|Kayakers are well advised to avoid heavy wind conditions where large waves and strong winds make running before the wind (going downwind) dangerous. In heavy steep breaking seas, trying to stay upright while running before the sea might be very difficult. Turning around will be difficult and dangerous. The most stable position is to face into the wind and the waves. But that can be very tiring. In such conditions a sea anchor may be of use.
A sea anchor is essentially a piece of cloth with lines attached that lead to the bow of the boat. As the boat is blown backwards by the wind and pushed backward by the sea and shoved back by the breaking waves, the sea anchor keeps the bow pointed into the wind and waves by creating resistence as it is pulled through the water.
Most traditional sea anchors are designed for larger boats. They consist of a tube of cloth with a large opening in the front where the water comes in and a smaller opening in the back where the water flows out. A solid ring keeps the sea anchor mouth open and a yoke of line attaches the sea anchor to a lead to the bow of the boat. The resistance is created by the water flowing into the mouth and squeezing out the smaller hole in the back as the boat pulls the sea anchor through the water against the push of wind and wave. A float keeps the sea anchor from going too deep and a release line lets the sea anchor be retrieved.
More modern sea anchors utilize a parachute design. The cut of the cloth itself maintains the shape of the anchor so there is no need for a bulky ring. However without a ring some deployment problems are possible when the parachute does not open.
Another type of device for handling heavy weather is a drogue. Essentially a drogue is a sea anchor that is attached to the stern. It is generally smaller with less resistance. It's purpose is to slow a boat from going too fast or surfing down the face of a wave and burying itself in the next wave and then pitchpoling (with dire consequences). For a discussion of details of sea anchor usage in large boats click here.
For kayakers, sea anchors might have applications in limited circumstances. In really heavy conditions when fighting to stay upright, one does not need the extra strain of trying to stay pointed into the waves and wind. Kayaks tend to lay across wind when not being actively paddled, making them easy prey for any breaking waves. Having the sea anchor to keep you pointed upwind and upwave would leave your paddle free for bracing or using a paddle float to remain upright.
Another application would be a situation in which a heavy wind was blowing you in a direction you didn't wish to go and you were no longer able to paddle against it. Deploying a sea anchor would drastically reduce the speed at which you are blown away from where you want to be. You could resume paddling once you had rested or conditions had changed.
Finally a kayak with a sea anchor deployed would be easier to get to if you are tipped over, miss the roll and have to wet exit. In such conditions, a kayak can easily be torn away from a swimmer.
Commercially available sea anchors for boats are much too large for kayaks. They are just not practicle for storage or deployment. I know of no sea anchors available specifically for kayaks. But there are "drift anchors" that are made for fishing that might serve nicely for kayak storm use. (Drift Anchors) They have rings in them so storage is something of an issue.
Para Tech makes a kayak sea anchor but at $249 it is ridiculously expensive.
Para-Tech Kayak Sea Anchor
Para-Tech Kayak Sea Anchor is designed to hold a kayak in the wind and minimize wind blown drift. The system was prompted by a 1200 square mile search for a paddler blown offshore and reports of offshore paddlers lost due to the inability to paddle back against the wind. A 36" Sea Anchor system with a stow bag and line weighs under 20 oz. and stows in a 7" x 7" x 2" bag. $249 US.
Para-Tech Engineering. Ph: 970-876-0558.
Email: firstname.lastname@example.org. Web: www.seaanchor.com.
If you want an effective sea anchor that stores well you will need to make your own. While designing a sail for my kayak, I made a small scale model of the sail for testing purposes. ( see article on Spinyaker kayak sail. ) After completing the sail, I got to thinking that with a few modifications, it might make a good sea anchor. I removed the mast and boom pieces, Sewed a small brass weight onto the bottom of the model sail, sewed some closed cell foam into the top of the sail and rigged up a harness for the little fellow. My boat is rigged with a nylon rope that runs from in front of my cockpit to the bow U bolt and back again. Another one goes to the stern. On one end of each line is a nylon snap. Clipped into the sea anchor's harness, I simply drop the sea anchor over the side. The float and weight combination keeps the sea anchor properly oriented. When the line goes taught, the "sail" fills and I have a great little sea anchor. With the proper placement of the harness lines the sail will "fly" down about 2-3 feet under the surface where it will not be picked up by breaking waves. I used black nylon on the sail because that is what I had around, but a suspect a dark color is a good idea as one would not want to tempt sharks with a bright color. I took it with me to Baja last spring and deployed it in 20 knots of wind. It held the bow nicely into the wind and nearly stopped my drift through the water. To retrieve it, I simply paddle forward until the sea anchor comes back to the cockpit where I can pick it up. (In conditions severe enough, it might not be possible to paddle back up to the sea anchor for retrieval. But then, if the conditions are so bad, why are you retrieving it anyway. You could always cut it away or untie it. My deck lines are tied with release knots.)
Sea Anchor folded in half - with harness lines
Sea Anchor flotation - Closed cell foam
I hope I never need it. But it packs so small there is no excuse not to have it. It will be a part of my deck rigging in all dangerous coastal situations. I will continue to practice with it so I will be familiar with it should the conditions ever get "real". Never depend on equipment for dangerous situations that you have not practised with in controlled situations.
Movie of sea anchor in action in a pool.
P.S. For you kayak fishermen, a sea anchor or drougue might be useful if you hook into that really big one. Nantucket sleigh ride anyone?
P.P.S. For a high tech discussion of drogues and sea anchors in extreme (FASNET) conditions, click here.