March 13, 2011

The art of anchoring

ALMOST EVERY TIME I’ve wandered into the beautiful anchorages of the San Juan Islands the same thing has happened. It’s kick-back time in the cockpit. The ice is tinkling merrily in my glass, the sun is spreading glorious color all over the western horizon and there are pleasant sounds of supper preparation coming from the galley. It’s bliss.

And then there’s that dreaded sound, the pocketa-pocketa-pocketa of a diesel engine. Some boat full of happy idiots has just arrived and is frantically looking for a space to anchor before nightfall. Oh god, they’re looking my way. Oh god, they’re going to drop their 5-pound mushroom anchor right in front of me.

Lord help me. Shall I glower at them and make a fuss and wave them off now, or wait until the middle of the night when they actually drag down onto me? Either way, my blood pressure is up and my heart rate is skyrocketing. The evening is ruined.

It’s little wonder that the sailors’ bulletin boards are always filled with discussions about anchoring. You’ll notice that people have very strong views about which anchors are best. They will also produce very scientific reasons for their views.

I tend to shy away from those discussions because anchoring is not a precise science. It’s an art. It’s an art that comes naturally to some lucky people and it’s an art that has to be learned, often the hard way, by the rest of us.

Hardly any two “official” tests of anchors have come up with the same results because none of the factors affecting an anchor’s efficiency are the same. There are some simple rules of thumb concerning the weight of a suitable anchor, the composition of its rode, and the amount of scope needed. But after that, you’re on your own.

For example, if you’re a wise anchorer, upon entering an anchorage, you have a good, slow, look around. You take your time and watch the depths. You see how the others are anchored. Do they all have one line ashore? Two anchors out? All-chain, or nylon? How are they lying in relation to the wind? Is the current holding them against the wind? Can you estimate where their anchors are lying by looking at their rodes as they fall away from their bows? Can you estimate distance well enough to see if you’ll clear them when you swing in a circle? Can you see the spot where you want to drop your anchor? Are you prepared to reassure someone who complains you’re dropping your anchor right on his stern?

As with any other art, your background knowledge will show when it comes to selecting and dropping an anchor in the right place. For instance, you will know, by instinct, by experience, or by study, that an anchor’s effectiveness depends on:

--The firmness of bottom and the amount of debris down there.

--The ease of penetration.

--The weight of the anchor.

--Its ability to reset itself without fouling.

--The surface area of the anchor.

--The amount of scope provided now, and for higher tides.

--The angle of pull on the anchor and how to change it.

--Your ability to detect dragging.

--The makeup of the rode.

--When two anchors are used, if they should be set in a V or in series.

--And so on.

There’s more, plenty more, but this should demonstrate why anchoring is a difference experience every time. It’s a dark art, a sixth sense laced with cunning and boldness and a readiness to try again, maybe with a different anchor, if it doesn’t work the first time.

A large proportion of world cruisers depend mainly on three or four rather old-fashioned types of anchors, chosen not because they have scored top marks in the latest tests for one particular type of bottom, but because they work reasonably well in a reasonably wide variety of bottoms. Among them are the CQR, the genuine Bruce, the Delta, the Danforth and the Luke or Herreshoff. But in the end you have to remember that no anchor is best for all bottoms and it’s a wise anchorer who checks the chart to see what the bottom consists of before he commits an anchor to it.

Today’s Thought
In all things, success depends on previous preparation, and without such preparation there is sure to be failure.
— Confucius, Analects

Boaters’ Rules of Thumb, #171
Some of the rules of the road at sea are known as “overriding rules.” They override all other rules. For instance, Rule 13 says that the overtaking vessel shall keep clear. That overrides the rule that says power gives way to sail. If you, in a sailboat, under sail power only, start to overtake a powerboat, it’s your duty to keep clear.

“A cat burglar robbed my place last night.”
“How you do know it was a car burglar?”
“He only stole the parakeet, a can of tuna, and a pint of milk.”

(Drop by every Monday, Wednesday, Friday, for a new Mainly about Boats column.)


Aaron Headly said...


"The cat was missing"

"Oh, a catnap"

Micky-T said...

On my 30' full keeled boat, I cut the variables of anchoring by having a 35# CQR with 30' 3/8 chain and rode as my main anchor. Overkill? Yes, but I slept well!

My back-ups were a 20# fisherman and a 20# folding grapnel. I managed well with the fisherman as a second anchor when needed, but never even needed the grapnel.

The only time I ever used the grapnel was to recover my CQR in Cape May, New Jersey after a drunk driver ran over my rode and parted my CQR at 4:30 AM. Dragging the grapnel with an inflatable soft bottom Avon with oars only (that's right) I managed to retrieve my chain and anchor. I must have looked pretty silly working so hard springing back and forth on that grapnel.....but you should of seen me shouting "YES, YES" when I pulled up my chain. (the drunk just disappeared in the night)