Over the decades, my wife Terrie and I have anchored literally thousands of times in about every conceivable type of bottom. Early on in our cruising career, and following various screwups—sometimes hilarious and sometimes scary—we learned the importance of combining correctly sized ground tackle (“Hold Fast,” PassageMaker, November/December 2017) with a reliable anchoring routine.
An anchoring routine should begin with an investigation of potential anchorages. The primary requirement for an anchorage is that it provides protection from the waves, and to a lesser extent, the wind. Given that everyone in our family suffers from seasickness, I spend a good deal of time poring over charts looking for appropriate protection. The chart or a local cruising guide can be checked for bays in the lee of a headland or on the leeward side of an island. In tropical waters, a section of reef to windward may be all that is needed. It should be noted, however, that the nature of a coastline will often cause waves to hook around islands and headlands and enter what looks to be a protected anchorage broadside to the wind or even dead against it.
Once a potential anchorage has been located, you should consider a number of other questions, such as: How good is the holding? What will happen if we were to drag anchor?
We have been in lovely anchorages with excellent protection; but with lousy holding and rocks or reefs all around us, it is simply not possible to relax, go ashore, or sleep with any peace of mind.
Additional questions you need to ask yourself:
• What will be the effect of tidal streams or other currents? You may end up broadside to the waves, in which case even a slight swell can set a boat to rolling uncomfortably.
• How deep is the water? It may be that an inordinate amount of scope is needed.
• How does the depth change in any given direction? If you will be anchoring on the edge of a shelf and the anchor gets dragged off the shelf, you may find you have inadequate scope.
• If there are other boats in the anchorage, is there adequate swinging room to lay out an appropriate amount of scope?
• If the wind shifts, will the necessary scope put you at risk of fouling hazards or other boats? All too often in crowded anchorages everyone anchors on short scope, which is all well and good until the wind pipes up or changes direction, at which point chaos may ensue.
• More to the point, if the wind shifts, where will you swing and what kind of a fetch will the waves have then? If it is more than a few hundred yards and the wind kicks up, you may find yourself swinging toward what is now a dangerous lee shore with a substantial chop rapidly building.
• How easy is it to get in and out? If it becomes necessary to bail out at night, will there be adequate navigational marks to do this? Even if it is relatively easy to leave the anchorage, will this leave you with a clear run to safety or will there be other navigational hazards that are difficult to negotiate in the dark?
And finally, some miscellaneous considerations:
• If this is a buggy anchorage, are you far enough offshore to get away from the bugs?
• On the other hand, are you farther than you want to be in terms of taking the dinghy ashore?
• And, if there is a lot of local boat traffic, are you in an area where you will be constantly bothered by the wakes of passing boats?
The Anchoring Routine
Assuming we are comfortable with the answers to those questions, our typical anchoring routine goes something like this:
1. If the dinghy is being towed, we shorten the painter to the point that it cannot be sucked into the propeller when going in reverse. We learned this the hard way.
2. We clear the foredeck for action and close the hatches.
3.We make a pass through the anchorage, looking for a likely spot to drop the anchor, and then circle slowly around this spot, checking depths at the limit of our projected swinging circle to make sure that there are no unpleasant surprises. If the anchorage is crowded and this is the one clear spot, we are especially careful in this area because there is probably a rock or shoal in the middle of it!
4. While circling, we look at how other boats are positioned to the wind—or to a tidal stream or current, or even a bit of both—and attempt to gauge their likely turning radiuses. Those on moorings will have a tighter turning circle than those anchored, and any boat with two anchors set will turn differently than a boat lying to a single anchor.
5. The hardest situation to gauge is one in which the wind is blowing against the tide. Anchored boats may all be lined up with the wind as if their rodes are stretched out in front of them, whereas the current may have carried the boats upwind so that the rodes are in fact streaming aft. In such a situation, we commonly misjudge the point at which to drop our anchor. Only after it is down will it become apparent that it is in the wrong place. It will then have to be retrieved and reset.
6. Having picked a likely spot, we approach slowly with one of us in the bow and the other driving the boat. We ease out a little chain to get the anchor hanging down so that it will be easy to launch.
7. Voice communication between a boat driver and anchor-dropper is often difficult. Terrie and I have a set of hand signals for communicating. Whoever is dropping the anchor, as shown in the photos, opposite, points to port or starboard to indicate a turn, forward to come on, and backward to reverse. We wiggle our forefingers in the air to indicate speed up; we wiggle them down toward the deck to indicate slow down; and we put a hand up in the stop sign for neutral. We run a hand across our throat to call for the engine to be shut down.
8. We bring the boat upwind (or up-current, if the current is having a greater impact on nearby boats) toward the chosen spot. In a crowded anchorage we come pretty much under the stern of the boat behind which we intend to anchor. We will fall back from here once the anchor is down.
9. We bring the boat to a stop over the designated spot and note the depth. The anchor is launched with just enough rode to reach the bottom. We either back down slowly or else sit in neutral and allow the wind or current to move the boat’s head off, paying out rode at the same rate as the boat reverses or drifts. This ensures that there will be no pile-up on the bottom, which might foul the anchor. If we are allowing the wind to blow us off, the boat’s head will come around broadside to the wind, and the boat will take off at a tangent. It may also be doing the same in reverse. This is normal.
10. With chain, when we have let out about 3:1 scope, and with nylon at around 5:1, we gently snub up on the rode, using the clutch on the windlass for the chain or the warping drum or a cleat for nylon. The idea is to ease the anchor’s flukes into the bottom as the rode continues to pay out under a little tension.
11. At a scope of 4:1 or 5:1 with chain, and 6:1 or 7:1 with nylon, we snub the rode properly. Assuming the anchor has taken a bite, the boat’s head will almost immediately swing into the wind.
12. Once we have settled down, if there is any question about the quality of the holding (e.g., a weedy or rocky bottom) we brew a cup of tea while we give the anchor time to work its tip into the bottom. We then gradually increase the engine speed in reverse to something over 60% of the rated engine speed (approximately 2,000 rpm on an engine rated to 3,000 rpm) to thoroughly dig in the anchor and test its set. While this is going on, we keep a hand or bare foot on a chain rode.
13. If the anchor is dragging, the rode will alternately tighten and slacken; if it is dragging on rocks or some other hard bottom, it will transmit irregular vibrations up the rode. At the first sign of dragging we go into neutral, pay out a slug of rode (10 to 15 feet) and then gently snub up once again in hopes of teasing the anchor into the bottom. If this fails (which it generally does), and if we have lots of dragging room, we may continue to pull the anchor around for a while, paying out some more rode as we go to see if it will take a bite. If room is restricted, we recover the anchor and we start again, but not before bringing the anchor to the surface to make sure that its flukes are not fouled. In warm, shallow water, if repeated attempts fail to set the anchor, we snorkel down and do it by hand.
14. Assuming the anchor takes a hold, we check the set by finding a range (for example, a house in line with a tree) and watch this while we maintain the engine speed. If the two objects remain in line, the set is good. We shut down the engine. The boat surges forward as the load is taken off the rode before coming back to its final position.
15. If we are lying to a chain rode, we now put on the snubber, pay out some chain, and take a turn with the loose chain around a cleat in case the snubber breaks. If we are lying to a nylon rode, we add chafing gear.
16. If this is not an officially designated anchorage, it may be necessary to hoist into the rigging an appropriate anchoring daymark. The Colregs require a black ball. (Though this rule is almost never enforced in the Americas, it is frequently enforced in Europe.)
17. The final task is to brew another cup of tea and sit in the cockpit or pilothouse while we drink it. This is a ritual that we long ago imposed when cruising with small children to curb their eagerness to get ashore. It gives us time to observe how we are lying in relation to other boats, to check a couple more ranges to ensure that we really are not dragging, and to get comfortable with the situation. If it turns out, for example, that we have miscalculated the turning circles of other boats and we are too close to someone else, we will have to pull up the anchor and start again. The iron rule in anchoring is this: first come, first served.
I plan our exit strategy in case things turn nasty in the night. Nowadays, I retain our inbound track on the chartplotter so that I can follow this back out, or, while things are still calm and it is easy to do, I lay down a revised route to follow.
There are various chartplotter functions and apps that can be set up to alarm if the boat drags. However, if these are based on a turning circle, they need to be activated over the spot where the anchor is dropped and not after the boat has come to rest. Instead, I use a function on my plotter that enables me to set an area limit, as opposed to a turning circle, that keeps us free of any hazards.
Occasionally, you will enter an anchorage with a foul bottom in which the anchor may snag something and prove very hard to retrieve. At such times, it pays to rig a trip line, which is a line from the head (crown) of the anchor, equal to the water depth at high tide, with a float attached to it. Should the anchor get fouled, heaving on the trip line will almost always break it loose.
If a trip line is used, it is attached to the anchor and then thrown out, together with its buoy, immediately before the anchor is let go. To avoid a tangle, you must ensure that the trip line has a fair lead through the bow roller and not around a stanchion.
While some people routinely use trip lines, we almost never do, considering them more trouble than they are worth most of the time. In practice, we have never had an anchor we could not retrieve without a trip line, although we have struggled mightily on a couple of occasions and wished we had one. (And on the one occasion when our rode abraded through and we lost the anchor, we would have been able to recover it with a trip line.) In a crowded anchorage it is sometimes worth adding a trip line and float simply to indicate where the anchor is so that other cruisers do not foul it when anchoring.
Dragging Anchor in Guatemala:
In 1989 we were exploring hot springs a mile or so inland from Lago de Izabal, Guatemala, where our 39-foot sloop Nada was lying to her 45-pound CQR on an all-chain rode in soft mud. Our children were quite young. Without warning, ferocious 40- to 50-knot winds came down off the mountain and a Mayan boy ran up to tell us Nada was blowing offshore. I rushed back to find her half a mile or more off the beach. We had a rowing dinghy, which was no use in those winds. Two guys in a cayuco—a big dugout canoe with a large outboard—offered me a ride. Nada was dragging beam-on to the steep seas that had sprung up, with the leeward side decks awash. The guys tried several times to maneuver alongside and get me on board but failed. Finally, they put me in the bow of the canoe and came at the leeward midships head on. A big wave caught us just as I was trying to jump off the bow. The cayuco went through the lifelines, banging my arm up in the process. (I suspected a fracture but it was just badly bruised.) I landed on the side deck, the cayuco slid off, and they left. I cranked the engine, got the anchor up with our manual Simpson Lawrence Sea Tiger windlass and tried to motor for the shore. But we only had a 30-horsepower engine and it was not powerful enough to get the bow into the wind. After repeated efforts I gave up and put the CQR back down, which continued to drag, and then a 44-pound Danforth, which also dragged, and finally, our heavy bronze fisherman anchor, which eventually stopped us. I had a very rough night on the boat while Terrie had to find someone on shore to take in her and the children. The following morning it all settled down. I got the anchors up and headed for the beach. Terrie and the children were waving excitedly at me just as I drove Nada onto an uncharted rock pile at 6 knots. The guys in the cayuco came back out and dragged me off.A year later we returned with a first-generation GPS unit. I wanted to get a good fix on that rock pile so I could add it to my charts. I found it by running right on top of it and getting stuck once again.
How Much Rode?
The general rule when anchoring is that with chain, the length of the rode (its scope) should be five times the distance from the bow of the boat to the seabed at the highest anticipated tide level. With nylon, the ratio is 7:1. In extreme conditions, these ratios may be increased to 7:1 and 10:1, respectively. In calm conditions they can be reduced, especially if lying to an all-chain rode in relatively deep water.
There are two key pieces of information here that are commonly ignored: the height above the water of the bow and the effect of the tide. Let’s assume the depth sounder is reading the actual depth and not the depth under the keel. We have 15 feet of water. The bow is 6 feet above the water. We are at mid-tide in an area with a 10-foot tide. If using an all-chain rode, in normal circumstances we need to let out 5 × (15 + 6 + 5) = 130 feet of chain; with a nylon rode this increases to 182 feet.
Rodes need marking in some fashion so you can tell, both in the daylight and at night, how much is being let out. However, too many markers can be confusing. Every 25 feet is adequate. With chain, we use colored wire ties. These break off in time, but are easy to replace. What is needed is some easy-to-remember scheme such as (1) red = 25 feet; (2) red = 50 feet; (3) red = 75 feet; (1) white = 100 feet; and so on. Changing the color periodically is useful; if you lose track of what is going on, or a couple of ties are missing, the color change will put you back in the ballpark. There are a variety of markers available for rope rodes.
A Wild Night in Scotland
We powered the length of mountainous Loch Glencoul in Scotland through numerous lobster floats and, with considerable care and a bow watch, picked our way through a narrow rock-strewn channel into Loch Beag. We anchored in flat water at the head of the loch with the wind funneling down the glen in front of us and holding us off the boulder-strewn shoreline. We spent the day exploring the majestic glen and then settled in for a quiet night. It turned pitch black. The wind veered 180 degrees and rose to gale force, driving a heavy rain up the loch. We were swinging uncomfortably close to a dangerous lee shore with nasty seas rapidly building as the wind blasted straight down the 3-mile-long loch. We had to get out in conditions where I could not see the bow of the boat clearly, let alone the numerous hazards that faced us. We booted up the chartplotter, zoomed in on the track saved from the way in, gave a crew member the miserable position of bow watch, positioned Terrie alongside the cockpit to relay messages back and forth, hauled up the anchor, and powered slowly into the short, sharp seas. I kept us glued to our entry track. It carried us through the narrow, twisting passage between the rocks at the mouth of Loch Beag, past all the lobster traps, and back to the head of Loch Glencoul, where once again the wind was coming off the shoreline and we were in calm, protected waters. In the early hours of the morning we re-anchored and took to our beds. Without the exit plan and saved inbound track, we would have been in serious, potentially boat-threatening, trouble.
Setting More Than One Anchor
It is not uncommon to set two anchors, and there are good reasons for doing so, such as in the following circumstances:
• The holding is poor
• A big blow is expected
• To hold the boat off a hazard if the wind shifts
• To keep the boat more or less in one spot
Where the holding is poor or a big blow is expected, the anchors should be set fairly close to one another. I like to place them about 30 degrees apart. The first is set in the usual fashion, and then the boat is motored forward at the appropriate angle until alongside the first anchor, at which point the second is let go. This is easier said than done since it is very hard to judge just where that first anchor is. If you go too far you risk dislodging the first from its set, and if you don’t go far enough, you could end up with too little scope on the second.
I like to use a rope rode on the first anchor (with a length of chain at the anchor) and our chain (primary) rode on the second anchor. As we motor forward to drop the second anchor, I leave the first rode cleated off but pull in the slack by hand and let it pile up on deck, maintaining a little tension on the line. At some point, the rode stops coming in and I have to start letting it out again. I know now that I am more or less alongside the first anchor. What’s more, by maintaining a little tension on the first rode while motoring forward, I ensure that we do not foul it in the propeller.
We keep going forward a little more, letting out the rode to the first anchor to give ourselves some dragging room with the second anchor, and then come to a stop and drop the second anchor. As we fall back, I let the rode to the first anchor run back out, snubbing up the second anchor before the first rode comes taut. This way I can ensure that the second anchor is also well set.
It may be that we are anchored off a beach close enough inshore that if the wind shifts we are going to end up on the beach. In this case, the second anchor will be set in such a way as to hold us off the beach. This may be well out to one side or it may be dead astern.
Retrieving (Weighing) An Anchor
Anchor retrieval is normally straightforward, but whomever is on the wheel will not be able to see which way the rode is lying, so it helps to have someone in the bow giving hand signals. Terrie and I simply point in the direction the rode is lying, moving our hand down to point at the water as the boat comes up over the anchor. The retrieval process then goes something like this:
• If the dinghy is being towed astern, we shorten its painter so it can’t foul the propeller. If the forehatch is open, we close it to clear the decks for action.
• One of us motors slowly forward while the other either stands on the windlass button to retrieve a chain rode or hauls in the slack on a nylon rode, periodically pointing in the direction of the remaining rode. It is important not to overrun the rode, particularly a nylon rode, because then it might foul the propeller or rudder. If necessary, the motor is periodically put in neutral to slow the pace.
• When the rode is more or less in a vertical position, we engage neutral. If it is a nylon rode we are retrieving, then we take a couple of turns around the warping drum on the windlass.
• We motor the boat slowly forward against the direction in which the anchor was set. Most times this will break it loose, at which point we put the engine into neutral while we recover the remaining rode and the anchor. The head of the boat will slowly blow off downwind, causing the anchor to stream away from the boat so that it does not foul the topsides as it breaks the surface of the water.
Frequently, a chain rode comes up extremely muddy. It’s nice to have a wash-down pump to hose down the chain as it comes up to the bow roller. Failing this, most mud will be dislodged before the chain breaks the surface of the water if you periodically stamp up and down on the length of chain between the bow roller and the windlass, causing the chain to jump up and down. If the chain comes out of the water still muddy, you can drop the muddy section down to the waterline and repeat the process. Whatever residual mud ends up on deck should be sluiced down with a bucket of water before it has a chance to dry.
High and Dry in Ireland
We had been exploring Ireland’s wild Atlantic coastline in between hiding from one gale after another. The next gale was on its way. On a rising tide, we motored well up the Ilen River into totally protected waters and dropped anchor in the center of the river. There is a 16-foot tide in this part of the world. From the chart, I could see there would be extremely limited swinging room at low tide. I should have used a Bahamian moor to limit our turning circle but did not. The wind changed direction and swung us out of the channel on a falling tide. Before we had time to respond we were stuck fast. The retreating water eventually left us laid over on our side in a few inches of water. I was able to walk ashore to photograph our predicament. We floated off on the next tide and no harm was done.
If we have two anchors set, we bring in the most awkward first. In our case, this is the one with a nylon rode. We get it stowed and its rode tidied away before bringing in the second anchor. If anchored to a Bahamian moor, you will want to ease out the rode on the anchor that is taking the load until the boat is over the other anchor, which is then recovered. After this, you motor forward to recover the remaining anchor.
Sometimes when lying to two anchors the boat will turn through a circle and twist the rodes together. It is often not easy to disentangle them. It greatly simplifies things if you can undo the bitter end of one rode from the boat and unwind it from the other rode.
What if an anchor doesn’t break loose? Very often, letting a little rode back out and then motoring around in a circle with the rode under tension will dislodge the set. Other times, the anchor has hooked another anchor chain, in which case the anchor will have to be hauled to the surface and the other chain lifted off (taking care not to break the other anchor loose). If necessary, feed a line around the chain that has been fouled and cleat this line. Slack your anchor rode until your anchor falls free of the chain it has fouled, and then release one end of the line you have set to hold up this chain. At this point the chain will drop back to the bottom.
If an anchor won’t break loose and there is any wave action, the rode can be brought to the vertical position and then tightened as the bow drops into the trough of a wave. The next wave crest should jerk the anchor lose. However, note that if the anchor fails to move, you can impart tremendous shock loads to the ground tackle, the bow roller, the windlass, and associated hardware.