BOAT BRAKES CAN SAVE YOUR LIFE
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 dangerous ride.
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 wipeout.
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 configurations.
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 necessary.
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 50,000 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.
Boat brakes. I love them!
Awesome music video that captures the essence of what it's like to sail offshore in a catamaran around the world when conditions are less than perfect. David Abbott from Too Many Drummers sings the vocals, and he also edited the footage from our Red Sea adventures. This is the theme song from the Red Sea Chronicles.
Sailing up the Red Sea is not for the faint of heart. From the Bab al Mandeb to the Suez Canal, adventures and adversity are in abundance. If you take things too seriously, you just might get the Red Sea Blues.
If you like drum beats, and you like adventure, then have a listen to the Red Sea Chronicles Trailer.
Flying fish assault Exit Only in the middle of the night as we sail through the Arabian Gulf from the Maldives to Oman. And so begins our Red Sea adventures.
Sailing through Pirate Alley between Yemen and Somalia involves calculated risk. It may not be Russian Roulette, but it is a bit of a worry. Follow Team Maxing Out as they navigate through Pirate Alley.
Stopping in Yemen was just what the doctor ordered. We refueled, repaired our alternator, and we made friends with our gracious Yemeni hosts. We also went to Baskins Robbins as a reward for surviving Pirate Alley.
After you survive Pirate Alley, you must sail through the Gate of Sorrows (Bab Al Mandab) at the southern entrance to the Red Sea. The Gate of Sorrows lived up to its name with fifty knots of wind and a sandstorm that pummeled Exit Only for two days. Life is good.
Join Team Maxingout as they sail through Pirate Alley and up the Red Sea
See what it's like to cruise on a catamaran before you spend a bazillion dollars purchasing one
After watching the Red Sea Chronicles you will be able to see yourself sailing on the ocean of your dreams
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