what is a drogue?
o far we've had a careful look at a number of storm management tools:
1. Reefing the sails.
4. Running off.
Now we'll examine the other half of the fifth option of storm controls: the use of a drogue or drag device towed behind a vessel to slow her if she picks up too much speed from strong wind and waves coming from astern. A drogue helps maintain reasonable steering control, and if the vessel is overtaken by a breaking wave, the drogue tends to hold the stern of the boat into the overtaking wave. This helps keep the yacht from turning broadside to the sea and possibly broaching and being rolled over sideways. Or even worse, from being pitchpoled—flipped end over end like a tumbleweed in Arizona. These are certainly dreadful prospects.
While mentioning these horrific things, however, I believe we need to keep them in perspective. Again and again in this book I've spoken of the unlikelihood of meeting severe storms and breaking waves. For what it's worth, I can say that only once in my sailing career have I shook hands with a really violent breaking wave situation, and that lasted 6 or 8 hours. We need to tuck away in the back of our minds a system or systems to deal with extreme winds and breaking waves and to put the equipment on board to carry out our defense, but we shouldn't flog ourselves with excessive angst about what might or might not happen.
Yachting magazines and entirely too many sailing books tend to make you believe that there's a Force 10 problem circling beneath every distant cloudbank. In order to make exciting reading, some of these accounts are repeated over and over again by writers with minimal sailing experience—some who have barely crossed an ocean or two. Meanwhile the safe and easy passages are ignored. Yet editors will buy a white-knuckled storm story every time because they hope it will sell books and magazines.
I've written many times that in my experience 50% of the time the winds I've met have been 15 knots or less; it seems to me that what you need is a sail plan with lots of area for light winds, but a rig that can be shortened down quickly and easily.
To continue: We've seen that a parachute sea anchor functions at the bow of a boat and is set at the end of a nylon warp hundreds of feet long. The yacht hangs on this line from the parachute and is essentially anchored to the sea.
The function of a drogue is just the opposite. The vessel may be racing along before a strong wind with a wild and unpleasant motion and be hard to steer. A wind-vane steering device or an autopilot may not be able to keep up. An expert helmsman can cope for only a few hours before he's exhausted. If you put a measured drag behind the boat, however, she will slow dramatically and her motion will be greatly improved. The waves rolling up astern no longer look so threatening, and the steering changes from semi out of control to something more regular and docile.
When a big wave charges up from astern and tends to turn the yacht broadside, the drogue firmly holds the back of the boat into the wave. Depending on the drag of a particular size and design of drogue, it can hold the yacht relatively immobile or it can yield significantly. This almost sounds as if the drogue needs a variable shutter of some kind that can be opened and closed to control the amount of resistance. Several such devices have been marketed briefly, but in practice a variable shutter doesn't appear to be necessary, and a drogue size is generally selected on the basis of a boat's displacement.
An advantage of using a drogue in heavy weather is that the yacht can be steered a little, which means that she can be maneuvered away from big ships and islands and reefs. With a parachute sea anchor, once it's set there are no steering options, and while the storm rages on, recovery is impossible. Additionally, as we have seen, backing down on a parachute sea anchor can put threatening loads on a ship's rudder, which needs to be tied off and supported with stops and heavy shock cord.
We saw in the last chapter how Prisana's 2-inch-diameter stainless steel rudder shaft twisted 15 degrees during the great storm she experienced while hanging on a parachute at the southwest corner of Australia. With a drogue, the boat is moving forward all the time, which means the rudder is operating in normal fashion.
During the 1970-71 Antarctic circumnavigation of the 53-foot cutter Awahnee, Bob Griffith and his crew lay to a stern drogue time after time. However, Awahnee had a strong crew of six and used a sea anchor that not many yachts would be able to produce or manage. "We hove-to with the stern into the wind and swell held by a sea anchor consisting of about 300 feet of line with half a dozen car tires and a small anchor on the end," wrote crew member Pat Treston in the New Zealand magazine Sea Spray.44
In several gigantic Antarctic storms, the crew of Awahnee set as many as three drogues—one of 80 feet of 7/16-inch chain, a second of two or three car tires on 200 feet of line, and a third of 600 feet of line with an anchor and a tire on the end. "However we had to steer all the time to try to keep the quarter to the wind and waves," wrote Treston. Broken water flew everywhere, and there was some damage, but the yacht and crew came through unharmed.
I marvel at the success of the voyage and the cheerful, heroic crew, but I shudder at the work involved. Certainly a modern drogue would have been more effective and easier to handle.
A drogue can be made of almost anything as long as it's down in the water so the waves won't pick it up and carry it forward on the surface. In October 1985, the yacht Hudie, a 37-foot Tayana cutter, en route to Key West from Galveston, Texas, ran into Hurricane Juan. During the crew's spirited fight with the sea, they managed to slow from 6 knots to 3 by putting out four warps, each 250 feet long, to which they tied buckets, tarps, sail bags, an 8-foot dinghy full of water, and an Igloo ice chest loaded with ice and sodas.4
Thirty-five years ago I used two automobile tires for a drogue in a Force 9 storm off the Oregon coast. I ran a short length of chain through the tires and then shackled the chain to a 5/8-inch-diameter line that I streamed from the transom. The tires slowed the vessel, but sometimes a wave washed them up alongside the cockpit. I tried to deal with this by adding lead weights to the tires to sink them a little. But the tire arrangements took a lot of work just when you felt like not working at all. Today's commercially produced drogues are vastly superior in all ways.
In 1984, while preparing his 55-foot ketch for a fall trip from New York to the Caribbean, longtime sportsman Frank Snyder asked sailmaker Skip Raymond to make a stern drogue "from some kind of open net."
"Skip went to work," wrote Snyder, "beginning with a small model before building the full-sized drogue, which is 3 feet in diameter at the forward end, 4 feet long, and tapers to 1 foot in diameter at the after end. It is made of 2-inch nylon webbing,
stitched in 6-inch squares. Spliced into the 3/8-inch 1 X 19 wire hoop at the forward end are seven 5/16-inch nylon lines 6 feet long, which converge and are spliced into a single, heavy swivel."
For stowage, it's possible to turn the heavy 1 X 19 wire into a figure eight and fold one half back on itself, making a compact loop that goes into a small, flat bag 2 feet long, 1 foot wide, and 4 inches deep.
Snyder put Skip Raymond's drogue on board his yacht Southerly, never thinking that on his trip to Bermuda the drogue would have its first big test. For the first 30 hours the powerful yacht had fair winds and averaged 8 knots. Then the barometer began to drop and the sky clouded over. At dusk on the second day Southerly was in the Gulf Stream. The wind was southwest, Force 10. The twisty Gulf Stream current and the seas from the southwest were soon scrapping with one another; in truth the surface of the ocean was a mess.
The crew reefed, then took down the jib entirely, and finally set the storm trysail. Though the vessel was big and powerful, she had trouble dealing with the conditions, and Captain Snyder found that his boat couldn't handle the trysail on a reach. The crew wrestled the trysail down and began to run under bare poles.
The new seas from the southwest were soon larger than the old seas that were running, so the course was changed to east-northeast. But the yacht had become almost unmanageable. She slowed to 3 knots on the back of a wave, and then increased her speed to 10 knots when the yacht skidded down the front of a wave. Sometimes a larger wave speeded her up to 12 knots or more; cross-seas threatened to capsize the vessel.
Snyder decided to try the Galerider drogue. The crew led the bitter end of 200 feet of 11/4-inch-diameter nylon line around the transom and through the starboard chock to the coffee grinder on the after deck. Then the men used a giant shackle to secure the big eye splice in the line to the swivel on the drogue. Finally the crew dropped the drogue into the water.
The effect was miraculous. Within minutes the yacht's speed dropped and she was soon running at 3 knots. "The effect of slowing the boat in that big seaway was magical: a moment earlier the boat had been charging like a mad bull, with the helmsman struggling at the wheel; the next she was docile and under full control," wrote Snyder.46
Southerly continued to roll, but she responded to her wheel and was safe. The seas continued to increase for the next 3 hours, and several big waves crashed on board. By 0200 the wind went to the north; at 0400 the storm was down to Force 7, and then the storm was over. The next morning the crew easily pulled in the drogue and found no signs of chafe on the gear. The initial trial had been a whopping success.
Skip Raymond, who patented his product (The Galerider Storm Survival System), suggested that the big basket might be good for scooping up a man who fell over the side. The Southerly crew tried this in the tropics and found that the basket was large enough for both a victim and a rescuer, who could snap his safety harness to the swivel at the top of the basket. The device can be dropped from a block at the end of the main or mizzen boom, which can then be used as a hauling yard. This arrangement is also handy for lifting heavy supplies from a dinghy.
Since the Southerly episode in 1984, the firm of Hathaway, Reiser, and Raymond of Stamford, Connecticut, has sold thousands of these drogues of different sizes for yachts and fishing vessels of various displacements.
Other sailors have found that recovering one of these modern drogues is by no means as simple as Frank Snyder wrote about in his 1986 article. Sailor and author Beth Leonard, whose ocean-crossing credentials are substantial and well-known, writes as follows: "Hauling back the drogue takes a huge amount of sustained physical effort. Using our primary winch and working in shifts of 20 to 30 minutes each, [Evans and I have] taken over 2 hours to winch in the 300-foot rode." Sometimes, in desperation, Beth and Evans have led the line forward to the electric anchor windlass on their 47-foot Van de Stadt sloop.47
Two generations ago, Tom Steele, who circumnavigated twice in Adios, a heavy-displacement, slightly lengthened 32-foot Tahiti ketch, wrote about his adventure with two hurricanes off the coast of Baja California. With adequate sea room and under bare poles, he dragged 300 feet of 1-inch-diameter nylon line with an anchor at the end. This drag produced an even, powerful strain at all times, and his boat remained stern-to, moving at 11/2 to 2 knots. Steele found this method superior to using a warp alone, which he said "may skip ahead when the boat surges forward, just when more strain is needed."48
All yachts and fishing boats have anchors. Lacking anything better, I would have no hesitation about following Tom Steele's idea and dropping an anchor astern when running before a violent storm.
In the years since the capsize and upside-down roll of my Santa Cruz 50 in the Southern Ocean, I've had plenty of time to reflect on the mishap. I believe that protection from monstrous seas translates directly into keeping the bow or the stern headed into the waves. Getting broadside-on (or even close to broadside-on) is dangerous because the vessel may be rolled over or picked up and dropped on the unyielding sea. But how do you do this? Using a parachute sea anchor from the bow is one answer. Dragging a drogue from the stern is another approach. But even with these devices, I worry that under some conditions our modern yachts may lie close to being broadside on to the waves. This is a situation that we must avoid when the sea is all white and our ears are filled with the screaming wind.
Let's look further into drogues.
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