My friends will tell you I am a bad driver, but I don’t think that is fair at all. I am a cautious driver. There is a difference. So, when you see me poking down the highway at a conservative speed, in the lane I need to be in for my next move several miles in advance, I want you to think: cautious. Perhaps even responsible. This impulse has directly translated into how I sail, which I find sensible.

My husband finds it dull.

When he sails we are all heeled over and he turns into a 12-year-old excited version of himself. Boys. Conversely, I turn into a screeching grandma shouting “We are too far over! We are too far over!”. This annoys him a great deal, but he is very patient and kind and works hard to keep me this side of frantic. If we are sailing alone he will often turn into the wind and slow it down a bit, but if there is even one other person on board who wants to really let ‘er rip, then I am ignored entirely.

I get it. Letting the sails out and really seeing how the boat can perform is the fun of it. Truthfully, it IS fun. I just have this one nagging issue: I don’t want the boat to tip over.

Capsizing is my biggest sailing fear, but is it even really a thing? Do I need to be so worried and if so, at what point precisely do I need to push the panic button? I fully understand that I am currently jumping the gun a bit, but surely there is some point in the sailing process when one needs to dial it back a bit for safety.

A couple of months ago I started researching the topic “will my boat capsize, and if so, when”? I dug into research from sailing articles and salty sailor forums, I watched YouTube videos, and I scoured the world wide web for insight. The good news is that most sources are in agreement. The bad news is the news itself: Yes, apparently a sailboat can capsize.

Well crap. That was not the answer I wanted.

But wait, there is very good news. My research also revealed that unless you are battling both heavy winds AND serious open-ocean, blue water waves, physics is on your side. Wind alone will not capsize a monohull sailboat.

Ah, physics (insert heart emoji). If you read enough blogs, you will learn that I am a super nerd, and while you might have hated calculus and physics, I loved it. Heaven help me, I think I can still calculate the volume of a cone.

The physics of why wind alone won’t capsize your boat is all about the keel, for three big reasons.

1. The keel, which is a flat blade that extends several feet under the boat, provides counterbalance to the wind’s effect on the sails. Basically, as the wind pushes the sail above the water, the keel pushes water under the boat in the opposite direction with increasing force and difficulty.

2. One reason for the increased force and difficulty is that the keel also houses a heavy weighted ballast that further aids in the boat’s natural tendency to want to be upright and helps manage the center of gravity. Some of us of a “certain age” might remember the Weeble Wobble toys…”Weebles wobble and they won’t fall down…”. Basically, they were toys with rounded, weighted bottoms where if you pushed them over they would pop right back up. Without the low center of gravity and weighted bottoms, they would have just tipped over. The physics of the keel and ballast isn’t exactly like that, but the “stay upright” result is the same.

3. Finally, as the boat heels over and the force of the keel and ballast work hard to push it back to a neutral upright place, less of the sail is presented to the wind, which diminishes wind force. The wind power becomes less and less because the more heeled over the boat becomes, the less sail is available. Essentially this all means that a monohull sailboat has a “self-policing” safety valve for keeping the boat upright even in heavy winds.

Plus, as the boat heels way, way over you have all of the indicators that wind is at work. You can see it, you can feel it. Because of this, you are in control of the situation.  You can simply steer into the wind to help manage and reduce this affect if you feel you are too far over.

All of this research, though, did reveal something rare called a “knock down” which I found a bit disconcerting. I hesitate to share this news, but I feel it is my duty. Apparently, a VERY large gust of wind might temporarily and terrifyingly tip your boat over. Gah! But rest assured the ballast physics should make it right. At least the boat. I can’t speak to your mental state. And, as mentioned earlier, if you are in water with high waves and high wind, a wave to your beam could result in a capsize event. As a sailor in cruising-friendly waters, this just isn’t going to happen.

So, just as I was starting to put my capsizing fears to bed, I took the ASA 114 Catamaran Cruising sailing course. On page 25 of the textbook it talks about the keel physics for a monohull then states “A cruising catamaran does not have this safety valve, and heel angle alone does not give sufficient warning that it’s overpowered. Catamaran sailors must be alert to the strength of the wind at all times because, if the windward hull flies, the boat is at risk of capsizing.”

I am sorry, what?!?

If anything, I thought the wide, stable, luxurious catamarans would be far less likely to somersault into the water. Not so, apparently. And it all has to do with the physics mentioned above. Catamarans don’t have a weighted, extended keel. Really high winds could theoretically “pick up” the hull on the windward side and flip the boat.

But the situation isn’t quite that dire, and it would be extremely rare, according to our awesome instructor from Modern Sailing School, Dave Russell, who kindly worked hard to put my mind at ease. Here is why:

1. Most catamarans are equipped with a chart that indicates when you should reef (a process for reducing the amount of sail presented to the wind) based on wind speed. Basically, if you follow those guidelines, you will be just fine.

2. Cruising catamarans, versus racing catamarans, are heavy with all their equipment, fuel, water, and stuff. This makes them extra hard to tip over even in extreme circumstances.

3. As much as the book must point out the fact that physics isn’t as kind to catamarans as it is to monohulls, modern cruising catamarans are very, very, very resistant to capsizing. On that same page 25 it says, “It would take severe wind and sea conditions to invert one – the same sea state in which a monohull might also be vulnerable.”

For monohulls, I totally trust the physics in believing I won’t capsize. For catamarans, I trust Dave and the ASA.

With all this comforting information that capsizing just isn’t going to happen from wind alone, as with all things sailing, paying attention and making decisions that are in the best interest of you and your crew is the prudent approach. Reef according to the stated guidelines, head into the wind if things get dicey, and absolutely no open water sailing until you have all the skills to back that up. It is a vastly different world out there on the big, blue ocean and high waves plus big wind introduce a completely different capsizing risk.

Plus, where the heck are you going to find a rum bar in the middle of the ocean? I rest my case.

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