Oil On Troubled Waters ~ Storm Tactics
Oil On Troubled Waters ~ Storm Tactics

Bill Peterson



Log Entry : 14 Jul, 2020

A highlight of being a liveaboard sailor is the dock chatter that comes your way some mornings.

Sailing vessel Colony II at the dock in Fort Lauderdale Florida.  Pictured for an article about using oil on storm waters as a storm tactic.

This morning, something along the lines of, “What the country needs now,” I said “is a little oil on the water,” got me a blank stare and an inquisitive tilt of head. 

Well I wasn’t exactly on the dock, I was perched on the bow pulpit which comes just short of hanging over the dock.  It’s a great place to proclaim nautical things, especially at high tide.

Think of the great churches and the robed figure strategically placed above his flock sending down the messages from on high.  My version is barefoot in a wide brimmed straw hat, fit-over shades, t-shirt and shorts, but the effect fits the venue for this sort of wisdom. 

“Oh, how’s that?” said my victim/dock neighbor.

“You know, oil to calm troubled waters, like when you’re hove to in a storm.”  That explanation didn’t light any bulbs.

“It’s an old-old thing, like even in biblical verses,” which also didn’t do it. 

“So when you’re in a storm, like a really bad one and there’s breaking waves all round threatening to smash down on you, you figure out a way to get an oil slick going to windward of you and it’ll help keep the waves from breaking all around the boat.” He looked a bit skeptical and was studying me to see if I was pulling his leg.  Well yeah, I have had a go at him a time or two maybe. 

“Really-really, it’s a real thing.” 

“Ok how does it work, I mean how would you do it?”    

I explain that I don’t really know the exact science involved, but I think it has to do with the molecules of oil that reduce the friction of the water racing down on itself and building into a breaking wave.  If you can make’um slicker they just rise and slide and don’t fall over themselves.  That seemed good enough.

Rough ocean waves seen through the porthole of a voyaging boat. Pictured for an article about using oil on storm waters as a storm tactic.

“Hmm …” he considered, “how do you do it, do you just dump it over the side, and what sort of oil would it be?” 

All valid questions. I know ships used to pump it overboard.  In the tall ship days they used whale oil I think and I do remember the whalers would hang chunks of blubber overboard; all of this being foggy recollections from my readings.

Wondering about the big ship relevance to a guy with a 42’ sloop, I blabbed on about leather and canvas bags with pin prick holes and such devices.  I even remembered my keeping a couple of long neck plastic motor oil bottles aside when making passages, ready for the needle prick treatment and a noose.

“I’m thinking that vegetable oil, like in the gallon sizes would work well too,” I added, correcting myself to be as green as possible, given the times.  I’m not sure it would be a big issue for me in conditions that needed oil, but then the cleanup on the hull and decks, assuming you survived the tempest, would be a lot easier. I will do some research on that. But yeah, a couple of gallons of veg oil might be the cat’s PJs and cheap as well.

Aerial image of a sailboat hove to during a storm

I pontificated on about how lying ahull and making leeway you might do well to stream one off the bow and one off the stern with a good length of line. And hooking one on near a sea anchor would make good sense too. All of this, proclaimed as it were from the pulpit, seemed to sit well. 

His face had that satisfied look that let you know the idea suited him; that he had some knowledge ammo for the next hurricane he would battle at sea.  We all need to know these things for that fateful passage that we’ll likely not be taking… but you never know. 

So now I’ve aroused my own curiosity about the matter, wondering, since my knowledge about the oil thing has cobwebs and deployment gaps, is it still a thing today? I mean how to care for galvanized rigging and stow hemp rope is not much in play these days and who even knows what a main fife rail (AKA pinrail) is.

Picturing a traditional sailboat wooden mast and pinrail as bygone technology in an article about storm tactics

Since the wind and wave behaviors have been the same as far as we know for longer back than we know about, it stands to reason the physics and forces in play are just as much here today.  But has 2020’s technology somehow solved this and I didn’t hear about it yet?  It’s not like tech hasn’t changed the seascape in giant leaps during my time aboard. 

I’m crediting nav and weather technology, satellites and YouTube with making this saltwater like California gold rush to the deep blue with the days when you sunk your life savings into a mule, tent, gold pans, pick and shovel and set off into the Promised Land to make your fortune.  Now they’re prospecting for patrons, clicks and sponsors. 

There seems to be a stampede of camera toting ex-RVers, digital nomads, never sailed before and we’re heading around the world sailors hitting the waves these days.  And curiously, I’m not seeing stories of smashed millennials and recent suburbanites on the various rocky coasts of the world. At least not yet.

So what if Windy, PredictWind or Windfinder get it wrong in the middle of nowhere and you’re suddenly in for a tech fail storm stomping? Will traditional lore save the day? 

What exactly do you do with two gallons of canola oil and how should you do it? As usual in these matters I’m asking my ole mentor Chapman first, he’s always within arm’s reach from my bunk and my first go to.  My copy of “Chapman Piloting & Seamanship & Small Boat Handling” is a vintage 1991, 60th edition. The latest edition I saw on Amazon is the 68th edition.

The cover of a book:  Chapman Piloting Seamanship & Small Boat Handling, vintage 1991 edition 60th edition.

Did I say yet that I think a copy of Chapman ought to come with every boat?  Like the Bible in the motel drawer (do they still do that?), it should be there in case you need divine wisdom on the spot.

And yep, there we are right there on page 219:  “Using Oil on Rough Water:  Experienced seamen have long known the value of oil for modifying the effect of breaking seas. Oil is easily dispensed and quickly dispersed; the use of even small amounts is significant.”

I don’t have any firsthand proof about all this. The best I can do is this small scale demo of the effect of calming the rippling water in this video:

And of course there’s the official caution: “Note: Discharging oil onto the water is a violation of U.S. Coast Guard antipollution regulations, even though only a small quantity is used. Use of oil should be avoided, restricted only to an emergency situation involving immediate danger”  Well sure we want to be careful while struggling in a storm to toe the rules line ( wink).

  • Oil has a damping effect on water which absorbs some of the energy of the waves. It also quickly forms a thin layer over a large expanse of the surface of the water through a process of deprotonation (hit the link for a long complicated explanation). This prevents wind from being able to get traction along the water and thus waves cannot form as easily. Wikipedia gives us a thumbnail history of the practice going all the way back as far as 350 BC with Aristotle and a little Ben Franklin lore is thrown in for good measure.

Ok so summarizing the wisdom tells us that the whole oil thing’s best performance is in deep water with free running waves, which is what I was saying from the pulpit, but Chapman points out that it’s quite useful otherwise as well.  

Ship in stormy waters disabled offshore

Like for instance if you need to approach a stranded boat or even I would think a disabled boat in rough conditions, deploying some oil to windward of the vessel could help. 

Or if you just had to cross a bar with breaking waves and the tide was flooding you could try floating some oil in ahead of you to calm things down and tow an oil bag astern.  Probably wouldn’t do much with the really big waves in that scene, Chapman and I agree.

Sea Anchor

Drawing of a sea anchor with an oil dispenser and bridle.

Everybody going offshore has a sea anchor right? An idea here if it looked like you’re going to be in the soup for an extended time would be to rig a block out on the sea anchor so you could run your oil bag out and be able to retrieve it for refill or swap out. 

You might even stuff the bag with cotton type stuff or rip up a pillow full of stuffing saturated in oil if you didn’t already have a rig made up. 

The main thing is to create your slick and keep the boat in it.  So we take our canvas oil bags, one or two gallon sized, prick’um with a sail needle and hang’um over the side. The thicker the better for the oil, for instance, kerosene is mostly worthless.  So if we’re running downwind, hanging one in the water off either side of the bow should do the trick.

Lying-to we’ll want them on the weather side, one from the bow and the other far enough aft to keep the boat in the slick.  Trail these out on lines run out to windward. And the wisdom for wind on the quarter is the toughest to manage because the oil wants to run out astern and the waves want to break from the quarter because the slick is not where you are. This calls for tweaking and fiddling or changing our tactics to one that’ll keep us in the greasy spot.

Artist drawing of a vintage lifeboat with a description of a sea anchor and storm oil.

So I’m thinking if the oil on the water idea is good enough to be in the official Lifeboats, Lifeboat Equipment and Rafts {as taught to U.S. Maritime Service Trainees in World War II) it’s good enough for us. Check out the link it’s an interesting read I thought. https://www.usmm.org/lifeboat2.html

Alright we say, I want an oil rig aboard on my next passage.

A quick Google search didn’t yield any hits for gallon sized storm oil, huh? … but no matter, we’re gonna use veggie oil anyhow in our storm oil canvas bag.  What, no hits for canvas oil bags?!  What’s with this modern sailing world?  Looks like it’s going to be a DIY project to get this from theory to real kit.  I’ll dive in and see what comes of it and report back with a part 2 post.  All ideas and suggestions welcome. 


  1. Douglas G. Pollard

    Back about 1974 I took my wife and two small children aboard my Old 30ft wooden Crocker ketch and headed for Bermuda from the Chesapeake Bay. The boat had what to my mind was an awful big cockpit so bored a couple of holes in the transom out the tube and closed them with watertight caps on them. We got ourselves into a tropical storm. I dropped sail and ran before the storm on Bare poles. The waves were reaching the top of the transom. The ton of water the cockpit could hold was a thing to worry about. I hoisted the jib reefed and hoped she would make a little progress forward. She drifted backward between the movement and wave action; the barndoor rudder was broken in half. We were able to steer with only a rudder post to the credit of the boat balance. Had I thought about it, a little oil on the waters may well have reduced the breaking waves to slow rolling swells and saved the rudder.

  2. Douglas G POllard

    I had a ditty bag at one time ago held about a quart of oil. I hung it off the stern it was In the Chesapeake bat the waves only about five feet so I tried it just to see, Worked a charm.

    • Bill Peterson

      Excellent! … that seems like like empirical proof of concept to me 🙂 I’m working on a how to rig it up post for part 2.

  3. Douglas G. Pollard

    My heart beats faster my lungs fill deeply. There is excitement to be had. A rising comber easing up from behind curling over menacingly. A slick on the water, Maybe a sunken ship? Ah, its but a little oil spreading across the sea. Only just a smidgen compared to the that great North Atlantic. I read a single line curled up in my bunk while my little ship Osprey slides easily over oiled combers long ago. I, am so old and the memory so young!

    • Bill Peterson

      Well, that sounds like a passage from a story that ought to be told methinks …

  4. Bev Woodman

    Very interesting. I learnt something today.

    • Bill Peterson

      Ahoy Bev … Thx … so now you’re ready for your next sea adventure 🙂


Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Sail Away Home © 2020. All Rights Reserved



Follow Us



Sail Away Home © 2020
All Rights Reserved
Traditional sailboat anchored during a dramatic golden and blue sunset in Abaco Bahamas. The sailing Ketch Colony II off Powell Cay


Don't Be Adrift

Receive an email when there's a new post on the blog.

Welcome Aboard!

Pin It on Pinterest