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Safe Anchoring

Anchoring is an important seamanship skill every skipper should master—both for the safety of you and your crew and the protection of your yacht and other boats around you.

Whether you stop somewhere to fish, swim or spend the night; must deal with unexpected engine failure; or have high winds and strong currents push you into shallow water or too close to other vessels, proper anchoring is key to staying safe and secure. How to avoid the most common anchoring mistakes? Follow these tips from Captains Chris and Alyse Caldwell…

Make Sure Your Anchor is the Proper Size and Weight

The easiest way to determine that your anchor will provide adequate support for your yacht is to consult your manufacturer or use an anchor sizing chart that can be found online. Here’s one from the American Boat and Yacht Council:

Decide on Your Rode: All Chain or Rope and Chain?

A combination of the two is usually your safest bet. This choice not only more economical, it also puts less weight on your yacht. Case in point: a 3/8” chain weighs about seven pounds per foot, so 300 feet would weigh a ton! Some yachts can’t handle all that extra weight in the bow of the boat.

How much chain and rope do you need? As a rule of thumb, use one to two times the boat length of chain. So, for a 50-foot yacht, use 50-100 feet of chain and the rest rope. Also, make sure the rope you use is made of nylon (either three-strand or eight-brait), which will stretch in heavy waves or wind, cushioning the strain on the yacht and the anchor. 

Think Location, Location, Location

Choose an anchorage area that offers maximum shelter from wind, current and boat traffic. Using an updated chart, determine the water depth and type of bottom (preferably sand or mud—not rock, heavy seaweed or grass). The ideal spot will also have ample “swing room” for your yacht in all directions.

For an overnight stay, check wind direction, likely tidal or other currents and the latest weather forecast. Pay special attention to the chances for a shift in wind direction or speed. If your yacht is pulled in the opposite direction during the night because of a reversing tidal current or wind, the anchor may shift or be pulled out and reset itself. Also avoid anchoring against a lee shore in case the anchor drags.

Scope It Out

A critical factor in successful anchoring scope is the ratio of the depth of water (plus the height to the bow or pulpit) to the total length of rode deployed. The most recommended scope is a ratio of 7:1, meaning in ten feet of water with a four-foot height to bow from the water, you’d stream out 98 feet of rode.

Take It Slow and Steady 

Anchoring should not be a rush job. Making your approach to the spot you want to anchor, steer your bow into the wind or current. And whether using a bow roller or lowering by hand, make sure the anchor rode is ready to run.

Once you reach your spot, place the engine in neutral. With your yacht stopped—and your life jacket on—begin slowly lowering the anchor into the water. After letting about a third of your line out, tug the anchor line to see how firmly it’s set, then continue to release the rode.

Tip: Use tape or colored spray paint to denote various lengths of scope (blue = 25 feet, red = 50 feet, etc.). This makes it quick and easy to see how much scope you’ve let out or have left.

During this process, your yacht should begin to drift backward with the wind or current—which is a good thing. This backward drift is important because it allows the anchor to move down and away as it enters the water. If your yacht is stationary when the anchor hits bottom, the chain piling on top of it can prevent it from digging in.

Avoid a Bad Experience at the Bitter End 

It sounds like a no-brainer, but always make sure the bitter end of your anchor line is attached to your yacht. Many an anchor has been lost as an unfastened end slips around the windlass and off the anchor roller. Equally important: the anchor rode should be connected to your yacht at a hard point in the anchor locker—and this should be done with a rope that’s long enough to reach up to the deck and across to the anchor pulpit. There are two reasons for this. First, you’ll never lose the anchor if you run out of all the rode. Second, if you need to cut the yacht free from the anchor, you can easily do that with a knife.

Dig In

When all of the anchor line has been let out, back down on the anchor with your engine in idle reverse to help set it. Many skippers make only a half-hearted attempt to set the anchor by putting their yachts in reverse for a mere few seconds. But to assure the anchor is firmly set, you must put a reasonable strain on the rode until you see the anchor rode stiffen and the bow dip slightly downward.

Tip: While reversing on a set anchor, keep an eye on the anchor line. A dragging anchor will telegraph itself as it bumps along the bottom, whereas a set anchor will not shake the line.


Keep Watch 

Once the anchor is set, scan your surroundings for reference points, and every hour or so, make sure those landmarks are in the same place. If not, you’re likely changing tidal direction or dragging anchor. 

Better yet, if you have an anchor alarm on your GPS plotter, set it so it alerts you if the yacht swings too far from the position where you set anchor. Few boating experiences are as frightening as waking in the middle of the night with the wind howling and your vessel dragging anchor toward rocks, the shore, or other boats. 

Know the “Rules of the Rode” 

If other boats are anchored in the area you select, follow good anchoring etiquette and ask the boat(s) adjacent to the spot you choose what scope they have out so you can use that information to anchor in a way that will prevent potential collisions and entanglements.

Tip: Keep in mind heavier yachts swing slower and tend to have a bigger arc than smaller, lightweight vessels. Also, boats with a lot of windage (big canvas enclosures, large cabins, high freeboard) will swing faster in high winds. Most sailboats are affected by current first.

Keep the Lights On 

When the sun goes down (or in rainy or foggy conditions), turn your anchor light on. Federal law requires that you display a 360-degree white anchor light with a minimum two-mile visibility. Some skippers prefer to rely on solar lights, but these aren’t bright enough—plus they run out of juice quicker.

Have a Care—and a Spare

Get into the habit of giving your anchor system a safety check on a regular basis. Watch for chafe, loose shackles and bent flukes. Also, store at least one extra anchor and rode on board. That way, you’ll have a spare if one gets lost—plus in an emergency, deploying even a small anchor can keep you from running aground.

Information provided by Captains Chris and Alyse Caldwell, owners of Captain Chris Yacht Services, LLC, 772.205.1859; www.captainchrisyachtservices.com Both are USCG licensed 100 Ton Masters and Cruising Coaches who offer Personal Boat Training online or onboard your boat anywhere! The Caldwells also offer training videos. You can email them at chris@captainchrisyachtservices.com.

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