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“The parachute Sea Anchor—When weather conditions start to deteriorate, a sea anchor can be a handy piece of gear”

By Cary V. Derringer


When it comes to dealing with heavy weather at sea, sailors have a number of options. One is to reef down and then heave-to. Another is to stream a drogue astern. A third is to deploy a parachute sea anchor.My husband, Bob, and I have a sea anchor aboard our 36-foot cutter, Illusion, and we’re glad we do. Before we made the decisions (a) to purchase one, and (b) which one to purchase, we researched the subject extensively. Among other things, we found that there are a number of differences between the products of the three major American manufacturers. Deciding which best suits your needs depends on the type and size of the boat you own and the type of sailing you plan to do.

A parachute sea anchor is basically a drag device. Normally deployed off the bow to windward, it is designed to hold the bow into the wind and waves. This stabilizes the motion of the boat while maintaining a safe attitude to the seas. Forward motion is stopped, but some leeward drift ideally, no more than 1 or 2 knots—occurs. Deploying a sea anchor can buy you time for sleep or nourishment in heavy weather or let you wait until a heavy fog lifts or daylight arrives before making landfall. A sea anchor can also help hold you off a lee shore while you make an engine or rig repair.


    The Fiorentino 9-foot para-anchor (top); a 9-foot Para-Tech sea
    anchor (middle); a Shewmon 10-foot sea anchor (bottom)

    Photo by Cary Derringer






Fiorentino's stainless para-ring attachment and shroud line(top); Para-Tech's galvanized shackle (middle); Shewmon's galvanized thimble attachment and shroud lines (bottom) Photo by Cary Derringer


The Gear

The sea anchor is just one component in a system that includes anti-chafe gear, a rode, and a trip line, as well as bomb-proof cleats and solid bow rollers (for a monohull) or a strong bridle arrangement (for a multihull). Here are the factors we considered when choosing a sea anchor for our cutter.

The length and displacement of your boat is always the starting point for determining the sea anchor’s canopy diameter. Additional factors in our case were the fact that our sailing is mostly offshore and that our cutter, which has a cruising weight of approximately 28,000 pounds, has more than average windage because of gear on deck.

Cost, weight and storage. These were issues for us. With all the components needed for the deployment and retrieval of a sea anchor, we wanted quality at an affordable price without any surprises for extras or additional shipping costs. Because we cruise for extended periods and carry a lot of gear, we considered both how much the equipment weighed and how compact it would be in storage. We also considered how each system would handle in high winds and seas, with the attendant dramatic boat motion, seasickness, and crew fatigue.

Rode. All manufacturers recommend using a dedicated sea anchor rode that is used for no other purpose. Nylon is the material of choice because it stretches a lot which reduces shock loads on gear. We chose a 5/8-inch conventional double-braid nylon because it flakes and stores easily and does not hockle or twist.

Trip Line. The trip line, used for retrieval, can be either full or partial length. A full-length trip line extends all the way from the apex of the anchor’s canopy back to the boat, while a partial trip line extends from the canopy apex to a float, buoy, or fender between the boat and the canopy.

Using a sea-anchor


Deploying. When deploying a parachute sea anchor, there are two concerns: that the chute will catch the wind and become inflated on deck, and that either the shroud lines or trip line will become tangled during deployment. Each manufacturer has a special packing technique to eliminate these hazards.

If the system you select has a partial trip line, the float and the attached line must always be deployed first, followed by the sea anchor and a small amount of rode. Always keep tension on the rode, even after the canopy inflates.

Setting the anchor. The idea is to have enough rode out so that both the boat and the canopy are positioned at the same phase of their respective waves, no matter whether the chute is one wave crest or several crests away. When the anchor is properly set, there is enough tension in the rode to keep the bow in place and allow the boat to negotiate the wave crest safely.

We’ve found that the best procedure for us is to first set the anchor in the water and then pay out about 360 feet of rode (10 times the length of our boat). We continue to pay out small amounts of rode and watch how the boat responds to the waves.

Dealing with chafe. To control chafe on Illusion, we use a very heavy duty section of hose tied along the bowsprit and over bow roller. The hose’s interior has a hard surface and is one that will stand up much better than a softer material as the rode passes through it. In addition, we “freshen the nip”—that is, we let out a small amount of rode—every hour to present a new section of rode to the hose and roller surfaces. Needless to say, we also check the rode, the boat, and the chafe gear frequently.

To make sure the rode stays in place you can either secure the rode and chafe gear with a bail or tie a line over the top of the bow roller or chock to prevent it from jumping out. Some rollers have pins over them to hold an anchor in place, and these may be effective.

Retrieval. A trip line makes retrieving a sea anchor relatively simple. With a partial trip line, it’s best to sail or motor up to the trip-line float while hauling in the rode, being careful to maintain tension; if the chute sinks and hangs directly below the bow, it will be impossible to get the canopy back on board.

When the trip line is close enough to reach with a boathook, we catch it and deflate the canopy. Then we pull the gear on board and pack it according to the manufacturer’s instruction.

Dynamics. Sea anchors tend to ride near the surface of the water, and a breaking sea with moving water at the surface can invert or badly twist the anchor. There is an increased potential for entanglement with floating debris when the anchor is near the surface.

One solution is to deploy a larger canopy than the one specified for the size of the boat. However, a bigger canopy costs more, weighs more, and may exert excessive loads on both the rode and the boat. Some manufacturers sew lead weights into the hem of their canopies, while others use specialized hardware.

If you do add a parachute anchor to your boat’s equipment, practice deploying and retrieving it. Start in calm water, then try it in more moderate conditions. Become familiar with the system’s components, and make sure that everyone who might be handling the device knows how to use it. The secret to a successful launch is knowing how to use the equipment well before you need it.

Our decision. After we had done our research, we selected a 12-foot Fiorentino Para-Anchor. It met our cost, weight, and storage requirements, and we liked the design of the hardware, the materials, and the construction methods used in the canopy. The most important first step in making a decision is to prioritize the features that are important to you in view of the kind of sailing you plan to do.

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