This article is an excerpt from NauticEd’s online Skipper Large Keelboats Course, a comprehensive online sailing course for beginner to intermediate sailors to learn how to sail large sailboats 26 ft (8m) and above. The Skipper Large Keelboats course is part of the Skipper Course Bundle of online courses, also teaching you how to master maneuvering under power and docking!

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Sailing Heave To

What Is Heave-To?

When you have successfully hove-to (heaved-to), your sailboat will be in a stable situation with the mainsail and headsail still up. Your forward speed will be minimal and you’ll be sliding down-wind slightly. Essentially you’re under full sail but nearly stopped! Cool eh?

This makes it an ideal strategy for the following situations:

  1. Lunch, simply taking a rest, or instructor debriefing
  2. Storm tactics and reefing
  3. Conditions are too rough and you need a break
  4. Man overboard recovery
  5. Boarding by another vessel (crew change during a race, or law enforcement safety inspection)

How to Heave-To and Its Mechanics

The books say that to heave-to, you tack the boat and leave the headsail cleated to windward and the tiller all the way to leeward (wheel to windward). While that is technically correct, there are a lot more things to consider and understand in order to correctly heave-to.

In a heave-to, the mechanics dictate that the forward speed of the boat has dropped to a minimum because the headsail is back-winded and the mainsail has been eased out far enough to reduce nearly all of the forward driving lift on the sail. The back-winded headsail creates a large turning moment on the boat to turn it downwind. However, as the boat turns downwind, the boat tends to pick up a little speed. As the boat picks up a little speed, the windward locked wheel causes the rudder to turn the boat back upwind, killing the speed. It creates a little see-saw action. You can adjust the see-saw by adjusting the set of the headsail, the mainsail, and the rudder angle. Each boat will see-saw a little differently in differing wind conditions. Once the boat is settled, by making small adjustments to the angle of the rudder, the amount of the mainsail is eased, and by the “depth” or flatness of the headsail, a skilled operator can make very useful adjustments to the exact way in which the boat is lying to the wind and seas. Practice practice practice! When that storm comes, you’ll be glad.

Watch the animation and hit pause throughout to read the explanations.


Heave To Animation

While the animation period above is about 12 seconds, in real life the see-saw cycle takes about 30 seconds to 1 minute.

A Cool Trick about Heaving-To!

Try to lie in a heave-to position so that your boom is on the port side. Why? So that you’re technically sailing “on starboard tack,” putting you in a more advantageous stand-on position with regard to the Navigation Rules vis-a-vis other sailboats’ “on port” tack. Wouldn’t want to disturb our lunch now, would we? It’s not a big deal but just something most people may not have considered.

How to Heave-To

You’ll enjoy having this little skill under your belt once you’ve mastered it. But you’ve got to practice it a few times. To enter into a hove-to position, if practical, start out on a port tack with the headsail sheeted in tight. Tack the boat slowly onto a starboard tack (bleeding off some speed while head-to-wind) but leave the headsail cleated (i.e., don’t tack the headsail). Turn the boat so you’re a close reach (60 degrees off the wind) and let out the mainsail most of the way out so it is luffing. Now wait until the rest of the boat’s headway speed bleeds off. Once the speed has bled off, turn the wheel all the way to windward (tiller to leeward), lock it, and leave it in that position.

heave To

Heave-To for Lunch, MOB, or in a Storm

Heaving-To in a Storm

It’s really important to realize the wisdom of heaving-to in a storm. With one huge caveat; since you slowly slide sideways through the water, make sure you have plenty of sea-room distance to leeward to avoid rocks, shoals, or the other hard stuff (like land!). Heaving-to in a storm gives you and your crew a rest from the elements. And it can be a safer means of riding out a storm rather than trying to sail it out. In a heave-to position, the boat is in a completely stable position. You should probably lower or deeply reef the main or raise a storm tri-sail (very small mainsail) as well as a small headsail to reduce loads on the rig. Here’s a really cool kicker: Since the boat will be slipping sideways, a wake is left to windward. Any breaking waves hit this “slick” and flatten out, thus reducing the wave action on your vessel. Now that’s really cool.

A Heave-To Trick

When you’ve settled down into the heave-to position and everything is balanced, use a preventer line to “prevent” the boom slapping around wildly in sudden gusts, save wear on the rig, prevent an accidental gybe, or worse a bonk on the head.

Using Heave-To in a Man Overboard Situation

Heaving-to can be very effective in a man-overboard situation. The moment the victim goes over the side you can crash tack the boat and move immediately into a heave-to position. Be sure the victim is able to swim and that they do not get hurt while falling. Heaving-to in a man-overboard situation isn’t often taught and therefore isn’t considered in the panic of the situation. It’s your decision to heave- to or not in this situation, but it will keep you from getting too far away from your friend in the water, which is clearly the biggest danger.

Ultimately, in a man-overboard situation, we recommend turning on the engine and getting the sails down. The biggest danger from turning on the engines is not chopping your friend up—you’re smart enough not to do that—but rather getting a line wrapped around the prop in all the panic and then not being able to maneuver. So just make that part of your “engines-on” routine in crew overboard practice. Next time you’re out practice man (or woman) overboard.

But we digress. Back to heave-to: So there you have it, you’re now a heave-to expert. NOT! You haven’t practiced it enough yet! And while you’re out there practicing it, have fun.

Exiting a Heave-To Position

There are two simple ways to exit a heave-to. Either of these depends on where you want to head next.

  1. Release the jib sheet, straighten the wheel or tiller, and haul in on the main sheet OR
  2. Gybe out of heave to by turning the rudder the other way (wheel to leeward or tiller to windward) and gybing the mainsail. Use normal gybe precautions. Don’t do this in high wind conditions.

You can learn more in the Skipper Course....

Knowledge and theory for longer distances and overnight sailing in diverse conditions. The Skipper Course is a comprehensive online sailing course for beginner to intermediate sailors wanting to learn how to sail larger sailboats 26ft to 56ft. Or upgrade to the Skipper Course Bundle of online courses to also master maneuvering under power and docking!

Source: Skipper
Topic: Sailing Maneuvers
Authors: Grant Headifen, NauticEd Global Director of Education
NauticEd is a fully recognized education and certification platform for sailing students combining online and on-the-water real instruction (and now VR). NauticEd offers +24 online courses, a free sailor's toolkit that includes 2 free courses, and six ranks of certification – all integrated into NauticEd’s proprietary platform. The USCG and NASBLA recognize NauticEd as having met the established American National Standards.