A crowded anchorage

Once in a great while, we find ourselves trying to anchor under the most challenging of circumstances. Perhaps you have tried dropping the hook in soft sand on the west side of the Gulf of Suez during a sustained 50-knot gale. Or audibly detected the anchor going “clunk” on the flat rock “anchorage,” for lack of a better word, at Isla Santa Cruz in the Galapagos.


While those are definitely close competitors, one very tough situation is anchoring bow to the swell with the wind blowing at a right angle across the deck. This unusual situation can occur in an anchorage where the wind passes through a canyon or narrow pass, altering the local wind direction from the prevailing direction in that area.

We could anchor directly into the wind, but on a small vessel, the rocking motion can be quite unnerving. When you see a mast swinging wildly like a metronome in an anchorage, you can bet the crew down below are not having a good time. Plates of food fly from the saloon table, open wine bottles tumble over, and expletives fill the cabin, adding to the chaos and cacophony. 

Anchoring bow to the swell with a crosswind will greatly reduce or totally stop the penduluming, offering crew a quieter, more peaceful stay at anchor. Following the necessary procedures can be challenging in a small anchorage, but with a set of common-sense procedures and a bit of practice, you should be able to anchor successfully as long as there is sufficient room.

By the way, if your vessel has a fin keel and a bow thruster, your technique will differ fundamentally from the steps offered here. You will have your own challenges setting a bow and stern anchor, but you can do everything from the deck of your vessel without the use of a dinghy, which is required for traditional bow-and-stern anchoring.

Setting the bow anchor
The first, most critically important step in anchoring is selecting the spot to drop the bow anchor. When anchoring in a crosswind, your goal is to point at a more or less 90-degree angle into the swell while temporarily allowing swing room for the crosswind. Your depth sounder will tell you how much chain or rode you will need to pay out for the bow anchor, with a three-to-one ratio being the absolute minimum.

Naturally, a physical obstacle downwind of the vessel makes this procedure all the more challenging. Such an obstacle could be another vessel, a coral or stone reef, or worse, a cliff armed with sharp, protruding rocks ready to attack the hull like cutlass-waving pirates.

Drop the bow anchor at your selected spot, allowing for a bit of hull drift, depending on wind speed. If possible, pay out a bit less chain than you actually plan to use, perhaps slightly more than a two-to-one ratio. Naturally, wind speed, tidal current and seabed conformation will dictate how much chain you need initially. 

After setting the anchor, spend a few minutes observing the boat’s position. If you detect anchor drag, either pay out more chain or reset it a little farther upwind. When you set off in your dinghy with the stern anchor, you need to be assured of your main vessel’s safety, plus the safety of surrounding boats as well.

Setting the stern anchor
Before initiating the process of setting the stern anchor, make a visual plan of precisely where you intend to place it. Ideally, you should use approximately the same length of rode as with the bow anchor. However, because the chain, nylon rode and stern anchor are probably lighter than the bow anchor tackle, I often pay out more rode for the stern anchor than for the bow hook. This is all well and good until the wind changes direction, putting the main vessel on a slightly diagonal anchoring patter prop is almost guaranteed. You can mount the outboard to the dinghy’s transom after you have completed the entire anchoring process.

Once you have reached your anchoring spot, double-check to ensure there are no obvious obstructions, such as large rocks or a complicated coral head that could make anchor retrieval difficult when you prepare to leave the anchorage. Inspect the water carefully, checking for kelp, abandoned fishing nets, cables and so forth, which could make anchor retrieval extremely complicated.

If you are setting the stern anchor in shallow water, or on the beach, consider the potential for anchor theft by local villagers. In developing countries, the rule is, “You snooze, you lose.” As you can imagine, a lightweight Danforth anchor is worth its weight in gold in a poor fishing village.

Drop the stern anchor off the transom and start rowing back toward the main vessel. Once back aboard the mother ship, you can proceed to the final step, fine-tuning the anchoring arrangement.

Final adjustments
At the bow of your main vessel, pay out more chain, making sure you have at least a three-to-one chain-to-depth ratio; five-to-one is ideal. Avoid making the mistake of paying out an excessive length of chain, particularly in a crowded anchorage. It’s helpful to have markers on the chain and rode indicating depth. You can find color-coded plastic anchor line markers with printed depths either online or at your local chandlery. 

After paying out sufficient bow anchor chain, proceed to the stern and start hauling up excess rode. During this process, stop occasionally to check the position of the hull with respect to other vessels, natural obstructions and the oncoming swell.

Ideally, when you study the rode pattern from amidships, each anchor rode should extend at least 15 degrees from the keel line at high tide and no more than 30 degrees at low tide. These are rough approximations, but the idea is to avoid straining the anchor rode and deck cleats. In rare cases, too much rode tension at bow and stern can cause damage to deck gear or the rode itself. Always allow for a bit of slack just to be on the safe side.

Also check your vessel’s position with relation to other vessels in the anchorage. All vessels should be shifting more or less equally with wind changes, assuming all vessels are anchored in a similar manner. If your vessel is taking up more than an equitable amount of space in its six-sided polygon, pull up enough bow and stern rode to allow other vessels their fair share of space.

Make sure you’re not using the windlass or chain stopper as a cleat for the anchor chain. Always use a snubber to secure the chain to a cleat in order to protect the integrity of the deck structure. Even if the windlass could survive extreme shocks under freak waves roving through the anchorage, the noise reverberating below decks would be deafening. A snubber made of three-strand nylon rode and a chain hook connecting the anchor chain to a deck cleat will help you enjoy a well-deserved sleep after the day’s toil has concluded.

Keeping an anchor watch
The age-old practice of maintaining an anchor watch is even more critically important when the vessel is secured in a non-conventional manner –– in this case, fore-and-aft anchoring. While your boat lies at anchor, particularly at night, you should have some system in place for monitoring your position over the ground. The traditional method is to assign crewmembers to take turns standing watch 24 hours a day. If you are singlehanded, this practice is impossible. With one extra crewmember, this is doable but still difficult.

Most GPS and chartplotter systems include an anchor warning, which is easy to set. What’s more, you can sync two smartphones, one left on the vessel to receive anchor warnings, the other to inform you while you’re ashore. On the other hand, if you receive an anchor warning while kicking back at the local watering hole quaffing margaritas, you might not have time to return to the boat in order to rectify the situation. Again, when in doubt, keep someone onboard at all times to stand anchor watch.

If the entire crew simply must be ashore at the same time, which is often the case, your floating castle is obviously left to the prevailing forces surrounding her. So the next best method is to inform crews of vessels immediately surrounding yours that you are going ashore for a while, leaving the vessel unattended. Leave your cell phone number with other vessels’ crew, or agree to monitor the handheld VHF radio on channel 16 in case of an emergency. For all other traffic, you may use channel 68, 69, 71, or 72, which are frequently used by recreational boaters.


Retrieving the anchors
When it comes time to weigh anchor and get underway, reverse the steps you followed in setting the anchors. Incidentally, the best time in most locations for raising the hook is early to mid-morning, say 0900, right after breakfast. In most of the world’s anchorages, light winds blow from shortly after midnight to around noon. 

First, start cranking up the bow rode until there is no more than a three-to-one ratio with the water’s depth, which may be higher or lower than initially, depending on the tide. Check the depth sounder just to make sure. If you feel it’s safe, take the rode to 2.5 times the depth.

Next, start letting out the stern anchor rode until you come to the eye splice at the bitter end, which you will place over a deck winch or cleat as you did before. Stand back and study the position of the boat with relation to other boats and land-based obstructions. In a morning calm, your boat undoubtedly will move toward the bow anchor, being pulled by the sheer weight of the anchor chain.

After verifying the boat is clear of potential obstructions, get in the dinghy and then carefully grasp the stern rode and fasten it to something secure. Since I use an inflatable, which has no secure cleats or holding points, I put my foot through the eye splice and raise the loop to my knee.

When you are clear of the main vessel, rather than rowing to the anchor, start pulling in the rode until the line is vertical when pulled tightly. The stern hook, more than likely a folding Danforth-like anchor, will be snugly embedded in the sand or mud. Without straining yourself too much, pull up harder on the chain and then hold the links down against the transom top for a moment to let the bouncing of the dinghy gradually pull the hook from the sea bed. Caveat: this may take a while, which is one of the reasons you woke up early. The idea is to avoid straining your back, which probably wouldn’t help anyhow.

By using the bouncing transom as your windlass, the anchor should eventually free itself with little trouble. After you pull the anchor free, raise and lower it a few times, bouncing back and forth in the dink in order to wash away sand and mud. When you return to the mother ship, you will have little time for sponging mud, bugs and tiny sand crabs from the dinghy. 

Once you and the stern anchor tackle are safely aboard the main vessel, raise the bow anchor, secure it to its roller and motor out of the anchorage to a clearing where you can pull up the dinghy and secure it to the foredeck. All of this sounds rather simple, but in reality it takes time to practice these procedures. And of course, every anchorage where the prevailing wind and swell are at right angles to each other will pose its own set of challenges.

Anchoring etiquette and local practice
One obvious set of potential problems I have left for last are those involving local tradition and legal ramifications. To start, there are few if any anchoring restrictions on a lone vessel in any given anchorage, anywhere in the world. The universal practice is first come, first served. Furthermore, if you are a newcomer on the first boat in the anchorage, common sense dictates you have the right to establish how all other boats will set their anchors. Of course, there may very well be written rules regarding anchoring, and after you have been apprised of such rules, following local laws or customs is always the best policy.

Imagine entering an anchorage where there are two boats already anchored, one using only a bow anchor and the other moored bow and stern. This is where things can get dicey, with fists pumping the air. If you and other local skippers have been anchoring one particular way in this cove for over 20 years, then perhaps a brief talk with the newcomer is in order. If a kind explanation of local unwritten rules does not work, anchor the way you are accustomed, and keep a good anchor watch.

In a small cove with several boats anchored fore and aft, skippers must contend with twice the number of anchor chains and rodes, potentially forming a tangled spider web leading to considerable headache. More than once, I have gone out in the dinghy to haul up the stern anchor only to bring up another boat’s anchor rode with my ground tackle. 

In closing, if you have a serious grievance against another skipper and are unable to resolve the problem to the satisfaction of both parties, your only alternatives are to concede the argument and leave or call port police on the VHF and invite them to intercede in the matter. In all likelihood, though, the police will remand the matter back to both skippers. If all else fails, find another anchorage. Sometimes we have to remind ourselves we are out there to have fun. So let’s have fun! n

Bill Morris circumnavigated in his Cal 30 Saltaire. He is the author of The Captain’s Guide to Alternative Energy Afloat (Seaworthy Publications, 2019)

By Ocean Navigator