In my opinion, there is nothing better about the boating lifestyle than finding a nice quiet spot to anchor, dropping the hook, and enjoying your favorite beverage while taking it all in after a great cruise. The vast world of cruising opens up once you’ve learned how to anchor like a pro. There are far more great anchorages that don’t have marinas or mooring balls than those that do, and most of the best anchorages that I have experienced are “anchor only” locations.
I’m not a huge fan of mooring balls to begin with. Sure, they’re convenient, but unless they’re maintained regularly by someone who knows what they are doing, you are one rusted chain link away from finding your boat on the beach. I would much rather rely on ground tackle that I’ve inspected myself.
So many people have never been taught proper anchoring skills (and etiquette), or don’t practice them enough to be confident. That’s never more apparent than when you’re sitting in your nice quiet anchorage, and another boat comes right alongside you (when the entire anchorage is empty), drops their anchor right over the top of yours, and then proceeds to plow the bottom of the ocean with it going full astern!
But before we talk about technique, let’s talk about hardware first. Preparing for anchoring starts with making sure your boat has the right ground tackle, or “anchoring system”. Remember, it’s not the anchor that holds your boat in place, it’s the chain and/or line (rode) that connects your boat to the anchor. The anchor just keeps that chain/rode in place. (I’ll just refer to the connection between your boat and the anchor as a “rode”, regardless of what it’s made of.) You can’t have a great anchor and a cheap line, or vice versa! It’s a system, and it’s only as strong as its weakest link. Everyone has their own favorite type of anchor. Talk to the folks at your favorite marine hardware store, or your neighbors at the marina. You’ll get a lot of opinions and you can make your own decision. After you select the type of anchor suitable to the areas you will be anchoring and properly sized for your boat, you’ll need to decide whether you’re going to have an all-chain, all-rode (line), or a combination. All-chain is the strongest obviously, but you’ll pay the penalty in weight up in your anchor locker. It’s best to have at least one boat length of chain minimum connected to the anchor, so that the chain is taking the abuse of the sea floor, and not getting chaffed by rocks/shells/etc.
TIP: Marking the rode with paint/zip ties or other markers will help you determine how much you have let out.
Once you have your anchor and rode, you need to ensure the connections between the anchor and the rode and the rode to the boat are secure. Generally, this will be with shackles (galvanized or stainless) seized (wound) with stainless wire to keep the shackle pin from coming loose. Don’t forget to secure the “bitter end” of the rode to the vessel, usually in the anchor locker.
Now, with a solid anchor, rode and connections, we just need to decide how that anchor gets deployed and recovered. Whether a manual system (muscle) or motorized windless, you need to ensure you can lift all that weight up from the bottom of the water. My boat has a 165 lb. anchor and chain that weighs 10 lbs. per foot. If I deploy 100’ of chain, I’m lifting 1,165 lbs. out of the water. That’s not going to happen without my windless working. Whatever your system is, remember to have a plan B in case your first method decides not to work that day!
So now that you are ready with your anchoring systems, here are some do’s and don’ts so you can anchor like a pro:
Pick the Right Spot
Depending on the weather, you’re going to deploy enough rode for an average of 4 – 8 times the depth of the water. For example, if you’re in 20’ of water, and you need 5 times the depth, you will deploy 100’ of rode. Unless you are going to deploy a stern anchor or stern line to keep you from swinging, you would need 100’ radius plus the length of your boat of clear area (and sufficient bottom depth) to make sure your boat does not hit anything when it swings around your anchor with shifting wind/current. Look at how the other boats are lined up, and that will give you a good indication of where the wind and current are coming from. Anchor with your bow into the wind if possible. Please don’t anchor too close to your neighbors, and never drop your anchor over the top of theirs. If it’s not clear where their anchor is, keep your distance or ask. If the water is 20’ deep, chances are they have that 100’ of rode out too, so keep at least that distance away!
Approach Slowly and Lower Your Anchor
When you find your spot, you want the boat to be stopped. Lower the anchor until it touches the bottom, and then start backing down while continuing to deploy the rode. Back down slowly! There is no need to plow the bottom of the ocean. Just a few seconds in reverse will get most boats moving astern, and that’s all it takes to straighten out the rode. Once you have the amount of rode out that you want (4 – 8 times the depth of the water, depending on conditions and ground tackle), set the anchor by putting the boat in reverse for a few seconds to give a good tug on the anchor. Again, don’t plow the ocean – the weight of your boat and power from your engine(s) can and will pull the anchor out of the bottom.
Verify That Your Anchor is Set
Look at it after backing down. The anchor should go from a sharp angle to a very small angle or straight up and down, without jumping. If you notice the rode “hopping” up and down, it could be the anchor skipping on the bottom. Once you’re anchored and confident the anchor is set, take some visual bearings in front of you and 90 degrees off of your bow (to either side), preferably on land. Look for buildings or prominent shore features like trees. If your boat stays in position relative to those two bearings, you’re not drifting. You can also take radar bearings to land features, and some GPS units have “Anchor watch” settings that will alarm if you move a predetermined distance from your anchor point. The great part about using visual bearings is that you don’t need to keep your electronics on to check your position!
Retrieve Your Anchor
When it comes time to retrieve your anchor, motor up to it while pulling in the rode – don’t try to use your windlass to pull your boat to the anchor, especially with electric windlasses that could burn out over the excessive load. If the anchor does not pull free, try turning in circles around the anchor with a little way on to break the anchor loose. Have a hose ready to wash off all the gunk that comes up with your anchor, and make sure to secure your anchor well before heading out.
The most important part of anchoring is practice. The more you do it, the more comfortable you’ll be. So, get out on your boat, find your quiet spot, and enjoy a night swinging on the hook!
Be safe out there!