You Know How to Use Your Life Preserver. But What About Your
By Zack Smith

2001 Santana Magazine

Your parachute sea anchor can do more than steady your boat in heavy seas. It also
saves lives! But, there’s a catch. It can’t do you or your boat any good unless you know
how to use it properly. That means you have to practice.

Practice Gives You A Clear Advantage

It’s estimated that 90 percent of para-anchor owners don’t practice using their underwater drag device. And that’s incredibly dangerous! Training teaches us just how exhaustion can take over in crisis situations. And that’s a condition you surely want to avoid, because mistakes are most likely to occur when you’re exhausted! What I find amazing is how many people opt to abandon their vessel without deploying their para-anchor. When asked, “why?” The answer is always the same, “I didn’t know if it would work,” or “I didn’t think it would work.”

It’s not surprising that people think this way. Concerns in the reliability of drag devices are primarily based on conflicting information published in some sailing books and other publications. Currently, you’ll find two schools of thought regarding heavy weather strategies. According to popular belief, you can actively run like hell and hope you don’t get broached, pooped, or pitch poled. Or, on the side of passive tactics, you can deploy a para-anchor that will “park” you out in the middle of the ocean, where you can pray your boat doesn’t break apart from the strain or from the boat swinging out of control.

An example of both tactics can be found in books like "Rescue in the Pacific" by Tony Farrington. This story exemplifies the disastrous outcome that most often occurs when drogues wrap around props and the people aboard the vessels attempt to build makeshift drag devices. That’s very scary stuff. You can avoid such disaster by practicing with the proper equipment. Training with your gear takes the mystery out of using your drag device, so that it will work when you need it most.

The Importance of Using a Drag Device

Most sailboats by themselves survive incredibly huge storms. It’s the people being tossed around inside the vessel who make the decisions that ultimately end in their demise or rescue. Take Fastnet 79, Queens Birthday Storm, and the Sydney-Hobart race, for example. With a few exceptions, those boats kept floating after they were abandoned. What if these same sailors could’ve stabilized their wildly bucking boats--would they still have abandoned their boat? The secret is in stabilizing the boat.

The para-anchor is designed to steady a vessel in moderate to heavy weather situations by pulling the bow toward oncoming seas. A position far safer than lying beam to. For a few poor souls stuck offshore in a nightmare storm it becomes a necessity to calm the violent motions caused by a rolling boat. Luckily, most sailors deploy a para-anchor system because of exhaustion or seasickness. Not because of a life or death situation.

Trilibrium Factors Keep You Steady in the Wind. A boat’s stability is achievable through three elements of balance. These “Trilibrium Factors” are:

1) Sail trim;

2) Rudder positioning; and

3) Rode length.

My sail plan typically includes a second or third reef on the main and a storm jib up forward before I deploy my para-anchor. If the vessel is bare poled, I keep her head into the wind while motoring astern. After positioning the vessel into a hove to or head on position I deploy a boat fender connected to a 50-foot floating line from the windward bow. I don’t drop the para-anchor into the water until I see the trip line floating away from the boat.

If you follow this scenario, you can then snub the anchor rode right away. You will immediately feel the para-anchor tug vigorously. Don’t be concerned. That’s what it’s supposed to do as it begins to open. Rudder position should be slightly to windward, unless your vessel is falling off the wind. For stubborn vessels that lay beam to, rudder position should be hard over to windward.

Pay Attention to Slacking Anchor Rode

Once you’ve conquered the rudder, pay out small portions of anchor rode at a time to avoid slack in the system that may allow your vessel to drift beam to the seas. In force 8 or 9 conditions, I deploy from 50 feet to 150 feet of nylon rode and secure the line off a cleat. Then I wait to see how the boat behaves. If the bow of the boat starts jerking or feels like it’s being pulled through the waves, I deploy more rode. If my vessel feels like it is heading beam to the seas--even after adjusting sail and rudder--some rode needs to be retrieved, because there’s too much slack in the system.

Darkness, ocean spray, and squalls make it a rule of thumb to feel your way through deploying the proper amount of rode. If you want to prepare for a worse case scenario storm, you should consider carrying 10 feet of anchor rode per foot of boat.

Multihull sailors typically use fixed bridles with their para-anchor. However, that doesn’t allow them to adjust their rode length. If you use a fixed bridle, consider using 12 feet of chain or an equivalent to 16 pounds near the para-anchor to reduce anchor rode slack. For monohull vessels, it’s a good idea to carry a minimum 6 feet of chain for heavy storm conditions. Just attach it near the para-anchor to reduce rode slack and to hold the parachute below dangerous breaking waves.

Anchor rode chafe can be a problem for some vessels. The saw like motion of the rode moving over a fairlead, roller guard, or boat edge can create enough energy to cut fibers. Chafe is preventable by using 24 to 36 inches of high-pressure hose or two layers of firehose. Simply pay the rode through the protective cover until it reaches the eye splice at the end of the rode. Secure the chafe protection to the boat so that you can pay out rode at your discretion.

At the Storm’s End

Once the storm has died down and you’re ready to move on, it’s time to pull in the anchor rode slack. Do this as you head for the trip line. The retrieval float at the end of your trip line serves as a marker for you to motor toward. Boat hook in hand, grab hold of the retrieval float on the windward bow. Pull the trip line aboard and the collapsed parachute canopy will follow. Packing it away is easy. Modern para-anchors are designed to stow in minutes.

Parachute anchors are a significant tool for combating heavy seas. When used properly, a para-anchor lets you get much-needed rest in any sea condition and stabilizes the boat during layovers, breakdowns, and other emergency situations. The rigging instructions I’ve provided have been effectively used since 1947. If you follow my advice, you should have little or no problem keeping your vessel balanced in heavy winds and waves. But keep in mind that larger, heavier vessels tend to ride to para-anchors quite easily while other lighter sailboats take more time to balance. Using bridles, staysails, and riding sails usually balance out the most stubborn of vessels.

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