Of all the fears that creep into the minds of people who venture out of sight of land on a small vessel, the fear of storms is the most difficult to lay to rest. You can practice almost any other aspect of seamanship close to shore. You can try out methods and gear you might use in each theoretical situation. You can simulate the conditions, practice your moves, see what works, what doesn't, then go back into port, change your gear and upgrade your skills. But storms. How can you go out and find safe ones to practice in? Who can you talk to, to get real information?
The average yachtsman, like ourselves, tries to avoid storms by choosing the best seasons, the best routes, for any passage he makes. Sailors with less than 25,000 miles of experience who encounter a gale or storm at sea may be unreliable sources of information, as they will probably not be able to judge the true wind force, true sea conditions, having little to compare against. I know my first encounter with cyclonic winds offshore, in the Bay of Bengal, made me sure I was in the ultimate storm. Then ten years later we were caught in a non-cyclonic storm with far less wind, but, due to currents, encountered seas that could have been catastrophic without the parachute anchor.
Even the most experienced amateur will have probably encountered less than two dozen gales at sea plus, maybe, two real storms in every 50,000 miles he sails. Some delivery skippers may have upped these averages as they move boats to suit owner's schedules and not their own. But even so, the accumulated storm experience will grow so slowly that I'd safely say none of us will ever see a majority of situations which could pop up in a storm. Veteran fishermen, such as those who work the West Coast of the Americas and the Southern Australia Bight and must lie offshore for two or three weeks at a time, winter or summer, would be a better source of information. For when we have met and interviewed them, the parachute sea anchor has often come into the conversation. But they rarely bother to write about storm seamanship.
The Drag Device Data Base being compiled by Victor Shane seems one solution to this problem of finding answers to quell the fear of storms, fears that should be in every sailor's mind. By looking objectively at the method and results written by each boat owner, answers may be found. But in the end, each storm will present different problems, different situations. The size and stamina of your crew, their condition, the currents, the duration of the storm, the proximity of lee shores or reefs, each will affect the decisions you will be called on to make. To be prepared to carry out these decisions means having the proper gear on board before you set sail. It means knowing how to use it.
A para-anchor has always been part of our sailing equipment. We've had to use it only half a dozen times in 150,000 miles of voyaging. Each time we learned something new about it. But in each case it did cut our drift down to less than a knot, did keep our boat in an attitude so that no heavy seas came on board, did help create a slick to windward that upset and sapped the power from the breaking waves.
How exactly to rig a parachute anchor on your own boat can only be learned by trial and error, as each boat rides differently to each wind strength. Studying some of these files will give you ideas to try the next time you are in a gale. Our suggestion is do try these ideas in any gale you encounter. This practice, and the procedures and gear that evolve, will smooth things out when your real storm arrives.
Lin and Larry Pardey, Taleisin of Victoria, Warkworth, New Zealand, March 1990