Stupid

I’ve now had three people write and thank me for a single reference in Old Man Sailing.

I never thought it was anything special when I wrote it, sitting at anchor in St Helen’s Pool in the Scilly Isles. Certainly, there was no thunderclap as the words crawled across the screen. But it does seem to have struck a chord, so if you missed it, here it is from page 126:

“It is a great comfort to be stupid. Disasters about to happen do not trouble the minds of those too dim to imagine them.”

I have been thinking about this as I sit at anchor in the bay at Tazacorte on the Canary Island of La Palma waiting for the house sale to go through back in England so I can push off to the Caribbean.

Because, the other day, I did something that was incredibly stupid. Well, it seems like it to me. You be the judge, for here is the whole sorry story:

I had pulled into the marina at Santa Cruz on the other side of the island where there is a fabulous old Spanish colonial town but also incessant noise from the ferries and the cruise ships unloading the tourists who come to see it. But at least I could top up with diesel.

And then, being a conscientious engineer, I added the diesel bug treatment – 10ml for 20litres. Tucked in the cockpit locker next to it was a bottle of something called Diesel Blast (at least, I think that was what it was called, the label came off long ago). In fact, I hadn’t seen it for years. Apparently, when everything got turned upside down in the knockdown on the way from Falmouth, the Diesel Blast got thrown to the top of the heap – thus swapping places with the galley scissors which I haven’t seen since.

There wasn’t much left in the bottle. Did this sort of stuff go off? Might as well use it up. I squirted 15ml up into the measuring chamber at the top of the bottle.

And that’s when I saw the slug. Well, that’s what it looked like – a drowned slug. On the small size as slugs go but very large for a lump of diesel bug which was probably more likely. Anyway, you wouldn’t want either of them in your tank, would you?

I’m very particular about what goes into my tank. When I took on a deck cargo of 50litres of diesel from the dodgy-looking filling station in Banjul so that I could motor the 100 miles up the Gambia River to Baboon Island and back, I put every drop of it through a 5micron filter.

But not the slug.

The slug, I reasoned, would end up in the engine’s pre-filter anyway. I mean, something that size isn’t going to get through the pre-filter is it? Even if it did, what chance has it got with the main filter?

Well none, now I come to think about it. Because it’s going to get stuck in the pipe before it gets to the filter, isn’t it?

And what will happen then?

The engine will stop.

I’m not very happy about the idea of the engine stopping – haven’t been since last summer coming into Portland Harbour.

This was during one of my incessant trips up and down the English Channel. What with Amsterdam for the Aries, Beaulieu for the OCC rally, Newort IOW for the watermaker (twice), Cowes for the Royal Yacht Squadron book club, Liverpool for university graduation, Dublin for the weather and lunch with Jim Gallagher, the family in Jersey – and Falmouth, of course, at every opportunity because it is, well, Falmouth after all … I really can’t remember when it was that I went into Portland Harbour.

But I do remember there was a gale coming. I had it all worked out. I could get there just before the gale arrived.

I was on time. It was the gale that was early.

Of course, I could have sheltered in Weymouth Bay – anchored just off the beach. I’ve done that before. There’s good holding in sand – but, of course, Weymouth sand is famously fine (hence the annual sand sculpture festival) and while my new Spade anchor has glowing reviews from all the experts, it is physically smaller than the Rocna and might therefore, not be quite as secure in soft mud or fine sand.

Maybe I would sleep better in Portland Harbour. I’d never been to Portland Harbour. Why I thought this was a good reason for going there, I have no idea – especially as the wind had now climbed over 30kts and I couldn’t take in the second reef because there were a couple of navy ships at anchor to leeward. Instead, I started the engine to give the boat a bit of a lift for the last mile to the entrance.

In fact, what with too much sail up, too much heel and, consequently too much leeway, by the time we reached the entrance, the little 21hp Nanni was the only thing that was keeping us going.

And it continued to be the only thing keeping us going as we passed (agonisingly slowly) through the north entrance with the great granite boulders of the breakwater two boat’s lengths under our lee.

I remember thinking to myself that if the engine were to stop now, I wouldn’t be able to tack. We’d just sail sideways into the harbour wall. There’s many a ship that’s sailed sideways into a harbour wall.

We didn’t of course. We just spent 40 minutes burning diesel and punching at about half a knot into what was now a full 40kts across the deck. By the time I tipped the anchor over the bow on the western side, I was thinking that really, Weymouth Bay had a lot going for it – sand sculptures or not…

So, you will understand why the slug has got to come out of the tank.

The official routine for doing this is to empty the tank, open the inspection hatch and get in there when a good supply of clean rags.

If you don’t have an inspection hatch and you’ve just filled the tank to the brim, you have to wait a bit and when there’s hardly any left, pump out what there is, pass it through the 5micron filter you should have used in the first place, pour it back, stir it round, pump it out again – and keep on doing that until it runs clear.

And you still don’t know whether the slug has been hiding in a corner the whole time and is just waiting for the right moment to reappear – like Portland Harbour in a gale…

Like I said: Stupid.

3 Responses to Stupid

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Drogues

People hold opinions on storm tactics almost as vehemently as they do when the talk turns to anchors. The other night, I was part of the Ocean Cruising Club’s Zoom meeting to discuss the Jordan Series Drogue. There were almost 200 participants and nobody suggested this was anything other than the ultimate “must-have” device for serious offshore cruisers.

It’s the same on the Jester Facebook group – all the small-boat sailors gearing up for this year’s Azores Challenge have been preoccupied with their transom-mounted chainplates and whether you can have too many cones.

I kept quiet. I have a SeaBrake.

Although the OCC’s moderator mentioned this Australian-made gadget in passing, there was no doubt that the tone of the meeting was that in a survival storm, you cannot do better than throw out (sorry “deploy”) your JSD, disappear below, slam the hatch behind you and go to bed with a hot toddy.

It was difficult to argue – after all the screen was filled with the weather-beaten faces of sailors who had all used a JSD in anger (Jeanne Socrates, four times!)

As someone who has never used one at all – even to practise – I didn’t feel qualified to press the little button to raise my electronic hand.

But I’ve been thinking about it ever since.

To begin with, if you have a Jordan Series Drogue, you must – absolutely must – attach it to two stout stainless steel plates each with a minimum of five bolts arranged in a non-linear pattern and bolted through to an equally strong backing plate, preferably after beefing up that section of the hull with extra layers of chopped strand mat. This modification must be capable of supporting the full weight of the boat plus an added margin to cover possible shock loads.

Then, you must be prepared when you meet your survival storm, for your cockpit to be filled with a ton of water as waves the size of houses break over the stern. Anything but the strongest washboards may well be breached, flooding the cabin and leaving the boat waterlogged, sluggish and at the mercy of the next massive breaker.

The more I heard about this, the more I thought about my SeaBrake up in the fo’c’le, tucked away behind the bike stowage, taking up hardly any room … and its line in the cockpit locker ready to double up for anything else I might want to do with 30metres of 14mm low-stretch braid-on-braid and two-and-a-half metres of 10mm chain.

So I started making a list of pro’s and con’s for both devices – and I’m going to post it here in the hope that people will add their own comments. Because the one thing I do know is that the only time I have been in a survival storm, I had just a rope with a couple of motor scooter tyres out the back and turned the boat over. Being a catamaran, she stayed that way. They came and got me in a helicopter.

So, here goes. Tell me if I’m wrong.

Jordan Series Drogue:

Advantages:

  • Tried and tested with many positive accounts.
  • A true “set and forget” system – works without a crew, steering or even a mast.
  • The slower you’re moving, the faster the storm will pass over you.

Disadvantages:

  • Slows the boat to 2-3knots – with the resultant danger of being pooped.
  • Requires significant preparatory work installing chainplates.
  • Somewhat bulky to stow and with no other use.
  • Danger of the bridle fouling the windvane – servo-pendelum gears should be lifted out of the water, bungies installed to keep the line away from a Hydrovane rudder.

SeaBrake:

Advantages:

  • Designed to allow the boat to speed up to 6-7knots and out-run a breaking crest – and yet will still maintain drag in the trough to keep the boat straight at 3knots. This means that the strain is considerably reduced. There is no need for chainplates – make fast to the aft cleat or cockpit winch. The recommended line is only three boat-lengths, so is quicker to retrieve.
  • Although the SeaBrake is not nearly as well-known as the JSD, Jon Sanders, the Australian yachtsman with eleven solo circumnavigations to his name, was very complimentary about his (although, eventually he lost it, replacing it with a car tyre).
  • When I asked on Facebook for personal experiences, Babs Tucker, another Australian, wrote: “In all our years of sailing, we’ve only used ours once and it worked brilliantly. We felt we were going to pitch pole and it held us at about 6kts. One yacht used a Series drogue and it slowed down a bit much. Another yacht was using a SeaBrake too.”
  • Easy to stow and has other uses – including as an emergency steering device when used with a bridle. This suggests that it would hold the boat dead downwind in the same way as the JSD but with less risk of being pooped.
  • There have been many reports of drogues being deployed from the bow to stop boats fore-reaching and help them stay in their slick when hove-to. The SeaBrake is said to be ideal for this.
  • While the JSD uses a bridle which can foul the windvane, the SeaBrake when used at an angle to the waves, is attached by a single line to the weather quarter.

Disadvantages:

  • The SeaBrake is designed as a steering aid rather than a “set and forget” survival tool. That said, in the first Golden Globe Race, the vastly-experienced Jean-Luc Van den Heede chose not to use a drogue aboard Matmut, but to steer at an angle to the waves. In this, he was following Bernard Moitessier who, in his first Cape Horn passage, cut away his makeshift drogues and felt Joshua rode easier and more safely without.
  • It is not clear whether Jon Sanders did the same. He has (notoriously) failed to write about his voyages. However he did praise the SeaBrake. Did he use it to help his Aries lift-up gear steer a course at an angle to the waves like VDH and Moitessier?
  • Unlike the JSD, which acts on the water throughout its length, the SeaBrake could, theoretically, break out and skip across the surface, losing all its drag. However, no one has ever reported this happening (although, admittedly, they might not have returned to do so…)
  • Going faster means it takes longer for the storm to pass.

Have I missed anything?

Postscript:

After all the comments, I started thinking about this some more – and then tried to leave my own comment. However, maybe I’m not allowed to do that – at least not at length. So, I’ll add it here

As expected, this discussion has concentrated the mind somewhat. I ended up looking again at the Fiorentino para-anchor – and find that this now appears to have fewer lines between the attachment point and the canopy (which had tangled so easily in the one I bought off eBay seven years ago). Also, they are tied to a “patented stainless steel para-ring” rather than pulled together into one big knot as I remember.
With that still on the screen, I then flipped through my Kindle to find Lin and Larry Pardey’s Storm Tactics Handbook. They had many good experiences of heaving to as the weather worsened and then, when it got really bad, and there was a danger of the boat sailing out of her protective slick, they would deploy the parachute on a bridle to hold the bow at 20degrees off the wind. This meant the boat did not yaw about and they had a much quieter ride.
Also, if something should go wrong and they were to lose the parachute, leaving the boat at the mercy of the sea, she would still be hove-to.
It all seemed to make very good sense.

So, I started making a new list:
Fiorentino Para-Anchor

Advantages:
• The boat rides with her bow to the waves as she is designed to do. There is no danger of being pooped
• Drift is negligible – a safety factor off a lee shore but also it means that the storm will pass over a lot more quickly than if you are running with it at 3.5kts knots on the Jordan Series Drogue or worse, 7kts with a SeaBrake.
• Like the JSD, a para-anchor it is a true “set and forget” system: Go below. Make tea. Go to sleep – although, of course, the prudent sailor will check regularly for chafe and so on.

Disadvantages
• A para-anchor would appear to be more complicated to set and recover than either the JSD or SeaBrake. Maybe that is just down to practice and it would be a good idea to establish a routine of using it once a year just to make sure it still works and you know what to do with it…
• A para-anchor is more expensive than a SeaBrake and is bulkier to stow – but comparable to a JSD.
• There’s 100m of 14mm line to stow (I’ve already got 80m. Maybe I could just splice another 20 onto that). At least there will be other uses for it.

I conclusion, I think that before shelling out more money, I should start by finding a way to get the boat to heave-to properly – that is to say, to drift at right angles to the wind, creating a protective slick.
I have tried to do this with all sorts of configurations of sail and rudder but every time, she moves slowly forwards as well as sideways. Of course, the solution to this would be the SeaBrake set off the bow. Maybe that would be enough for most storms. But Lin writes that ultimately, when the waves become so steep that there is no wind in the troughs, you will definitely need a parachute.
At the moment, I’m thinking that if it were to get that bad, I would tie a 10mm line onto the 14mm SeaBrake tether with a rolling hitch, release the latter from the bow, haul it round to the stern quarter and race off downwind. At least I would be under control, and outrunning those breaking crests.
Also, it will save all that practising with yards of billowing nylon…

 

15 Responses to Drogues

  • Hi John,
    Nice to see good healthy debate and hear the reasoning behind folks choices of heavy weather tactics and what kit they carry to survive the ultimate storm. For my own part with only the experience of surfing a couple of bars with a simple drogue on the east coast of Australia I have gone for a JSD which I bought new from Ocean Brake Ltd of Portland Dorset last year. Fortunately I have not had any need to deploy it yet and hope I never will but the quality and workmanship seem superb and instil confidence and the price was very fair considering the work that went into it. Taking up only the size of a 30 litre kitbag stowed in the lazarette I don’t think that it should be condemned on the basis of size alone.
    In my particular case the fact that my 31 foot Nantucket Clipper has a bowsprit heavily influenced my decision to go for the JSD because of the distinct probability of fouling anything deployed from the bow.
    I was also lucky enough to pick up a sea brake drogue just like the one John has pictured above at a car boot sale and I can think of a few scenarios like running a bar when retrieving the gear quickly afterwards might be an important part of a successful outcome too. So worth having aboard too but I went for the JSD as well because I thought that there might be times when some degree of position keeping might be needed too. Running downwind at 2 to 3 knots with a JSD deployed could give vital extra hours over surfing towards a lee shore at 6knots. All hypothetical I know but “you pays your money and takes your choice”.
    And back to John’s photo of his Sea Brake and the mention of my great countryman Jon Sanders! Having visited Fremantle Nautical Museum where Jon Sanders famous yacht “Parry Endeavour” is suspended from the rafters, the SeaBrake drogues he used on his epic triple circumnavigation were quite different from the blue fabric one john has shown as his Sea Brake. Those that “Parry Endeavour” carried were solid fibreglass bodied cone shaped drogues towed by the apex of the cone. Inside was an internal spring mechanism that automatically opened flaps and ports to adjust the flow of water through the device dependent on the speed of the drogue through the water. You can see two of the devices attached to the pushpin of “Parry Endeavour” in many photos. Tried attaching a photo but couldn’t get it to stick!
    Regards,
    Bluey Hellier.

  • Thanks John. It’s something I’ve been thinking of lately. Years ago had a sea squid which worked quite well, easy to deploy, slowed things, could use as steering I reckon. But can’t buy em anymore. Have been tossing up between these two mentioned. I inclined to agree with your pros and cons. I have a 10m cat with stern hung rudders. I worry about potential tangles with jsd as I’m mostly solo. Probably going to opt for the sea brake to replace present ‘system’ of warp and chain.

  • An example of the way in which untested hypothesis gets handed down as having value in this field comes to mind. For decades, merchant ships’ lifeboats were equipped by law with old fashioned drogue sea anchors, and the standard textbook on seamanship for the merchant service advised that an oil bag should be hauled out to the sea anchor on an endless whip.

    I have used one of these. As soon as the load copies on the warp the drogue spins. Obviously the writer of the standard textbook had never tried it.

  • I wasn’t on the OCC Zoom meeting and I haven’t ever deployed my sea anchor in anger but a paper based study suggests that the JSD found favour with the US Navy and the older method of heaving to with a sea anchor remained the preferred option for cruisers such as Lin and Larry Pardey.

    Another significant drawback of the JSD is how to attached it to the stern plates in a seaway. Often times when I see stern plates I ask the owner if they are for a JSD and if so how they manage to attach the system, let alone in a gale, it is too late to attempt this by the time a storm arrives. I have rarely been given a convincing answer but this is probably because most offshore sailors have never been in storm of sufficient intensity to require more than towed warps or heaving to.

    Having said this, Susanne Huber-Curphey swears by her JSD and if you want to know about offshore sailing she is the person to talk to.

    • It was emphased on the Zoom meeting that the idea is to have it all hooked up and ready to go before you leave port.

      • I was very struck by the modifications that Tony Curphey has made (and most certainly used!) to the cockpit of his Nic 32.

        I have a feeling that these should be included in the outfit for a JSD along with the chain plates.

        • What modifications were those?

          • From my recollections of being shown over “Nicola Deux” by Tony, he has halved the volume of the self draining well by building a locker with a dogged lid at the aft end, and he has replaced the washboards and sliding hatch at the companion way with a dogged transparent hatch which is not vertical but which slopes up from the cockpit sole to the top of the coach roof.

  • We have a Galerider – sounds similar to your frigid John – designed to slow the boat to 3-6 knots.
    Have not used it – did once use a simple warp with a length of chain on the end and that slowed
    Us from 10-14 down to 6-8 and kept the bow oriented right.

    Don’t much like the idea of the JSD but like you, don’t particularly want to shout out against it.

    Happy sailing!

    Bill
    s/v Toodle-oo!

  • “Have I missed anything?” Well, yes. Quite a lot. The above is an unbalanced argument, crafted to favour your own particular choice. There’s a ‘logical fallacy’ or two, in there….

    You’ve made your choice. An Act Of Faith. Fine. Your prerogative. Your right. But when you set out to persuade others, some ‘journalistic ethics’ rear their heads. ( remember them? )

    I’ve made my choice. I chose a long time ago to ‘Put my trust in God and Martin-Baker’…. and Irwin Parachutes. To do that, I researched the hell out of the issues. Where there was an ambiguity, I researched even deeper. And I found I could include aeronautical engineers like Don Jordan in the small team I could trust. But – not a blind faith or trust. Informed….

    I’m still alive because of that approach to risk management.

    The OCC Seminar was not intended to argue respective merits of various means of protecting a boat in a survival storm. It WAS intended to explore the ‘how to do it’ of the JSD for those who wanted to know more from those with real ‘hands-on’. Yes, there were frustrations of listening to extended monologues from some with no lecturing/speaking skills who couldn’t manage their allotted time, but most of us 200-odd could cope with that.

    Don Jordan set out to solve a problem, did so in 1980, and gave it freely to the rest of us to develop. We have far better materials today than he had, so e.g. we have no need to carry very bulky, very heavy nylon rodes. We have stress engineers handy to advise on optimum through-bolt patterns and local reinforcement needs. We have a broad community ‘feed-back’ mechanism which promulgates lessons hard learned and what amounts to current best practice, and that’s what we were listening to in the OCC Symposium.

    • Thank you for responding – as you suggest, it’s a personal opinion. A few years ago, I agreed with your view about parachute anchors and bought a secondhand but unused one off eBay. Admittedly it had come off a bigger boat, but I was astonished by the weight and bulk.
      Also, no sooner did I examine it at home than I got it all tangled up and decided that I couldn’t risk the same happening on a small boat in bad weather – again, my experience (or, rather, inexperience) and my opinion.
      I agree with you that the webinar was designed as a “how-to” session for people who already had a JSD or were thinking of getting one. That was why I didn’t take part in the discussion.
      My blog post was intended to provoke a discussion on the relative merits of the two systems. I am quite ready to be persuaded…

  • I think this whole discussion is above my pay grade. I’ve never used either. I can see that by if someone has spent a lot of money on a system, they will probably be looking for validation of their choice.

    • For a start, I am not a blue water sailor, but have had ambitions for 50 years – am 62 now. I have however been in severe conditions ( NOT Southern Ocean ! ) and see advantages and see pro’s and cons to both the JSD and the Seabrake – The JSD seems like a lot of hassle to stow then deploy, and I don’t fancy being pinned down by the stern at very low speed in huge breaking waves – better have ultra strong washboards ! Then again the Seabrake at 6-7 knots seems a tad fast, asking for a broach – but I like the semi-steerable possibility – ether system seems to me to require ultra strong specialised aft chainplates and a well prepared boat.

      I know this is sacrilige, but I am a very strong believer that ‘ FATIGUE IS THE KILLER – I wonder if one of the modern quarter-wave sensing autopilots – and the battery / generator power to keep it going – coupled with something between the two drogues mentioned here may be the future ? Of course it’s all money and relying on electrickery, the Seabrake taking quartering seas sounds a nice idea but what about vicious cross seas ?

      On a tinier scale, a long time ago when I was an experienced dinghy sailor but new to cruisers – even my Anderson 22 – we got it wrong and mixed up in Portland Race in unforecast heavy weather, SW F-8 – we didn’t have an efficient reefing system so I slalomed us between the overfalls, successfully. Meanwhile a Twister who’d set off at the same time got frightened, reefed down to the eyebrows and got clobbered, pooped and was very indignant our little boat got to Yarmouth well before him, unscathed !

      However that was a short daylight trip across Portland to IOW – in real blue water conditions I’d want a drogue, and it must be said an experienced crew – maybe these modern autopilots – with a very good electrician before kicking off and backup – this may be becoming the answer, as too many Joshua Slocumb types have succumbed.

      I knew a very skilled & experienced IT bod at my club decades ago who reckoned he’d designed a 3D inertial sensor driven autopilot, capable of handling Southern Ocean quartering seas – maybe with a drogue to help – then I never saw him again; I hope he’d gone on to work for one of the big marine autohelm companies, otherwise ‘ nice try, Goodnight Vienna ‘

      • Like you, I’ve been thinking a lot about both systems – and I agree, it’s difficult to form an opinion without trying them in extreme conditions.
        Of course, if you do meet those conditions, you don’t really want to be experimenting – which is why so many people trust the experts and get themselves kitted out with the JSD, chainplates and all and hope they never need them.
        But I’m afraid I still have my reservations: The idea – as you say – of being held back at 1.5 – 3kts in front of huge breaking waves just gives me the shivers.
        On the other hand, I don’t share your concern about the SeaBrake allowing the boat to go too fast. I believe its ability to allow the boat to speed up on a really steep wave is what is going to allow it to stay ahead of the breaking crest. At that speed, there would still be a lot of drag to hold the stern into the wind – and yet enough “give” to allow the system to be fastened to the normal stern cleats rather than special chainplates.
        Also, I have been re-reading Lin Pardey (Storm Tactics) and Susanne Huber-Curphey (the Storm Tactics chapter in Heavy Weather Sailing). Pardey advocates heaving-to in even the most violent weather providing the boat can be prevented from fore-reaching out of her protective slick – and the Pardeys did this countless times but always in their two full-keeled pilot cutter-style boats.
        Huber-Curphey gives a nod to Pardey’s experience but insists that not every wave has read Lin’s book. And, while she does not say as much, there may be something in those long, stem to stern keels with no cutaway forefoot creating more of a slick than you would get from a more modern design.
        I had never been able to get my fin and skeg design to stay within her slick but had heard that I might manage it with a drogue, so I set up the SeaBrake with a short length of chain between two lengths of 14mm polyester and arranged this over the bow so that the drogue followed the boat at an acute angle to windward – and it did, indeed stop her moving forward.
        My plan is that in really heavy weather, I would use this to heave-to under trysail. If the waves “which have not read the book” threaten to overwhelm the boat, then, I would put a second line onto the thimble where it is shackled to the chain and bring the other end over the stern and onto the windward cockpit winch. Then, I could release the drogue’s line from the bow and the boat would turn downwind.
        Next, I could winch in the line until I could reach the chain and the original line which had been fastened to the bow, bring that round the stern and onto the leeward stern cleat.
        After that, it would be a matter of dousing the trysail and running under bare pole.
        But if, as Lin writes, the slick subdues even the biggest crest, it would not come to that. Instead, I would make about a knot of leeway and the storm would pass over me three times faster than it would with a JSD (and up to seven times faster than with a SeaBrake).
        So now I am in the enviable position of actually looking for a really violent storm!

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