Even in the most idyllic of anchorages, the wind can come up in the middle of the night and cause trouble. At times like this we always have an action plan to follow if our anchor begins to drag. Experience has convinced me that when something goes wrong while a boat is at anchor, trouble is caused not by the conditions, but by how the crew responds to those conditions. Having a good, workable exit plan in place before you need it is the best way to prevent surprises.
Before you anchor
If you do some homework before arriving at an anchorage, the chances are better that your anchor will stay put after you’ve set it properly. I study the charts and cruising guides well before we arrive and decide on the best place to anchor. We choose a fall-back location in the same area in case the spot we want is taken. If there’s no room at all—this can happen when an anchorage is very popular—it’s a good idea to leave yourself enough time to power or sail to another safe anchorage while there’s still light.
When you’ve got your spot picked out, first visualize what might happen if the boat rotated 180 degrees. Would it hit any obstacles, sandbars, reefs, rocks, or buoys? Where would the boats around you be relative to your boat? Once the anchor is dropped and we’ve backed down and set it properly, we sit down and plot an escape route.
We write down the current GPS position along with the courses and relevant navigational details we would need during our escape. I tape one copy to the chart table and another to the steering pedestal. I think it’s a good idea to discuss the plan with the crew so they know what might happen in an emergency.
I take at least three visual bearings on fixed objects ashore. Ideally, these objects should be visible night and day and should be far enough away that bearings on them will remain more or less constant even if the boat should swing a bit. A church steeple, radio-tower light, or even a distinctive tree towering above the rest will work well, although nearly any landmark will do if it gives you an immediate and reliable reference point (see illustration). I’ll write down the names and bearings of these objects to eliminate the possibility of confusion.
Once we have formulated our plan, we talk over other ‘what if’ scenarios and think about how our plan might relate to them. Again, we write down the plan and the options. If a plan is only in the skipper’s head, and something happens to incapacitate the skipper, there is no plan.
I’ll close with a story from an idyllic anchorage. Two boats came into the anchorage in Panama’s San Blas Islands just as the sun was going down. We were in the small inner anchorage, which is protected by a sandbar, but low-light conditions prevented the two boats from crossing the bar into the inner anchorage. That night the wind shifted and the two boats started to drag. Both nearly dragged onto the reef astern of them before they managed to escape. It’s true that nothing compares to being able to anchor in paradise. But if you are lucky enough to be there, you must also be prepared to handle the unexpected.
If you’re dragging...
1. If the anchor starts to drag, start the engine, turn on the instruments and autopilot, and turn into the wind.
Visually check the courses to open water and compare them with the exit courses that you prepared after anchoring and taped to the steering pedestal.
2. Remain calm. Once I watched a dragging boat drive onto a reef simply because the helmsman panicked and lost his orientation.
3. Turn onto the safe heading if possible, but do not increase speed or alter course until you’re sure of your present position.
4. Visually identify as many things around you as you can. Continuously check your bearings and avoid all known hazards.
5. Once you know your position you can begin to implement your exit plan. If the plan calls for you to leave the anchorage, do so only if it is safe. If it’s not safe, you may have to consider powering around in a circle until daylight.
- After you drop the anchor, back down and make sure it is properly set. If it isn’t, repeat the process.
- Be sure the anchor is not hooked on something like a tire or tree branch; both could let go if the wind comes up. The best way to do this is by diving on your anchor and inspecting it.
- Inspect your anchor rodes frequently. Check each link in chain for cracks, deformation and rust. Check a nylon rode for chafe. If there is any doubt about any section, replace it.
- If you’re on a mooring, be sure it’s strong enough to hold your boat and make sure there’s plenty of chafing gear on the mooring pennant.