Anchoring reflections

After more than a quarter century of blue-water voyaging, I have proven – too many times – two axioms of boating. First, there are two types of sailors: those who have run aground and those who will. The corollary is that there are two types of sailors: those who have had anchors drag, and those who will. The second statement happens to all of us who anchor, and it will continue to do so as long as we swing on hooks.

One dragging experience that sticks in my mind is when I first sailed to Papeete, Tahiti, in 1972. I didn’t know anything about entering foreign ports, and all I had in my possession was an old copy of the South Pacific Sailings. It stated that, when entering Papeete, the vessel should stand outside the harbor entrance until a port pilot came aboard. I didn’t know that it was written only for large, commercial vessels, so I waited for a pilot, who, surprisingly, came aboard and powered us into the yacht basin. Still moving at about five knots and heading directly at the shore, he told me to drop the anchor. I did as he said; he pulled the gearshift into neutral, told me to snub the chain, and Havaiki did a 180 degrees turn and stopped with the stern about 30 feet from the shore. I rowed a stern line ashore and we were set – or so I thought. Five days later the wind picked up while we were out exploring the island, and when we returned to the yacht I noticed that we had moved somewhat, although some of our neighbors had been kind enough to put one of our other anchors out for us. Who would have thought that an anchor, obviously buried as deeply as ours was, could have dragged?

At first light I rowed our dinghy out to retrieve the anchor and found out why. It was almost impossible for me to haul in our 35-pound CQR as it had snagged on an old 150-pound fisherman’s anchor that had been on the bottom for who knows how long. The stock on the fisherman had not be pinned properly, so the anchor was lying flat on the bottom. When the wind came up off the beam, everything just dragged along through the mud.

One would think that it would be simple to design an anchor, but when we look at the way modern anchors have evolved, we can see that there are many factors involved. We all want a “do everything” anchor that will hold in any situation, but let’s look at some of the bottoms the anchor has to deal with. First there is sand. But how deep is it? There are many places where you will find no more than three or four inches of sand over a hard coral bottom. I have yet to find an anchor that will hold in that situation. You will be all right in shallow water with between seven- and 10-to-one scope – provided that there are no winds or swells – but you would certainly want to move to a more secure holding ground should the winds or swells pick up. Once the sand deepens to 18 inches or more you will be in better shape, and most anchors will dig in and hold, but you must ask yourself if the anchor will reset itself if the winds shift.

A coral- or rock-strewn bottom will present you with different problems. If a fluke catches a stone or piece of coral that fills the gap between the fluke and shank, preventing the anchor from digging in, the anchor will skate along the bottom. I had that happen to me while anchored in Cook’s Bay, Moorea. Everything was fine during the daytime, but the wind picked up after dark and we dragged back some two or three hundred yards. It was embarrassing, but fortunately no damage was done.

The other problem with anchoring in coral or rocks is getting so well-set that the flukes can’t break out when you’re ready to leave. I have met voyagers who have had to cut themselves free when they couldn’t even get loose by diving on the anchor.

Mud presents us with another problem. If the mud is thin, such as is found near the mouths of streams, it’s almost as hard to get an anchor to set well as it is in shallow sand. A double-point, Danforth-type anchor is the best bet in those conditions, especially if the anchor has a “mud” position. In clay-like mud, on the other hand, although the double-point is still the better type, almost any anchor will work if you have enough time to sit with some slack in your rode so the anchor will bury itself deeper. The only problem you will have then is breaking it out when you’re ready to leave.

The last anchoring situation – and one I cannot speak authoritatively on – is a grass or kelp bottom. Most voyagers I have spoken with on the matter tell me that single-point anchors such as CQRs tend to work better than double-points. They feel this is due to the fact that these anchors are usually heavier and manage to dig through the grass easier.

Most voyagers will carry a number of anchors. These will vary in size and in type, from a small, dinghy lunch hook to very large storm anchors. Let’s take a look at what seems to work best in the various conditions mentioned earlier. As there are new anchors being designed almost annually, I will break them down into two basic types: single-point and double-point. Although you will still see some fisherman and other folding stock-type anchors on voyaging boats, they are few and far between due to the following reasons: they are usually larger and more complicated than more modern anchors, requiring some sort of assembly (as simple as it is) before they can be deployed; they take up more room to store; and they are prone to one serious flaw – they can foul too easily when the yacht swings around as the wind or tide changes. When this happens the rode can wrap around the fluke that is standing up, pulling the holding fluke out, which in many cases renders the anchor useless.

Single-point anchors, which include CQR, Bruce, Delta, and a few others, stow very easily at the bow of the yacht, usually on a roller. In this position they are ready for instant deployment, and although they have a difficult time setting in thin mud they will hold you temporarily until you can get another anchor over the side and set.

The double-point (fluke) anchor (Danforth, Fortress, and others) is the best choice for soft mud, and most cruising yachts carry at least one and sometimes more of this type. Whether they are used as the primary bow anchor or a stern lunch hook depends on the types of bottoms one will expect to encounter. Those cruising rivers and muddy coastlines will usually have a Danforth or Fortress as their primary anchor. Those voyaging sandy areas, such as the North and South Pacific Islands, will normally have a CQR/Bruce/Delta up front.

An article on anchors wouldn’t be complete if we didn’t also discuss the rode. We all learn, from our beginning sailing classes, that some chain is required at the anchor end of any rode. This is used to help keep the shank parallel to the bottom, enabling the anchor to dig in and hold easier. The size and length of the chain depends on a number of factors, not the least of which is the weight that you will have to bring back on board when weighing anchor. The usual length of chain is from 12 to 15 feet.

If you are planning on anchoring in areas where coral will be encountered, the best way to go is all chain as rope rode is very dangerous around coral heads. It doesn’t take much for rope to chafe through when it rubs against a sharp coral head.

On our last yacht, the 59-foot Havaiki, a steel, ketch-rigged motorsailer that weighed 35 tons, we carried five anchors. Our main anchor was a 100-pound CQR with 300 feet of 7/16-inch chain. This anchor was on a bow roller and stowed on the bow pulpit. The port bow anchor was a 75-pound CQR with 150-feet of 3/8-chain and 150-feet of nylon rode. I only deployed them both at the same time once in more than 35,000 miles of cruising that yacht. It was in Pago Pago, American Samoa, when we were expecting a tropical storm to come through. We set them both out at 90-degrees to each other and felt very comfortable throughout the night. If the forecast were for a hurricane, we would have added our storm anchor, a 125-pound CQR. That would have been shackled ahead of the 100-pound CQR with an additional 50 feet of 7/16 chain. Pago Pago harbor had one other bottom problem I never encountered before or since: plastic garbage sacks. We have never had such a hard time getting an anchor to grab. Each time we would bring the hook up to reset it, we found that it was fouled with plastic.

Our other two anchors were 35-pound Fortresses that were secured one on each side of the stern pushpit. One of these was always at the ready, with 15 feet of 3/8-inch chain and 250 feet of nylon rode. The rode was coiled into a 5-gallon paint bucket on the stern, and the chain was carried in the dinghy that hung off davits. It took less then two minutes to release the lashings and drop the anchor overboard. We kept a separate 200-foot, 3/8-inch chain rode, as well as a chain/rope rode in a cockpit locker for the second anchor to be used as conditions dictated.

Those lightweight anchors were great in securing us in mud throughout the Sacramento Delta, as well as when we Tahiti-moored in Papeete. We secured bow to the quay in order to step ashore off the bow pulpit, and they held in spite of some strong cross winds and large swells generated by the inter-island ferry boats. We also used them when forced to set both bow and stern anchors in crowded bays or when we didn’t want to swing to the tides.

On that first cruise to French Polynesia those 25-plus years ago, we lost an anchor in Taiohae Bay on the island of Nuku Hiva in the Marquesas Islands. How did we lose it? Skipper error. The clevis pin in the shackle worked loose because I had failed to secure it. Fortunately, it caused no damage, and we had a spare. Since then I have always carried a spool of stainless steel wire with me, and all clevis pins are secured with it. As an additional precaution, I also peen the end of the clevis pin with a center punch.

It is very helpful to mark your anchor rode so you know how much is out. There are numerous ways of doing that. Yarn, cloth, or even short lengths of small line can be bent into the rope rode at specific distances; I like to place one every 50 feet. With chain it’s a little different. You can paint clean chain. Some people use a different color or different combination of colors every 50 or 60 feet. Because paint wears off with use, I like to add different colors of polypropylene line as well. I take different colors of three-strand, 1/4-inch line and unlay a few feet of the three strands. Then I simply bend one of the strands through the chain. This still allows the chain to run easily in and out through the windlass and lasts for years.

Finally, what is the best method to set an anchor? Well, one thing is for sure: you don’t drop it while moving along at five knots as the harbor pilot instructed me to do in Papeete. Once your anchor is ready, bring your yacht into the wind and/or current, and allow it to come to a stop. Lower the anchor until it bottoms and let out about three- or four-to-one scope depending on the type of rode, depth of water, bottom makeup, and wind and swell conditions. Secure the rode and wait until the wind or current causes the rode to become taut. Put the transmission in reverse and back down, slowly bringing the engine up to full throttle. If the yacht holds its position, throttle down and let out more scope until you end up with about five-to-one scope or more. If the water is clear and shallow enough, grab your snorkel and mask and go for a swim to visually check that it’s dug in well.

Only then can you climb back into the cockpit to enjoy the sunset with a sundowner, although you can’t pat yourself on the back for a job well done until you’re ready to leave and find out that you haven’t dragged.

By Ocean Navigator