How To Heave To A Sailboat


Heaving to is considered to be a passive storm tactic. This is because you won’t be sailing actively. Instead, you will be simply riding out the storm. On a casual day, with no storms, heaving to is an ideal way of taking a break, enjoying your surroundings, and maybe having lunch.

In the majority of the instances, expert and beginning sailors heave to when they are in waters far too deep to consider using the sailing anchor. In some instances, heaving becomes useful when the sailors need to stop the sailboat for a short period of time at the shore.

If you fail to heave properly, you could end up compromising boating safety. To ensure that this does not happen, we will be showing you how to heave to.

What Does Heaving To Means?

Heaving on a sailboat can be equated to putting the engines on a powerboat in neutral. The powerboat engines will be ready to go, but forward thrust will be non-existent. Instead, the boat will be simply drifting through the water at a slow pace. Similarly, on a sailboat, the sails will be up and ready to power the boat forward, but the sailboat will be simply drifting along the water surface.

In the simplest form, you should be able to heave by backing the sailboat’s mainsail. You will need to sheet the headsail on the windward side, as opposed to sheeting it on the leeward side.

During the normal sailing conditions, the leeward sheet is usually the working sheet while the windward sheet is generally the lazy sheet. When you heave to, the roles get reversed. The windward sheet will be the working sheet, pulling the sail clew into the wind and backing your headsail.

When the headsail gets backed into the wind, it will end up pulling the bow to the leeward side. It will serve as an air brake to any forward motion.

If the headsail was the only sail set when you are heaving-to, the sailboat would end up being blown to leeward, jibed, and then eventually set on the run. To ensure that this does not happen, the mainsail is usually set to oppose the already backed headsail.

As the headsail pulls your sailboat bow to the leeward side, the mainsail ends up coming into the wind and hence pushing the sailboat back to the windward. The constant tug of war existing between the sails generally results in no forward motion.

Basically, to heave to, you need to do the following:

  • Back the headsail to the windward
  • Set the mainsail to the leeward
  • Turn the helm to the windward

In the following section, we will be showing you the steps you need to follow to achieve this.

A Step by Step Guide on How to Heave to

If after wearing your sailing jacket you find yourself in a situation that requires you to heave, you will need to simply follow the steps below:

Step 1: Bring your sailboat into the close-hauled point of sail. This is the closest you can sail efficiently to the wind. The bearing for the point of sail is between 11 and 1 o’clock. Make sure that both the jib and mainsail are trimmed in tight.

Step 2: Tack across the wind. Unlike when tacking normally, you will need to tack without releasing the jib sheet.

Step 3: Once you get on the new tack, you will notice that the wind blowing into the backed jib will be trying to blow the sailboat’s bow away from the wind. Using your boat steering wheel, turn the rudder to keep the sailboat toward the wind on the new track. The force of the mainsail should try to move the sailboat toward the wind, as the jib force tries to push your boat away.

If you notice that the sailboat’s bow keeps turning away from the wind, you should try putting the rudder hard over to turn the bow into the wind. Additionally, you should ensure that the mainsail is sheeted in tight.

If everything you try doing does not help you keep the sailboat from being blown back around, then, you should try reducing the size of the headsail. With the furling jib, try bringing in enough of the sail so that the sailboat’s bow does not end up being blown off completely when you back-wind the sail.

It is important to note that you can try easing the sailboat’s jib sheet a little. This will reduce the size of the backed sail.

Step 4: As necessary, adjust both the rudder and mainsheet position until the forces balance out. When the forces balance out, your sailboat should stay steady, relative to the wind. In the majority of the cases, this should be roughly sixty degrees off the wind.

It is not uncommon for the mainsail’s power to threaten to tack the boat again, against the backwinded jib. If this happens, you can improve the sailing safety by simply letting out some main sheet. While still wearing your sailing gloves, keep the rudder over as if you intend to turn into the wind and tack. Make sure that the mainsail is further out.

This should ensure that the sailboat does not feature enough forward drive to tack against the jib. It should settle into the heaving-to position.

Step 5: To ensure that the rudder stays in position, you will need to lash the wheel or the tiller. Your sailboat should stay heaved to unless a huge wave or a sudden gust throws the boat off the position.

It is important to note that these are just basic steps. As you probably know, different types of boats exist. Each boat may act differently.

If you will be using a more modern boat once you wear your sailing shorts and pants, some adjustments to the above steps may be necessary. Practicing how to heave every time you put on your sailing boots should make the whole heaving to process much easier for you.

Factors Affecting How a Sailboat Heaves to


As we have already pointed out, when it comes to heaving, some simple adjustments are often necessary when you are using different sailboats. The factors influencing the adjustments include.

The Length of the Sailboat’s Keel

If your sailboat features a longer keel, heaving should be much easier for you. Generally, the ease of heaving increases as the length of the boat’s keel increases.

A sailboat featuring a fin keel, in contrast, can spin. This means that when you are heaving to, you will need to be more cautious to ensure that the boat is properly balanced.

The Size of the Headsail/Jib

The ease of heaving generally reduces as the size of the headsail/jib increases. This means that the larger the headsail, the tougher it will be for you to heave to.

This is because as the size of the headsail increases, the amount of wind blowing the boat also increases. If the headsail is too big, the wind could end up blowing the sailboat off the wind completely, irrespective of the mainsail driving force.

The Size of the Mainsail

The smaller the sailboat’s mainsail about the jib/headsail, the harder it will be for you to heave to. This for the same reason we have explained above. If you have reefed the sailboat mainsail and the boat features a huge jib that is yet to be furled, heaving to may be impossible.

Is There a Difference Between Lying A-Hull and Heaving to?

If you are not very familiar with sailing terms, you may wonder whether lying a-hull and heaving to are the same thing. When lying a-hull, all you will need to do is take down the sails, turn your boat beam to the sea and then just allow the sailboat to take any course.

If you have come across storms when out sailing, you probably already know that waves are always breaking. If the sailboat gets hit beam on by a wave featuring a bigger size than the sailboat’s beamwidth, it could end up capsizing. What this tells you is that when you are out in a storm featuring waves exceeding 30 feet, you should focus your effort on heaving to, instead of lying a-hull.

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If the sea becomes unmanageable when you are out sailing, heaving to is an ideal way to park the boat and wait for the bad weather to pass. If you heave to properly, the motion of the sailboat should ease and the wind’s fury should abate. You should get an opportunity to assess the situation you are in and even survey the damage.

To heave properly, you need to practice. Keep in mind that if you know the theory but haven’t practiced it in the past, the theory may not help you when you get in tough situations, where fast action is necessary.

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My name is David Hamburg. I am an avid water sports fan who enjoys paddle boarding, surfing, scuba diving, and kite surfing. Anything with a board or chance I can get in the water I love! I am such a big fan I decided to start this website to review all my favorite products and some others. Hope you enjoy!