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Anchoring for Dummies

At dawn, after 12 days at sea, we saw the faint outline of St Helena, the remote Atlantic island where Napoleon was imprisoned. We were extremely excited about making our first landfall since leaving Cape Town, but the wind was light, so we only reached the small indent that marks the anchorage after nightfall.

We had actually never anchored a yacht for more than a lunch time stopover before, because in 30 years of racing and cruising in South Africa, we always ended up on a dock or mooring. So we went by the book and put out 7 to 1 chain, after which we slept the sleep of the dead. Next morning we were enjoying a luxurious shower ashore when the ferryman shouted that our boat was drifting out to sea. We scrambled into our clothes and yes – our yacht was fast disappearing on the horizon. He kindly took us out to the boat. Then began the arduous process of retrieving 160ft of half-inch chain and 45lb CQR anchor – now hanging straight down into the deep – pulling it up inch by inch on a winch, as we had no windlass. The LCD letters on our ancient depth sounder were faulty, reading seven meters instead of 17, so we had not paid out sufficient rode. We were lucky that when the boat broke loose, it moved offshore, and the ferryman (like everyone on this small island) knew exactly where to find us!

This was an embarrassing start to many anchoring experiences, such as dragging at 3am after anchoring on a toilet seat left behind by Hurricane Luis (St Maarten lagoon), hooking a large World War Two metal structure that threatened to pull our boat under (Trinidad), and losing our new Fortress anchor (don’t ask how), to name a few. As a result we now follow some anchoring rituals which serve us well and may be of use to others.

We mark the boat’s position once we have pulled back on the chain with our GPS MOB indicator and also take physical sights to establish where we dropped the anchor. This helps us check if we are dragging as well as inform anyone anchoring near us about the position of our anchor and chain. Often, with no wind or strange current, the direction in which the boats are lying is deceiving and a newcomer can end up dropping his hook right over someone else’s tackle.

Our boat does not like to reverse and often pulls to one side when we try to anchor in the traditional way. So now, unless there is a strong wind blowing, to ensure we pull back straight we drop the anchor while moving forward extremely slowly. When enough rode is laid, the bowman indicates to the helmsman to stop the engine, immediately turn the boat to one side and then, if necessary, reverse slowly. This action usually digs the anchor in firmly and lays the chain in a straight line, rather than a wandering curve.

Our 17-ton ketch hobbyhorses a lot and this action means the anchor is more likely to lift in a blow, so we have to lay down a lot of chain, always factoring in the considerable height from our bowsprit to the water, to achieve the correct catenary effect. We therefore usually anchor away from the crowd for peace of mind. Our nylon rope harness hooked onto the chain creates a snubber that softens the snatching.

A great method to stop rocking and rolling at anchor when wind and wave action contradict each other, is to pull the bow around into the waves with a rope bridle attached to bow and stern. The other is to put ‘flopper stoppers’ onto two spinnaker poles, using the slow upward drag of the water to dampen the rolling. On occasion our ‘flopper- stopper’ has meant the difference between sleeping and falling out of bed.

Trial and error and changing our boat has resulted in our going through quite few anchors over the years (CQR, Brittany, Delta, Fortress – all had their good points, no pun intended). Given the characteristics of our current boat and anchoring conditions, we are very happy with our Munson Supreme anchor. Its heavy tip digs in, the roll bar helps it straighten up if broken out from the side, and its slotted shank facilitates lifting when deeply buried. The Rocna anchor is also, from all accounts, a design well worth considering.

In the April 2010 Yachting World, ‘The Walrus’ wisely wrote: “With anchoring an odd psychology is at play: re-anchoring is considered a loss of face. There is the feeling that everyone else in the anchorage is looking on with mounting interest – which they are – and tutting judgmentally. Ditto.” Perhaps prideful impatience, and not ignorance, is the main reason for poor anchoring. Often, despite all efforts, we don’t end up where we want to be, and the only solution is to do it all over again – slowly.

Finally, as we aren’t getting any younger, the powerful electric windlass on our current boat is one of its best safety features. It may one day get us out of trouble quickly, meanwhile it makes it easy to practice good anchoring etiquette and keep our skipper/first mate relationship intact.

How to Anchor a Boat Safely

J. Summer Westman takes you through an intimidating process. We have all seen the fights that can happen when a loving couple comes in to set the anchor and the fight ensues. Don’t be one of those couples – learn the basics and make it easy for your next Caribbean Charter.  Learn How to Anchor a Boat!

Looking for a new anchor? Here is a handy list of Marine Chandleries in the Caribbean. Additionally, here are some Anchoring Equipment and Supplies Specialists.

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