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Sea anchors aren't just for bluewater cruising

“Weather on Lake Superior is unpredictable at best; making sure you have the proper equipment can prevent a day trip from turning into a nightmare,” says Lisa Jensen, the coxswain of the rescue boat and four-year Coast Guard veteran from Moose Lake, Minn.

When it was obvious to Earl Nordstrom that he would be unable to repair his boat, he could have deployed a sea anchor — if he’d had one. Experts recommend boaters do this well before they think they need to, and to figure out how they’re going to do it well before then. This could have involved Earl removing his anchor and shackling the parachute to his existing nylon anchor rode, or using a dedicated sea anchor rode. He would have placed it into the water from the bow, and allowed it to fill while letting out the entire length of the rode. Most manufacturers recommend at least 250 feet of nylon to absorb the stress of large seas, and to compensate when the boat is out of step with the waves.

Earl’s next task would have been to drift backwards at about 1 knot, and maintain contact with the Coast Guard and his wife, Cheryl. He would watch carefully for chafe where the rode was in contact with his boat. He could have done this until help came or he drifted close enough to shore to deploy an anchor.

Sea anchors have been in use as long as boats have been in peril. Boaters have trailed tires, nets, sails, logs, chain, and warps of line, anything that would stabilize or slow down their vessels.

It’s important to distinguish between a drogue — a device usually deployed at the stern of a sailboat to slow it enough to keep from flying too fast down the face of a wave — and a sea anchor, deployed from the bow of a vessel to turn it into the seas.

Some boaters carry these devices only for deployment in a dire emergency, never expecting to use them. Some, like commercial fishermen, routinely use them to rest in rough seas or at night.

Many mariners think of sea anchors as just for ocean passages, but the Nordstroms’ plight illustrates how those crossing the open waters of the Great Lakes could use a sea anchor.

In retrospect, Earl and Cheryl say they wished they had bought a real sea anchor when they made sure their boat was outfitted with other essentials, like PFDs, an EPIRB, VHF radios, bilge pumps and other anchors. A new sea anchor would have cost them about half of an annual boat insurance premium, a one-time life and property insurance expense that could some day pay off a lot more than the policies they now carry.

Information about sea anchors is available online at,, and Two books, “DDDB, Drag Device Data Base” by Victor Shane, and “Heavy Weather Tactics Using Sea Anchors and Drogues” by Earl Hinz are useful.

— Jeff Janacek