Parachute Sea Anchors
and Drogues

Most offshore sailors view parachute sea anchors and drogues much like storm jibs and trysails; items we should have aboard but hope we're lucky enough never to have to use them.

But luck's an unreliable commodity at best, with a tendency to run out altogether - and usually at the most inopportune time.

So if you're venturing far offshore, there's no doubt you should have aboard either a sea anchor or a drogue.

The basic difference difference is that the para-anchor is deployed from the bow and will stop the boat head to wind and sea, and the drogue is deployed from the stern, slowing the boat down considerably.

With one eye on your bank balance, you'll probably choose either one or the other, but which one?

Parachute Sea Anchors

A parachute sea anchorA parachute sea anchor is always deployed from the bow - never the stern.

Artwork by Andrew Simpson

Many offshore sailors now advocate the use of a parachute sea anchor for heaving-to, which will bring the boat directly into the wind and stop it dead in the water.

It must be of sufficient diameter to completely stop the boat, otherwise the sea will be flowing past the rudder the 'wrong' way, and serious damage is likely to occur.

Often known as para-anchors, they're derived from circular aerial parachutes, and are deployed from the bow on a long rode.

The rode is chain-to-nylon rope, but reversed so that the chain is at the bow end.

Rigged thus, chafe in the bow roller won't be an issue, and the para-anchor will remain submerged.

It's a totally passive device; once it's deployed the crew may well opt to go below and sit out the storm.


Drogues

Running before a full gale on the edge of control may be acceptable for a fully-crewed racing yacht, but not so for the likes of us sailboat cruising types. The risks are enormous; falling off a crest into the trough may cause huge damage to the hull, and the prospect of being hurled end-over-end - pitchpoling - is almost unthinkable.

The sailboat must be slowed down to a manageable speed of 6 knots or less. Traditionally this was done by towing warps astern to create drag and keep the boat stern-on to the seas. There are a number of purpose-made drogues of various designs on the market, which when properly deployed have a more predictable and consistent speed-limiting affect than warps.

They fall into two basic categories - medium-pull and low-pull devices. 

Medium-Pull or Series Drogues

The series drogue for sailboatsDrogues are always deployed from the stern - never the bow.

Probably the best known of the medium-pull types is the series drogue, designed by the late Donald Jordan. As its name suggests, this is a string of a hundred or more cone-shaped drogues tied at intervals along a length of nylon rode.

One of these, providing it's correctly sized for the boat, will reduce boat speed to around one knot or so. Not enough to provide steerage way, so as with the parachute sea anchor, you may wish to go below and sit it out.

Low-Pull Drogues

The low-pull drogue for sailboats in heavy weatherThe drogue must be positioned such that it remains below the surface at all times.

These will slow down the boat to a much lesser extent - typically limiting boat speed to around 4 to 6 knots, which enables the helmsman to steer the boat, at least to a degree.

One of the benefits of the low-pull drogue is that it can be used effectively in situations other than extreme conditions. 

For example a speed-limiting drogue can turn a roller-coaster downwind ride into an easy, subdued sail without adding much to your passage time, as would a medium-pull device - just the thing in boisterous trades when sleeping is next to impossible.

A speed limiting drogue will usually be constructed of heavy canvas and/or webbing, and is deployed on either a bridle or - if increased steering ability is required - from the quarter on a single rode.

A great deal of research has gone into the design of drogues of this type, much of it developed from the design of devices used to slow down space re-entry capsules and bringing expensive jet fighters to a stop before they reach the end of the runway.

Consequently you shouldn't be tempted to make one yourself - the odds are it will let you down when it really matters.


Drogues & Sea Anchors: A Few FAQs...

When should I use a parachute sea anchor or a drogue?

The choice of using a parachute sea anchor or a drogue depends on several factors, such as the size and design of your boat, the strength and direction of the wind and waves, the availability of sea room, and your personal preference. Some general guidelines are:

  • Use a parachute sea anchor if you want to stop or minimize your drift, if you have enough water depth and distance from shore, if your boat has a strong bow structure and can handle the strain of being pulled head-on by the anchor, and if you are comfortable with being exposed to the full force of the wind and waves.
  • Use a drogue if you want to maintain some forward motion, if you have limited water depth or are close to shore, if your boat has a weak bow structure or a large rudder that can be damaged by being pushed sideways by the anchor, and if you prefer to run with the wind and waves and reduce their impact.

What is the difference between a parachute sea anchor and a drogue?

A parachute sea anchor is a large, circular device that is deployed from the bow of a sailboat to stop or slow down its drift in a storm. It keeps the boat facing into the wind and waves, reducing the risk of being rolled or capsized by breaking seas.

A drogue is a smaller, cone-shaped device that is deployed from the stern of a sailboat to reduce its speed and stabilize its course in a storm. It keeps the boat running with the wind and waves, preventing it from surfing or broaching.

How do I deploy a parachute sea anchor or a drogue?

The deployment of a parachute sea anchor or a drogue requires careful preparation and execution. You will need to have the appropriate size and type of device for your boat, as well as enough line, shackles, swivels, chafe protection, floats, trip lines, and bridles. You will also need to check the weather forecast, select a suitable location, and monitor your boat speed and heading. Some general steps are:

  • For a parachute sea anchor, you will need to attach it to a bridle that runs from both sides of your bow, preferably through strong cleats or chainplates. You will also need to attach a float and a trip line to the apex of the parachute, which will allow you to retrieve it later. You will then need to lower the parachute into the water from the bow, paying out enough line (at least 5 times the water depth) until it fills with water and pulls your boat into the wind. You will then need to secure the line with a cleat or a winch, adjust the bridle for balance, and lash down your helm amidships.
  • For a drogue, you will need to attach it to a single line that runs from your stern, preferably through a strong cleat or bollard. You will also need to attach a float and a trip line to the mouth of the drogue, which will allow you to retrieve it later. You will then need to lower the drogue into the water from the stern, paying out enough line (at least 1.5 times your boat length) until it fills with water and slows down your boat. You will then need to secure the line with a cleat or a winch, adjust your helm for steering, and trim your sails for balance.

How do I retrieve a parachute sea anchor or a drogue?

The retrieval of a parachute sea anchor or a drogue can be challenging and dangerous, especially in rough conditions. You will need to have enough crew, strength, and patience to haul in the device and its line, as well as avoid any entanglement or injury. Some general steps are:

  • For a parachute sea anchor, you will need to release some line until you can reach the float and trip line attached to the apex of the parachute. You will then need to pull on the trip line until you invert the parachute and empty it of water. You will then need to haul in the inverted parachute and its line until you can bring it on board.
  • For a drogue, you will need to release some line until you can reach the float and trip line attached to the mouth of the drogue. You will then need to pull on the trip line until you collapse the drogue and empty it of water. You will then need to haul in the collapsed drogue and its line until you can bring it on board.

What are some advantages and disadvantages of using a parachute sea anchor or a drogue?

Some advantages of using a parachute sea anchor are:

  • It can stop or reduce your drift in an open sea or current.
  • It can keep your boat facing into the wind and waves, which may be more comfortable and stable for some boats and crew.
  • It can prevent your boat from being pushed onto a lee shore or into a dangerous area.
  • It can allow you to rest and wait for the storm to pass or improve.

Some disadvantages of using a parachute sea anchor are:

  • It can be difficult and expensive to obtain, store, and maintain.
  • It can be complicated and risky to deploy and retrieve, especially in heavy weather.
  • It can put a lot of strain and stress on your boat and its fittings, which may cause damage or failure.
  • It can expose your boat to the full force of the wind and waves, which may be overwhelming and dangerous for some boats and crew.

Some advantages of using a drogue are:

  • It can be easy and cheap to obtain, store, and maintain.
  • It can be simple and safe to deploy and retrieve, even in heavy weather.
  • It can reduce the strain and stress on your boat and its fittings, which may prevent damage or failure.
  • It can reduce the impact of the wind and waves on your boat, which may be more manageable and safer for some boats and crew.

Some disadvantages of using a drogue are:

  • It can increase your drift in an open sea or current.
  • It can keep your boat running with the wind and waves, which may be less comfortable and stable for some boats and crew.
  • It can allow your boat to be pushed onto a lee shore or into a dangerous area.
  • It can limit your ability to manoeuvre and change course.

The above answers were drafted by sailboat-cruising.com using GPT-4 (OpenAI’s large-scale language-generation model) as a research assistant to develop source material; to the best of our knowledge, we believe them to be accurate.


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