Squalls are the most feared part of tradewinds sailing. Here’s what to expect and some ideas for dealing with them

Tradewinds sailing is what most sailors dream of, but with the trades come squalls. And these we do not like.

They can creep up unseen at night, often contain quite a lot of wind – I’ve had reliable, though very infrequent, reports of over 50 knots on ARC crossings. Things can get quite exciting if you’re caught out fully canvassed.

So here’s a brief guide to squalls and what to do about them.

As a general rule, if you see rain in a squall, assume there is going to be plenty of wind around it. The gust fronts will vary in strength, and the higher the clouds and the faster they are moving are the stronger the wind will be. You can get sudden initial gusts of gale force strength, which will come on suddenly though likely die away fairly quickly as well.

That’s the general rule, though less commonly winds in squalls can last an hour or more, and I’ve heard of winds lasting several hours.

If you don’t see rain in the squall you can still get stronger gusts near the edges but these usually don’t contain too much wind.

Squalls are easier to deal with if you have a plan in advance. The key, obviously, is a sail plan that you can reduce quickly.

If you are sailing under plain sails with a headsail set on a pole rigged with foreguy and afterguy, you have an advantage in squally conditions as the foresail can be quickly rolled away or reduced leaving the pole in position.

A snuffer is a great thing for long-distance sailing as the sail can be doused quickly and doesn’t need to be packed again in a bag, and it speeds up reducing sail ahead of a squall. Even so, going from spinnaker to poled-out headsail needs more crew and avoiding twists in the snuffer can take a bit of practise.

Twin headsails is a sailplan that is not so fashionable these days, but some crews swear by its ease. One thought worth consideration is how easy this will be to reduce or roll away in a squall; without the blanketing effect of a mainsail it can be quite a handful in sudden, strong winds.

The same goes for spinnaker or Parasailor flown on its own without a mainsail.

Squalls usually come in from a direction veered to the surface wind. The best way to track them is on radar, if you have one. If you can gauge the direction of its travel, the gybe that diverges most from its track is the one that will minimise your time in it. On a typical Atlantic crossing, port gybe usually gets you out quickest.