Rough crossing

On a recent transatlantic crossing, my wife Mary and I were caught by a low pressure system and forced to deploy a series drogue. The unit worked well and we later finished our voyage after 1,946 miles. We learned a few things about how to use a drag device that will make us more confident the next time we find ourselves in that situation.

We departed St. Anthony, Newfoundland, on July 31 aboard our 35-foot Ted Brewer-designed aluminum cutter, Nomad, and arrived off St. Anthony’s Head at Falmouth, England, on August 18. Interestingly, both locations are at almost the same latitude, roughly 50° N. The passage was completed in 18 days at an average speed of 108 miles per day.

Before leaving, we waited in Newfoundland a few days to let some heavy weather dissipate, and then we had to motor a half day at the start. We crossed the Grand Banks in west and northwest winds, and, to our surprise and pleasure, there was no fog. We had this good visibility all the way across predicted iceberg areas.

The wind gradually built to Force 5 out of the southwest, giving us a nice broad reach at six knots. We had 100- to 140-mile-per-day runs until August 6 when the winds came forward of the beam and we slowed down. Still, our earlier progress had been very satisfying.

I had been receiving weatherfax information from the U.K. Meteorological Office at Bracknell, England, and there were the usual lows with nothing serious forecast on the August 7 weather chart. The next day, I received the 24-hour forecast for the 9th. I looked at it and saw that a deep depression with a 980 mb central pressure had developed, and the spacing between isobars suggested 60-knot winds. I talked to Ruddy Weber, one of the ham radio net controllers in the U.K. who also gets weatherfax information, and he confirmed the sudden development of the low. The forecasts indicated that the low would approach us from the south and pass directly overhead. Needless to say, it was not good news.

Mary and I started preparing the boat. The wind had not yet built, but the barometer was taking a nosedive. I decided to go directly to the drogue rather than try to sail with storm sails as the wind built. The wind direction would have been easterly at the start, so any sailing would have been close on the wind and then not laying the course.

We got the drogue out under relatively easy conditionsForce 5 (17 to 21 knots). The mainsail was furled and closely tied; the jibs were stowed and the weather cloths were rolled up. The main and windvane rudders were given extra lashings to prevent damage to the locking bars that I normally use to center the rudders. Special ties and locking pins were fitted to the cockpit locker lids to keep them from accidentally opening in case of a knockdown. Inside the boat, we screwed down all the floorboards using special toggles made for this purpose. Galley lockers and drawers were fitted with their anti-open safety bars. The bunks were prepared, and the lee cloths fitted. There was hot water in the thermos. Both of us took our seasick medication.

One curious thing occurred before the storm. There had been many birds flying around the boat all the way from Newfoundland. During the few hours before the storm, the birds stopped flying, and about 40 fulmars and shearwaters sat on the water around the boat. They seemed to be waiting for something to happen, and when the wind began to blow, they all left. It is the only time I have seen birds congregate around the boat like that.

Increasing winds

At 2100 we had Force 7 (28 to 33 knots); 2300 saw Force 8 (34 to 40 knots). The low passed overhead at midnight when the wind dropped briefly to Force 2. Then it built quickly to Force 9 by 0600 (41 to 47 knots), and at 0900 we had Force 10 for two hours (48 to 55 knots). It dropped off slightly to Force 9 until 1400, and it continued to blow at Force 7 to Force 8 until 0800 hours the next morning. The first low had been followed by a second of almost the same depth, which is what caused the extended gales.

The wind then stayed at Force 5 to 7 out of the south or southwest for the next five days, and we had some good runs: One day we made 140 miles under staysail and storm trysail. Finally the inevitable happened. The wind died when we got south of Ireland, and we motored and motor-sailed the last three days to Falmouth. After we cleared in, a pint of English beer tasted very good.

During the passage of the low the seas developed to a spectacular level. I really do not know how high they were, probably averaging in the 25-foot range with some peaks substantially higher. There were breaking crests all around, but none seemed to be breaking continuously along the full length of the wave. In fact the Beaufort scale description was quite accurate for Force 9: “High waves. Dense streaks of foam along the direction of the wind. Crests of waves begin to topple, tumble and roll over.” Force 10: “Very high waves with long overhanging crests. Foam in great patches blown in dense white streaks.”

We were never hit hard with a full breaking wave against the stern, but the cockpit filled with water seven or eight times. This was from smaller breaking crests hitting against the transom and washing over the stern, but with relatively moderate force. I was pleased to see that the cockpit drained within less than a minute. However, the cockpit locker lids were not even slightly waterproof against submersion, so we would take two to three gallons of water into the boat on each occurrence.

Mary and I stayed below. We did not attempt to maintain a lookout, as the cockpit was not a place where we wanted to be. There was not only the danger of being hit by a large breaking wave, there was also the certainty of getting wet and cold from the continuous spray around the cockpit. The radar would have been of little use. At least half the time the antenna would not have been able to see over the wave tops, and rolling causes the beam to scan either the sky or the sea except for the brief moments when the antenna is level. Instead, we made Securité calls and gave our position on channel 16 every 15 minutes. Hopefully, any other shipping would have heard us and taken steps to avoid us. No one answered any of our calls. We were outside of normal shipping routes, and during the whole passage offshore we saw only three ships. If we had been in a shipping area, some type of lookout might have been needed.How dangerous were the seas? The wind and seas were certainly spectacular and higher than anything we had previously experienced in 60,000 miles of sailing. We were apprehensive but not frightened, and I think we could have taken quite a bit higher wind and seas without experiencing real danger. But the conditions were hard enough that we knew there was not much margin for errors or gear failures.

Lying a hull rejected

Hand-steering would have been physically exhausting, and I do not think that I could have done it for more than one or two hours. The air temperature was about 55° Fcool but not unbearably cold. Ultimately, however, cold and exhaustion would have caused problems in holding course, exposing the boat to broaching or worse. I did not consider lying a-hull and allowing the boat to settle into a near beam-on position. I feel sure that we would have had a knockdown in seas of this size, and I was not in an experimental mood to try it.

The drogue we selected was the Jordan Series Drogue, and it performed close to our expectations. For our 18,000 lbs. displacement, this required 117 cones on -inch nylon line on an 80-foot lead line. The equivalent parachute drogue (or sea anchor) would be about a five foot diameter with a tether about 350 feet longalthough many recommend a parachute of considerably larger size for a boat with our displacement.

The series drogue was developed with a short and stiff tether so that restraining forces would develop very quickly and before a boat could accelerate rapidly down a wave front. It was designed with a weight on the end to keep it submerged and prevent tumbling or collapse of the drogue in the seas approaching the boat. In practice, the weight pulls the end down until a surge comes, at which time the drogue straightens out a bit like a “crack the whip” action. For this reason, the stress builds rapidly, but without any noticeable shock loading.

Wind speed and boat drift were calculated from GPS positions taken about once per hour. I have no anemometer, so my wind speeds were only estimates. The drift was about one knot at Force 6 and two knots at Force 9. Extrapolating means that drift would be only 2.5 knots at Force 12. Given any kind of drift rate, however, it’s a good idea to have plenty of sea room.

The drift rates were the combination of the drift through the water plus whatever surface currents there may have been. We had no way to estimate surface currents, but they might have contributed to the observed drift rates. The best of drogues, of course, could not hold a boat to drift rates less than the surface current.

I watched the operation of the drogue and the behavior of the boat before and during the storm. When the wind was lightsay Force 3the boat was not held stern to the wind, but settled into a position with the stern 30° to 35° off the wind. Above Force 5 the boat aligned itself more closely with the wind. In Force 5 to 7 winds and in regular seas up to about 15 feet, the boat would not yaw more than about 20° either side. Once the seas became high enough to shelter the boat in the troughs, the drogue line would often slacken for one or two seconds when the boat was in the back side of a wave. During this short interval, the boat could yaw up to 35° before the wind again caught the boat. Then the stress would be taken up on the drogue, and the boat would immediately straighten stern to the wind. Sometimes we could feel the boat jerked quite strongly back into line, which indicated that the drogue was doing its job. The yawing was especially troublesome just after the wind shift when we had cross seas mixed in with the seas from astern. This caused us to roll and yaw more than we expected, and more than we experienced when using the drogue during a gale in the North Sea the year before.

I cannot visualize a remedy for the problem of yawing in a trough. The backflow of water in a wave trough nearly stops the boat, especially when the troughs are deep enough to partly shelter the hull from the wind. The drogue can only generate a restraining force when it is being pulled through the water, and hence the drag is substantially reduced just at the time when the wind pressure on the hull is reduced. Without firm restraint, the boat will yaw from the confusion of the waves around the boat and from the wind forces on the mast, which extends up into the wind above the wave tops. In our case, the yawing was corrected quickly enough so that we were never caught beam to the crests.

Confused seas

A second problem is that many waves were not running parallel to the wind, especially after a major wind shift. We experienced considerable rolling and yawing from the confused seas after the wind shift, but we did not catch a large sea from abeam. This may have been luck or it may have been that our wind shift was nearly 180°. One would think that a sudden wind shift could leave one exposed to beam seas. The problem is the relative orientation of the wind and seas, so no improvement in drogue design would remedy this.

The series drogue held our boat safely and oriented sufficiently close to the wind and sea directions so that we never felt endangered in winds up to Force 10. I have confidence that it would operate similarly in higher winds, although I have no experience, nor do I want any experience, in Force 11 or greater storms.

Although one might stream the series drogue from the bow, I wouldn’t like to try this mode of deployment. The cockpit is the place to be during this type of weather. If a drogue is streamed from the bow, it would be much safer to run the lines aft so that the entire deployment could be handled from the cockpit. Usually storms give some warning, so the lines could be rigged before conditions become serious.

My decision was to set the drogue from the stern. The boat was built with special tangs on the stern quarters for attachment of the drogue. The drogue bridle has thimbles eye-spliced in the ends so that it can be shackled to these tangs to give a secure and chafe-free attachment. The companionway is strengthened so that it should withstand the impact of a full breaking wave crest. Drifting forward with the wind astern also jams the rudder less than drifting astern does, and yet the rudder required heavy tying to keep from bending the locking bar.

Drogue fared well

The drogue cones held up perfectly. There was no wear on the cones or lines. There were heavy stresses on the system as evidenced by the slight elongation of the spliced eyes around the thimbles. It appeared as if the stress took up some of the slack in the splices and that the splices did not actually slip. It did emphasize that all components need to be built and installed with utmost care, as stresses are heavy.

Getting the drogue back aboard was difficult. We waited until conditions moderated. We put the engine in reverse to stop the boat, and then pulled in the drogue by hand with a few assists with the winch at the start. I was tired when it was all back into the locker.

The storm was sobering and instructive for us. It emphasized the necessity for preparation, as conditions during heavy weather can make working on deck dangerous. I would not lie beam to the seas, and, although I did not experiment, they looked big enough to knock the boat down, or worse. Also and a very important pointbeam to the seas would have been very uncomfortable and exhausting. A drogue or sea anchor is the only feasible way to maintain a position more or less aligned with the wind and (usually) with the seas. Ease of deployment is important, and it must be worked out before the storm arrives.

Keeping warm, dry, and reasonably comfortable is critical to handling the storm, and a well-designed drogue allows the crew to stay below during the worst of the storm. All parts of the drogue system are highly stressed, so it must be designed, fabricated, and installed to the highest standards.

We found weatherfax charts and various radio nets to be very useful in allowing storm preparations to be made before the worst weather arrives. And, finally, what we learned is that boats really can take the punishment and that the storm will pass.

Mary and I were feeling quite good about weathering the storm without damage or injury. While we were in Falmouth we met Minoru Saito, a Japanese finisher in the 1994-’95 BOC around-the-world singlehanded race, who came into Falmouth on his way back home to Japan. I asked what he did in heavy winds. He said that he flew his staysail when running in up to 50 knots and hand-steered the boat as it surfed at up to 22 knots. That account sort of put our “storm” experience into perspective.

By Ocean Navigator