In 45+ years of living aboard and ocean sailing I’ve only learned a couple of things——but I believe I’ve learned them well. The first two apply to any sailboat owner.
If I could only convey two words to the boating public those two words would be ‘more scope!’
Anchoring is, perhaps, the most important safety skill a sailor has. That is because most sailors are surrounded by something very dangerous: land. Terra Firma scares the hell out of me: it is very unforgiving and can rip apart a well-constructed vessel in seconds. So learning how to securely anchor your boat is vitally important. Your life will, occasionally, depend on it.
Most vessels have reasonably good anchors and enough ground tackle to deploy them properly, but, for some odd reason, don’t. They don’t put out enough scope. Thus, their anchors drag.
If your anchor is of proper size, the bot tom is normal, and you set your anchor carefully by backing down on it with your engine… then your anchor will continue holding 99.9% of the time EVEN IN A BLOW if it has seven-to-one scope.
If it has four-to-one scope, it will occasionally pull out.
What is seven-to-one scope? It is simple: take the distance from your anchor roller to the bot tom and multiply it by seven.
Let’s take two examples: a vessel with 5 feet of freeboard is anchored in 20 feet of water. 5+20=25×7=175 feet of rode. Another vessel, let’s say a shallow-draft, bluff-bowed power vessel, is anchored with 8 feet of freeboard in 3 feet of water. 8+3=11×7=77 feet of rode (not 21).
I sailed around the world using a 20H Danforth anchor with seven-to-one scope without problem and yet would NEVER consider leaving my vessel laying to a 44# Bruce or 45# CQR anchor with four-to-one scope. (Not because the Danforth anchor is better but because, when it is deployed with the proper amount of scope, it is pound-for-pound more effective than a heavy anchor which isn’t).
Now people are going to tell you that you can’t deploy seven-to-one scope because of crowded harbors, that chain doesn’t need seven-to-one and/or that their new miracle anchor works fine with four-to-one scope… or that recent laboratory tests show… and those people are going to end up, eventually, on the beach.
If you deploy seven-to-one scope, you will not.
So Rule #1 is MORE SCOPE!
Rule #2, which I’ve stressed on these pages for years, is REEF EARLY. Experienced offshore cruising sailors often fly less sail than their greenhorn counterparts.
You wouldn’t ride in a car with a driver who couldn’t take his foot off the gas pedal would you?
You should never ask yourself ‘should I reef?’ because you should just DO IT the first moment the thought enters your head. Reefing can be simple and quick if your gear is properly set up. The boat is almost immediately more comfortable, under less strain, and, often, only slightly slower. (Occasionally it is faster!)
The main difference between the budding coastal sailor and the experienced offshore passagemaker is the veteran’s ability to keep his vessel properly canvassed.
Reefing = competence. Being overpowered = inexperience.
It is that simple.
Rule #2: REEF EARLY.
Rule #3: NO NIGHT ENTRANCE.
This is a simple rule to abide by: simply do not enter ANY strange harbor at night (unless a truly EXTREME gale is approaching or you are having a medical emergency aboard).
Do not enter if your buddy is right next to you waving you in. Do not enter if you are being ‘talked in’ over the SSB. Do not enter if you can ‘see it plain as day’… ESPECIALLY not then, because that’s what every idiot who piles his vessel onto the breakwater thinks! Do not enter even if you know Cmap is accurate… just DO NOT ENTER A STRANGE HARBOR AT NIGHT.
Be extremely and EXTRA cautious if you have forward-reading sonar, electronic charting and state-of-the-art radar… all three of which can, if deployed by a human being, cost you your vessel. (I believe in having all this way-cool electronic gear, just not in deluding yourself into thinking you can safety enter strange harbors at night because of it).
Basically, experienced sailors know the sea is safety. Seek safety at sea. It is the land which is the danger. If you can’t s tomach the thought of another night at sea, buy a farm. Don’t get confused and ask yourself if you ‘think’ you can do it. That isn’t the question——maybe you CAN do it this time. But, believe me, if you keep entering strange harbors at night you will eventually lose your boat (if not your life).
Editor’s Note: Also check out: How to Safely Anchor a Boat: The Ultimate Guide
The final rule, Rule #4, applies mostly to circumnavigators: BE IN THE RIGHT OCEAN AT THE RIGHT TIME.
I believe that guys like me (average joes) on boats like mine (standard plastic production boats) can survive major storms at sea IF we have the proper gear, knowledgeably deploy it AND IF WE’RE IN THE RIGHT OCEAN AT THE RIGHT TIME.
Let’s put it another way: I have a tremendous confidence in my vessel where (and when) I sail her but also believe there are off-season storms for which she was not designed nor constructed.
That’s right: she is not invincible nor am I. There are winter gales in the North Atlantic and the Southern Ocean… off the Cape of Good Hope or the Horn… in the Bass or Cook’s Straits… which are… well, pretty darn nasty.
I should not allow my vessel in such a storm.
Sure, there are a few hardy souls on purpose-built vessels which might want to suicide-test their mettle against such an awesome display of Mother Nature… but not me and certainly not aboard the very modest, very inexpensive Wild Card.
All the experienced sailors I’ve known (and loved & respected) who have been lost at sea in deep ocean were lost transiting in the wrong season.
That’s it. I’ve attempted to state these rules as simply and starkly as possible. Good sailing!