Once it starts blowing over 50 knots, the survival of the boat and crew depends equally upon good seamanship, a good boat, and plain luck. It makes sense, therefore, to avoid regions where gales, and worse, are frequent.
But it doesn’t take a full gale to bring trouble. For example, in the last days of a run to Panama, in building winds and seas magnified by an opposing current, boats, especially modern, light-displacement, fin-keel types, want to surf down the waves. While thrilling (for a while), this increases the risk of broaching or jibing. I recommend, in the interest of safety, that you disconnect the autopilot or self-steering and steer by hand.
A worthwhile investment for boats likely to encounter heavy-weather running dead downwind is a drogue, such as the Galerider, made by Hathaway, Reiser & Raymond (203-324-9581, www.hathaways.com). When streamed, it will tend to keep the stern square to the waves, thus reducing the likelihood of broaching.
Another couple of tricks you can use when running or deep reaching are to lead your headsail sheets to the main boom (see “Give Your Headsails Room to Breathe,” July 2003) and to rig the Iolaire anti-jibe preventer (see “A Few Ounces of Prevention,” June 2002).