Series Drogues: Learning From Randall Reeves

As you pretty much all know by now, I believe that the series drogue designed by Don Jordon is by far the best storm survival and anti-capsize gear available.

My belief is based on the solid science done by Don Jordan in cooperation with the US Coast Guard, much of it based on earlier work by the Wolfson Unit of Southampton University.

But, just as importantly, we have verified that science, and learned more, from some of the best and most experienced offshore sailers of our time, including Tony Gooch, Trevor Robertson, and Susanne Huber-Curphey, all of them with multiple successful series drogue deployments during Southern Ocean circumnavigations.

A few weeks ago, I spent a morning continuing that process with Randall Reeves of Figure 8 Voyage fame. Here’s what I learned:

Wire Thimbles Must Go

Paul Kirby’s wire rope thimbles after a comparatively short drogue deployment.

Randall was knocked down and sustained substantial damage to the boat, requiring him to abandon his first attempt at the Figure 8 Voyage, when his series drogue parted off at the join to the bridles.

When I shared Paul Kirby’s experience with chafe on wire thimbles, and he compared that to the location of the break on his drogue, he agreed that the thimble was the cause of his drogue loss and associated knockdown.

Bottom line, thimbles with open throats, like those shown in the photo above, should never be used on rope for any application; they are intended for wire only.

Something that I’m ashamed to admit that I did not know until a few years ago.

And that’s backed up by the excellent work done by Drew Frye over at Practical Sailor.

Deployment Problems and Solutions

We then talked about how scary deploying a drogue can be due to the loads involved and the fear that it will tangle or snag on something as it runs out.

Randall’s technique was to carefully figure-eight coil his drogue and stow it in stops, but he said that despite that he had still found it necessary to flake it out in the cockpit before deployment. A process that was both time consuming and a pain in the neck. He would then chuck the chain in and retire to the foredeck, well out of harm’s way, as the thing ran out.

This problem is identical to the snag and tangle problems we used to experience on Morgan’s Cloud when deploying shorefast lines. That is, until an old high latitude hand taught us to simply flake, never coil, our lines into bags. Since then, in over twenty-five years of deploying anchor rodes and shorefasts from bags, we have never had even a snag.

We also stow our series drogue like that, and it has run out perfectly during testing.

Randall seemed excited by the idea and agreed to give it a try.

Unintended Consequences of Dyneema

Randall’s new drogue, made by Ace Sailmakers, is constructed with Dyneema/Spectra rope without a sheath for the bridles and the first section. The benefit is that the resulting series drogue is much lighter than his old one made of Nylon, and probably stronger, too. But, as so often happens around boats, there are unintended consequences. But there are solutions too, as discussed below:

Retrieval Difficulties

We have long known that retrieving a series drogue is no walk in the park. That said, there are techniques to make it doable, but most (all?) of these techniques require securely attaching a line to the drogue.

With Nylon braid this is easy to do with a double rolling hitch. But after both his deployments with the new drogue, Randall found it impossible to get a line tied on to the Dyneema in a way that would not slip, despite trying a double rolling hitch as well as two prussic hitches.

This was such a serious problem that Randall was compelled to use the engine to back down on the drogue to unload it for retrieval, a technique, fraught with potential dangers, that we don’t recommend and he didn’t like at all.

Update February 2020

We now have a solution to this problem.

Single-Handed Challenges

Before we leave that subject, Randall shared that the retrieval technique that Phyllis and I have tested successfully, of taking the drogue itself to a winch, just does not work for a single-hander, since there is no one to tail the line, and using the self tailer does not work due to fouling by the cones. So single handers should set up for and practice Trevor’s method.

Vane Gear Damage

The next problem is a trickier one to solve: During his second deployment in the Atlantic, shortly before arriving in Halifax, one of the bridles on his drogue managed to loop over the blade of his Monitor vane gear and do significant damage.

Given that Randall had wisely moved the vane into its upright position, this seems almost inconceivable, until we view the video below that Randall was kind enough to share with me:

As you can see, the light floating Dyneema bridle lines whip around as the drogue loads and unloads—clearly how the vane gear got damaged.

Given that we know of other incidences when a vane gear has been damaged by a series drogue, albeit with the vane in the water, this is a problem that needs dealing with regardless of drogue line type.

Both Randall and I think that the solution proposed by Stein Varjord, in the comments here at AAC, will work not only to solve the problem with Dyneema whipping around, but to protect all vane gears from drogue bridle damage.

Stein’s idea is so simple, and yet so clever, that if I thought I could get away with it I would pretend it was mine! But since that’s not going to work, I will let Stein explain it himself:

To solve the problem with the bridle fouling and damaging the windvane self steering; maybe one could use the same method as used with the backstay on racers with a fathead mainsail? They attach a very flexible glass fibre batten at the top of the mast. The other end is attached a short bit down on the backstay. When the stay is tight, the batten is bent in an arc over something like 90 degrees. When the stay is released, the batten straightens out and lifts the stay above and aft of the sail head so the stay can be tightened on the new windward side of the sail. This works very well.

This could be done by having two 1,5 metre / 5 foot battens with a loop attached on one end, which the JSD bridle leg runs through. Then the battens are attached more or less along the deck line of the boat. Perhaps angled slightly outwards or upwards? I’d chose thin round fiberglass battens, so they can bend easily any direction.

Their job is only to lift the bridle leg when there is no load, and flex in any direction when there is load. This arrangement would give the boat “artificial width” when there is no load, lifting the bridle away from the windvane steering, and contribute some to keeping the bridle legs tight at all times. At the same time it would not interfere in any way with the function of the JSD.

My thinking is that with one comment Stein has solved the last remaining serious problem with series drogues to Don Jordan’s design—just brilliant.

Randall and I discussed some added details:

  • To make deployment easy the battens could be put in place before going to sea.
  • Installation could be a simple matter of using two crossed heavy duty wire ties on the inboard part of the batten in the way of the aft two stanchion bases. (The battens would need to be a bit longer than Stein’s 1.5 meters to make this work.)
  • Given that batten material of this type can reliably withstand a good thrashing when fully battened sails flap during hoisting and reefing, I don’t think there will be any problem with durability in this application.
  • Given that the same batten can lift a back stay, that is scores of meters long, away from the mainsail fat head on a race boat, it should not have any problems keeping the much shorter bridles away from the vane gear.
  • To make deployment easier, we could attach a small block to the outboard end of the batten, and then pass a length of light line, attached to the bridle with a loose loop, through the block. We could then, after drogue deployment, tension said line, from a safe position inside the lifelines, to pull the bridle up to the outboard end of the batten.
  • If we have any remaining worry about the batten momentarily loading up (I don’t), said line could be made of shock cord.

End Weight

Randall’s present end weight. We did not have a chance to weigh this, but both of us guessed that it was lighter than optimal for a Dyneema drogue.

During our discussion of possible unintended consequences of the change to Dyneema, Randall shared that he had never seen the bridles whipping around, like in the video, when he had a series drogue made of heavier Nylon rope. And of course that rope would be a lot heavier, since Nylon absorbs much more water than Dyneema.

And, further, Tony Gooch, as far as Randall and I know, never had this problem when he owned the boat and the same Nylon series drogue.

Given that, we both concluded that with a Dyneema drogue it is doubly important to make sure the end weight is heavy enough.

Don Jordan shows a 15- to 30-lb weight, more than I’m guessing many people, including Randall and I, are using, and Randall is planning to take that up to 40 lbs to compensate for the buoyancy of Dyneema.

The key point here is that the way in which the end weight sinks the drogue and pulls the slack out when it unloads between waves, is a vital contributor to its function, so don’t underweight, and consider going up a bit in weight if you have a Dyneema drogue.

By the way, Randall suggested that a mushroom anchor might be a good alternative to the chain many of us use.

Chafe Gear, or Maybe Not

Join between the bridles and the first section of the drogue, showing how the chafe gear has bunched up.

Ace Sailmakers supplied Randall’s drogue with chafe gear at various places. At first glance this seems like a good idea; however, as the photo shows, under repeated cycle loading the chafe gear tends to bunch up to a point where it’s doing nothing useful and may in fact be a disadvantage.

Given how resistant to chafe Dyneema is, it may be better to simply dispense with the chafe gear altogether.

Another thought is that the chafe gear used looks to me like ordinary Dacron tubular webbing. I’m thinking that a better choice would be the same Dyneema sheath product that we have used on halyards with such success on Morgan’s Cloud. 

Bridle chafe gear has broken the stitching holding it in place.

It’s also important that securing the chafe gear is done with the underlying rope under load, to make sure that enough slack is left in the sheath so the whippings don’t load up and break.

That said, I’m not sure that getting this wrong was the reason for the problem shown in the photograph. It could be that working at the bridle to drogue joint, loaded the chafe gear beyond what the stitching could take.

Don’t Underestimate the North Atlantic

Randall’s latest series drogue deployment was in a gale just south of Nova Scotia. He shared that he was surprised how nasty the sea state was, even in comparison to the many Southern Ocean storms he has weathered, and how glad he was to have the series drogue to deploy. And this was in May, far from the worst time to be in the area.

After some discussion, we concluded that the reason for the severity of his latest experience was almost certainly because he was caught in an eddy or meander from the Gulf Stream.

The point being that those who are considering whether or not to fit a series drogue, should not assume that the gear is only warranted for those heading for the high latitudes.

Summary

These are all important details worth dealing with but, when thinking about storm tactics, we should never forget the big picture:

The series drogue to Don Jordan’s design kept Randall, Tony, Trevor and Susanne safe and right side up through a combined seven circumnavigations in the stormiest seas on the planet. And all four agree that there is no better alternative.

And, yes, I know that Randall was knocked down and Susie Goodall was pitchpoled when their series drogues parted off, but in both cases the reasons were avoidable construction mistakes, not design weaknesses.

Further Reading

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 25 years, first in yachting magazines and, for the last 20 years, as co-editor/publisher of AAC.

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