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COMMENTARY: Storm sail succeeds as functional drogue

Published on September 5th, 2013

By Frederic Berg
My heart goes out to the family and friends of Craig Williams. Sailing is meant to be a pastime and should not lead to a tragic loss of life. While we cannot replace a fellow sailor’s life, perhaps we can collectively contribute solutions to problems encountered by Uncontrollable Urge during the Islands Race.

From the account in Scuttlebutt, several strategies were attempted to gain control of the vessel once the rudder broke.

In 1983 we were delivering the Davidson 42 Libalia Too from Hawaii to California in preparation for the 1983 Transpac, and ran into some difficult weather. The analogue wind speed indicator was pegged at 55 knots for three days and the breaking seas were well over the second set of spreaders. With one harrowing knockdown already experienced, on the second day we decided it was best to batten down and get some rest rather than expose ourselves further to the elements.

With no one manning the helm, we had little to keep the boat in line with the swells. Most literature at the time recommended some form of a drogue, either a bucket, a sail, a real drogue, or anything to slow the boat down and locking off the helm. We tried all the techniques but the high free board of IOR boats and the strength of the wind and sea conspired against all attempts. We even tried to drag the storm jib, but it was no match for the sea.

The ultimate solution was to tie a 30′ to 50′ line from the head of the storm jib to a primary winch on one side of the boat, and the same from the tack of the sail to the primary winch on the other side, and launch the jib off the stern. The boat stopped in its tracks as though anchored to the bottom. To our amazement, the sail “filled” even though the third corner, the clew, was unsupported. Apparently the sail was constructed narrow enough to remain filled.

A day and a half later our navigator indicated that during the 12 hours the sail was deployed, we could not have moved downwind more than one mile. This is in sharp contrast to the anecdotal stories one would hear at the time of drifting tens if not hundreds of miles off course during a storm.

Perhaps we got lucky that day to stumble upon this solution, but it worked so well that every open ocean sailor should have it in his or her repertoire of solutions to get through difficult weather.

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