How to use parachute-style sea anchors in rising and heavy weather (Published Fall 2011)
Luckily, heavy weather at sea is fairly rare, and with modern weather forecasting capabilities and worldwide communications, it is possible for sailors to avoid bad weather by delaying departures or changing sailing routes. That said, no experienced sailor would head out for a long sail without making preparations for meeting and dealing with heavy weather.
There is no doubt that multihulls—both tris and cats—react very differently to heavy weather than monohulls. The difference lies in the simple fact that multihulls tend to sit on top of the water, while most monohulls sit in the water.
In high winds, multihulls are dramatically affected by windage that can cause the hulls to actually scud across the water and down the faces of waves. Monohulls tend to heel over like a boxer absorbing a punch, but don’t usually scud over the water.
In big waves, a multihull going downwind can surf or even plane down wave faces and will gain speed rapidly, quickly exceeding nominal hull speeds until brought to an abrupt stop as it meets the next wave with a crunch. Upwind, multihulls tend to pitch and can leap skyward as a big, steep wave passes beneath the hulls; this can expose the underside of the bridgedeck to fast-moving water and gusting winds with potentially bad results.
The first point to make about multihulls and heavy weather is that most of the cats that are used in charter fleets around the world sail across at least one ocean to get to the charter bases. For example, the cats in the Caribbean fleets come across the Atlantic from South Africa or Europe, so they have long sea passages behind them before they ever go into charter. These boats have proven time and again that modern cruising cats are capable of blue water sailing in the mid latitudes.
Still, many experts and veteran multihull sailors will stress that when it comes to the seakeeping capabilities of cats and tris, size really does matter. The extra length, beam and displacement of larger hulls all contribute to the boat’s stability and to the way the hulls and bridgedeck meet the wind and seas. A 60-footer with four feet of deck clearance and a beam of 30 feet is simply more capable of riding through 10- and 15-foot swells comfortably and safely than a 35-footer with 30 inches of deck clearance and a narrower beam.
While this seems an obvious point, it does mean that those sailing in smaller multihulls need to think differently about their heavy weather tactics than big boat sailors.
RUNNING BEFORE IT
Legendary offshore sailor Sir Robin Knox-Johnston used to race a big, light cat called Falcon. On his way back to England from a race to the U.S., he got caught in a full storm in the North Atlantic. His tactic to save his boat and himself was to run before the storm trailing warps to slow the big cat enough to keep it from crashing into the waves ahead as it scudded down the wave faces into the deep troughs.
The news of this tactic’s success spread widely, and many skippers who followed him prepared their boats with long, heavy lines to stream in loops from the sterns if they had to run before a storm. This remains a sensible technique as long as you have enough sea room for the boat to blow before the storm for a long while; when you run before a storm, you essentially stay in the system until it passes you, which can take days.
Also, running before a storm means you need to have the manpower to steer actively because you have to keep the sterns square onto the waves or you risk burying one bow, causing the boat to cartwheel. So, running before a storm works if you have sea room and enough experienced crewmembers aboard to steer.
STOPPING THE BOAT
Sea anchors have been used by sailors for hundreds of years and are designed to hold a boat still—anchored to the water—as the storm rages past. Normally, you deploy a sea anchor from the bow so you lie bow to the waves. There are several types of traditional sea anchors, but today the most popular and most effective are para-anchors, which have been developed from the design of parachutes.
The para-anchors available on the market today are much more robust and highly engineered than the old parachutes that sailors used to buy from army surplus stores. They need to be, because the strain on the chutes, lines, shackles and deck fittings when a boat is being swept by raging waves can be enormous.
Lin and Larry Pardey have a lot of sailing experience, particularly in monohulls, and have spent extensive time working with techniques to get the best from their sea anchor. One of the problems you face when lying to a para-anchor is the boat’s tendency to drift backwards onto its rudder or rudders, which can damage the blade or bend the rudder shaft. The Pardeys rig a bridle on the para-anchor’s rode to a cleat or winch on the windward side deck. This allows them to adjust the angle at which the boat meets the waves and keeps it from drifting back onto the rudder.
Multihull sailors have been carrying para-anchors for years, and many have been deployed to stop boats in bad weather. With two points of attachment at each bow of a cat or the bow and windward ama of a tri, you rig a bridle that can be adjusted in much the same way the Pardeys adjust the bridle on their monohull.
By setting up the rig so one bow meets the wave before the other, you keep the boat from pitching straight up as the wave passes; instead, the boat climbs the wave and one hull clears the top before the other, which keeps the boat more balanced and less likely to pitch violently.
Para-anchors can be used in a wide range of conditions and are particularly useful when you are being driven toward a lee shore or even when you just need to stop the boat to rest or make necessary repairs. In ultimate storm conditions, each skipper will have to decide for himself how well he, his crew and his boat will handle the conditions. The strains on a para-anchor in hurricane-strength weather can rip out deck cleats or part the heaviest lines due to chafe and surge. And, breaking free from a sea anchor under the press of a mighty sea can cause the boat to slip backwards and potentially flip. In extreme conditions, running off trailing warps or drogues may well be the safest strategy. But that doesn’t mean you should skip carrying a para-anchor. There are times when it is exactly the right tool for the job at hand and you would miss it sorely.
For more info, visit Fiorentino (www.para-anchor.com) or Para-Tech (www.seaanchor.com).