sailing broach

What is a broach in Sailing?

Anyone who's been boating for some time will likely have heard the term "broach", something sailors try to avoid at all costs. But what exactly is broaching, what causes it to happen and how can we avoid them occurring?

A broach is a sailing or yachting term for when a boat unintentionally and involuntary gybes or changes course towards the wind, resulting in a loss of directional control and the vessel's rudder becoming ineffective. A broach can happen as a resulting effects of wind or wave action.

What is a Wind Broach?

A wind broach happens when a boat is sailing downwind and the sail, often a spinnaker, is overpowered by a gust of wind. This causes the boat to heel (or lean) a yacht further than anticipated, causing the rudder to lift out of the water. This results in the boat becoming uncontrollable and rounding up unexpectedly, the mainsail then gybes across the boat at a dangerous speed. As the boat turns into the wind and heels over it can lay the boat fully on its side, filling the cockpit with water or even in the most extreme cases, capsizing the vessel. This is not only dangerous but often frightening for the crew.

Watch video examples of sailing yachts broaching due to wind conditions:

Chinese gybe on a Farr 40

A major broach and Chinese gybe

IRC boat round down and broach under spinnaker

What is a Wave Broach?

A wave-based broach can happen to any vessel (motor or sailboats) that is going in the same direction as the waves. As the wave picks the boat up and increases the speed, the rudder can become affected by by the stern being lifted out of the water by an overtaking wave. In such cases the vessel is likely to sway across the waves and roll to one side, knocking the vessel completely on its size and, in extreme cases, potentially capsizing the vessel altogether.

Here are some examples of a wave-based broach.

An example of a ship broaching

A further explanation here

A large wave causes a motorboat to flip

What is a Spinnaker Broach or Chinese Gybe?

A broach, Chinese gybe or crash gybe are a sailing term for a dangerous situation that can occur when sailing downwind with a spinnaker.

During a spinnaker broach, the spinnaker can become caught in the wind and start to swing out to one side. If the boat is not turned quickly enough to keep the spinnaker under control, it can swing all the way around to the other side of the vessel with the mainsail crossing the boat quickly and dangerously.

image supplied by Yachtie_Dad

A Chinese gybe occurs when the upper section of the mainsail moves across, filling from the opposite side, whilst the lower section of the mainsail and boom remain on the opposite side. This is unlike a normal gybe where the whole sail moves across the boat as the stern moves through the wind. A Chinese gybe is usually the result of too little tension on the kicker or vang which enables the boom to rise up, enabling the leech of the sail to twist extensively.

How to Avoid Broaching

The good news is there's plenty you can do to avoid this situation. The best way to avoid broaching is to keep the boat sailing at a constant angle to the wind. This can be done by trimming the sails correctly and adjusting the boat's course as needed. If the boat starts to heel too far to one side, the wind will catch the sails on that side more, which will cause the vessel to move more quickly in that direction. To prevent this, the sailor should adjust the sails and course to keep the boat sailing at a constant angle to the wind.

Here's a handy video from Yachting World on "How to avoid a Chinese gybe when sailing downwind".

There are several ways to avoid broaching while sailing downwind. One way is to

  • Keep the boat sailing as close to the wind as possible. This can be done by using a smaller jib or by sailing a narrower path.
  • Use a preventer - a preventer is a line that is attached to the boom and runs to the deck of the boat. This line can be used to keep the boom from swinging out and causing the boat to broach.
  • Keep your spinnaker trim on point and under control - be ready to depower it at a moment's notice
  • Ease the pole forward and pull the kicker on as needed to keep power in the mainsail

How to avoid broaching on a motorboat

If you're more of a motorboat lover here how can you avoid broaching in tricky conditions?

  • Keep one hand on the helm and one hand on the throttle at all times so you can control speed instantly
  • Read the conditions and weather ahead - look for breaks in the swell before turning
  • Use engine tilt and trim when running downwind with the waves
  • If in doubt, go out and spend some time on your boat to better understand the limitations in different weather conditions

Watch a useful video on how to deal with big seas.

Sailing Broach Recovery

If the boat does start to broach, the sailor should first try to adjust the sails and course to correct the problem. If that does not work, the next step is to ease the sails on the side that is causing the boat to broach. This will help to slow the boat down and prevent it from capsizing. Finally, the sailor should try to steer the boat back into the wind and adjust the sails and course as needed.

If a broach does occur, there are several ways to recover. One way is to head up into the wind and let the sail fill with air. This will help to right the boat but is only achievable if you still have steerage. Another way to recover is to release the jib sheet and let the sail flap in the wind which will also help to right the boat.

In short:

  1. Think clearly - it can be scary when broaching but taking the wrong actions can make everything worse. Ensure your crew know who will make all the essential decisions should a broach occur to ensure clear directions and reduce panic reactions.
  2. Blow the halyard - if you decide to drop the spinnaker it needs to be dropped far enough that the wind can be taken out of the sail and remove its power, but not so far that it ends up in the water, creating a big mess. One way to help with this is to put a mark on the halyard to help the crew know where the limit is in an emergency.
  3. Hold onto the guy! - it's important you don't let the guy go any further than the pole on the headstay because if you do the spinnaker will be able to power up even with the halyard released which will prevent the boat from bearing away.
  4. The jib - consider leaving the jib up after you bear downwind as it can help you bear away when recovering from a broach

We hope this article will help you better understand broaching, what causes it, how you can avoid getting into a broach situation and how you can recover from it in a level headed fashion should it occur.

Stay informed, stay safe, and stay savvy!

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