Sailing upwind in the middle of the world’s oceans gave Chris Brooks plenty of experience handling big weather conditions. He shares his knowledge here with Andy Rice.

Across 45,000 miles of steering around the world on the Clipper Race, sailing upwind safely in survival conditions becomes routine.

But it’s something never to be taken for granted, and there are systems and routines to keep the risk of breakage and injury to a minimum.

“In a long offshore race, think at least three hours ahead – ideally more – so you can plan for what’s about to hit you. Getting things in place, with the rig set-up, the sail selection, the crew preparation, all those things are much easier to organise ahead of time before the big conditions arrive,” says Brooks.

Here are his five top tips for sailing upwind safely and quickly in big upwind conditions.

Keep to deep water

It’s important to stay in deep water wherever possible and be careful of hazardous areas, such as sand bars or any kind of shallow water.

Soon after the start of the last Fastnet Race, for example, as we were exiting the Solent we went offshore as soon as we could, which I think worked well.

The wave height in shallower water is similar to that in deeper water. However, the shorter wavelength makes the shallower water more choppy and potentially boat-breaking. These conditions are also extremely uncomfortable for the crew.

Stow everything

When you’re sailing upwind in heinous conditions, it’s essential to have a clean boat. This practice includes secure stowage of all the kits on board.

Make sure all your lockers close properly and stay closed. Anything that’s heavy, anything that can bounce around, needs strapping down to prevent damage or injury.

While sailing upwind offshore in heavy airs, you must consider the worst-case scenario and its potential knock-on effects.

What if we turned the boat over right now? What problems could it create and how can we make sure everything is as secure as possible?

Eat early, rest early

If you’re on a long distance race and thinking about feeding the crew, make sure everyone’s ready for it and start eating early, before the big weather strikes.

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Even if you’re all seasoned sailors, even if you don’t tend to get seasick, you may well feel like you’re not hungry.

We want to get lots of high energy food inside the crew before they get to a point where they either can’t eat, or they don’t have time to eat because they’re busy doing other things.

The same applies for being well rested and getting sleep in the bank while you can.

Quite often you might get as much as three days notice before a big low pressure is coming in, and certainly 24 hours in advance. Use that preparation time wisely.

Set up the rig

For big winds we’re going to want more mast rake and more prebend in the rig to help flatten the mainsail.

On bigger yachts you tend to have a mast jack which makes it easy to tighten the rig, which helps reduce forestay sag and keep the jib flatter.

But on a typical 40-footer or smaller, you’re probably going to have to rely on tightening the forestay and the backstay to induce the higher rig tensions you’re looking for.

The other thing to bear in mind, though, is higher rig tensions will put more stress on the mast, rigging, and the whole boat generally.

Racing around the world, we tended to set up with quite soft rigs. It wasn’t about getting the last drop of performance out of the boat, it’s about maintaining the longevity of the rig.

Reefed down in the windy conditions. Photo: Richard Langdon/Ocean Images

Reefs trump changes

In any boat you’re always aiming for a balanced helm. It is ideal to choose a setup that requires minimum effort and input from the helmsman.

So, setting up the mainsail and headsail to achieve that balance is high on your list of priorities. This can be particular to each boat, so having a rule of thumb is hard. However, there are some safety considerations.

It’s important not to leave a headsail change until a time that may become too dangerous or difficult for the crew.

Once it’s clear we’re going to experience tough conditions, the logical next step is to put in one mainsail reef and then change to the smallest headsail.

This practice means we have somewhere to go when the wind increases without sending people forward and dealing with a loose sail that must be put away.

Storing this sail means opening hatches on the foredeck, which increases the chance of water ingress. The crew will become exposed and potentially submerged at times.

A sail can’t be tied forward in those conditions as the force of the water will either break the sail bag or the stanchions. Reefing the mainsail is a much more palatable option.

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