Hold your ground with these anchoring basics.
We’ve all seen the routine on any given weekend. A boat pulls into a crowded anchorage, parks in the middle of the pack, and throws the anchor over the bow like a catapult, in one big, knotted ball. Before this mass even reaches the bottom, a beer is cracked and the captain and crew are lounging, while kids are jumping off the stern.
Soon enough the boat is dragging through the anchorage while the captain is scratching his head in bewilderment. There are a variety of conditions that will affect anchoring, from bottom composition to the type of anchor in use, but understanding the fundamentals will improve your chances of not getting tangled up with other craft or on a lee shore.
Assuming you’ve selected a suitable harbor to anchor with good holding ground and no obstructions, make your entrance slowly. I can’t urge you enough to take your time and slow down your pace here. Also, be aware of your wake, and even if you’re a ways out and coming into an exposed anchorage, be aware that your wake will follow you in. You don’t want to toss your new neighbor’s cheese platter on the cockpit sole.
When selecting a spot, keep in mind that different boats swing in different ways. For instance, a boat with high freeboard and a flat bottom will swing significantly more than a full-displacement craft with a deep keel. Take a moment to look around and try to gauge how the other boats are swinging. You need to visualize where you will be after you drop the appropriate scope. Once in a while, after I drop back, I will decide I don’t like where the boat is sitting, so I pick up and go through the process again. Stow your pride.
Also, be aware of the tide. Will you be high and dry in the morning after the water flows out? Bonus Tip: Bottom characteristics are represented on charts by symbols such as Rky (rocky), M (mud), S (sand), Cl (clay), or Grs (grass).
After you’ve selected the area, come up slowly into the wind or current. Make sure your boat is at a dead stop before dropping the hook. I pick a point on land for reference to determine my movement.
In my opinion, an important component of anchoring is communication. With the wind blowing, it’s often impossible for the helmsman and the person at the bow to hear one another. And nobody likes a screamer. Work out hand signals ahead of time. Don’t worry about referencing the Corinthian Guide for Yachtsmen or trying to do your impression of an NFL ref. Just pick simple signals to communicate engine gears and direction, and you’re good to go. For example, if your mate’s arm moves forward, go forward. If they position their arm in the middle, go to neutral, and back is—you guessed it—reverse. I also find simple signals especially useful when picking up the anchor.
After you drop the anchor, you need to properly set it. A common mistake I often see is a skipper who slams a boat in reverse, throttles it up to warp speed before the anchor has a chance to even kiss the bottom. You’ll see the mate scared as hell trying to get the rode out in time before the boat piles onto the rocks. Again, slow and easy here wins the race.
One important factor when anchoring is laying out the proper amount of scope. It helps if you mark your rode so you know how many feet you have in the water. You can purchase markers at your local marine store. On an all-chain rode, I’ve used my own paint system (two links painted at 20 feet, three at 30 feet, and change the color after 50.). Without a marker, I can’t figure out how much rode I have in the water. Counters at the helm are worth the money too.
There are several schools of thought on scope. I’ve heard 5:1 (5 feet of scope for every foot of depth) as the minimum. Personally I prefer a minimum of 7:1 if swinging room allows and I’m staying overnight. If you can, try to find a place in the anchorage where you can let out more scope in case of a blow. I was anchored once in a crowded anchorage when a summer squall blew through. The scope was too short for stacked chop and my pitching bow. We nearly pulled the anchor right out of the mud.
Once the proper amount of scope is out, secure the rode to the cleat . Back the boat down against the rode. The amount of throttle depends a lot on your boat. On larger powerboats with big diesels, I’ve found short bursts of the throttle(s) are more effective than applying the throttles for a longer period of time. This allows the anchor to settle and dig in deeper. Also while doing this, I always visualize a bail-out plan if the anchor doesn’t set and I get too close to my neighbor. The anchor is set once the bow digs down a little, and the rode pulls away from the bow. Again, keeping a visual on a landmark helps you gauge your drift. At this point, apply a little more throttle for a prolonged burst, just to double check.
It’s important that your anchor platform is set up so that it takes the stress of the anchor off the windlass gears. A windlass is simply not designed to withstand the weight of the boat pulling against the anchor. If you have an all-chain rode, I recommend setting up a chain snubber that will transfer the load from the windlass to the snubber and, of course, the boat itself. This also provides some elasticity while your boat pulls back. The setup is fairly straightforward. It starts with two legs of three-strand nylon line, one leading back to the starboard bow cleat and the other leading back to the port bow cleat. You want the two legs to be quite stretchy or elastic, hence the nylon. The two bitter ends of these legs are then spliced together at a common attachment point with an eye-type grab-hook. This grab hook secures to the chain rode and should be sized to accommodate the chain rode. Generally, I attach the snubber and deploy it so the grab-hook is about a foot below the surface, creating a belly of slack in the chain rode between the grab-hook and the boat. If it’s blowing—pushing the boat back on the anchor—I play out more on the snubber.
Mantus Anchors offers a ready-to-use snubber/bridle system for boats up to 100,000 pounds. The setup includes chafing protection and a carabiner for easy attachment to a mooring. IMTRA also offers several snubber options.
If you’re using a rope rode, then it’s a matter of transferring the line off the windlass and onto a cleat.
Like anything we do on a boat, practice makes perfect. Head out on a weekday to anchor a few times and fine-tune your own system. After all, a beautiful anchorage away from the crowds is what it’s all about.