Power voyaging

The history of drag device development has been rooted in offshore sailboats because they were the first boats to face storms at sea at all latitudes and all seasons of the year. As compared to powerboats of earlier years, sailboats have long had the endurance and range to challenge oceans before internal combustion engine development reached the necessary state-of-the-art for extended voyaging. It took considerable diesel engine development in land vehicles, heavy construction equipment, and small ships before diesel efficiencies and power outputs supported their use in ocean crossings with recreational motor yachts.

Fishermen led the way in developing such capabilities as they pursued their catches wherever they could be found, steadily increasing their range and time on station. Successful fishermen would not return home until the hold was fulla simple matter of economics. As time went on commercial fishing boats evolved into today’s efficient long-range displacement hull designs powered by diesel engines and supplied by large fuel tanks that give them ranges of 5,000 miles or more.

Power voyaging really only started in the late 1960s when Bob Beebe in his pioneering design PassageMaker first made his extended voyages and wrote about them in books and magazines. Since then power voyaging has grown in interest and, if the numbers of new books, magazines and forums that have evolved are any indication, it has reached a critical mass, and an explosion in numbers is on the horizon.Heavy weather a threat

Aficionados of power voyaging are a cautious bunch, for they know that weather is more of a threat to them than it is to the sailor, who is aboard a heavily ballasted hull and has an almost foolproof method of motive power. On the other hand, the spacious pilothouse of a trawler offers the power voyager an attractive place to install and operate today’s electronic gear that’s revolutionizing offshore route planning, communications, and boat management. There is little reason for the growing fleet of blue-water power voyaging boats to continue hugging the shores when their owners have the capabilities to head for the high seas, taking advantage of the many safety devices now on the marketelectronic and mechanical. Many sailors who have converted to power voyaging have found that sailboat safety gear can be of great help in battling heavy weather on ocean-going power boats and are installing it as a matter of course.

Although sailboat voyagers may have done most of the pioneering work on developing drag devices for use in combating severe storms, the developments have not gone unnoticed in the commercial fishing fleet. Victor Shane, in his compilation of sea anchor and drogue accounts, Drag Device Data Base, cites the experiences of nine commercial fishing skippers who have experienced the benefits of using parachute sea anchors in the conduct of their operations. The para-anchors initially used by them were surplus airmen’s parachutes rigged for deploying over the bow of the boat. Their early intent was only to anchor the boat to the water overnight at the fishing grounds in order to be able to start fishing early the next day. In this application the surplus parachute was a useful deviceat least for a limited number of applications. It wasn’t long, however, before they found sea anchors valuable in heavy weather.


To handle heavy weather, fishermen have long used a maneuvering technique known as “jogging into the seas.” This involves running the engine at low speedjust enough boat speed to assure positive rudder control to hold the bow into the seas. Jogging is physically demanding on the crew as gales can last for days. All the while the engine itself is consuming valuable fuel, the hull is being subject to pounding and, in general, boat and crew are operating under a strain. As the Drag Device Data Base points out, having the parachute sea anchors aboard when stormy weather sets in makes it available to hold the bow of the vessel into the wind without having to run the engine and experience the attendant stresses. A survival device in waiting can be useful heavy-weather insurance.Purpose-built sea anchors

The usual outcome of deploying surplus airman’s parachutes for sea anchors was to shred them beyond usefulness in a short time. Airman’s parachutes so used lasted in fishing service only about one year. In contrast, today’s purpose-built para-anchors last for more than five years in fishing service. Drag devices for recreational boats often last for the lifetime of the boat when given routine maintenance. The development of purpose-built para-anchors has now reached such a level of design sophistication that they are practical devices for use on all boatspower as well as sail. They range in size from six feet in diameter (uninflated, laid-flat diameter) to the 109-foot-diameter Coppins sea anchor deployed by the 175-foot Daniel Solander fishing ship in a Force 11 storm off New Zealand.

In spite of the fact that boats and seas come in almost endless combinations, the accumulating experiences of parachute sea anchor users have provided enough basic data to produce an empirical size selection technique based on the length and displacement of the vessel. The following Para-Tech Engineering recommendations are based on years of experience with their product and are applicable to the general run of parachute sea anchors on the market. To repeat a common caveat, in choosing a sea anchor size, err on the side of too large rather than too small.

There is nothing in voyaging powerboat design that prevents them from using sea anchors when the need arises: they just have to be tried. A properly sized sea anchor is essentially a parking brake and as such can be used in a variety of situations. Powerboats of all descriptions can use them to hold their bows into the wind and minimize drift should they need to repair their engine(s) and get underway again. The difference in working on a cranky engine in a boat that is held bow to the wind, as opposed to freely drifting sideways (lying a-hull, as sailors would say), can be the difference between getting the engine back in operation quickly or succumbing to seasickness. Powerboats experiencing a loss of power near a leeward shore can be in a most difficult situation.

> While a sea anchor will not cut the boat’s drift to zero, it can provide the skipper with additional time to solve his problem. Certainly any single-engine powerboat would benefit in an emergency by having a sea anchor aboard. And commercial fishermen will continue to use them to hold their boats near the fishing grounds during the night while they sleep.

A sea anchor holding the bow of the power boat into the wind will result in a more pleasant ride whether fishing, sunning, sleeping, or doing maintenance. The applicability of sea anchors to work on recreational and commercial boats has been widely tested in recent years, and their seeming ability to save boats under adverse situations is a powerful incentive for more development on all fronts. Dedicated rode designs incorporating bridles and chafe-resisting chain segments would appear to have a beneficial future.Three correctable problems

Most of the condemnation of sea anchors mentioned in boating literature comes from three correctable causes: 1) too small a sea anchor; 2) lack of a riding sail; and 3) chafing through of the rode. A sea anchor must be large enough to prevent the bow of the boat from being driven off to leeward by wind and wave; a proper riding sail can help prevent the boat from yawing; and the rode must be well protected from chafing. A sea anchor must be viewed as a system, and all elements of the system must be in place and in working order for the system to function.

Drogues (the other drag device) offer little in the way to enhance offshore safety for the power voyager. Unlike the sailboat, running with the wind and surfing down waves in a powerboat is a sure invitation to disaster. The small, shallow rudder(s) of the powerboat lack sufficient bite in the orbiting surface waters of a wave, especially under reduced propeller wash, and the deep forefoot seeks to drive the hull into a broach. Adding a powerful drogue offers nothing but a slower sleigh ride with the broad transom and big cockpit exposed to the next breaker. Some have suggested that a drogue may be useful in passing over bars. Capt. Richard Friedman of the 60-foot Malahide trawler Explorer has other thoughts. In a Trawler World web site posting he recommended: “Do not use a drogue. Most bars are short, have narrow entrances and other traffic. If conditions are such that you are even thinking that a drogue would help, you belong offshore with plenty of sea room.” He added: “Under the right conditions, crossing a bar is no more difficult than entering any harbor. Under the wrong conditions, it can be the most foolish and deadly decision a mariner can make. If you are offshore and conditions have already gone bad, stay at sea and take your lumps.”

There is no one best tactic for heavy weather survival in any boat. You have to choose the tactic that best fits the weather, the boat, and the crew, and then practice it until it is second nature. This is particularly true with the growing trend of husband/wife crews. Your combined seamanship skills will be tested to the extreme in storms, as will your determination to survive; but whatever you do, don’t abandon your vessel as long as it is still afloatthe alternatives are far worse. A 1905 seamanship manual says: “Now praying on shipboard is not to be scoffed at, but it should be delayed until man has exhausted every possible means of saving the ship.” A sea anchor carefully deployed may give you that extra time. Earl Hinz is an experienced sailor and power voyager. His latest book is Heavy Weather Tactics Using Sea Anchors & Drogues, published by Paradise Cay Publications.

By Ocean Navigator