An Introduction To Sea Anchor Use

Sea anchors come in many shapes and sizes, with many monikers such as parachute sea anchors, drift anchors, drift socks, parachute anchors, or boat brakes.

Whatever you want to call them, they are vital components in overall boat safety equipment, and it’s essential to know how to use a sea anchor.

The parachute sea anchor is the best-known type of sea anchor, deployed from the bow of any boat.

A sea anchor can save your boat in a storm or keep you on fish; it has numerous uses, but its primary purpose is to aid a vessel in dangerous and heavy weather sailing by keeping the bow windward and into the incoming waves.

If you’re unaware of what a sea anchor is, let me introduce you to the different types and their uses and stress the importance of having one on deck.

⚓ The Different Types Of Sea Anchors

Seafarers of old used bags, buckets, cones, anything you could think of to limit their vessel’s drift.

Today, we have a couple of helpful and reliable options when choosing sea anchors, such as the following:

  • Parachute Sea Anchors
  • Drift Anchors (Drift Socks, Drag Bag, Trolling Sea Anchor, Drifter, Sea Brake)

🪂 Parachute Sea Anchor

The parachute sea anchor, also referred to as a para sea anchor or para-anchor, is a specially designed water parachute attached to an anchor rope deployed from the bow of a vessel.

A parachute sea anchor is usually made from high-strength nylon or Dacron, and a typical para-anchor setup consists of the following:

  • Durable 8-ounce nylon or Dacron canopy
  • Multiple shroud lines
  • Para-ring
  • Stainless steel swivel or galvanized shackle
  • Fishing weights
  • Trip line
  • Floating flag
  • Anchor line (rode)
  • Recovery line
  • Retrieval float
  • Float deployment bag

Monohull sailboats, multihull sailboats, trawlers, skiffs, commercial cruise liners, superyachts, sports boats, rowing boats, canoes, kayaks, centerboard boats, runabouts, and charter fishing boats can all benefit from deploying a sea anchor when disaster strikes, or to modify the vessel’s drift.

A parachute sea anchor works by dropping it in the water from the bow of any vessel.

As soon as it sinks, it will deploy quite rapidly, putting tension on the attached anchor line. The sea anchor will pull the bow into approaching weather, stabilizing the vessel by slowing down the boat’s drift. Think of a parachute sea anchor as a brake for boats.

The drag created by the parachute sea anchor has been known to slow down a boat to half a nautical mile per hour. In contrast, without a parachute sea anchor, the figure can quickly rise to 10 nautical miles per hour, potentially reducing drift by 90%.

The parachute sea anchor is very popular amongst drift fisherman who employs it to slow down the fishing vessel’s drift, allowing it to comfortably fish in a specific area without having to worry about drifting out of the fish-rich angling spots.

A para-anchor also saves fishermen hundreds of dollars of fuel per day due to not having to use the motor to keep the vessel in place. An important factor when employing a sea anchor is that you must use a size-appropriate sea anchor for the best results.

Basic Deployment Of A Parachute Sea Anchor

When it’s time to deploy a para-anchor, either due to heavy seas, crew fatigue, or when out fishing, you first have to stop the boat. On a monohull sailboat, you need to power up the motor and put it in neutral before lowering the head and main sail.

With the engine powered forward, you can keep the bow into the sea, virtually stopping the sailboat. The para-anchor is deployed from the windward side to keep the sailboat from drifting over it. A recovery line and a retrieval float are deployed into the water first.

Allow the boat to move away from the trip line and let it become tight before dropping the para-anchor into the water. As soon as the para-anchor is deployed into the water, snub the anchor line to inflate the canopy before securing it to a cleat, bitts, or designated strong point.

Installing cleats and bits with bolts and a backing plate is highly recommended, as when a sea anchor is deployed, it puts a lot of stress on attached boat parts. Choose a dedicated strong point from where you will launch a sea anchor, and beware of skimpy windlasses.

Recommended Rode Length When Deploying A Sea Anchor

The length of the anchor rope plays a critical part in keeping the sea anchor deployed at all times. For the best results when using a para-anchor, is to ensure that the parachute canopy stays inflated.

When deploying a para-anchor, you don’t want any twisting of the parachute or its canopy inverting when it osculates (pulsating like jellyfish.)

Fiorentino Para Anchor drag device inventor Zack Smith suggests the following regarding the length of rope deployment.

“What we discovered through all our testing was that if we maintained constant rope tension, the parachute sea anchor stays inflated the entire time.”

Smith continues,

“Obviously, when the parachutes stay inflated, it will keep your bow faced with the wind conditions and storms.”

He gives an example of rope deployment for a 40-foot boat and 400 feet of rope.

Smith states,

“When the weather is calm, I go ahead and throw out a couple of boat lengths. If there’s gale force conditions which can lead to 12- or 16-foot seas, I’ll pay out a third of the rope that I’m carrying on board. And if it’s a storm situation, I’ll pay out half mile line.”

📺 Watch the full interview on YouTube

The experienced parachute sea anchor tester recommends that captains add a 6-foot chain to the rope, as the added weight will counter any slackness. In addition, the chain will sink when the rope loses tension, ensuring that the parachute canopy stays inflated.

The standard recommendation from most makers of parachute sea anchors is to throw out at least 10 to 15 feet of rope, no matter the weather conditions.

Even when you deploy the correct length of rope with the added 6-foot chain, a monohull sailboat or trawler might start to swing back and forth, despite all your best efforts.

If the boat jerks or feels like it’s being pulled through the waves, you might need to pay out more anchor rope (rode) until this unnatural boat motion stops. Set your chafe protection to avoid line wear when satisfied with the vessel’s motion.

Wind loads can exert pressure on an anchor rope to more than a ton of pull. That’s why Para-Tech recommends the following nylon rode thickness: 

  • ½” nylon rode for 35′ boats
  • 5/8″ nylon rode for 35′ to 45′ boats
  • ¾” nylon rode for boats up to 55.’ 

Light displacement sailboats may rock back and forth while secured to the para-anchor, and if deploying more anchor rope doesn’t fix the problem, you have one of two choices:

  • Attach a secondary line to the primary rope leading to the parachute sea anchor, forming a V-shaped bridal.
  • Attach a storm sail.

A V-shaped bridal helps the boat stabilize and deter it from swinging back and forth and is most successful in a wind force of 35 knots and above. When a boat starts swinging back and forth, it creates shock loading on the rope, which can result in it breaking.

A V-shaped bridle is required when deploying a sea anchor on catamarans or other multihull boats. The best advice is to prepare the setup before sailing. For example, you can have two bridle lines of 50 feet each tied to a road of, say, 300 feet already bound to the vessel’s hulls.

By carefully packaging the sea anchor in different bundles, it’s ready to deploy when needed by simply throwing it off the boat. You don’t want to still have to tie bridle lines to the two bows when disaster strikes.

When Do You Use A Parachute Sea Anchor?

A parachute sea anchor is typically used in stormy weather or whenever you need to stabilize and slow down the vessel’s drift due to the loss of the boat’s steering to minimize the chance of being rolled. It can also be deployed when the water is too deep to employ an ordinary anchor.

Sailors on sailboats tend to use a parachute sea anchor in extremely windy conditions when using sails is impossible. The sea anchor helps turn the sailboat into the oncoming waves, minimizing the chance of being rolled.

Loss of power is another good reason to employ a sea anchor, especially if you’re drifting towards shoals while waiting for assistance from a fellow boater.

Drift fishermen often deploy a parachute sea anchor when fishing, allowing them to fish in a certain fishing area without worrying about the boat drifting away from the prime spot.

🧦 Drift Anchors And Drift Socks

Whereas a parachute sea anchor is a specialized safety tool to be used in emergencies (and for drift fishing), a drift anchor, by comparison, is mostly used for fishing.

A drift anchor is a funnel-shaped conical chute that catches water and restricts its flow through a small opening at the opposite end.

When Do You Use A Drift Anchor

Anglers use drift anchors or drift socks to slow down the drift of their boats when fishing with live bait and jigs and when using bottom baits for bottom fishing.

Every angler knows that a fast drift makes it challenging to place baits and keep them in a specific water column position.

Using a drift anchor also protects less durable baits, such as pilchards, from the intensity of fast drifts. Monitoring a fishing rod is made easier when employing a drift anchor.

Many fishermen deploy sea anchors from the vessel’s windward beam, allowing drifted baits to spread out along the entirety of the vessel.

Basic Deployment Of A Drift Anchor

You can use a drift anchor on any boat, from kayaks to fishing boats and sailboats. However, how you fasten the drift anchor is critical, as it puts a lot of strain on a boat. Ensure that your boat cleats can withstand the stress when attaching a sea anchor.

When deploying the drift anchor or drift sock into the water, ensure there’s enough space between the sea anchor and the boat by monitoring the anchor line attached to the sea anchor.

A drift anchor doesn’t need as much rope as a para-anchor does; it only needs enough so that the drift anchor rises and falls in sync with the vessel.

If you see that the drift anchor is repeatedly collapsing before filling up again, it’s indicative of too short a ride.

The setup of a drift anchor should include the following:

  • Drift Anchor
  • Trip Line
  • Anchor Line (Rode)
  • Swivel Shackle

The trip line is essential in the setup. Pulling the trip line pulls the drift anchor from the back, deflating the device and making it easy to get the drift anchor back onto the boat.

❓ FAQs

What Is The Difference Between A Drogue And A Sea Anchor?

A drogue is a cone-shaped fabric device deployed from the stern of a boat, primarily used to slow down a boat instead of stopping it while it motors down-sea. Slowing down the boat as it races down sea waves reduces the risk of pitchpoling and broaching.

Drogues are typically employed when a boat has lost its ability to steer (power failure and rudder problems) and to slow down drift for trolling.

How Is A Sea Anchor Used In A Lifeboat?

The Code of Federal Regulations states that a sea anchor must be permanently affixed to a lifeboat so that it can be easily deployed in an emergency and fitted with a shock-resistant hawser.

A davit-launched passenger vessel liferaft must deploy automatically when the lifeboat floats freely. As a result, a lifeboat’s sea anchor rode will be considerably shorter than required on bigger vessels.

Are Sea Anchors Any Good?

A sea anchor is a vital component of boat safety equipment. When a sailboat or any other type of boat is faced with a storm at sea, the most important aspect of survival is to get the vessel stable, which a sea anchor achieves when deployed correctly.

A sea anchor is vital during breakdowns, layovers, and other emergencies involving strong winds and massive waves.

🔑 Key Takeaways

1️⃣ A sea anchor is as important as stocking life jackets on a ship. It has the potential to save your boat in stormy conditions, which directly results in preserving your life as well.

2️⃣ When faced with rough sea conditions that take boat control out of your hands, a para-anchor will keep your vessel stable and afloat while waiting out the storm.

Many boat owners had lost their lives and boats due to not having a sea anchor on board when an emergency struck.

The power of the ocean is not to be underestimated, and being slapped around by breaking waves is no joke. If you own a boat without a sea anchor, you should invest in one today.

📢 Pro Tip: To help you make the correct choice read this article covering what size sea anchor you need so that you can make an informed decision

If your boat is fitted with a sea anchor, ensure that you test it often to ensure that it is operational and to keep your deploying skills up to date.

I’m the founder and chief editor here at Sailing Savvy. I spent a decade working as a professional mariner and currently, I mix those experiences with digital publishing. Welcome, and I hope that we can be the hub you need for safe passage.