The summer season is upon us and all manner of cruising sailors are wandering about trying to find interesting places to park their boats. Maybe you’re a novice eager to explore, but are daunted by the mysterious art of securing your boat to the bottom of the sea with a curiously shaped lump of metal weighing just a few pounds. Or maybe you’re a marina creature, flitting from dock to dock, or perhaps a mooring maven grown accustomed to the security of tying up to a two-ton block. Now you’re eager to anchor out in some romantic hideaway for a change, but it’s been ages since you went forward and actually splashed your hook.
No, you can never take all the stress out of anchoring. Even very experienced cruisers sometimes have problems anchoring their boats. But if you keep certain key points in mind, you can minimize the anxiety and maximize your fun while parking for the night.
1. You can cheat on scope
Many cruisers have it permanently grafted into their brains that anchoring on anything less than 7:1 scope is irresponsible and dangerous. No doubt they got this way from reading too many sailing magazines. Of course, when it comes to scope, more is always better, but in the real world there are many cozy, crowded or deep anchorages where such largesse simply isn’t feasible.
My personal rule of thumb, given a properly set hook (an important proviso), is that you can usually get away with as little as 3:1 scope. Once you fix this as the minimum limit in your head, it often becomes easier to find a parking place.
When trying to exploit this little secret, keep two variables in mind. First, a choppy sea state effectively increases your working water depth. Cheating on scope in a well-protected anchorage where the water is always flat is one thing. Doing it in an open roadstead where your bow is riding up and down several feet is another. Each foot your anchored bow rises in a swell or chop requires at least three more feet of rode to keep you secure. In most cases, to compensate for snatch loads, it should be more than three.
Second, the tide will absolutely increase your water depth. Whatever minimum scope you decide to work with, calculate how much rode you want to lay out based on the expected water depth at high tide. Finally, it is often a good idea to lay out as much scope as possible when setting your hook, then shorten up as needed afterwards.
2. Watch what the neighbors are doing
An anchorage sheltering multiple boats is a community, and its members are dependent on each other. When joining the community you need to keep a close eye on how others have anchored their boats.
First look to see what other people are using for rode. Boats anchored on chain normally swing much more slowly when the wind or current changes, as they must drag all the weight of the chain they’ve laid out around with them. In moderate or light conditions it may take many hours, or even days, for a boat on chain to get all its rode stretched out in a new direction. A boat anchored on rope, meanwhile, will usually reorient all or most of its rode within minutes of a change in wind or current direction.
Be sure to take these differences into account when deciding where to anchor. If you’re a rope adherent anchoring in the midst of chain believers, you may need to set a second anchor to keep from swinging into other boats.
Also, check the angles on your neighbors’ rodes. The more shallow the angle, the more rode they have out relative to the water depth and the further they’ll swing when things change. Look for anchor buoys, multiple rodes hanging from the same bow and any other tips as to how others around you have deployed their gear.
Finally, always remember the primary rule of anchoring etiquette: last in is the first out if hulls go bump in the night. Even if your new neighbor is a scope hog (see Secret #1 above) and is taking up way too much space, if you can’t politely convince him to shorten his rode, you’re the one who needs to move if he got his hook down first.
3. Patience is important
It always pays to take your time when setting an anchor. I’ve often seen cruisers drop a hook and a pile of rode overboard, then back down on it hard in reverse, only to have the whole mess drag down the anchorage. The skipper howls in frustration, repeats the procedure several times, then concludes the holding ground is terrible and retreats to another venue.
This slam-bam-thank-you-ma’am approach to setting a hook works when the holding ground is perfect (sticky mud or soft sand, for instance), but can be self-defeating in less ideal situations. Get your hook overboard, lay out your rode, then shut down the engine and relax for a bit while your anchor nestles into the ground at its own pace. In more challenging ground—very soft mud or hard sand, for example—it make take quite a while for an anchor to get a grip on the bottom. The slow, steady pull of the boat on its rode will facilitate the process, but a sudden burst of reverse power from the engine can easily short circuit things.
Instead of backing down on your anchor immediately, first tidy up the boat and enjoy your sundowner while keeping an eye on your surroundings. After a half-hour or so, fire up the engine again and back down gently on your anchor. Slowly increase the revs in reverse until you’re satisfied the anchor is firmly set. Then and only then give it a hard burst of power to make sure. If you take your time like this, you’ll often be able to anchor in spots that more impatient cruisers think are untenable.
4. Think about topography
Many cruisers have an overly simplistic approach to selecting an anchorage. They look for a spot with reasonable holding ground and some land between them and the wind and leave it at that. They give little thought to the lay of the land around the anchorage and sometimes get caught out unexpectedly.
Here’s an example many New Englanders will relate to: you’ve enjoyed a long day sailing on the prevailing southwesterly breeze and expect a front to shift the wind to the northwest during the night. You find an anchorage with seemingly good protection to the west and settle into it. But when the northwest shift comes in at O-dark-hundred, you find the wind where you are is actually blowing hard straight out of the north. Quite suddenly, you may be anchored on a lee shore with too much fetch to windward.
Many cases like this are not the result of a bad weather forecast, but are caused by topography. An honest northwest wind, for example, can easily get bent and accelerated by some local terrain feature into a hard northerly. You should try to anticipate these little tricks by taking a harder look at the chart when selecting an anchorage. Look at the height of the land around the anchorage; try to visualize its shape and how the wind flows over it.
At first, you may have a hard time guessing how the wind will behave in certain areas. But with some time and experience you’ll learn how topography affects wind (and waves) in your favorite anchorages. This knowledge will help you better anticipate topographical effects when you anchor in new locations.
5. Have an exit strategy
Even savvy cruisers sometimes get caught out and have to abandon an anchorage in the middle of the night. The savviest ones prepare for this and know exactly where they’re going when the time comes to bail.
Whenever you’re settling into an anchorage where you plan to spend the night, you should always run a late-night evacuation scenario though your head. If you’re in a large anchorage you may be able to relocate without going far, but if forced out of a small one you may have to move someplace else entirely. Identify a fallback parking place if possible and pre-plot a course to it (on paper or, even better, on a chartplotter). If there is no viable fallback anchorage, plot how you’ll get to open water where you can remain underway or heave-to until daybreak.
If you don’t have a chartplotter or radar, it is particularly important that you give some thought to what visibility may be like. Will the moon be up? If not, note what lights on shore and afloat you’ll be able to use as references.
Finally, you should give some thought to how you’ll recover your anchor and rode and should be prepared to slip your rode if you can’t. It should be possible to cast your rode free from on deck if necessary, and you should keep a small buoy or fender handy so you can mark it and come back to recover it later. You should also, of course, have a second anchor and rode onboard so you can re-anchor elsewhere.