When I was a younger man, with less money and a stronger back, I was a regular anchoring snob. Free parking, I believed, is a fundamental right when cruising under sail, and if you want to be a true cruiser you must exercise it as much as possible.
In developing this manifesto it helped, of course, that I was cruising in places where anchoring was really the only option. Back in the 1990s while poking around the Atlantic islands and West Africa, even in popular ports and harbors, I found zero rental moorings and very few moorings of any type that were suitable for anything smaller than a container ship. The one likely looking mooring I did pick up, in the Azores, turned out to be a cruel joke. It boasted a large buoy and a hefty pennant, but promptly dragged. On hauling back the rode, I discovered there was just one small rock holding the whole mess in place.
For years afterward, cruising back in my home waters in New England, I spurned moorings and preferred to anchor. Eventually, however, I noticed that mooring fields were getting bigger and good spots to anchor were growing much scarcer, so that today in many popular harbors there is now almost nowhere to drop the hook.
So I have come full circle. Not that I am averse to getting my anchor wet, but usually on entering a harbor I now look first for a mooring to pick up. I’ll often grab a rental if one is available, but if not I’ll just tie off to a private one instead. Some cruisers are surprised by how ruthless I am, as though private moorings are sacrosanct to their owners whether they use them or not. But I see it as a two-way street. If most of a harbor is filled with moorings, and many of those are vacant, I believe visitors are justified in exercising squatter’s rights.
The risk, of course, is that some irate person may bang on your hull in the middle of the night and order you to move. But if you follow a few simple rules this is unlikely to happen.
First, even in a busy harbor with few vacant moorings you should make every effort to pick up a rental if possible, unless of course, you really can’t afford one. After all, we mustn’t needlessly aggravate the Gods of Commerce. Next, when hunting for a private mooring to squat on, look first for those with the foulest pennants. Yes, a gross slimy pennant covered with unmentionable life-forms is disgusting to handle, but it is also a sure sign that a mooring is never used. (It can also be a sign that a mooring is neglected, with deficient tackle; if you suspect this is the case, just back down hard on it as you would on an anchor.)
The next most likely prospect is a mooring with a phone number on it. I find these more and more and appreciate them, as it greatly simplifies things. All you need do is dial the number and ask politely if you can borrow the mooring for the night. Most mooring owners, you’ll find, are happy to loan them out if they don’t need them. Another simple precaution is to ask others on local boats if they can recommend a mooring to pick up.
Absent a foul pennant, a number to call or some local knowledge, you’ll have to rely on your pirate instincts to find a good mooring to squat on. I tend to stay away from moorings marked “private,” for example, as I assume people who advertise this really do want to keep things to themselves. I also never pick up moorings that might belong to fishing boats. These tend to be oversized, well used, perhaps with gulls sitting on them, usually in areas where other fishing boats are moored.
In the event you harbor any doubts about a mooring you’ve picked up, you should stay aboard for a while, just in case. Very rarely, however, will anyone appear to kick you off. I’ve been a mooring pirate going on 20 years now, and it’s only happened to me once. Fortunately, and much to my surprise, the offended mooring owner turned out to be an acquaintance I hadn’t seen in years, and we had a grand time getting caught up again.