Anchoring in 75 knots

Chart plotter data shows track as Far and Away dragged during storm. Bunched lines at right show boat tacking back and forth while under power.
Nico Walsh’s Cabo Rico 34, Far and Away

In the fall of 2018 my wife Ellen and I, in our Cabo Rico 34, Far and Away, headed south from Maine, on the first leg of a cruise down the east coast to the Bahamas. When we were in Albemarle Sound we learned that Hurricane Michael would make landfall on the Florida panhandle, and was forecast to cross our area. 

Chart plotter data shows track as Far and Away dragged during storm. Bunched lines at right show boat tacking back and forth while under power.
Chart plotter data shows track as Far and Away dragged during storm. Bunched lines at right show boat tacking back and forth while under power.

The noted voyager and author Hal Roth writes that when seeking a storm anchorage one should look for a bay inside a bay, and Slade Creek seemed to fit the bill. Slade Creek is an arm of the Pungo River, which is itself an arm of the Pamlico River and Pamlico Sound. The location is a few miles southeast of Belhaven, North Carolina, and about 55 miles west of Cape Hatteras. Where we chose to anchor, the creek is about 500 yards wide and the maximum fetch, which is on a NW to SE axis, is about 3,000 yards. That was such a small fetch that we’d be fully protected from big waves during the passing of the storm. Given that you’ve got your anchor in good holding ground, it’s the waves, not the wind, that make an anchorage untenable. Further, the creek was shallow, so we could be assured of using ample scope on our ground tackle.

We anchored in 10 feet of water and put out 100 feet of 5/16-inch chain on a shock-absorbing bridle. The chart said the bottom was soft which was not optimum. I figured our 20-kilo Vulcan anchor would do the job even in soft bottom, however. (A Vulcan is similar to the Rocna, but without the roll bar.) I considered linking a Danforth to the Vulcan in line, but among other concerns with that technique (the possibility of entanglement, and the theory that one anchor merely digs a furrow for the second anchor), I didn’t want to give up what was then our only spare anchor. For the same reason I did not set a second anchor to the west, the direction to which we could expect the wind to shift later in the storm.

Winds were forecast to reach 60 knots. There was occasional mention of hurricane winds, which I tried not to hear. We took down the jib and stowed it below, took the spinnaker pole off the mast, collapsed the Bimini, lashed everything tight, and settled in for our hurricane party.

Through the day all went well. Winds got up to 45 or so and it was exciting. The anchor and bridle performed perfectly. Winds were from the south, and seas were small.

Around 10 pm the wind suddenly came west and violent gusts commenced, to 60, 70, and then 75 knots by the anemometer. About then our anchor alarm sounded. We were dragging.

My plan for dragging had been to power into the wind, to relieve strain on the anchor. It didn’t work at all — my 35-horsepower diesel couldn’t begin to get the bow into the wind. The boat made wide elliptical swings as we tried to ease the strain by powering up. This resulted in our simply tacking back and forth across the gale, each time a little closer to the flats.

I didn’t veer more chain because I worried that working with the windlass in such violent winds risked serious injury, and because my only heavy bridle was on the chain, irretrievable unless I heaved in 25 feet of chain, probably impossible and certainly dangerous. As I write this, I continue to debate whether I should have cast off the bridle, let out all the chain, and rigged another bridle or line to take the shock of the chain, but my overriding concern was not losing a finger, or a hand, in the wildcat.

Instead, we let go the ready anchor, a 35-pound Danforth, on a nylon rode, and to my surprise it held. We were maybe 200 feet from shoal water. Wow.

The high winds lasted about 90 minutes, during which time I continued to use the engine. My brave wife was on the bow astride the staysail boom, through heavy rain and occasional green water, and giving a blast on her whistle if we were in danger of overrunning the nylon. Voice communications were impossible. Throughout, we both kept our cool, even when the Danforth skipped out of the bottom and allowed us to drag another 50 feet before it grabbed again. That’s a moment I will take to my grave.

Ellen went to bed when the gusts dropped to 40 to 45 (it is astonishing how winds of those speeds can seem moderate) but I was awake until dawn, unwilling to lose the boat because I went to bed too soon. The morning came sunny, with a clean blue sky and a light wind, surreal, as if the whole thing had been a dream. It still seems that way to me.

I did a lot of things right and some things wrong, and in those conditions you need to get almost everything right. Our choice of an anchorage was for the most part excellent: Plenty of swinging (and dragging) room, no other boats to worry about, and not too deep. I would have preferred honest New England shelly mud to that treacherous southern soft bottom, however. 

We prepared the boat well, reducing windage, eliminating the potential for the Yankee to catastrophically unroll, and we lashed all gear tight.

Our ground tackle was good: a 44-pound Vulcan anchor, strong chain, tested shackle stoutly seized with safety wire, and a beefy yet elastic nylon bridle with a long length of spectra cover sewn on against chafe — but the anchor was simply not optimal for that bottom. I believe in a soft bottom an aggressively burying anchor, such as the Danforth or Fortress, is necessary for security in a storm.

I will say this about the Vulcan: that anchor never gave up. According to testing, many anchors, when they shear out of the bottom, tend to skid and not re-set. When that happens they hardly hinder the yacht’s downwind progress. Our Vulcan dragged, but it stayed in the bottom, slowing us sufficiently to get another anchor overboard before we grounded on the mud banks.

Our biggest error was failing, when we first set the hook, to veer all the 225 feet of chain we carry. Aviators say the three most useless things are a runway behind you, sky above, and fuel left sitting on the ground in a tanker truck. For the storm-anchored cruiser with sufficient swinging room, anchor chain left in the locker is in the same category. The ten to one scope we anchored with seemed ample, but apparently it wasn’t, and chain on the bottom itself exerts a strong resistance to dragging. I believe had we veered all our chain when we anchored, the Vulcan would not have dragged.

Our reliance on the engine to address dragging was completely misplaced. In my opinion no normally-powered auxiliary sailboat will find the engine of any real use in hurricane force winds. Your ground tackle may save you. Your engine won’t.

Nico Walsh, a former Coast Guard officer, is an admiralty law attorney living in Freeport, Maine.