How to Heave To – Complete GUIDE

Published Categorized as Maintenance and Fixing Guides, Living On A Boat

Sailboats are a little bit like airplanes in some ways. Their sails work like wings, sure. But they also cannot be stopped. If you want to come to a stop in a car, you can stomp on the brakes. If you are in a powerboat, you can kill power to the motor and drift to a stop. But what do you do in a sailboat, when the sails will continue producing power once they are set – just like a plane cannot stop in the sky.

The answer might surprise you. An airplane can’t stop, but a sailboat can – sort of. The answer lies in a maneuver called heaving to.

Table of Contents

sailing the southern ocean

What Does Heave To Mean?

The heaving to sailing maneuver is one that every skipper should be familiar with. It’s much handier than it might sound.

It’s roughly akin to coming to a stop in a powerboat and drifting. But the sails are still up, so the boat is much more stable than a powerboat would be. A better comparison might be a powerboat with stabilizers and can automatically hold a position relative to the waves for a comfortable ride.

Once hoveto, a boat makes little progress to windward or leeward—its motion stops to the point that its ground speed will be less than two knots or so. But one of the best things about heaving-to is that you can do it in a flash—meaning it’s a way to slam on the brakes and stop your forward movement if someone goes over or you need to fix something on board immediately.

Why else might you want to try heave to sailing? Here’s a list of times when skippers have found it helpful to heave to.

  • To take a break from sailing for a while, maybe to get some sleep or make dinner when in heavy weather
  • To wait outside a dangerous cut or inlet until dawn or a move favorable tide for entry
  • To reduce pressures on the rig to make a repair
  • To ease the motion on deck so as to make going forward safer or more comfortable
  • To make it easier to put a reef in the mainsail 
  • To come to an immediate stop in order to retrieve an object or even recover a man overboard 
  • With reefed sails, to ride out a storm at sea

A Guide to Heaving To in Your Own Boat

Figuring out how to heave two in your boat isn’t very difficult, but it will take a little practice. Because each boat handles a little differently, has a different amount of windage and sail area, there can be no precise guide for the exact setup that will work best. 

Instead of focusing on specifics, like speed or direction of drift, look to get the basics set up and then fine-tune the ride for your boat when heaving to

Any kind of sailboat can be hove to. The technique works well for full-keel cruisers, fin-keel racers, catamarans, trimarans, cutters, or ketches–regardless of sail plan or sail size. But to figure out the best way to get your boat hove to, the best solution is to go out and practice!

It’s worth noting that you might want to plan which tack to take once you’re in the heave to position. If you take the starboard tack, you will have the right of way over other sailing vessels on the port tack. Even though you’ve stopped your forward movement, you are still technically considered to be sailing under way.

Windward Sheet Handling

Basically, a heave to is begun by slowly tacking through the eye of the wind. But instead of allowing the windward sheet to run and letting the headsail swing across the bow, you keep the windward sheet made fast on the cleat. 

The backwinded jib is the first step to getting the boat to stop. The headsail drives air over the main, so you are depriving the boat of all of that power by backwinding it. 

Once the jib is backwinded, the boat’s bow will start falling off to downwind. Use the helm to keep the boat’s bow at about 45 to 60 degrees off the wind, sort of at a close haul angle.

Main Sail Trim

The main sail may still be producing a little bit of lift at this point. The next step is to fine-tune that. It should be sheeted tightly for the tack, and now it’s a good time to let it out a little.

Keep in mind, though, that you don’t want the sail luffing. Luffing and flogging sails can be damaged easily, not to mention that the sound can really wear a sailor down. You want the sail to be right on the edge of producing what power it can with the jib backwinded. If the boat moves and the sail starts producing power, you want it to start to luff and fall off.

In the end, heaving to is a balance between the boat sailing and it not sailing. It may oscillate a bit, but any time it starts picking up speed or falling off to leeward, it should stop. 

Rudder Position

The final component in the equation is the rudder position. To keep the backed jib from making the boat fall off into a run, you will have had to turn the helm sharply to windward. In this setup, the sail pushed the boat one way, and the rudder counters it going the other. 

Of course, the amount of rudder force will change as the boat slows down. So it’s most likely that you’ll leave the rudder locked at its stop. But you can tinker with it as necessary, especially if the boat is heading to irons or running the risk of tacking back on the original side.

When in doubt, tinker with the mainsail. Its trim and traveler position will have the most significant effects. 

What to Expect when Hove To

So you’ve successfully hove to and figured out how to do it in your boat. You’ve tried several sail configurations, found the best hove to position, and just the right balance on the controls. Now what?

The benefits of heaving to might not be readily apparent until you’ve started cruising significant distances and embarking on multi-day passages. In coastal boating, the need to hove to seldom arises beyond getting some practice.

But on longer trips, crew fatigue becomes a much bigger problem. The sea state and strong winds often make a key part of that, as how the boat moving adds to the physically demanding nature of being out in heavy seas is hard to imagine without experiencing it a few times.

Heaving to is a great way to find the right balance of keeping the bow into oncoming waves in bad sea states while at the same time giving the crew a rest period.

Getting Out of the Hove To Position

Ready to move on? You can get out of the maneuver in one of two ways–either release the rudder and allow the boat to fall off on the new tack or sheet in the mainsail and go back on the original tack. The direction you pick will have to do with any other sailboats out there with you and how your boat handles in the conditions present.

Heaving To Modifications and Other Setups to Consider

Again, finding the correct setup to heave to successfully is all about trial and error. For it to work, you’re best off to go out in fairly calm conditions and see how it goes. Then practice every time you get a chance, progressively working up to understand how the boat handles in any condition.

One word of advice is not to take too much advice. Many people will tell you that such and such a boat won’t heave to, or that it won’t work. The more likely fact is that they just haven’t gone out and tried, or they tried once and didn’t know what to tinker with. 

Heaving To On a Catamaran

One of the most common complaints you’ll hear is that people have trouble getting catamarans to heave to. This is because catamarans have an incredible amount of windage on their topsides, which gives them more tendency to fall off to leeward sooner.

One technique is often described as parking a cat. This technique is like heaving to in a monohull, only the headsail is completely furled. Next, a heavily reefed mainsail is traveled all the way to leeward and sheeted hard in. Remember, the main is usually trimmed with the traveler and shaped with the sheet on cats. Finally, the rudders are turned hard to windward. The result should be a comfortable sideways drift at less than one knot.

How to Heave To with a Self-Tacking Headsail

Self-tacking headsails are great for short-handed sailing. Imagine tacking your boat without doing any winch work at all! If you short-tack up rivers or like to beat to windward often, a self-tacker is a miracle worker.

Self-tacking headsails have been around quite a while, although they are becoming more popular on recent models that feature fractional rigs with big mains. But if you look at the staysails on many cutters, you will notice that they are boom mounted on self-tending tracks. So if you can’t sheet the headsail in to backwind it, how can you heave to.

There are two methods you could employ, and which one you choose will depend on your boat and the conditions. 

The first option is to rig a preventer to keep your headsail lashed on the windward side. This is an extra step, and it might be difficult if you want the ability to heave to at a moment’s notice. Rigging your preventer to the cockpit is one solution.

Another way is to forego the headsail altogether–furl it or drop it. Catamarans, fin-keel boats, and even some full-keel boats with cutaway forefoot can heave to just fine on a reefed mainsail alone.

Storm Jib and Storm Trysail Heaving To

Finally, sail selection will dramatically affect your heaving to success and technique. If you’re using heaving to as a storm tactic, don’t discount using it along with storm sails. A storm jib and storm trysail can be hove to like any other combination, although it is something you’d want to practice before trying it in stormy weather and rough conditions.

Practice Makes Perfect—Even When Trying to Stop

Every boat handles a little differently, and many skippers experience varying success with heaving to depending on the boat and the conditions. Start by practicing and getting a feel for how a hove to boat moves and remains stable. Then, expect to tinker with the setup a little to get it right.

Want to learn more about storm sailing, and practical boat handling in general? One of the best resources out there is the timeless classic by Lin and Larry Pardy, Storm Sailing Tactics.

Heaving To FAQs

What does it mean to hove to?

A sailboat that is hove to has stopped its forward progress but still has its sails up. Heaving to is a way of positioning the sails to counteract each other. A vessel that heaves to is stopped in the water yet still in a stable position to take on rough seas or storm conditions. Heaving to is a handy maneuver for skippers to know, whether used as a storm sailing tactic, to rescue a person in the water, to make a rigging repair, or as a simple way to stop for a snack or to cook something.

Should you heave to in a storm?

It depends on the storm, but it also depends on the boat and crew. Heaving to is a well-known storm tactic that reduces the boat’s motion and helps reduce fatigue and stress on both the crew and the vessel. A correctly set up vessel can lie hove-to for as long as it takes for the weather to pass, so long as there are no hazards as the vessel drifts slowly to leeward. In many instances, heaving to is preferable to other storm tactics available to a skipper, such as laying ahull, bearing off, using a sea anchor, or fore reaching.

By Matt C

Matt has been boating around Florida for over 25 years in everything from small powerboats to large cruising catamarans. He currently lives aboard a 38-foot Cabo Rico sailboat with his wife Lucy and adventure dog Chelsea. Together, they cruise between winters in The Bahamas and summers in the Chesapeake Bay.