When you're sailing upwind (in close reach) and there comes a stronger blast of wind, how should a skipper behave?

One approach is to turn away from the wind because modern yachts are constructed so that weather helm occurs in stronger wind and the skipper wants to prevent the boat from going into the wind and because the true wind accelerates, so the angle of apparent wind changes and moves more to the back, making the yacht sail more downwind than before.

The other is to turn towards the source of wind because the closer they get to the no-go zone, the slower will the yacht sail and on the edge of no-go zone yacht sail almost upwards, without the lean.

Which is right?

  • Kind of depends on what situation and what you want to avoid and accomplish...
    – Jon Custer
    Jan 11, 2019 at 17:18
  • Yeah, it's really dependent on the situation. Having done more fluvial navigation myself, keeping the same heading is often more important so simply letting go on the sheets might be the best course of action. That's why I'm hesitant to answer the either/or question.
    – Gabriel
    Jan 11, 2019 at 19:17
  • 2
    I'd like to upvote this several times: More sailing questions please! :D I thought about a bounty, and while I obviously appreciate quality answers just as much as questions, I am just not the right person to "judge" answers.
    – imsodin
    Jan 18, 2019 at 10:08
  • I answered your question as if your point was how to best make use of the wind, but re-reading it I wonder if you mean "what will the skipper need to do with the helm to maintain course?" In which case the answer is to fight the weather helm or the lee helm depending on how the vessel is balanced. Is that your question?
    – Tuorg
    Jan 20, 2019 at 18:52

3 Answers 3


If your concern is regarding broaching, then the two actions you take are:

  • allow the head to come towards the wind, reducing the sideways force. This can be instant.
  • if needed, slacken the main, depowering the sail. Unlike in a dinghy, where this can also be an instant move, in a yacht this is a bit slower.

But unless the wind suddenly increases and you have no chance to reef, this is not really a concern in a modern yacht. Your keel is actually very effective. Regarding reefing, your planning for that day or that leg of a trip should include wind strength and reefing sails accordingly.

In reality a yacht skipper should be continually using the wheel to steer to wind and wave conditions, in the same way a dinghy skipper should use the tiller and sheets continually.

Weather helm is designed in as a safety feature - it unpowers the sails. After the gust you can simply return to your original heading. If you don't mind increasing your list, you can always keep on the original heading through the gust - depends what your crew/guests feel comfortable with, really.

  • 4
    "what your crew/guests feel comfortable with". I think that instrument is called a Scream-o-Meter.
    – Gabriel
    Jan 14, 2019 at 15:05
  • 4
    Sometimes I sail with folks who are happiest at 45 degrees. Other times I have folks who don't want to spill their gin and tonic. It varies :-)
    – Rory Alsop
    Jan 14, 2019 at 15:27

Generally, hold your course

If there isn't a directional change and the wind doesn't exceed your vessel's ability to carry it under your current sail configuration, don't change a thing. Benefit from the puff. If the puff is sustained, you may be able to point slightly higher (if that's desirable because your objective is further to windward than your course-made-good) and still maintain your best speed through the water if you are already at it.

On the other hand, if you're carrying too much sail for that amount of wind easing the sails to dump the excess air is indicated. If it is more than a mere burst, but a sustained increase, and an increase in excess of your vessel's current configuration, shorten sail.


If it's a gust of death, dump sails a bit, don't fully release them, and point up. If you have the hands and time jib first. Short handed and too late, you can hopefully reach main and helm almost simultaneously.

It's good to practice this so it's committed to reflexive memory, and doesn't need you to think too much when it's a surprise.

You really want to avoid being caught rotten so although it's not directly answering the question I'll share a bit on avoidance and consequences.

In my experience these kind of shock blasts that are way over the nominal wind speed often occur in the lee of land with high mountains. You can reduce the chances of this nasty surprise by keeping more offshore where there are high peaks. If you need to sail through this kind of area, you should try and make sure it's daylight, and keep your eyes on the water in the direction of the wind so you can spot them coming. If that is also not possible, it would be prudent to reef down a lot more than you might think needed.

A monohull keelboat should as previous answer be able to absorb the impact and recover. It may also broach, reducing the rudder's grip, and thus allowing to boat to naturally point up. In a proper knock down things indoors will be very messy and people not tethered on deck can easily be lost overboard.

If you are on a catamaran, things are very different. It doesn't have the natural circuit breaking tendency and will try to convert all energy into speed until it suddenly can't, something either breaks or it capsizes.

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