Squalls – What are they?

Look out – there’s a squall coming your way!  Squalls can occur in any hemisphere as a sharp and sudden increase in wind speed. They’re often associated with oncoming changes in the weather like rain showers or thunderstorms and can also occur before snowstorms. Squalls provide a sustained increase in wind speed but may also have gusts of higher speeds within them.

The origin of the word ‘squall’ is not known however one theory is that it is related to the old Norse word ‘skvala’ to squeal.1 The World Metrological Organization definition of a squall requires the wind to increase a minimum of 8 m/s and to attain a top speed of a minimum of 11 m/s and must last at least one minute.


Squalls – What to do

So what should you do if you’ve kept an eye on your weather but you still get caught in squally conditions? Here are some suggestions:

Stay out of the way – If you can find a safe harbour or coastline that will shelter you from the worst then stay there or get there. But be careful if you are trying to outrun the oncoming storm – staying in deep water may be a safer option if you cannot guarantee to avoid the shallows (they may get choppy) – no yachtsman wants to get caught on a lee shore. In difficult conditions, it is also sensible to avoid natural hazards, tricky navigation and complex passages.

Secure your yacht – Close and batten hatches, reduce or strike sails, secure your dinghy on deck, ensure your topsides are neat and tidy, note your position and your navigation plan. If you’ve made it to a safe anchoring spot ensure your anchor is dug in and let out the extra chain. Consider your swinging circle. Fix your wheel or tiller in the centre so that your boat does not swing unnecessarily.

If you believe that an electrical storm is approaching i.e. you experience thunder or lightning, go below if possible. Put on your shoes, stay low but never lie down and avoid touching metal, if possible unplug your electronics. Lower antennas. Stay out of the water.2

If no electrical storm is coming you might consider getting the most experienced boat handler to gently motor forward into the wind in order to take the pressure off the anchor. If the rain or sea spray is driving into your face consider wearing swimming goggles.

Maintain station – If you’re at sea – you might choose to motor slowly forward head to wind and tackle waves at an angle of 200 – but avoid presenting the stern of the boat to the wind which then risks swamping and also avoid presenting the side of the boat which could risk broaching or capsizing. To maintain the control you may need to throttle up the face of steep waves and once over the wave slow down to allow the wave to pass beneath you. This may assist you in avoiding slamming into the waves or hitting the trough on the other side. Motor sailing is possible with small amounts of sail and may assist to steady the boat. Consider reefing your sails or using storm sails.

Heave-To – Consider your sea room and visibility first and only if there is no danger from other shipping and there is sufficient space to allow a gentle drift downwind can you heave to. By backing the jib whilst it is sheeted on the opposite tack and holding the rudder on the opposite lock to the backed sheet the yacht will drift gradually downwind at a very slow speed. But don’t wait until you have to do it, practice heaving-to in calm weather.


1 From “Squall” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, 11 Jul. 2016. Web. 26 Aug.
2 Tips adapted from: http://www.boatus.com/magazine/2015/october/when-a-squall-comes-calling.asp


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