Parachutes Save a Yacht
A true story By Al. Noteman - East Midlands, England
The Southeast trades should blow from the Cape of Good Hope, to St. Helena, Ascension, over to Brazil then down the East Coast of South America, creating a toll-free highway for sailing vessels. Sometimes these winds fail! Then, winds from the opposite direction can prevail.
Jacana, a 37-ft. Cutter and her crew of three, bound from Cape Town to the Caribbean was on the first leg to St. Helena. This should have been a downwind run had those trades been reliable. However, Jacana had battled northwesterly gales for the past week.
“I’m sick of beating in these electric storms. It’s been on the nose for a week now,” Al said, jumping as he received another electric shock from the steelwork. The crew was tired and miserable, unable to sleep with the constant pounding.
“I thought this was supposed to be fun?” Sonia shouted above the banshee wind. She had battled for days with her own demons including a wildly swinging stove as she prepared the hot meals that would maintain the energy levels in her men.
“Can’t be far now love. We’ll soon be in those trades then it will be warm winds and plain sailing all the way to the Islands.” Al soothed.
“What’s the glass doing Dion?” Al asked his son, more to break the misery than to learn the barometric pressure. Dion went below and was back in an instant with a smile on his face.
“It’s rising, up quite a bit since this morning!” Al looked up at the sky, it was still black but there was a hint of blue ahead.
“Yes!” he shouted. “Tomorrow we’ll be sailing without a care in the world. Put that bubbly in the ice box love.”
The northwester continued but they sensed that it had lost its power, becoming calmer by the hour. Dawn broke with a clear blue sky and not a breath of wind. The sea was all over the place so Al started the motor. By noon the trades arrived and the confused sea became more orderly so the motor was cut. Dion set the big cruising chute and main for downwind sailing. Now, with a warm following wind pushing them along at over six knots, it seemed that life couldn’t get much better. Spirits lifted as the warm air dried-out the boat and to add to the good feeling, they watched their first dolphin show, the lovely creatures squeaking their delight as they rode the bow wave.
“This is more like it,” Al said, “how about a glass of that bubbly now?” Sonia filled three plastic flutes with South African Champagne and handed them through the hatch then joined the men in a toast to the weather Gods.
“Cheers everyone, we’re on the milk run at last and the dream has started to come true,” she toasted. The wind held steady all that day but by morning it had strengthened to over thirty knots. Dion put a reef in the main, lowered the flimsy chute and hoisted a No. 2 Jib. The speed fell to 5 knots but the chute would live to see another day.
By dusk the wind was over thirty-five knots so Al put another reef in the main then centred the boom to dampen the rolling, ready for the night shift. By morning it was blowing over forty knots and the sea had built up considerably. White spray filled the air and the boat was becoming difficult to steer as it zoomed into the turbulent valleys.
“We’ll have to hand-steer from now on, the auto-pilot just can’t handle this, we’ll have to do three hour shifts Dion, better get that No.2 down and hoist the storm jib I think we’re in for a battering.” Dion carried out this wet and dangerous fore-deck job, then went to get his head down while his Dad did the first watch.
“What do you want me to do?” Sonia asked.
“Better try to get some rest as well love, we’re going to need you to keep us going with hot drinks if this gets any worse. It did, all that day and right through the night there was a steady increase in the wind speed and size of the swells.
“Al, Al! Wake up, Dion’s battling up there.” It was Sonia shaking him from a troubled sleep.
“What’s up?” he answered groggily.
“It’s over forty five now and not safe, you’ll have to do something.” On deck Al couldn’t believe his eyes. A wall of white streaked water appeared at the stern, lifting the yacht like a toy as it rushed forward throwing spray and solid water into the cockpit.
“We’re running too fast.” Al screamed over the howling wind. “Dee, you’re going to have to drop that main, OK?”
Dion nodded and handed over the helm then snapping his harness on he crawled bravely forward.
“Give me a luff,” he shouted from the mast.
“It’s going to get wet and bumpy so get it into the lazy-jacks as fast as you can,” Al yelled back. Trimming the mainsheet he started to turn into the wind and the huge swells while Dion fought with the main, lowering the halyard and shoving the flogging sail into the lazy-jacks. The boat almost stood on its tail as the oncoming swells threatened to turn her bow over stern, as all way was lost. Dion managed to get the sail under control and lashed in no time, allowing Al to turn slowly back down wind to avoid the next threatening swell.
Under storm jib alone they were still rocketing along at over nine knots, while Sonia passed up the umpteenth cup of whisky laced coffee. Sipping the sweet liquid, deep in thought, Al wondered how much more of this they could take.
It was a massive effort to control the boat in daylight when the sea-features could be seen, ‘God knows how we will manage during the night if it keeps this up’ Al thought.
As dusk fell, Al ordered his son to get some sleep. “It’s going to be a tough night,” he warned. He was right, Sonia got no sleep at all as she passed coffee and hot soup to Al and then Dion, as they continued to wrestle the wheel during their three on and three off shifts. It was the worst night yet and by dawn there was no let-up despite a clear blue sky. As the sun rose, so did the wind, it was now pumping over fifty knots. As each breaking swell was crested the view from its summit was awesome. White capped hills and spume filled valleys, moving at the speed and with the sound of an express train. Like rows of terraced houses, goose stepping to some rousing fascist march for as far as the eye could see. A feeling of utter helplessness crept over Al, as he feared for his family.
“I won’t be able to hold her for much longer down in these troughs,” he told his son. “One slip now and it would be all over, we would lose the rig for sure if this sea rolled us.” To emphasise Al’s words, a huge wave broke over the coach-roof, filling the cockpit and causing the whole yacht to shudder.
“What do you suggest?” Dion asked.
“Better drop that storm jib as well, we’re just travelling too damn fast, we’ll have to run under bare poles,” Al confirmed.
With harness attached to the lifeline, Dion made his way to the bow again and dropped the small jib, packing it into its bag then lashing it to the pull-pit. Speed fell to eight knots for a while then began to climb again slowly as the wind continued to increase. Broaching was still a big danger but now with no sail to act as a damper, the motion became violent.
“God, we’re still doing over nine and a half knots, that’s more than our hull speed’s supposed to be, I just don’t know what else we can do,” Al said in despair.
“What about that series drogue we made-up just before leaving Cape Town?” Dion asked.
“Bloody hell, I’d forgotten all about that, do you think it will help?”
“Well, anything’s worth a try now, what have we to lose,” Dion replied, “it was designed for this sort of condition so let’s try it!”
“Right, take the helm I’ll find it.” All rummaged away in the Lazarette then pulled out a bag with rope and coloured sailcloth spilling out of it.
“We’re going to need some sort of weight to sink the end into still water,” Al said. Dion went below and found the dinghy anchor and lashed it to the end of the drogue rope. As he was busy Sonia screamed and pointed up to the radar arch. They watched in horror as the big Ampair wind-charger came crashing down as if in slow motion. Its once sturdy bracket torn off by the violent motion. In total shock they watched as it toppled forward, doing a thousand revs and eating its way through the little wind vane with its carbon fibre blades.
“Keep clear!” Al shouted, “It’ll take your bloody head off.” Dion reacted fast as only the young can do. He managed to lasso it with a length of line to stop its whirling blades, before they chewed their way through the backstay as well. The whole thing hung by a strip of metal so it was lashed in place until they could attend to it later in port.
“Sonia, take the wheel please while Dee and I rig this drogue, just keep steering dead ahead. She gripped the wheel with white knuckles and managed to keep the boat on track while the men rigged the drogue. Al had the line around a sheet winch while Dion fed the anchor end of the line through the stern fairlead. They watched as the little parachutes, attached at two-metre intervals, floated to the surface then vanished below as the dinghy anchor pulled them under.
“What’s our speed now,” Al asked when half the line was out.
“It’s dropped to five knots, it’s working!”
“Great, let’s get it all out then, I just hope we put enough chutes on to do the job right,” Al said, then wondered if the twenty chutes they had managed to splice on just before leaving would do the job. He need not have worried.
With the line now fully deployed, they watched fascinated by the little chutes they could see streaming aft for a hundred metres, drawing a line in the turbulent water. The affect was instant and dramatic, speed bled off the hull and within minutes the speed had fallen to just three knots. The steering became lighter and the vessel tracked in a straight line with no attempt at broaching.
A few minutes ago, they were riding a bucking bronco, but now the yacht was docile and controllable. It made such a difference that Al was able to re-engage the autopilot and watched as the sea passed harmlessly below the hull, with only the odd splash coming aboard. Compared to just an hour ago this was sheer bliss.
“I’ll put the kettle on,” Sonia said, relief showing on her face and in her voice, "I thought we were all going to die so this calls for a celebration.
The boat was safe for now. The crew could relax for the first time in two weeks, but the last few days had been a living nightmare, there was a real danger that they could have lost the boat and their lives, but that little series drogue had saved the day.
“Reading that article on drogues, in Practical Boating may have saved our lives and making that drogue up just before we left, definitely saved severe damage to Jacana,” Al admitted
NOTE ON THE SERIES DROGUE CONSTRUCTION.
Jacana is a Fortuna 37, cutter-rigged mono-hull, fitted out for long distance ocean cruising. The events in this short story occurred in an area about 300 nautical miles West of the Orange River Mouth- off Namibia.
In this case a 100-metre 13-mm-Diam. Nylon line was used, however, larger vessels would need a larger line. Onto this we spliced 20 small parachutes but you are supposed to use one every two-metres or so. We used the 10-lb. dinghy anchor as a weight to keep the drogue in still water but being an odd shape, this caused the rope to spin and unwind. Therefore, the weight should be more like a 10-lb length of lead pipe so it does not spin and damage the line. A heavy spinner should also be fitted on the line close to the lead weight at the end to help protect the line. It may be a good idea to fit a second spinner at the vessel end as well.
click image above for larger view
Your local sail maker could make up the parachutes. We had some made by North Sails and some by B Canvas. They are fixed onto the line via three nylon tape-straps spliced into the nylon line. It is very important that before the drogue is deployed, the inboard end is tied securely off to something sound or you could lose the lot over the stern. Also, once it’s been deployed it is best to rig a bridle so that the load is shared by two stern fairleads so as to centre the aft steaming line to keep the yacht running true.
The main advantage of the series drogue over the sea anchor is its ease of deployment and recovery and the fact that you can adjust your speed by allowing more or less of the little chutes to enter the water. However, there are not many reports of this type of drogue being used in anger so this true-story illustrates how it helped one family to survive what could have been a disaster.
We can definitely recommend carrying one, especially, if you intend to venture out into the South Atlantic. We carried it for over 16000 miles and never needed it again, but it was nice to know it was there in the lazarette, just in case.
Alex, Sonia and Dion Notman now live in England, Jacana, is still berthed in Falmouth after surviving many a lesser storm in her 16000-mile voyage from Cape Town via Brazil, the Caribbean and the western Med. to England.