Once upon a time there was a small catamaran named Exit Only. Although
it wasn't a large yacht, it was big enough to sail the seven seas - the
reason was simple. Ninety-five percent of the time the seas were small
and the winds were light. In fact, in an eleven year voyage around the
world, Exit Only never saw winds in excess of fifty knots while on passage,
and only three or four times saw winds up to forty knots.
That's the way it is for most boats who sail in temperate latitudes at the
correct time of year. People who sail for pleasure, rather than
necessity or racing, rarely find themselves caught out in a gale.
Nevertheless, sometimes mother nature throws you a curve and you get caught
in a storm, and that's exactly what happened to us as we ventured out into
the Atlantic from Gibraltar.
We started our transatlantic crossing by sailing from Gibraltar to the
Canary Islands. Because this passage takes only five to six days, we
were able to select our weather window at the beginning of the trip, but
during the end of the passage the weather was up for grabs. We had no
reason to expect it would be bad, and no guarantee it would remain good.
As the weather gods would have it, the last three days of the trip
turned into a gale with winds gusting to forty knots. Fortunately, the
winds were coming primarily from behind so we could run downwind.
Unfortunately, the seas rapidly became steep, up to twenty feet in height,
and there were cross seas as well, creating an exciting and potentially
Why is it dangerous to sail downwind in gale force winds? Think for a
moment about the last time you saw a surfer wipeout going down the front of
a twenty foot wave. He has an awesome ride right up to the moment he
and his surfboard go berserk and get pulverized in the surf. Words
like pain and disaster pop into your mind as you watch the spectacular
Similar things can happen to a cruising yacht when it surfs down the waves
during a gale. When Exit Only started rocketing down those steep
twenty foot seas, our speed peaked at eighteen knots. Exit Only became
a giant surfboard that was forty feet long and twenty-one feet wide.
Surfing at ten knots was fun. Surfing at eighteen knots was getting
close to wipeout speed. If the autopilot lost control of the boat
during an eighteen knot surf, disaster could happen. Wipeout in a
cruising catamaran means flipping it over - a very expensive and painful
mistake - not to mention the fact the crew can get badly hurt in a capsize.
When your catamaran is upside down in the ocean, it becomes the most
expensive life raft on the seven seas.
So what do you do when things are getting out of control and you are
approaching wipeout conditions? The first thing to do is slow the boat
down by reducing sail. We had already done that. Our mainsail
was furled, and we had about ten percent of our headsail out to give us
enough sail power forward to keep our autopilot happy and make it easy to
safely steer the yacht downwind. That small handkerchief of sail kept
our boat pointed downwind, but it still gave us too much speed which was
getting out of control.
Taking our foot off the accelerator by reducing sail wasn't enough. We
needed to apply the brakes, and that's exactly what we did. Once we
turned on our boat breaks, our speed came down to five or six knots, and
peace and serenity returned to our chaotic water world.
What exactly are boat brakes, and how do you apply them? Boat brakes
are drogues that you trail behind your boat to slow down. There are
many types of drogues, and you can trail them in many different
The main criteria for success in using drogues is they reduce your speed to
a safe level. You have enough speed for the autopilot to easily steer
the yacht, but you don't want to slow down so much that waves break on the
stern and fill your cockpit with water. Putting on boat brakes isn't
rocket science - just common sense.
Each yacht behaves differently in following seas, and the number and type of
drogues you use depends on the design of the yacht. It's mostly trial
and error. The first drogue we put out consisted of eighty feet of one
inch three strand nylon rope with a ball of anchor chain attached to its
middle. We took fifteen feet of three-eighths inch chain and tied it
in knots and shackled it to a swivel in the middle of the rope bridle.
We then attached the two ends of the bridle to port and starboard winches at
the back of Exit Only. This first drogue had a modest effect in
slowing us down most of the time, but on the really big surfs, it didn't
give us enough drag.
We put out a second drogue consisting of one-hundred and eighty feet of one
inch nylon line which formed a giant loop behind the boat, and we also
attached it to the winches at the back of the boat. This slowed us
down further, but still not quite enough. I increased the
effectiveness of this drogue by putting PVC hose on the line, and I shackled
the dingy anchor and chain to the hose. The PVC hose was a messenger
that transported the anchor and chain down the line, and carried it all the
way to the back of the one-hundred and eighty foot rope loop. This
additional weight kept the long loop of rope continually submerged and
substantially increased the effectiveness of the second drogue in
controlling boat speed. This was just right.
We ended up trailing two drogues behind our boat. One loop trailed
forty feet behind Exit Only, and the other was eighty feet off our stern.
The weights on the drogues kept them submerged, and the different distances
of the drogues from the stern guaranteed that one of them was effective when
the other was slack. This combination of drogues snatched victory from
the jaws of defeat, and our worries were over.
If the storm became worse, we would have deployed our Jordan Series Drogue
which consists of a two-hundred foot line with one-hundred and twenty
sailcloth cones attached to the line. That would have stopped us in
our tracks. Fortunately, we didn't need a drogue that powerful, so we
didn't use it. It was ready if we needed it, but thankfully, it wasn't
These storm management techniques worked well for us because we are a
catamaran. The arms of the drogues were attached to winches that are
twenty feet apart on the stern, and that augmented the ability of the drogue
to create directional stability in the yacht. It also worked well
because a catamaran has a bridge deck, and when breaking seas assault the
stern of Exit Only, they pass under the bridge deck rather than come into
the cockpit. On a monohull yacht, the same techniques might be less
effective, and you might end up with water in the cockpit. Every yacht
behaves in a different manner when they trail drogues in steep following
seas. Several monohull yachts sailing in the
same gale ended up with water in their cockpit.
In 33,000 miles of sailing around the world, this was the first time we ever
needed to trail drogues behind our yacht. That should put things in
their proper perspective. If you sail the seven seas in a conservative
manner at the correct time of year, you have a ninety-five percent chance of
having a wonderful adventure, but five percent of the time, things may
unwind a bit, and you end up in a gale. When that happens, you say,
"No worries mate." You trail your drogues and control your speed until
the storm passes by. Then you continue on to your destination and tell
your friends about how you survived the savage seas.