No drama anchor recovery

By Daniel Carrigan

Ron Svoboda photo

It was a relatively benign morning. Glassy water. Light wind tickling the burgee at sunrise. A boat here and a boat there in the anchorage. Yet it was the setting for another lesson in anchoring.

The nice sloop that had anchored almost too close to my ketch, Teloa II, a Wells 34 design, the afternoon before, upwind, was now behind me and closer. Then it had been blowing fresh from the west. But the fitful breeze now was from the east.

When the wind veered overnight they were stern to, and closer by a boat length. I’d risen early as usual to take advantage of calm conditions and to up-anchor, to get an early start on the day.

There was a nice lady on her foredeck and I waved at her from my cockpit — a mere few yards away. She waved back.

“Our batteries are dead. The motor won’t start,” she said.

“Oh that’s okay. I’m leaving anyway.”

“He’s going to get the battery from the dinghy. We also have Seatow.”

“Good idea. Let me know if I can help.” Time for another coffee.

I put down my hot fresh coffee and started my cold old engine, went forward to the windlass to up some chain and remove the snubs. When most of the chain was drawn into the ship the windlass stopped.

Never try to run the windlass if it stops. There could be a simple reason.

I went back to the helm and nudged the throttle forward a bit to make way and ease out the anchor in case it was really stuck. The anchor won’t come up if you approach it the wrong way.

Back at the bow of my ketch and I tried again. Nothing. The wind had veered east 180 degrees while the anchor was still set towards the west and was still well dug in from that fresh breeze. That was my synopsis. I went back to the cockpit and looked at the nice lady and sipped some coffee.

“We’re stuck,” she said. “The anchor won’t come up.”

“Me too. I’m going to swing my boat around and try from the other direction,” I replied.

Slowly I geared and guided the boat around clockwise, pivoting on the anchor point until the two bows were facing each other, separated by less than one length.

I gently pushed the throttle for a second and then quickly eased off, went forward and tried the windlass for the third time. My windlass is a bulbous old thing, a period piece even. I’ve had it rebuilt and modified, and had to repair several times on my own. I’ve changed the solenoid (twice), and also invented a temporary hand-held roving switch after the foot-button perished while bobbing away at Catalina Island (after plenty of stomping!).

That temporary gizmo, made from an old ceramic horn button with a tiny rubber boot, still works great. I have a small chache of spare parts and tools for this kind of event and you should too.

The windlass worked and soon the chain finished returning home and the anchor was up. Next, as if I did this every day, I sauntered aft and casually glided the ship around the other boat, slowing broadside. Ahem. Of course, anybody could do this and everything is easy when you know what to do. This was about as undramatic as boating can be.

But if you aren’t so experienced, and you wake up and your engine won’t turn over at first and then your anchor won’t come up, well this could be a bit of a buzz kill, a damper on such a fine morning. Bad days begin like that. I smiled at the group, maybe even yawned.

“We’re going to do exactly what you just did,” said one of the two guys at the helm.

“ Cool. Have a great day,” I cried, turned and chugged off into the distance. Later, looking back there, they were already gone so it all worked out.

So this was no cliff hanger, no busting out salty old-school chops or high tech gear or McGuyvered “temporary” parts. No white-knuckling it or “Owies!” big or small. No drama.

It is actually quite common for people to anchor over someone else’s anchor and sometimes I’ll say something, sometimes not. Clearly it’s not the kind of thing one does on purpose. It’s also common to have difficulties pulling up your anchor. I’ve even been stuck on wrecks and sewer outfalls. Remember it’s an anchor; it’s built to hook on stuff.

Sometimes a few days and a few tides later you can actually get free naturally but sometimes you need a diver. Incidentally: if you don’t dive yourself always know a diver and be very nice to him.

When you realize you’re fouled on something immovable on the bottom and at sea, make sure that you don’t keep your rode choked up: let some slack out because as the swells go by your bow will get pulled down especially as the tide comes up. If the swells are big enough it can break your chain and/or cause other damage.

I saw some nice large motor-yachts rafted together once. They got all tangled together. Boats can bang each other up quickly and it’s no fun to be stranded when the weather turns foul. No one wants to be stuck on a banging boat well out to sea. They had to get a diver to go down and undo all the tangled chain. This took half a day. Party over.

Sometimes you have to let the anchor and chain and everything go in order to get out of a bad anchoring situation. It might be your only solution and it’s better than losing your boat or maybe more. This is an unsettling concept as you are effectively throwing away thousands of dollars into the bottom of the ocean.

More than once I’ve grappled in small open boats and recovered my jettisoned ground tackle. This can take a few days and requires steady purpose and patience along with some good muscle to get it back. That’s what your strong buddies are for. But it can be done. Wait for clear weather and low tides. Don’t use a small dinghy if there is a lot of heavy chain and a big anchor to recover. You’ll need, like in Jaws, a bigger boat.

If you have to dump and run — frequently done after midnight and in a storm — rig up a visible and large buoy with an easily gripped haul line. You’d be amazed at how hard it can be to find small colored buoys on the ocean, and pulling up a stout anchor and chain with some light little poly-line will damage your hands at the least or even be impossible. Don’t forget to tie your best knot, or you’ll be dragging the grapnel! Your biggest visible buoy is the better one to use.

Don’t forget that curious people (and inconsiderate motor boaters) will relieve you of your anchor bouy (etc.) if you wait too long to return. I had a stern anchor out and marked it and had to call out to people in a kayak who’d gone out thinking “Look, a free buoy! What’s it tied to?”. You may also get to meet someone who has magically attached to your newly available mooring, without your permission.

More fun at anchor:

Boats can drag into you and their chains can foul yours. This happened to me during a storm and the offending sloop had lost holding upwind of me. I woke (around midnight) to a horrible grinding sound and when I looked out the window it was like a freight train slowly leaving the station, backwards. I was able to get up on deck, in the rain and run back in time to get the dinghy out of the collision zone, barely in the nick of time.

It was if the dragging boat was angry for not having done more damage, and wanted to snatch the tender away too, as a souvenir. Because she had crossed her chain over mine, the dragster stopped just aft, surging and falling back, trying to crush the dink as I untied it between surges and moved it to the other side.

The owner was afraid to get out on deck but eventually emerged and came forward. However, his windlass was helm operated (and also unable to deal with the loads now created by the tangled chains) so after his brief cameo he disappeared again.

Then he decided to let out more chain. I moved my now running ship as far off as possible but we were still connected. Another adjacent boat was also damaged in the melee. A whole day went by after the sun came up and things settled down. Then I rowed over and asked him if he needed help because he stayed hiding inside his boat. With some polite communication we were able to undo everything in a few hours, and then he just motored away.

Don’t do that. People took his picture, as they will these days, and he was liable for damages to my ship. For some reason I let it go but normally there can be an accident report and consequences. Also: be a nice person and responsible one too. See if everyone is okay. Be concerned. Settle up for damages and exchange information as necessary. There are laws about this kind of thing. But don’t be a jerk.

If possible, you can also motor out of the way of a dragging vessel without pulling up your chain. When you notice (by paying attention) things going awry, start your engine and get ready. Just give it the beans and turn the helm over hard to one side and get out of the way! But you have to start the engine when it’s obvious that some boat is coming down on you and no one is doing anything about it. If it doesn’t foul on your chain and just goes by then decide if you want to stay or go. This happened to me once with two boats, one after the other! After dodging them, I’d had enough and left the area. Know when to hold ‘em, know when to fold ‘em.

These events have reflected issues related to other boaters. Please be kind and a responsible boater! Respect, courtesy and caution all come to mind. Have the weather forecast on the radio while you are about to anchor to check the wind directions and let that guide your choice of position and reduce surprises. If things take turns for the worse, be helpful instead of critical and this can actually effect the outcome in a positive way. You can make friends out of frustrating situations too, just as you can lose friends under seemingly ideal circumstances. Remember that accidents can happen during calm, normal conditions.

Daniel Carrigan is a writer, a sailor and boatowner, a singer-songwriter, multi-instrumentalist musician and a music producer. He lives in San Diego.

By Ocean Navigator