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Why Won'’t The Anchor Go Down?

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I like to work on my boat, but just up until the middle of June. Then it is time to go cruising in British Columbia. I do not want to spend time fixing anything when we are away from our home berth. It is bad enough to be stuck making repairs in a marina in some other city where marine service and supplies are close at hand, but it is much worse to get stranded in the wilderness where there is no help at all. My wife, Linda, and I make some trips in our boat during the winter season, and most machinery gets tested simply by being used. Turning on pumps and other systems occasionally is a good way to keep them working, in my humble opinion.

The windlass, however, is one machine that sits idle all winter. We have a Maxwell 2200 and 400 feet of chain. Off-season anchoring is not a favorite with us. Why take cold and dark dinghy rides to walk our dog? There are plenty of transient marina slips available, so we tuck into a cozy spot with shorepower. In the winter, the anchor gets a holiday.

Late last spring I was getting our Krogen 42 ready for a cruise. The windlass did work the last time we used it, but that was no guarantee it would work this time. To ensure it was still ready to earn its keep, I started the anchor down. After a few seconds, I heard an awful grinding sound like a dentist drilling on my molar with a low-speed drill. I reversed the windlass and it brought the anchor up smoothly. When I started it down again, the sound was back, and the winch stopped. I carefully took the chain off the gypsy and the windlass ran smoothly both ways. It was the chain—it was stuck and would not come out. A look in the chain locker explained the situation. The first 20- to 30-foot section was covered by the rest of the chain, and chain weighs about 2 pounds per foot.

In our typical summer cruises, we anchor at least half the time, and sometimes more often. The chain stacks up in the locker when we raise the anchor. It will pile up and fall down in the locker, but under normal circumstances the weight of the anchor and the windlass pull the chain out and we don’t have any problems.

There is one scenario that can get a chain to ball up. On a long passage where the vessel is bucking through head seas and does a bit of pitching, the entire anchor chain can lift each time the bow raises. Instead of coming down in the same place, it rolls just a little. Over several hours or days, the entire chain can end up on top of the first section and you have a real rat’s nest of links.

Anchoring is not a concern until the trip is finished (or there is an emergency). I am sure that people who routinely make long coastal and open-water passages in rough conditions know to untangle the chain before it becomes necessary to drop the hook. Some crews inflate a rubber truck inner tube in the anchor locker to keep the chain from launching itself as the boat bounces along in those choppy little waves off the coast.

We have not been offshore in rough weather in a long time. But we did cut across the wake of a fast-moving container ship this winter. We were transiting the vessel traffic lanes on busy Elliott Bay. What was I thinking? I was clearly too close to the ship’s wake. By the time I saw how large the bow wave was, it was too late to do anything. I just held on to the wheel and watched our dog “float.” Then I saw Linda trying to deal with a hovering laptop on the table; we were all airborne. Our sturdy ship pitched three times. I did not hear the chain rise and fall, but it likely lifted and rolled enough to bury the first 30 feet of chain deep in the pile.

There are many reasons to stay well clear of big ships. If common sense is not enough, the Department of Homeland Security has delineated a 500-foot buffer. But 500 feet is not nearly far enough from the wake of a large, fast-moving ship. There is not much information about wake turbulence avoidance, but after my inadvertent research, I encourage all skippers be very conservative when passing behind large vessels.

And don’t forget to check the windlass and chain.