Yet More On Series Drogue Retrieval

We just received this e-mail from Evans Starzinger who, together with his partner, Beth Leonard, completed two circumnavigations. The second one was west to east and south of the great capes, on their Samoa 47 Hawk.

Someone sent me a link to your latest drogue retrieval discussion and I thought I should mention something you might want to add into your thinking: the load on the [Don Jordan’s Series Drogue] rode is not at all static or steady. It’s in fact very highly cyclic, being highly loaded when the bow is pointing down the face of a wave and lightly loaded when the bow is pointing up the back of a wave. This has two implications for retrieval:

  1. It’s actually quite possible to ‘manually’ retrieve the rode by spinning the winch quickly for 3 or 4 turns during the low load portion of the cycle and resting during the high load portion of the cycle. Just as a second confirming opinion, Tony Gooch happened to be on Hawk yesterday. He used a series drogue several times during his southern [circumnavigation] solo record run. He had this exact same cyclic experience and in fact did not use a winch handle during the retrieval. He had 4 wraps on the winch, just held the line so it would not slip during the high load part of the cycle and pulled as fast as possible hand over hand during the low load portion. He tended to get going when the wind dropped to 30 to 35kts. [Editor’s Note: In direct communications with Tony, he said that his hand retrieval method only worked when the wind was down to 15 to 20 knots and that it was still exhausting, even then.]
  2. The cyclic loading is quite hard on electric drives. We were messing around with Steve Dashew’s series drogue and retrieving with a big powerful electric winch in calm conditions but with a big swell running. We quite quickly overheated the winch because of the high loads while the swell was rising under the boat. The electric motors take time to spin up and down so it’s not really practical/possible to run them only during the low load portion of the cycle.

I take Evans’ point on the cycle loading. In our tests we were trying to simulate a worst case, with the drogue subjected to a steady strong load. As I mentioned, our concern about retrieval was based on the experience of our friends Willem and Corri Stein who, even after waiting for two days for the weather to calm down, were unable to retrieve their Jordan Drogue and finally had to cut it away. We feel that it makes sense to be prepared for a worst case scenario, particularly when that preparation just means the acquisition of a relatively inexpensive electric drill, three batteries, and a winch bit; all of which will have many other uses.

Also interesting about overheating the winch on Windhorse. Here I think the drill motor has an advantage since it is very quick to spin up and shut down. I can see being able to run it full out in the lulls, maybe even in the second (middle) speed on our three speed winch, and then stopping when the load comes on.

And Evans’s further comments:

I think a strong battery drill is one of the most important and versatile tools on board, so the 24vt drill sounds like a great addition in any case, and having a winch drive socket for it only makes sense. Hopefully you will simply never have reason to discover if you need it to retrieve the drogue.

Your boat is quite a bit heavier than ours and carries more momentum, so probably accelerates and decelerates less in the wave cycles, so gets less ‘benefit’ from the low load portion of the cycle.

This is some really good input from a number of very experienced sailors. The interesting thing is that Tony Gooch’s experience was different from that of Willem and Corri Stein as related in this post. Does that make one of them wrong? Absolutely not; it just shows that different boats and different circumstances can require very different solutions to what might appear to be the same challenge.

It is also important to keep in mind that as the boat gets larger the series drogue must be longer. For example, ours is half as much again longer than that recommended for a boat the size and weight of Tony’s or Evans’. Not only will this yield more load but there is more to grind in.

Cruising boats have got larger in recent years but are often still crewed by one or two people who are likely in their late middle age. These trends demand a fresh look at tried and proven techniques that are effective on smaller boats for younger and/or tougher crews but that might be a stretch too far for aging wimps like yours truly.

Further Reading

For a complete step by step guide to storm preparation including instructions on how to retrieve a Jordan Series Drogue see our eBook Heavy Weather Tactics 

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Meet the Author


John was born and brought up in Bermuda and started sailing as a child, racing locally and offshore before turning to cruising. He has sailed over 100,000 miles, most of it on his McCurdy & Rhodes 56, Morgan's Cloud, including eight ocean races to Bermuda, culminating in winning his class twice in the Newport Bermuda Race. He has skippered a series of voyages in the North Atlantic, the majority of which have been to the high latitudes. John has been helping others go voyaging by sharing his experience for twenty years, first in yachting magazines and, for the last 12 years, as co-editor/publisher of AAC.

8 comments… add one
  • Tim Nov 30, 2010, 7:39 am

    Why can’t you use a retrieval line hooked to the weight at the end of the drogue? Position a couple of weights on this line to keep it from fouling in the drogue line. The drogue isn’t that long and surely 5 pound weights positioned along the line would make it track lower than the drogue, as all the working cups have lift. What am I missing?

    • john Nov 30, 2010, 9:04 am

      Hi Tim,

      That’s an interesting idea. However, the outer end of the drogue is weighted too and will sink during lulls in the storm. Therefore I think it would still foul the weighted trip line.

      Also, the big problem with a trip line seems to be during deployment where the drogue is running out at a truly frightening rate. The thought of 5 pound weights flying around during the process scares me.

      Tony and Coryn Gooch have tried a trip line several times, in several different ways, but it has always fouled the drogue on deployment and made retrieval more difficult, not less.

  • Andrew Troup Aug 9, 2012, 4:34 pm

    A few thoughts about retrieval of a series drogue:

    #1: Build the drogue in such a way that a retrieval line could run back to the boat through the middle of each cone, to prevent it from wrapping around the drogue. Retrieval would involve keeping this line attached, and casting off the normal towing eye. In my imagined perfect world, the whole series would turn inside out, like inverting a sock. You’d end up towing it with all the cones backwards, and hence collapsed. In practice, however, I can see the thing might well twist and jam, and add to the drag.

    A modified version of this idea would entail making the series in such a way that maintaining tension on the central line (which would connect to the tail of each cone) and easing the towing bridle (connected to the mouths of all the cones) a few feet, would invert each cone, but not the whole drogue. It did occur to me that this latter modification might beneficially allow using the drogue as a discretionary ‘handbrake’, possibly useful when running a bar. (Like the “Seabrake”, except manual rather than automatic.)

    #2: The idea here would require fitting an element at the tail end of the drogue which was reasonably large in diameter. To retrieve: attach a sleeve, smaller in diameter than this element but large enough to pass over the cones, around the drogue. This sleeve would be provided with a bell-mouth or flare, facing aft. (I’m visualizing perhaps an industrial plastic, large-bore funnel, split on one side. This could then be ‘bandaged’ with duct tape to hold the split closed.) Attach a big, high-visibility float (like an orange jerrycan) to the sleeve. This could optionally be attached to a Dan Buoy, given that the waves are generally still running high at this phase of a storm. Release the float, allowing it to run down the series out to the end of the drogue, towing the sleeve over the cones. Once the tail end is buoyed up, cast off the towing end of the drogue, adding a weight so it hangs down. At this point, you’re free of the drogue, and can make sail and do some ‘MOB’ drill. (Always great to have an opportunity to practice these in mid ocean!)

    Retrieval would now automatically be with the drogue cones coming in backwards, and could perhaps be done over the bow roller and direct to the warping drum, for a really heavy vessel with a drogue to match.

    #3: If you do decide to ‘muscle’ it onboard over the stern and you have two people, you can use their combined power to best effect by running two winches in tandem, ideally by putting the strongest person on the biggest winch and then running the tail to a secondary winch which the second person grinds. If a third person is available they should tail, and take turns grinding for whoever tires quickest.

    I feel it’s not advisable to do this with three winches in series, or to use the same sized winch for the second winch as the first, unless the second grinder avoids applying maximum urge (or is unable to). The main reason is the compression load (“hoop stress” in engineering terms) on the drum caused by such high tailing forces, which could cause the main bearing of the first winch to bind. Secondly, you may overload the mounting bolts, or the deck, under that winch.

    #4: I left my simplest suggestion until last: If the propulsion motor is operational, run it in reverse. Use sufficient revs to slow the vessel enough, relieving the drogue tension, so that the drogue can be retrieved with a few turns around the biggest sheet winch. Potentially, even on a heavy vessel, this might make it possible for a couple to safely heave it in hand-over-hand whenever it slackened in the wavetrain cycle, per Tony Gooch’s experience above.

    • John Aug 12, 2012, 8:52 am

      Yikes, Andrew, you have been thinking! All interesting ideas, but I guess from my point of view and with my predilection to always go with the simplest option when designing systems to use offshore, I would still stick with our drill motor based retrieval system.

      Of course your option #4 is even simpler, but I would really worry about fouling the prop with the drogue or even bringing a breaking wave from the leftover sea over the stern. To keep a boat under any control at all while reversing in a confused leftover sea would be fantastically difficult and the penalties for error are really nasty.

      On option #3, I think you would get overrides on the winches. Also, the loads are so high that even working together two crew would be exhausted quickly.

      Option #2 is interesting and I think maybe workable, although remember that the outboard end of the drogue is weighted, so that might be a problem. But my main objection would be the risk of losing the drogue or injuring a crew person during the pick up. Grabbing something like that with a boat hook in a big sea is really very difficult indeed.

      Keep thinking though. I’m certainly not saying that our system is the best possible, just that it is the best we have been able to come up with to date. However, in your thoughts, keep in mind that things that you can do in calm water become nearly impossible and potentially dangerous offshore in a big leftover sea.

      • Andrew Troup Aug 15, 2012, 6:15 pm

        A few points of clarification:

        #4 was not to do with “backing up” the vessel towards the drogue. The tension in the drogue varies in proportion to the rate of drift. I’m suggesting that the average rate of forward drift be reduced (rather than halted or reversed, as you seem to have inferred).

        I propose increasing the revs above idle only sufficiently so the tension, during the periodic minima resulting from the swell train, reduces to levels which can be handled safely and swiftly using the biggest winch as a snubber. This should keep the drogue streaming aft at all times, well away from the prop, but it might be necessary to stop the engine immediately later in the process, should the shortened drogue show any tendency to be thrown bodily forward and the retrieval effort fail to keep pace.

        Your engine may not be available ‘on request’, but I’d venture the same is even more true of a small electrical appliance, being worked way beyond any duty cycle the designer might have envisaged, and in a far less hospitable environment. I think either method could be worth considering as a backup for the other.

        #3 was added as an afterthought, prompted by my realisation that you seem well disposed to solutions which require winching at high tension (which I personally would seek to avoid). I agree that this puts the cones at risk, but I’m not sure why this is not similarly problematic for the solution you’ve chosen to implement. Arguably, because only half as many turns are required on each drum, tandem winching might even be less tough on the cones.

        It might be helpful to go into more detail in case anyone’s interested in this tandem winch method (there are others) of applying more tension than the biggest winch on board is normally capable of; which can be handy when, say, shifting a mooring, or to salvage a vessel from a grounding.

        Over-rides need to be averted. This can be done by:

        a) Exploiting the fact that coaming-mounted winches usually lean outwards. This often means that a line can lead from the top of a starboard winch to the bottom of a port winch without putting either winch at risk of overrides. However, pay attention to point c) if there is a question about the strength of the mounting
        b) A primary winch can often be tailed directly by a smaller winch at a higher level, eg on the deckhouse
        c) Failing these options (or to provide a “deadman” reinforcement as below) a part turn around a third winch (maybe as little as a quarter turn, or less) is often sufficient diversion to rectify a poor lead. In cases where this is not possible, one or more snatchblocks can be used

        If a significant overload is expected (and this should only be contemplated in an emergency) several steps should be taken:

        d) There should only be two turns on the primary winch. This will reduce the constriction tending to bind the drum’s main bearing. It also greatly reduces the likelihood of a riding turn.
        e) The tail should be taken away from the winch in a direction which is a continuation of the line from which load approaches the winch (ie apply two turns, plus or minus say 1/10 of a turn). This means the tailing line is effectively providing a ‘deadman’, helping to relieve the load on the primary’s mounting bolts, which would otherwise be an overload. If necessary, use one of the techniques in point c) to ensure this.

        Because there are only two wraps, the tension in this tailing line will be higher than usual. This helps the “deadman” effect, and helps the second winch share the primary load. With this precaution, a double handle can be used on the primary winch, allowing two people to grind. A third person’s efforts on the secondary (self-tailing) winch will also be applied almost 100% to the task at hand. Make sure the line can handle this. (In open-beach salvage situations, it is highly advantageous to use a very strong nylon warp: considerable work can then be stored by stretching the warp—if you have enough winch power—so that when the occasional surge lifts the boat momentarily, it may move many metres towards the open sea. This will smooth out the energy demand (to a marathon rather than a series of sprints), as well as moving the vessel much more quickly—during those infrequent windows of opportunity—than direct winching can achieve.

        f) Occasionally, savvy cruising boats fit one extra-large winch for emergency situations. It’s worth bearing in mind that such winches, especially on the second-hand market, are much more affordable (and make better seats!) if they’re not self-tailing. In this context, using an existing smaller, self-tailing winch for tailing from the extra-large salvage winch can be a good option (provided the jaws of the former can spread wide enough).

        End of gratuitous dissertation on salvage winching!

        Re #2 I realize there is length of chain at the end of the series drogue, which is one reason why I suggest a decent sized float. The other reason is that I would never even consider using a boathook for retrieval. I would use a variation on the method used on fishing boats to retrieve heavy fish traps offshore, or to pick up difficult moorings. Remember also that I specified adding an element of large diameter where the chain attaches to the drogue, to act as a terminus for the float as it travels aft. This element (which could simply be a crossbar) should be strong enough for rough handling. Here goes: Lead a line from the windlass over the bow roller and aft outside all on the windward side. Have the best throwing arm stand just aft of the rigging, holding a (blunt pointed) grapple on the end of this line, and a small coil of slack. Sail slowly past close to leeward of the float, so the grapple can be thrown just past and just aft of the float. Immediately round up to hove-to while the grapple (and float) is being retrieved towards the bow. Since the drogue is hanging straight down, the cones are lying backwards, and the vessel is hove to, it should be relatively easy for a securely harnessed crew to get the grapple past the bow roller. If not, there is a length of chain hanging down which can be lifted aboard and used to bring the drogue to the warping drum.
        On a really large or undermanned vessel, the grappling line could have been rove through a snatchblock rigged on the end of one or more taut halyards, bridled laterally to the pulpit top rail to centralize it, far enough above and aft of the bow roller to lead the drogue line over the latter in spite of the grapple and float. This suggestion is based on a method successfully used to anchor at least one very large racing yacht with no bow roller at all in very exposed situations. It’s also worth bearing in mind if an anchor roller sustains damage, or if in some emergency it becomes necessary to deploy too many cables for the rollers available.

        • John Aug 15, 2012, 6:32 pm

          Hi Andrew,

          As before, all interesting stuff. I still think that I am happier with our present system, for the reasons that I stated above. That is not to say that your ideas won’t work for you, just that they don’t turn my crank (ouch). 🙂

          I did understand that you were not planning to make way in reverse, I was just unclear in my writing, sorry. However, in my experience, immediately after a storm the wind is often very gusty interspersed with lulls. So I still think that in these conditions it would be very difficult to substantially reduce the load on the drogue by reversing the engine without the risk of inadvertently backing over it in a lull.

          The issue for me is simply balancing of risks, and the risk of wrapping the drogue around the prop and thereby disabling two of the boat’s main safety mechanisms in one fell swoop is just too much for me. Further, I am totally paranoid about putting an engine in gear when in a seaway offshore if there are any lines in the water, since I know of at least three incidences where this action has resulted in disablement.

          I hear you on the dangers of high load winching, a concern you share with the late Hal Roth about our method (i.e. you are in good company). However, our testing shows those loads to be no higher than those that the primary winches on “Morgan’s Cloud” are subjected to for days at a time when going to windward in a fresh breeze. In short, the gear is built to take it and we handle those loads every time we tack or trim.

          Also keep in mind that our method is designed to work for an exhausted seasick middle aged couple. Once you have more and stronger people aboard, all kinds of more aggressive and active options present themselves.

  • Bill Attwood Jan 23, 2015, 3:26 am

    Hi John,
    A friend of mine lay to his JSD off the coast of Portugal for just over 2 days. His boat at the time was a Twister, 28 foot Holman and Pye long keel design. He found no difficulty retrieving the drogue by hand, but the Twister is probably only about 5 to 5.5 tons. He also deployed his drogue by paying out the cones from the bridle end first, and the anchor at the end. This worked well for him, although Donald Jordan recommended the other way.
    A short excerpt from his story “It was in November…..We were basically on a delivery trip to Lagos. …..It was a go for it attempt. We got there but very chastened. The area is just South of Nazare where they have the biggest ever recorded breaking waves. ….. There were breaking waves but no monsters. …. The sensations for me were mainly the noise and the intermittent nature of the drogue snatching. Initially we spent a lot of time thinking that it must have parted as it was not as active as I had expected. It was quite fascinating to watch water being squeezed out of the rope when the drogue came tight. ……. We survived, that I suppose was the ultimate object. I think the unknown and the noise were quite unnerving. I suspect that it will be easier next time. I now know that the system works. So a whole lot of worries about what to do if it did not have gone. We got pooped quite a few times, but it was in with one wave and out with the next. I was glad that we had massive wash boards.”
    Hope this is of interest. Yours aye,

    • John Jan 23, 2015, 12:28 pm

      Hi Bill,

      Great stuff, thank you. There is nothing as useful as real world experience.

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