Large Sea Anchors, Not Recommended

Up until a some years ago we carried a 24-ft (7-m) diameter PARA-TECH sea anchor, and all the gear to set it, as our backup system. However, despite thinking that it was the best option at the time we bought it, we were never entirely happy with this solution, as I discussed in this chapter. So we got rid of our sea anchor for the following reasons:

Difficulty of Deployment

The deployment of so much heavy gear off the bow in storm conditions would be both difficult and dangerous.

Crew Discomfort

I believe that the pitching and yawing in true storm conditions would be truly horrendous. Most modern sailboats, particularly with the forward windage of roller furling headsails like Morgan’s Cloud has, yaw a lot at anchor when it is blowing hard; imagine the same behavior in 30 to 40 ft (9 to 12 m) seas! There are ways to ameliorate this, such as riding sails, but this is still more gear to rig and to break in survival conditions.

The yawing problem can be solved by using a Pardey Bridle but I have real reservations about rigging such a system on a boat the size of Morgan’s Cloud.

Retrieval Difficulties

I think that it is unlikely that Phyllis and I would be able to retrieve the sea anchor and its associated gear, particularly after being beaten up and exhausted by several days of lying to it in storm conditions.

I got an email from a friend who is a commercial fisherman running three draggers off the US east coast, that seems to confirm this fear. He says:

I have never needed to purchase a sea anchor. Towing a bottom trawl in the Gulf of Maine has routinely provided sea anchors of all types and shapes. Judging from what I have seen, people often discard the sea anchor rather than deal with its recovery.

Unrealistic Assumptions

The PARA-TECH manual, like that provided with the Galerider, demands that you deploy the drag device on a long rode so that it is immersed two to three waves away from the wave the boat is on and that the device is in the same relative point on its wave as the boat is on hers. Give me a break! Waves in storm conditions are confused and of varying heights and periods. They do not conform to the pretty diagrams in these manuals and, even if they did, how, pray tell, are you supposed to see through the blowing spray of storm conditions to where the thing is several waves to windward?

Shock Loads

A 24-ft (7 m) sea anchor, the size recommended for Morgan’s Cloud, is going to be essentially impossible to drag through the water. Being attached to something, in storm conditions at sea, that has almost no give, will generate forces that are truly frightening to think about.

The PARA-TECH manual calls for at least 600 ft (183 m) of nylon rope to ameliorate this problem. However, recent research shows that nylon rope that is being heavily cycle loaded, particularly when wet, is much more subject to failure than we all once thought. The problem lies with self heating, due to friction between the fibers, that can eventually lead to the rope failing through melting. I suspect that this may be the reason that many sea anchors are lost due to rode breakage, rather than the chafe that has usually been blamed.

Recently I spoke with a woman who had deployed a sea anchor on a trip to Bermuda. It worked well, but the nylon rope broke during recovery after the gale. This would suggest to me that it may have been weakened by the problem noted above.

Conclusion

So, while I’m not suggesting that sea anchors never work well nor discounting the fact that they have saved many lives and boats, I think there is now a better storm survival systems.

A Better Way

More on that in our Heavy Weather Tactics Online Book.

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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.

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