Learn by doing

Early November found us in Beaufort, N.C., preparing to head south to the U.S. Virgin Islands. We hoped the offshore passage to St. Thomas would take about 10 days. We were aboard Echo, a 32-foot Marc Louis Rifflart-designed catamaran. By modern standards she was heavy and slow, but her comfortable accommodations and strength made for a good voyaging boat. Echo had already been across the Atlantic to South America and then up the east coast of North America to Canada.

Since my wife and I had purchased her on Lake Champlain, we had replaced her anchoring gear, installed a Bimini over the cockpit, replaced the outboard auxiliary (after the old one died in Delaware Bay), replaced the roller-furling jib, loaded her up with several tons of voyaging gear and long-term stores, and tweaked a million details to get her into shape.

A nine-foot-diameter “Buord” parachute sea anchor was one of the items wedged in a cockpit locker. A Buord is a rugged military surplus chute, formerly used for cargo drops. The Buord had traveled many thousands of miles buried in the lockers of two previous boats, but we had never even taken it out of its plastic wrapping. I did have a small pamphlet describing how to rig and deploy the device, but there is no substitute for experience, as we were to learn. Two new 200-foot lengths of 1/2-inch-diameter three-strand nylon rope were stowed for use as a chute rode.

We waited for a cold front to pass over, and then it was out Beaufort Inlet on November 14th, reaching to the southeast in a stiff northeast breeze. For the first 14 hours our speed was around six knots, and the Gulf Stream was

The traditional wisdom says to head due east from Beaufort until about the longitude of Bermuda (65° W), then “hang a right.” This theoretically allows nice reaches for the first leg and then a broad reach south once the Northeast Trades are found. That was our strategy, but it was proving difficult to execute since the wind was only allowing courses of about south-southeast or north-northeast. We tended to choose the former tack, which kept us drifting farther south, increasing the possibility of long beats into southeast winds later.

By the 17th the wind had picked up from the southwest and things were getting lumpy again, but at least we were sailing fast in the right direction. We were reaching and then running with just a roller-reefed jib, supplemented at times with a double-reefed main. Our cat handles beautifully under jib alone, and we tend to drop the main if we are at all nervous about gusts or an overall increase in the wind. The roller-furling jib allows us to stay in the cockpit in heavy weather.

The 18th started out very rough. By 0400 the seas were looking big and the northwest wind was up to 25 knots. Obviously a cold front was coming, though we were having difficulty receiving the offshore forecasts from Coast Guard station NMN in Portsmouth, Va. We had only a small Sony portable, which was great at tuning in shortwave broadcasts, but less adept at handling the SSB weather frequencies.

Rigging the sea anchor

After seeing the inky black sky astern, and noting the ominous sea conditions, my wife had insisted I rig the parachute sea anchor. I was reluctant to dig the thing out of the cockpit locker, but my wife is a great believer in the preventative effects of preparation. I’ve lugged raincoats around for days in the belief that they were a guarantee of fair weather. Safety harnesses were the order of the day, as the chute had to be brought to the foredeck, along with 400 feet of line, miscellaneous shackles, two dock lines for a bridle, a float, and 35 feet of trip-line for the canopy. Luckily a cat provides a very stable working platform, and the small trampoline between the hulls acted as a good catch-all for all that gear.

The black cloud front hit with a tremendous blast, and we were off and running. Echo began surfing down the faces of some big seas. All sail had been taken off, but we were still hitting eight knots on the downhill runs. The wind was cranking, and the seas were growing, but Echo seemed to be handling it well. Then we turned sideways about halfway down one of the waves. My first thought was we had broached, but there was no violent slewing, and the sea had been no larger than the rest. I turned the wheel to head back on course and nothing happened. Somehow the steering wheel had become disconnected from the rudders. An occasional breaking wave top knocked us sideways down the face of waves that were now at least 15 feet high. I didn’t want to lie ahull in a narrow-beamed (16 foot) cruising cat in those conditions.

The Buord sea anchor was lowered off the starboard bow and quickly filled as we drifted sideways downwind. The line was running out so fast I almost couldn’t get ahead of it to cleat it off. The pull on the rode was tremendous, but I was able to control it once I had it on the cleat. Due to the boat’s lying at a nearly 90° angle to the rode, it was rather difficult to get a fair lead, but the legs of the bow pulpit contained the line. Finally we had 400 feet of line out and I was able to rig a bridle line to the other hull, but we were still lying beam on to the seas! The windage of our roller-furling jib up forward must have been blowing our bow off. No matter how we adjusted the bridle lines, the boat wanted to maintain its vulnerable sideways position.

The only thing to do was switch endsmove the sea anchor line to the stern to form a drogue. Our inflatable dinghy was stored across the stern, so I launched it into the tumultuous seas to get it out of the way. It promptly returned on board and landed on top of my head. I managed to relaunch the dinghy, drag it to the bow, and tie it off to the bow pulpit, though I had little hope it would stay around for long. The wind was now so strong that the inflatable was acting more like a kite than a surface vehicle.

With the tremendous strain on the parachute rode it was very difficult to lead a line to the stern, and I can’t remember exactly how we did it. I do remember it involved leading lines around the boat, outside of everything, and then uncleating the main rode after relieving the strain by using another line tied on with a rolling hitch. The seas were really big nowsome looked as high as the upper spreaderscould they have reached 30 feet? I can remember Adlard Coles in Heavy Weather Sailing warning against over-estimating wave heights from small boats, so I must scale back my guesses to 20 to 25 feet. We were in water 3,000 fathoms deep, so the seas were fairly regular, though many had breaking tops that would sweep completely over the boat.

The distance between the crests had increased to the point at which we really needed all 400 feet of line to get the parachute into the correct relationship with the waves. We didn’t want the chute pulling out of the front of a sea just as Echo began her slide down the face of her wave. We slid heavy PVC water tubing over the bridle where it chafed against the chocks, and there was no perceptible wear after the storm.

Viewed through binoculars

With the binoculars I could observe the parachute off in the distance, and it somehow gave me a feeling we had a companion out there, though the 1/2-inch line seemed a rather tenuous connection. Echo stayed pointed downwind, so we raised our daggerboard-like rudders to relieve any strain on the steering system, gave up keeping steady watches, and went below. Occasional seas would sweep across the boat, but the cockpit drained quickly through the outboard motor well.

Echo seemed safe enough in the Force 9 gale we were now in, but I can’t say we were comfortable or complacent. We were afraid at first, especially during the first few hours after sunset. But, gradually, our confidence grew as wave after wave slid safely beneath us. The strain on the lines was tremendous, but not so strong that I couldn’t pull a little slack in between surges. I felt we were not approaching the breaking strain of any of the components of the system. As long as we were vigilant about chafe, and the chute didn’t tangle, we would make it through.

A key factor in our success was the strength of Echo. She is ruggedly built of marine plywood, timber, and epoxy. Her cleats are secured with 1/2-inch stainless bolts, and they are well backed up.

Echo’s cabin door is well above the cockpit sole and there is a solid bridge deck. The door is one inch thick, so I had little worry it would carry away. Conditions in the cockpit were wet, windy, and noisy, but at no time did we feel threatened when working out there. Our buoyant cat lifted dramatically as each crest surged beneath.

Although I must admit to having wished for a larger parachute that would have allowed us to keep our bows into the weather, I feel the drogue was safe enough.

The motion was violent at times, but lacked the great rolls a monohull would have experienced. We could always walk about on deck without fear of being thrown overboard. The great buoyancy of the catamaran kept us on top of every little ripple in the surface, and some of the ripples weren’t so little. We subsequently met a singlehander who had sailed a 32-foot monohull through the same storm. He reported having to sleep on the cabin sole because the violent motion would throw him out of his berth.

We kept our anchor light on, which is more visible than the masthead tricolor. I broadcast a Securité call on the VHF radio every hour, and I was very surprised when the tugboat Gauntlet responded at 2100. He was steaming into the teeth of the storm towing a huge barge and thought nothing of the weather. As our positions were nearly identical he offered to shine his spotlight up into the clouds so that we could make sure we weren’t too close. That distant beam of light was an eerie sight in the black of night. This encounter highlighted a worry in the back of my mindwhat if some vessel were to run over our 400-foot-long rode? If the storm strengthened we would have to let out even more line, and no vessel would suspect we were connected to a parachute that far away. Later that same night I spoke to a nearby freighter that provided us with an erroneous position that had me doubting my sun sights for days afterwards.

Of course, NMN radio never mentioned this storm at any time, though we were still having great difficulty with reception. I found the offshore voice weather forecasts to be sketchy at best. Often the general forecast, covering many thousands of square miles, wouldn’t correspond to our local weather situation. It pays to observe the sky and sea, and tap the barometer from time to time.

We made it through the night and enjoyed immensely the brightening of the dawn. Eventually the sun shone through, and somehow the edge was removed from the tension. I can remember admiring the gem-like twinkling of the sun through the curling tops of the breakers. It was also nice to have a slight increase in temperature. Though we were near latitude 30°, the cold front had forced us to dig out ski hats, gloves, and heavy sweaters. By afternoon the wind had eased to Force 7, then 6, and we began to think of taking advantage of the favorable northeast breeze.

Difficult recovery

Winching in the sea anchor proved to be enormously difficult. The tremendous drag of the anchor meant we were essentially kedging our boat back to the parachute. Our sheet winches are rather small, and not well placed to get a fair lead off the stern. Getting the first few feet of bridle lines and rode in took brute strength, as we couldn’t use the winches effectively. Constant overrides needed to be undone, and we were exhausted by the time the parachute hove into view. A small float had been attached to the center of the canopy using about 35 feet of floating line. I had avoided a full-length trip line because of the great danger of entanglement. Many parachute sea anchor accounts include tales of trip-line foul-ups.

I was finally able to snag the canopy float with the boat hook, and the chute was dragged aboard. Everything seemed to be in order with the equipment, though it lay in a tangled mess all over the cockpit. My physical condition was another matter. I felt as if I’d just run a marathon while boxing Muhammad Ali. During the hours on the chute I’d managed to re-attach the steering cable ends to the steering chain. The ends had corroded right off, but luckily there was enough slack in the system for me to jury-rig a connection. A typical case of the overlooked detail nearly leading to disaster.

The sea anchor came into play later on the same voyage when the turnbuckle holding the forestay and the roller-furling jib broke. All of our southing made early in the trip had come back to haunt us in the form of stiff southeast winds right on the nose. The last 300 miles of windward work had obviously taken a toll on the forestay. The weather at the time was not as severe, but the chute allowed us to make emergency repairs before carrying on. That was one of the best things we discovered about the drogueit could take over the control of the boat, allowing us to rest, and make repairs. After the second winching in of the chute, that time in tropical heat and humidity, I collapsed from physical exhaustion, and my wife had to take over for a few hours while I recovered.

What did we learn about parachute sea anchors?

1. I would recommend getting a chute on the large end of the scale for your boat. The nine-foot Buord was obviously too small to keep Echo’s bows into the wind. The manufacturer now recommends a 15-foot chute for our boat. I can think of no disadvantages of too large a chute, except for the problem of stowage.

2. Have plenty of line ready to go. Once the strain comes on the line, it would be nearly impossible to winch any in, so you must keep adding line to get the chute in the right sequence with the waves. Have eye splices in both ends of your rodes, and have several large shackles handy.

3. We had no problems with tangling or fouling once the chute was in the water, though others have reported severe difficulties. I suspect the large swivel placed between the chute and the rode helped in this matter. Follow the manufacturer’s recommendations on how to rig your particular device.

4. The problem of retrieving the chute can be a major one. I am reluctant to use our drogue, because I know how difficult it is to retrieve. Could a full-length trip line be used without causing disastrous tangles? In our case, it would have been easier to retrieve a parachute off the bow, because we could have used the anchor windlass. We had some success motoring part of the way back to the chute, but our outboard does not perform well in rough offshore conditions, especially in reverse.

5. The danger of a passing vessel snagging the parachute rode is a real one. Some drogue designs run submerged (the Jordan series drogue) and might be safer in this regard. I can’t think how to avoid this problem, other than to use a bright orange float for the parachute canopy line.

6. To use a drogue off the stern you must be confident of the strength of your boat’s aft end. Large patio doors, as seen on many modern cats, could be lethal. Does your boat have a solid bridge deck? Does your cockpit have huge drains, and where will the water go before it runs off?

I was amazed to find our dinghy still tied to the bow pulpit in the morning, though at times it was spinning like a pinwheel on the end of its tether. This brings up our final, and most important, lesson. If you plan on using a drogue or sea anchor you must work out all of your systems before hand. Our dinghy was well stowed, but turned out to be a hazard when using the drogue. Have all of your drogue equipment stored where you can get at it when things are rough. It won’t do to have to search through lockers for that critical swivel. And make sure you’ve worked out how to set up a bridle or add additional lengths of line to the system. Have bulletproof chafing gear in place before the strain comes on the system.

For those interested in more information on this subject, I highly recommend the Drag Device Data Base, written by Victor Shane (805-966-0782, fax 805-965-1935). An account of our experience is included in the book along with many others, covering all types of boats using both drogues and sea anchors. Also, Lin and Larry Pardey’s Storm Tactics Handbook (800-736-4509, fax 707-822-9163) outlines their unique system of using a sea anchor with a bridle to hold a monohull at an angle to the seas.

This is a subject upon which many words have been written, but no definitive answers have been found. New devices are being invented and new techniques developed, but at a slow pace due to everyone’s great reluctance to get into a situation where they need one of these devices. I carried my parachute for five years before it finally more than repaid us. Now I wouldn’t go offshore without a parachute sea anchor or a drogue device, and possibly both, on board.

John Kettlewell is a freelance boating writer, editor, and photographer. He and his wife, Leslie, have authored The Intracoastal Waterway Chartbook and The International Marine Light List and Waypoint Guide.

By Ocean Navigator