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“The parachute—in heavy
weather sailing”


By Casanova
appearing in the 1976 issue of Multihulls.


The theory on parachute sea anchoring during severe gales mentioned in books and magazines draws a horrible picture of the boat being pulled through the giant waves. I have proved this theory wrong but if it were so, it would be better to go through the top four or five feet of wave than upside down.

In 1966 I was sailing my Piver 30’ Nimble trimaran down the coast, Seattle to San Francisco, with my three sons as crew. It was just after dark, the wind increased and the seas became quite angry and rough. Our position was 15 miles west of the infamous Cape Mendecino. My first gale!

Reading all the books to prepare me for this situation didn’t stop me from shaking with fear and concern for our safety. I had to come up with something fast. I fought the jib down and off the forestay while my little Nimble was being thrown about. I had read in one of Piver’s books about a Lodestar 35’ surviving a cyclone in the Pacific by hanging to a parachute sea anchor, so I was prepared with a parachute and a 150 foot shock cord. I promptly set out the chute although I had no information on how to go about doing it. The Nimble spun around quickly into the weather and at this point ship and crew became quite comfortable.

Here was survival. Little did I know that there was a lot to learn. Anyone “just throwing” a parachute out and hoping it will work, soon learns there is more to it. I spent hours retrieving fouled chutes. Hand many time, became raw from rope burns. Untold dollars were spent on breakage and loss of equipment. One fact that couldn’t be overlooked—we came through each storm safely and a little more knowledgeable.

Tortuga, our Ed Horstman designed Tri-Star Trimaran, in which we logged over 33,000 blue-water miles, was tethered from a parachute sea anchor many times. Two recorded cyclones and severe Indian Ocean gales are included in these survival times. Winds recorded off New Zealand’s coast, in one storm, were 85 to 90 miles per hour. Seas in the Indian Ocean reached an estimated forty feet during one heavy blow. The weather was so bad crossing the Indian Ocean that one out of six days was spent tethered from our 28 foot sea anchor. This midwinter nonstop crossing taught us a lot.

I credit the parachute sea anchor for saving Tortuga, my wife Joan, and myself from death during a wild Kona storm in the Hawaiian Islands in 1971. Crossing the channel between Molokai and Oahu we reefed the main to handkerchief size and put up our 80 foot storm sail; still, Tortuga bombed along at a good 10 knots. We continued toward Diamond Head whose cone shape could be seen on the horizon. The radio reported favorable weather reports. “Beautiful trade winds,” they said. Actually the winds shifted, blowing Kona—from the opposite direction. Unfamiliar with this condition we sailed on believing it was the regular channel wind conditions. Increasing winds caused an undetermined amount of leeway. Tortuga caught in the curve between Diamond Head and Coco Head could not beat her way out. We had no engine and no room to maneuver. We dropped sails and the 28-foot chute was released off the bows. The winds reached 65 knots at this time. Six hours passed with leeward drift causing the reef with its curler waves and white water to close in on the boat. The wind howled to 80 miles an hour accompanied by pelting rain and darkness. Tortuga drifted backward at the same time taking several waves over the deck. These waves built up to a point at which a boat could sail over them. If we hadn’t had a parachute off the bows to hold us into the sea we would have gone upside down, not through them. I had a knife in my hand ready to cut the tether but something told me, if I do so, I’m dead. After the next curler rolled over the deck and boat lurched backward safely, I knew we would be safe. We were lifted by the big waves over the reef into calmer water inside. The chute held, slowing the downwind movement toward shore until it caught on coral and ripped to pieces. By now Tortuga stopped her mad race and lay aground until morning. Inspection revealed no hull damage, other than scratches. The only other damage that could be seen was the four inches ground off the rudder. The use of the chute in this condition was the extreme.

Crossing the Coral Sea, (in July, the wrong month) Tortuga beat to windward, inching away the miles. We lost 93 miles drifting in one gale because I didn’t use the parachute sea anchor. This was the mileage gained from three days of beating. The parachute will keep your boat from drifting and loosing many miles.

Sea anchors have been used as far back as the Polynesians. Hove to in South Pacific gales they used sea anchors made of stone. Holes were drilled through to which hau fiber and three strand hibiscus line was tied. These anchor were tethered from the bows of the giant outrigger canoes. Charles Borden’s book “Sea Quest” gives an excellent account of this.

William G. Van Dorn talks about sea anchoring in his book “Oceanography and Seamanship”: “If the reader wonders why I have devoted so much space to storm anchoring it is simply my conviction that this technique could save many a boat that might otherwise be lost. Even one saved would be well worth the effort.”

I believe many upside down Trimaran accidents could have been prevented if they had properly used the parachute sea anchor. Sad to say, cruising people will fight storms until exhausted, to save crew and ship when all they had to do was set out the chute, be comfortable and safe. Exhausted, many sailors have made the wrong decision putting the ship in danger. You can cook a hot meal, rest and read. Your mind clear. Why fight it?

Boats of all sizes and description have used the sea anchor successfully. However, the correct formula is important. The accepted theory is diameter of parachute equals, at least, the beam of the boat. I carried two parachutes, both Air Force Surplus 28-foot- a little larger than my 20-foot beam.
Since the parachute is attached by harness to the ama bows, larger cleats bolted through the deck are necessary.

The following is my set-up procedure for parachute sea anchoring. Most items you already have aboard. All you may have to buy is the sea anchor. Harness lines could be your mooring lines. The tether line, your anchor line. Shackles, swivels and fenders may already be included in your boat’s inventory.

The harness to first swivel is approximately one and a half times boat length. (Tortuga’s 35 foot length required 50 feet to first swivel). All lines must be thimbled to shackles and swivels to avoid chafe. Since they are attached to swivels by shackles, all shackles must be safe tied. (We lost one shackle because it was not safe tied). The ends of harness are cleated to outrigger bows to whatever length I feel the boat is riding the easiest. Since the wave length determines the length of the harness, too short a harness makes the boat motion jerky as the boat corrects quickly. The longer the line, the longer the boat takes to recover.
Swivels are required to keep the line from twisting and destroying itself. You will need two swivels, one at each end of the tether. I used half-inch size.

The tether is 10 times length of the boat. (Tortuga’s tether was 350 feet, again with thimbles each end to join swivels). The line can be your anchor line. I carried 9/16 nylon because it DOES give and stretch.

The parachute should be the open cone design and have the shrouds attached. The open cone gives a cushioning effect to the boat. Two chutes carried will provide one as spare.

Trip line
The trip line is attached to the parachute cone and a boat fender is attached to the same line 25 to 40 feet from the cone, keeping the chute from submerging deeper than the fender. (I used 3/8 nylon). The end of the line is cleated to either ama bow. This line was my light anchor line, a full spool, 600 feet.

How to use your chute

My routine after leaving port and out of sight of land, begins by attaching harness to swivel, to tether. Bring all lines on port side, making sure that the starboard line of the harness is out in front and around the forestay. Lines must clear everything on deck to make the descent into the sea (if not, it will clear the deck for you!). I handle the parachute the same way one handles an anchor. The harness line in the cockpit first, then start feeding the tether line on top until you come to parachute, the first item put into the sea. In a separate pile beside the chute is the trip line. Both lines are free to go out, including fender. The parachute is kept tied into a neat bundle so it can not come apart unless you untie it.

Now for the procedure.


When conditions are such that I feel it is time to use the chute (normally under storm sail) take all sail down first. I lash my tiller straight (backward movement may destroy the rudder): I untie the parachute and hold it under my arm, protecting it from the wind, and make my way to the port bow. I throw over the fender and start easing the parachute, cone first, into the sea. As the chute is fed into the water (it is not difficult, even though it is the weather side) I hold the lines taut for a moment, helping the chute to open (it opens very quickly) then the tether and trip line will start moving off the deck smoothly. I continue to help lines from fouling or catching on deck hardware. The boat will immediately turn into the weather and seas. Once all is set and the boat is under pressure, tighten trip line almost to tripping point. Make sure this line is taut otherwise you will never separate the lines after the storm.

Never wait until the last minute to put out the chute. Watch your bad weather signs. When you become nervous and a bit concerned it is time to use the parachute and – go below, relax, if you can!



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