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Rest easy at anchor

For me, there is nothing to compare to dropping the hook in a snug anchorage. Sure, sailing on a calm sea with a fair wind on an easy beam reach is up there, but swinging on the hook is my nirvana. If there’s shelter from all directions, and the water is good for swimming off the boat, and there’s a shop and hostelry within a dinghy ride, I might well be tempted to stay put for the entire season, whiling away my days tinkering at the million little jobs that are always beckoning, and giving my weary sails a well earned rest.

Provided of course that I have full confidence that I am firmly attached to the seabed.

To wit, my purpose in putting pen to paper. Well, finger to keyboard if you’re going to be pedantic.

The delivery skipper who helped us bring our first boat home threw into the deal a priceless lesson on anchoring. We still use his technique to this day, albeit with a couple of modifications, and it occurs to me, as so many of us are about to embark on our Summer cruises, it might be an idea to compare notes.

Before I talk about technique though it’s worth making some comments on kit.

Equipment

Until Geoffrey Ingram Taylor’s innovative CQR almost a century ago the best that was available going back to antiquity was something resembling a traditional fisherman’s anchor, albeit with some 19th century refinements. Richard Danforth’s design in the 1940s gave us another option, and further advances in the decades since have made a variety of anchor styles available to us today. Each of these has its pros and cons and everyone will have their favourites, but mine is a Rocna, and like everyone else that I have known to use one, I swear by it. After 15 years the only “con” we have found with our Rocna is, it being concave, on a muddy seabed it often ends up hauling twice its own weight in mud, mucking up our foredeck. Although I confess I am always a little proud of the manly statement a few clumps of muck clung to our anchor makes among shiny boats in a marina!!

I do not mean to dismiss any other anchor type. We have friends that are as happy with their Delta or Spade anchors as we are with our Rocna. I have even met a skipper in recent years who wouldn’t use anything other than a CQR (he was a couple of decades younger than me too). Your boat, your choice, but if you’re using a CQR without having investigated the modern alternatives I think you’re missing out.

As for rode, on a cruising boat almost everyone uses chain. Rope has its place, especially when fishing, but my two reasons for chain on a cruising boat are the rode can be shorter, and more importantly, in a busy anchorage the one boat with a rope rode will swing differently to everyone else using chain, increasing the likelihood of a collision. We use a length of chain that is a minimum of five times our depth, I emphasize minimum; sea-room permitting we’ll put out more. We’ve never used rope, but I understand seven times depth is recommended for rope rode. As you go beyond ten times depth the change in the angle of force on your anchor becomes virtually negligible, so the only extra benefit you are getting is the dead weight of your rode, which is another argument for chain.

For a lunchtime anchorage, with a permanent watch we might compromise with less than a factor of five, but we’d never ever leave the boat without someone on watch with less than the minimum chain.

So on our ten tonne forty footer we carry a 25 Kg Rocna and 75 metres chain, about half of which rarely gets wet since we usually find a spot in less than 8 metres of water. We also have a Danforth as a kedge, and we own an aluminium Fortress anchor, a Fisherman’s anchor, and yes, a CQR. All three of the latter are currently decorating our garden, the Fisherman’s and the CQR will remain there, we’re still undecided whether carrying the Fortress as a spare justifies the scarce locker space it consumes.

Deployment

Properly deploying the anchor is even more important than having the right kit. Accounts of skippers throwing the anchor over the bow, then dumping a load of chain right on top of it and heading to the pub are all too true. The thing is, in a sheltered anchorage in fair weather they’ll get away with it time and again. But if the weather gets up it’s pot luck whether there’ll be a very heavy price.

There are always the two of us anchoring: one on the bow, the other at the helm. Single handers will have extra challenges that I can’t speak to because I’ve absolutely no experience doing it on my own.

Our first step is to choose our spot. Other boats moored or anchored give some indication of how we might lie. We give moored boats sufficient berth to account for their short swing circles, and we make a judgement on the swing circles of other neighbours. Boats using rope rode or lightweight boats are likely to swing more than heavier displacement, and if both wind and current are factors, shallow draft motorboats and catamarans will be relatively more influenced by the wind than our 1.8m fin keeled Westerly which will tend to lie to the current.

Having settled on our spot we circle it looking out for any unexpected hazards, and noting wind and current. Then we bring the boat to a dead stop pointing in the direction we expect to lie, and drop the anchor. If the anchorage is crowded we’ll motor close behind a boat similar to our own. As long as we’re behind him and our anchor doesn’t hit his sugar scoop as it falls, then we’re not too close.

We then let the boat drift back with wind and current, paying out chain as we go. In calm conditions we add a few helpful nudges from the engine in astern. When the desired amount of rode is deployed we tie off the chain on a cleat, pick our transit lines, put the engine in astern, and slowly bring the revs up to about two thirds power in steps of about 200 revs, all the while checking transits, and the crew on the bow standing with one foot on the chain feeling for the tell-tale vibrations of a dragging anchor. If our position is holding at two thirds power we shut down the engine. Next we rearrange ourselves from “underway” mode to “at anchor” , deploy a snub line on the chain, hang the anchor ball, turn on the anchor light, set our drag alarms, tidy up our lines and sails, launch the dinghy if we plan going ashore, and then stick on the kettle for a well earned cuppa.

However, we’re not finished just yet. The cuppa is part of the process, sitting in the cockpit, winding down after the days adventures, observing the new surroundings for any unnoticed hazards, and making sure the anchor is still holding.

Of course, if at any stage during the process the anchor drags we just haul up and start again, and occasionally again, and again, and again…

In fairness, the Rocna rarely requires a second bite at the cherry, and if we have to go a third time we will move to a different spot.

Trip line

There’s one detail while paying out the chain that I skipped. We used to use a buoyed trip line on the anchor, until one day a small motorboat attempted to moor to it, and a couple of days later, in the same anchorage, another motor boat drove over our buoy shredding it. So we don’t use a buoyed line anymore, instead we have a 15 metre trip line permanently attached to the anchor, but at the other end, instead of a buoy we have a small carabiner which we clip onto the anchor chain at the ten metre mark as we are deploying it. While retrieving the anchor we unclip the carabiner before it fouls the windlass and then have the trip line available if needed. Of course, if the water is deeper than 10 metres we extend the line.

There is a downside to this method: the line tends to wrap around the chain, so when retrieving the last ten metres we frequently have an unravelling job. However this is a price we’re willing to pay for peace of mind.

Conclusions

This method has served us well. In our twenty years of cruising, including three years live-aboard, we have dragged only once. That day I was in a hurry to get ashore, we were anchored in deep water with 4 metres of thick weed growing on the seabed, and I had not followed the procedure properly by digging in the anchor. Fortunately Catherine was still aboard and was able keep out of trouble until someone fetched me.

I did mention that one of the first things we do once we’re satisfied that our hook is set is to hang our anchor ball. Like some other cruisers we weren’t always so diligent. Then we read an account of a commercial vessel arriving into an anchorage in Panama completely out of control and colliding with multiple boats. The incident went on for some time, several boats were damaged and there was plenty of video evidence.

The loss adjuster from the offending boat’s insurance company duly arrived, viewed all the video evidence, and then promptly wrote cheques, without any quibbling, for the full amount of damages claimed by both boats that were displaying an anchor ball. Every other damaged vessel were, he argued, equally culpable as they were underway but the video evidence clearly demonstrated that they made no attempt to take evasive action!

Like I said: we are now very diligent about displaying our anchor ball.

Like I also said: your boat, your choice!

Happy anchoring, folks.

Pat Egan, ARAGORN