Skip Novak has sailed in some ferocious weather, but is no fan of drogues and sea anchors. Others would not sail without them. We take up the debate

Ask about a controversial subject within the cruising community and, if not immediately, surely soon after you will get a heated debate about the pros and cons of drogues and sea anchors.

If you Google the subject, prepare to get comfortable for a few hours as you follow the debate online. The most amazing thing, you soon realise, is that so many people have an opinion about a piece of heavy weather gear that they have never actually used in anger.

This is all about storm survival when tactics such as lying ahull, heaving to and sailing on cannot be considered. The approach is either to deploy a sea anchor to try to keep the bow into the sea and hold position, or to run with the wind trailing tackle astern to slow the boat down.

The variables in the discussion are complex: which type of sea anchor and drogue (both homemade and proprietary), when to deploy it, the type of boat itself and how it would react, the sea conditions and attachment points on board, and deployment and retrieval methods.

But before I get carried away with this lecture, I have to admit to something: I have never tried a sea anchor nor a drogue. If I have to stop the boat for any reason in heavy weather (and I often have), I would heave to or even lie ahull, or simply run before the storm and hang in there given enough sea room.

I have been in some pretty ferocious seas running downwind, but mainly while racing at speed with a crew, and on bigger rather than smaller craft. My expedition vessels Pelagic and Pelagic Australis are heavy boats and in all these years I have never felt threatened enough to resort to methods that involve deploying gear over the side.

One storm I remember particularly well (there have been so many) occured while en route back from South Georgia on Pelagic in 2002. Only 100 miles out of Port Stanley in the Falklands we got hit by a violent Force 10 westerly that lasted for 20 hours.

Heaving to

We simply hove to and rode it out. Sure, we were rolled onto our beam ends now and then, but we were fairly comfortable. If we had been going downwind, I would have turned the boat around and done the same. The thought of deploying tackle over the side while running at speed in those conditions makes my hair stand on end.

For smaller boats and those sailing single- or short-handed, however, using a sea anchor or drogue might be an interesting, possibly lifesaving procedure. But it is one that must be practised, so that when you do it for real everything is spot on. In my case, on medium to larger craft (say, above the 50ft range), I consider the idea not worth the risk – and the risk can be high.

If you were sailing short-handed in heavy weather, setting out a drogue could be very dangerous

If you were sailing short-handed in heavy weather, setting out a drogue could be very dangerous

Sea anchors or drogues require you to deploy a substantial amount of tackle overboard at the height of a gale or storm. Anyone who has lost a sheet or piece of running rigging overboard knows the alarming rate at which it is sucked over the side. The force on a single line immediately becomes enormous and usually requires a winch to retrieve it. Now imagine the forces involved in a more complex tackle with harness, cones and weights – it becomes a potentially lethal piece of equipment.

Most yachts are ill-equipped to make this gear fast and less so to retrieve it, even when the weather softens to the point where you can sail on. Cleats are usually inadequate in strength and size, so it would be better to go straight to cockpit winches.

But beware a bad lead because the line can easily lay waste to stanchions, pushpits and more. A tangle is always possible and any human limb or appendage in the mix could spell disaster. Have a knife to hand!

The US Coast Guard has made an exhaustive study of the merits of two popular systems, the parachute anchor and the series drogue. It is published online and is worth reading: see here. The striking thing about its recommendations is the amount of tackle required to make it effective. I rest my case about why I don’t use them.

Instead, I will leave the first-hand reports to those sailors who have used drogues or planned to use them (see our stories by Jeanne Socrates and Roger Taylor on using a Jordan Series Drogue).

Using drogues – do they work?

Skip Novak’s view is clear: although drogues could be a lifesaver on small boats of, say, less than 50ft, he would feel nervous about deploying the gear on bigger, heavier vessels. For smaller yachts, however, there is anecdotal evidence that series drogues, in particular, are valuable. Drogues might also have value on light-displacement boats that won’t heave to or are running downwind under bare poles near wave-speed.

The detailed independent report by the US Coast Guard that Skip mentions above sought to address the pros and cons, and concluded that the best possible option may be the series drogue, in which a series of small drogues are streamed astern through several wavetrains.

The report notes ‘that most storms, even severe storms, do not create dangerous breaking waves. Sailors who survive such storms may conclude that the tactics they employ, such as heaving to, lying ahull or running off, are adequate to prevent capsize.

‘This is a serious mistake. There is very compelling evidence to show that while a well-found boat will survive a storm in non-breaking waves, none of the above tactics will prevent capsize in a breaking wave strike.’

Types of drogues

by Elaine Bunting

Parachute anchors help a yacht hold station, but produce hazards of their own

Parachute anchors help a yacht hold station, but produce hazards of their own

Parachute anchors

The US Coast Guard report raises some serious issues about these types of drogues streamed from the bow. It ‘questions the veracity’ of claims that they offer bulletproof protection in storm survival conditions.

They may help a boat hold station in moderate weather, it says, but when a wave hits the bow the boat can be shunted astern, potentially causing damage to the rudder, breaking the line, rolling the boat or forcing water through the exhaust system and into the engine.

The report also notes that ‘in the trough of a wave/swell [when] the para anchor rode goes slack, the yacht will commence to yaw, wanting to lie ahull, thereby leaving it partially or totally beam to the sea with the possibility of being knocked flat or rolled.’

Series drogues

This is the type of drogue that the report found the most effective. Though not named specifically in the report, the best known of these types is the Jordan Series Drogue.

It comprises a series of small drogues connected into a long series and deployed astern. The number of these will depend on the displacement of the yacht – typically, as many as 90 or 100 cones may be needed in series – and ideally the drogue needs to be made up and coiled ready to deploy from points at the stern that are strong enough for the very considerable loads. Additional chainplates may be needed.

The report concludes that ‘a series-type drogue provides significant advantages over a cone or parachute type drogue/sea anchor… Since some of the cones are near the boat where towline stretch is low, [the drogue] will build up load faster than a conventional cone or chute at the end of the towline/bowline.

The series drogue got the nod in a US Coast Guard report

The series drogue got the nod in a US Coast Guard report

‘A computer study shows that two seconds after wave strike, the series drogue will develop 40 per cent more load than an equivalent cone or chute.’

It notes that another advantage is that if one or even several cones are damaged, the whole drogue is not rendered totally ineffective.

If and when a drogue is working effectively, no action is required of the crew, who can simply go below, put the companionway boards in, make all items secure and try to get some rest.

However, it should be pointed out that even proponents of the series drogue, such as small-boat solo sailor Roger Taylor, who has used a Jordan Series Drogue on several occasions while voyaging in his 21-footer Mingming, say sufficiently strong attachment points are necessary and that the drogue must be conveniently stowed and arranged for immediate deployment.

But one of the main points of this report, which Skip Novak also makes, is that you need the right equipment, attachments and anti-chafe gear all set up and ready to go reasonably quickly and easily, and ideally you need to have practised using the drogue well in advance.


Part 9: sounding an uncharted bay

Going off soundings to uncharted areas is a desirable part of cruising and enables you to gain shelter on a hostile coastline, possibly saving vessel and crew. Skip explains the techniques

12-part series in association with Pantaenius