Waterlines: Fear of Dragging

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If you have a paranoid personality, anchoring out can be a validating experience. On the one hand, it seems rather simple. You amble up to the bow of your boat, drop a lump of metal overboard, let out some rode and secure it somehow. Then you stroll back to your cockpit and celebrate with a libation or two. On the other hand, it seems fraught with danger. The closest equivalent I can think of are those guys who sleep out on mountains they are climbing in sacks they hang from tiny pins driven into cliff faces. The immediate result if something goes wrong is not as dramatic, but the potential consequences (loss of life and putative home) can be just as severe.

I realized recently that when it comes to anchoring I haven’t been paranoid enough. I’ve been using a nice heavy Spade anchor on Lunacy, my Boréal 47, for more than a year now, and its great holding power had made me complacent. That was until this past June, when I lay at anchor at Cape May, New Jersey, waiting out an early summer gale. I was lying on what most would call short scope, about 4:1, in 35-40 knots of wind with gusts to 50, and the anchor seemed to be holding fine.

Quite suddenly, after hours of holding steady in the roaring breeze, the boat started dragging. Though I was sailing alone I, fortunately, had a temporary guest aboard, and he helped me re-anchor on a longer scope, at about 7:1. It was a nerve-wracking experience. My inflatable dinghy, trailing behind the boat on its painter, had flipped over in the breeze, and the awful drag it created made it very hard to maneuver. At one point, with the engine going full blast and the helm hard over, I just barely avoided smashing into the rocky shore. If I’d been alone I might easily have lost the boat.

We were just heaving a sigh of relief—and I was thanking my friend profusely—when the damn boat started dragging again. Gack! And again the damn dinghy, which refused to stay upright, hampered our efforts to recover and redeploy the anchor. Finally, in frustration, we cast it loose. We reanchored again, this time on 10:1 scope, and at last stayed put.

The next morning, after retrieving my dinghy, which fortunately had been corralled by the crew on another boat downwind of me, I wondered if it had been the root cause of my problem. The first time it flipped was just a few moments before Lunacy first started dragging. Could the extra drag it created as the boat swung on its anchor have been what caused the seemingly well-set anchor to pull out of the ground?

Maybe, but I wasn’t the only one who dragged that day. Another cruiser upwind of me was also forced to re-anchor, plus one big catamaran on a mooring found it was dragging and had to let the mooring go. The least fortunate casualty was a small Catalina that had dragged anchor straight up on to a beach. None of these boats had dinghies streaming behind them.

Sharing this story with other cruisers, I’ve since learned that the anchorage at Cape May has notoriously poor holding. To me, it had looked pretty good, lots of nice sticky mud, but I guess it wasn’t quite sticky enough. And yes, I can hear the clucking tongues of you armchair admirals out there: I certainly did not have enough rode out. It is true you can get away with scope ratios of 3:1 or 4:1 when conditions are settled, but when the going gets tough you do need to get out more rode.

The most important thing I learned that day, not for the first time, is that being paranoid is often the best strategy. Twenty-five years ago when I was cruising full-time on a much smaller boat, with only rope rode and no windlass to help haul it, I never ever dragged anchor. I always let out as much rode as I could without banging into other people. I also often set two anchors, just to be on the safe side, and I dove on my anchor whenever it was feasible to see for myself how it was set.

Some might call this paranoia. Others might call it prudence. 

Photo by Charles J. Doane

October 2018

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