This is the question I have been mulling over today. Let me describe the situation. I am due to skipper a yacht this weekend for a sailing school in the Solent. This yacht, and its crew, is supposed to be crossing the English Channel in a mad, mile-building, dash – Cherbourg and back in a weekend. OK, you say immediately, that is a big ask on any weekend, in any weather and I would tend to agree with you.
With a Channel crossing, various elements need to line up in order for it to be a successful enterprise and a reasonably pleasant experience. From the Solent, or many places along the south coast of the UK, to northern France – Cherbourg, say – it is at least 70nm one way. That makes it at least a 12 hour crossing for the average cruising yacht which suggests at least two changes of tide stream in the Channel. Given the prevailing south-westerly/ westerly wind direction in this part of the world, half of the trip is likely to be in a wind over tide situation.
So, it makes sense to wait for neap tides and moderate breezes.
Which brings me back to this weekend: it is a period of spring tides and high wind (forecast 20-40knots, gusting more.) Too windy to go sailing? Too windy to make this particular passage? To answer the first of these questions it is worth thinking things through carefully. To answer the second doesn’t take much thought: yes it is!
There are various reasons why we go sailing in yachts, not the least of which is for the ‘experience’. All yachtsmen should experience heavy weather in a measured way in order to prepare them for the unforeseen scenario when the weather suddenly turns nasty on passage. Indeed, sailing schools will market this ‘experience’ so that reasonably novice sailors can get a feel for long miles and ‘real’ weather in the company of a suitably qualified instructor. This is excellent learning even if the experience turns out to be more of an ordeal than expected – seasickness, tiredness and plunging morale can all occur.
At some point, however, issues of safety to sailors and boat come to the fore – and this is crux of the issue. If the experience is likely – within the bounds of weather forecasting error – to result in real risk to crew and boat it is almost certainly too windy to go sailing at least in the direction and by the route proposed. As skippers we pride ourselves (or should do!) on our seamanship and this generally leaves me with a gut feeling that something is on or it isn’t. However, that is not to say that all sailing is out of the question and that it must be a weekend practising knots and updating charts. The following thoughts come to mind:
- Downwind sailing is usually a more pleasant experience than bashing upwind, although a significant swell may make the motion uncomfortable for some. So, a downwind dash under genoa alone to a friendly haven and a good pint may well be an enjoyable experience.
- Knowing how your boat handles under various wind strengths and sea states is very valuable; if you know that she quite likes three reefs and a storm jib you should feel more confident about cruising her far from home. So an hour or two in sheltered waters may be excellent training for all involved.
- An experienced and hardy crew may well be up for a ‘blow’ and be prepared to set off. Ultimately, however, it is the skipper’s responsibility to assess the circumstances and make an informed decision as to everyone’s safety.
- A heavy yacht with a well protected cockpit will make for a better heavy weather yacht than a lightweight flyer, at least upwind.
So, any decision regarding whether it is too windy to go sailing will depend very much on an assessment of boat capability, crew capability and likely weather and sea state scenarios. Finally, if you do set off, make sure you have already done the preparation for alternative ‘port of refuge’ passages because you certainly won’t feel like doing the prep down below when the wind is howling and your wits are dulled by seasickness.