When You Feel the Need for Slow
By Kimball Livingston
Many a voyager has traveled many a mile and never needed a drogue or a sea anchor. Others have traveled a few miles and run out of luck. There's a difference between having high hopes for good weather and having a plan for severe weather. Different types of boats have markedly different reactions to sea state, and to drag devices. It is worth repeating the words of this Coast Guard study: "Most storms, even severe storms, do not create dangerous breaking waves. Sailors who survive such storms may conclude that heaving to, lying ahull, or running off, are adequate to prevent capsize. This is a serious mistake. There is compelling evidence that, while a well-found boat will survive a storm in non-breaking waves, none of those tactics will prevent capsize in a breaking wave strike."
In the May 2008 issue of SAIL we took on the subject of drogues and sea anchors. Best practice. Best bets. What works and what works hardest for you when the chips are down. To view that story as a pdf, click HERE.
These online musings are a supplement to the print story, in which we generated comparative data that ought to be useful but cannot be considered in isolation. There is also the question of how any device is stowed and deployed on any given boat. For example, you will want to use a bridle to deploy a sea anchor from either a monohull or a multihull, but the bridle set-up will be different, and you will want to bias the bridle of the monohull so that the boat does not ride directly into the wind and wave.
Here is an example published on the Para-anchor web site.
Best practice regarding drogues and sea anchors crosses into a realm of lore and opinion. After spending some time with the Drag Device Data Base I'm convinced that there is no one-size-fits-all answer to any question about how to handle a boat in dangerous seas. Our goal here is to link you up with the best information going, along with opinions from people who matter, and maybe point out a few areas of disagreement.
In noodling around the internet, I found one source telling me to set a drogue out of sync with the boat by about half the length of the prevailing sea, so that the drogue rides down a wave as the boat is rides up, and vice versa. I found most sources advising to set the drogue in sync with the boat's action on the waves. (The exception is the Series Drogue, which works with small cones for almost its entire length.) When Robin Knox-Johnstone made his first circumnavigation and wrote, A World of my Own, he towed warps at times and praised their effectiveness. Knox-Johnstone used, "One hundred fathoms of 2-inch [circumference] polypropylene rope".
There are those who will tell you that sea anchors are set from the bow, period. Others advise that, because fin-keel sloops "hunt" whether at anchor or tethered bow-to a sea-anchor, fin-keel sloops should only tow astern, be it a drogue or a sea anchor.
None of this bodes well for achieving a cut-and-dried prescription for how to handle your boat when the big one hits, now does it?
Warwick M. "Commodore" Tompkins is easily among the great seamen of his generation. An occasional contributor to SAIL, Commodore grew up crossing oceans aboard his father's schooner, Wander Bird. He raced everything on the Blue Planet as an adult and more recently has been touring the Pacific on a racy performance cruiser, Flash Girl. I threw an open-ended drogue/sea anchor question at Commodore while his boat was in New Zealand, and what came back was much more than a one-liner. Read Commodore's thinking HERE.
Fred Roswold, also a SAIL contributor, had a different take on the same open-ended question. Fred and Judy Roswold left Seattle in 1996 aboard their Peterson 43, Wings and have been roaming the Pacific and Asia since. For several years they've been in Thailand, and eventually, probably, they'll move on to Europe. Wings does not carry either drogue or sea anchor. You can read Fred's comments HERE.
Letters from SAIL readers, also from Fiorentino Consultant & Drag Device Designer, Zack Smith. You can find them HERE.
DROGUE DEVICE DATA BASE
Victor Shane's must-read compendium of first-hand experiences is the real thing, an eye-opening read. Sample the experiences of others, learn how to submit your own first-person account, and order the book HERE.
The Fiorentino company started in 1958, developing sea anchors from parachutes and parachute models. Now they've gone their own way in drogue design with the Shark. The web site is a good source of information about the company's own products, with deployment tips that apply to other sea anchors and drogues, suggested rigging methods for bridles, and drogue developer Zach Smith's favorite trick, the hinged stainless steel swivel block that opens to allow a bight of rope to pass through. Why? You can clamp it over a line in use, even an anchor rode, if a bridle becomes necessary. Pricey, until you need it. For illustrations of sea anchor deployments, go directly to para-anchor rig systems.
Jordan Series Drogue jordanseriesdrogue.com
The web site traces the development of this unique device that pulls along almost its entire length (the series drogue developed the strongest load of any of our test drogues) plus advice on deployment, design loads, the results of extensive Coast Guard testing, and the relative merits of creating a series drogue yourself. (Basically, it's cheaper but a lot of work.) A consideration of storm waves is offered HERE With a considerable network of links, this is the most extensive and scientific of the manufacturers' sites.
The company makes the Delta Drogue and the Para-Tech Sea Anchor, and I reckon a mailing address on Horsehoe Trail in Silt, Colorado means that Para-Tech Engineering has figured out a few things about manufacturing costs on the seacoast. Their sea anchor is one of the industry standards, and their web site includes product description plus tips on rigging, sizing, and deploying the equipment.
While other manufacturers stress maximum drag, Galerider argues for calculated drag, to aid steering without overstressing attachment points, the line, or the drogue.
The Seabrake is built in Australia. The original design by commercial fisherman John Abernethy is said to combine 1) the drag of a steel bucket — slotted with a tomahawk — that Abernethy towed through a storm in the Bass Strait and 2) the clean lines of a 19-foot shark that Abernethy once caught and towed during a game fishing expedition. According to the company, the Seabrake can also serve as a stabilizer at anchor or a backup overboard-retrieval device.
So you know by now that we can not tell you what to do with your own boat when the chips are down. Or should we say, when the chips are flying? But it's really, really true that it's good to plan ahead of this . . .