parachute Sea Anchor—When weather conditions start to deteriorate, a sea anchor can be a handy piece of gear”
By Cary V.
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.
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
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.
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
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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