated, frequently check that ALL your sheets are free to run and still hold the mainsheet loosely in your hand.  

For larger multihulls (over 7.5m), I really recommend an auto mainsheet release as most capsizes I see prove that the mainsheet was never actually released! ... typically from one of 3 reasons.  1) load became physically too high to release; 2) skipper was otherwise occupied and not holding the mainsheet; 3) a certain panic set in that effectively froze quick action.    Any one interested in an Auto Release is encouraged to write to me.

Footnote on use of an Action Camera in rough conditions

I am sure there are many more experts out there than I on taking pictures, but here is what I’ve learned.  First, unless filming underwater, I do not use a waterproof housing as I find they are cumbersome and often mist up inside, making them rather useless if the camera heats up.

                                   (See here :

I DO however put them in a thin silicone case, as it makes them non-slip and lightly spray-proof.   I can then use one, easily held by one hand, with a conscious effort to keep it level with the horizon.  In very ‘busy conditions’ (as for these storms), I do not attempt to take stills, as it’s too ‘hit and miss’.   I set the camera to auto-start in VIDEO mode and then just ‘point & shoot’ for 4-5 secs only in the area I want to capture, with the camera pre-set for its highest video resolution.   Then later, after down-loading the video, I can pause the screen on ‘the best shot’, take a screenshot and then crop the image to suit.     Now compared to a 12Mb still shot that this tiny camera can also take, the screenshot file is WAY smaller, but as pics for a webpage are not very demanding, the 200-800 Kb pic I can capture is sufficiently adequate to illustrate some point I wish to make or share.    

Note that most of the tiny Action Cameras cases have loose lens covers.   As these are far too easy to lose, I attach a short length of fishing twine between the lens and the camera case so that it can just hang down when off the lens.     I find that with the broad view that these cameras cover, there’s little need to use the viewfinder and in my case, my vision is not good enough to see the dark screen anyway.

Fortunately, there is an audible signal for each operating mode, which makes it easy and effective.  Of course, the camera can also be set up on a fixed extension and then controlled by either a small remote or even from a smart phone app if weather conditions permit.     Please send along anything interesting!                                                       

Mike, 2020

Copyright Mike Waters:  2018-2021
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