Mastering the art of anchoring

A voyager might think that purchasing high-quality anchors, windlasses, and associated ground tackle is the biggest part of mastering the art of anchoring. Nothing could be further from the truth. Hardware choices cannot make you an instant expert, although a person with extensive anchoring experience can make better hardware choices. Expertise in anchoring comes only with learning to use the ground tackle on your boat and practice, practice, practice. Anchoring is an exercise in three-dimensional boat-handling in which the third dimension, obscured underwater, holds the key to success. To further complicate matters, the overall anchoring environment involves uncontrollable wind, wave, and geographic restraints, all of which tend to make marinas popular for those who have not learned the techniques of anchoring. Seamen have been anchoring boats for centuries with the crudest of anchors and almost no knowledge of the nature of the bottom. They became masters of the art through instruction and experience. It is personal skill and deliberation in setting the hook that assures the crew they will sleep well that night. Ugly as that chunk of metal hanging over the bow is, it presents a seamanship challenge equal to any found in boating. Ground tackle state of the art On most voyaging boats, powered windlasses have taken over the job of hauling in the rode when weighing anchor. For modest-size boats there is a strong trend toward vertical windlasses, sometimes called capstans, having a drum for rope on top and a wildcat for chain on the bottom. The wildcat (sometimes referred to as a sprocket) may include a rope groove for handling a spliced rope-to-chain combination rode (more on that later). Electric power is the norm and the electric source is commonly the house battery located aft near the engine. Such a location keeps the weight out of the bow, and power leads are still not too heavy for distances of up to, say, 40 feet. Larger boats may put dedicated windlass batteries in the bow with smaller-sized power leads so that battery(s) and alternator can share the electric load when weighing anchor. This also allows the windlass batteries to be recharged afterwards. Horizontal windlasses with a wildcat on one side and a rope drum on the other have merit for heavy-duty applications, generally using a combination rode with shackled rope-chain connection or an all-chain rode.Windlasses work in a very difficult environment on the foredeck of the boat where they are often subjected to immersion in waternot the greatest environment for precision electromechanical devices. Further, their maintenance seems to be ignored with a sort of out-of-sight, out-of-mind attitude. They should definitely be included in a regular maintenance schedule and kept covered with a well-designed, ventilated canvas cover when not in use. Failure to properly maintain the windlass means that someday you will haul the anchor up by handnot a very happy event on a larger boat.The choice of anchor rode includes two basic options for the voyager: rope or chain. Rope is the lighter, cheaper, and more elastic material for a rode, while chain resists chafe better and is more positive in windlass retrieval. A rode made up of the combination of the two materials generally satisfies the needs for most voyagers. Anchor rode materials have undergone their own technological advances in recent years, making assemblies that are lighter, stronger, and easier to handle. Gaining a strong market foothold is galvanized high-tensile (HT) chain, which has become available at a reasonable price. For all-chain rodes, it offers reduced weight in the bow of the boat and less weight to be handled by the windlass and crew. It is approximately 30% lighter in weight than proof coil (PC) chain for equal strength. To go along with high-test chain, there are high-strength shackles available, mostly from industrial riggers. They are manufactured with greater precision than ordinary marine-grade shackles, giving them improved reliability and a longer lifetime. They also fit better into chain links because of their smaller size for the same strength. The state-of-the-art rope for today’s anchor rodes is still the old standby three-strand nylon, but it is hardly the same nylon material as in past years. Cordage manufacturers have improved on the strength of the material and the consistency of lay-up. Probably more important is that nylon rope used for anchor rodes is now given a special marine coating to both waterproof and lubricate the fibers. Good three-strand nylon rope for anchors costs a bit more than ordinary nylon rope, but it is worth every cent extra when in use. Other rope constructions, such as braids, do not have the elasticity needed for the anchoring job. Plaited rope has almost the elasticity of stranded rope and is more easily handled, and its construction eliminates hockles and kinks, but it is more costly and not as easily spliced. Combination anchor rodes, mostly rope with some chain, are by far the most useful on boats since they combine the benefits of rope with the chafe-resistance of chain. There was always an undesirable aspect to the combination rode, whether or not a windlass was being used: the thimble and shackle needed to connect the rope to the chain. Its bulk prevented it from easy entry into deckpipes, its roughness was hard on soft hands, and a certain hazard existed when transferring the rode from windlass drum to wildcat. Simpson-Lawrence offered a solution to these problems a number of years ago when it introduced the “grooved” wildcat on its windlasses; this feature is now found on most moderate-size windlasses (in a generic sense, windlasses include both vertical and horizontal models). This design allows the wildcat to initially haul in on the rope using the groove followed by the chain passing through the sprocket with no manual handling. Seemingly the best of both worlds, it involves splicing the rope directly to the chain in what can best be called a “splice of convenience.” Cordage manufacturers do not recommend such a splice because it violates some precepts of good cordage usage; but, when made to professional standards and renewed every year to ensure durability, it has been serving well for working anchors. It would not be a good choice for a storm anchor rode (see “Splicing rope to chain,” Issue No. 92, Sept./Oct. 1998). Along with improvements in windlasses and rode design have come new anchor designs. They are the Spade and the Bulwagga anchors, which at this early date have all the elements of winners. The French Spade anchor, tested in sand by the manufacturer and later by Practical Sailor magazine, yielded very promising resultsbetter holding power in sand than its contemporaries and stable when under dragging overload. The theory of the designa chisel profile, a concave holding surface, and a heavy tip weight for stabilitysuggests the design is very practical. Early reports from voyaging boats verify its performance. Holding power tests in a mud seabed have not yet been conducted. The American-invented Bulwagga anchor, designed originally as a weed anchor, also displayed exceptional setting and holding power abilities in the Practical Sailor tests. It would appear to be a top candidate for anchoring in sand supporting dense weed growth, a common setting deterrent to most anchors. Critical issues in anchor deployment The anchoring environment is all-critical to anchoring success. While the arriving skipper may choose a location to drop his hook based on space between adjacent boats and the shoreline, there is much more to it than that. Protection from wind and wave, an escape route, water depth, and nature of the seabed are all potential factors in successful anchoring. Most anchoring takes place in bights because small, enclosed bays in populated areas are already taken up with marinas or moorings. A prudent skipper will assure himself that the bight offers protection from wind and wave and provides an escape route should the wind become stronger and/or its direction change. Dense pack anchoring, so common to holiday boating near urban areas, can be an invitation to disaster, such as the Cabo San Lucas event of 1982 when 22 boats were lost in a vicious, quick-forming onshore gale. Such situations should be judiciously avoided. Seabeds influence both the anchor and rode selection. The two principal characteristics of the seabed are its depth where you hope to set the anchor and its usually hidden surface characteristics into which you expect to set the anchor. Determining the depth is no great problem as it can be quickly done using chart or cruising guide information and then verified by taking soundings electronically or with a lead-line. Assessing the characteristics of the seabed surface is the difficult thing to do. While charts can give you a gross picture of the seabed, they really only describe its unseen surface and not the underlying strata into which the anchor may penetrate as it digs in. A case in point is my own experience with anchoring inshore in Lahaina Roads, Maui, Hawaii. There the seabed surface checks out as coral sand, but a foot or two underneath lies a smooth volcanic basaltic flow. In prevailing winds the overlying sand is adequate; in other winds, however, it will not hold your anchor, much less your boat. The passage of time can also change the character of the seabed surface, especially in the vicinity of river outflow and coastline areas where significant currents exist. These may have scoured the historic (charted) deposits away and replaced them with new deposits of possibly different materials. Local knowledge can be of great help here, as can a visual inspection made by diving on the location. Determining the competency of the seabed surface is a challenge to anchoring seamanship, but is essential to safe and easy anchoring.A boat should be equipped with at least two anchors for coastal voyaging and four for blue-water voyaging, each anchor of different qualities so that the skipper will have a choice in selecting the one best suited to the studied characteristics of the seabed. No one anchor is going to work its best in all seabeds, but some, on average, do better than others. There is no piece of gear on a boat, power or sail, that brings such emotional crossfire to discussions as does anchor selection. The marketplace offers a wide variety of anchor designs with claims suggesting that each one is the best. But there are no magic bullets for most anchoring situations, only reasonable anchor designs in need of good seamanship. They fall into categories of hooking and burying anchors, according to whether their main mission is simply to hook onto a rock or to bury themselves into alluvium, the latter being the most common seabed materials deposited from rivers and other land washes. The strategic choice when carrying only two anchors, as for local or coastal sailing, is to have two burying designs, one of which is also known for an ancillary hooking capability. The choice becomes wider when one carries four anchors as for blue-water voyaging: a large burying design for a storm anchor; two smaller burying designs for working anchors (the second would be a replacement should the first be lost and could be carried disassembled); and finally a utility design that can penetrate weeds, hook on rocks, and has some ability to hold in sand/clay. The utility anchor has value should you be faced with kedging or having to make a hammerlock moor. All anchors should have their own rodes.Making a good anchor set Setting the anchor is the ultimate in anchor seamanship, and it is here that practice pays off. A good seaman will get the most out of his or her ground tackle by careful attention to setting whichever one of the anchors is deemed most appropriate for the location. The boat should be brought to a stop slightly ahead of the point where the skipper wants the anchor to set. Simultaneously, the anchor is lowered as the boat is slowly backed down under power or by drifting. Moving back too fast may cause pivoting fluke anchors (Danforth, Fortress, et al.) to kite, avoiding clean contact with the seabed. When the anchor contacts the seabed, the rode should be payed out as fast as the boat moves so that it is strung along the bottom without fouling itself or imposing its will on the anchor. When a scope of about three is reached, the rode should be lightly snubbed, teasing the anchor’s bill(s) into the seabed. Although the anchor may not have been aligned perfectly when it touched the seabed, this light snubbing will bring it into alignment with the rode hanging from the boat. Continue moving aft until a scope of about five is reached, at which time the boat should be stopped by snubbing up firmly on the anchor rode. On an engineless boat, the boat is simply allowed to hang on its hook, and as the wind tries to push the boat back the anchor will be set more firmly with time. On a powered vessel, the engine should be put in reverse and the engine revved, taking all slack out of the rode. To determine whether an anchor is holding or not, feel the rode with your hand or a bare foot while backing into the set. If it feels soft or slack, there is no set. If it is taut, but you can feel irregular vibrations, the anchor is dragging. If no erratic vibrations are present and you are sure that the anchor has taken hold, back down until you have laid out the desired scope. At this point you can finish your “power set” with high reverse rpm, and then shut down the engine. The anchor, however, has not finished its own setting. This takes place over a period of time. As the boat horses about its anchor, the alternate tugging and slackening of the rode will normally cause the anchor to wiggle its way farther into the sea bed for a better grip. Final steps to a seamanlike anchoring exercise:· Cleat off the rode to a Samson post or large cleat, thereby taking the load off the windlass · Apply chafing gear to the nylon rode or install a riding stopper on the chain rode · Clean up the foredeck· Take position bearings on distinctive land objects to track any movement of the boat afterwards· Hoist a proper day mark or night light in the rigging to announce that you are anchored· If the weather is forecast to change significantly or is already worsening, maintain an anchor watch.

By Ocean Navigator