Anchoring is arguably one of the trickiest aspects of operating a sailboat. It requires knowledge, precision, patience, and a healthy dose of self-confidence to boot. For rookie skippers, those early attempts can be nail-biting, to say the least. Where should you avoid anchoring? Did you drop enough cable for high tide? Should you trust your buddy when he says he knows the most incredible spot?
The point is anchoring a sailboat isn’t easy. There are scores of things that can go wrong – there’s a reason so many skippers are insomniacs – and the consequences may include putting yourself and any passengers in mortal danger. So, it’s a serious skill that even experienced captains never take lightly. Luckily, the rewards are intoxicating.
Once you know how to anchor a boat safely, you no longer need to rely on marinas or moorings for stationary docks. The open water can be your place to stop and think, to kick back, relax, swim, fish, or whatever else makes you feel peaceful. For many sailors, it represents the ultimate freedom. Why head back to dry land when you can spend the night gently rocking on the waves?
The Many Joys And Perils Of Anchoring
Nobody heads out for the first time without some knowledge of how to anchor safely. Regardless of whether you intend to drop anchor and sit stationary for any length of time, understanding the basics is vital. If an accident happens and you get stranded in out open water, the first thing to do is stop moving.
It’s essential to know which types of seabed tolerate anchoring, how to identify these safe spots, and when to watch out for anchor drag. Do it right and you’ll enjoy a tranquil night’s sleep. Do it wrong and you’ll be pacing the deck until the early hours flinching at every creak and groan. Nobody said sailing was easy.
Where Should You Avoid Anchoring And Why?
The following areas are unsuitable spots to anchor a boat. Let’s take a look at why anchoring in these areas is strongly discouraged.
- Lee Shores
- Prohibited/Restricted Areas
- Oyster/Mussel Beds
- Unsuitable Sea Beds
- Unsuitable Depths
Lee shore is the term used to describe any shore positioned on the lee side of a sailboat. In this position, the wind is blowing from the open water and inwards toward the land. It leaves the boat stuck right in the middle. It can be difficult to escape a lee shore and, if a vessel loses control, it may be run aground by the pressure of the wind pushing it inland at high speed.
This is why you should never anchor on a lee shore. Pick a weather shore with the wind moving outwards and passing over the boat on its way out to open water. If your anchor drags and/or the engine fails, there must be plenty of space to leeward set the sails, and force your sailboat away from a collision with the shore.
Before heading out, check the weather forecast to know when and where these lee shores are likely to develop.
Fairways are established routes taken by vessels moving in and out of harbors or offshore mooring facilities. You must never anchor in a fairway because it’s dangerous and illegal in most areas. Think of it as a parking garage. There are lots of boats reversing, performing turns, and trying to maneuver into small spaces.
You can get information on fairways from the local harbor or regional sailing guides.
Anchoring in a shipping channel is twenty times more dangerous than stopping in a fairway but the reasons are largely the same. These channels are established routes for vessels passing through the areas, many of them extremely large indeed.
Let’s say anchoring in a shipping channel like setting up a tent in the middle of a traffic intersection. These areas are for moving vessels only and they tend to include sprawling container ships that can and will crush your little boat. If you’re planning to sail through unfamiliar waters, consult shipping maps and guides to find out where the channels are.
There are many reasons why areas of open water get marked ‘restricted’ or ‘prohibited.’ In either case, there are limitations to acknowledge in these spaces and they’re usually backed up by real, enforceable laws.
The most common reason for a prohibited warning is the environmental conversation. Anchoring may cause irreversible damage to marine species.
The use of restricted zones is a little more varied. Sometimes, they represent conservation spots but more often they signify areas of the potential danger for boats. For example, restrictions are in place around offshore reefs because they are difficult to see. In other regions, such as the Caribbean waters, piracy is a big threat so sailing may be forbidden without special permission.
Boats cannot anchor in or too close to live oyster or mussel beds. Anchoring causes extensive damage to these habitats which may then severely impact the livelihoods of local pickers and impair food supplies.
When consulting regional shipping maps and charts, look for areas marked with a cross. Where you see a cross icon, you are not authorized to anchor.
Conversely, some maps contain anchor icons representing popular and safe spots for stopping. These are the areas you can definitely navigate to and enjoy for an afternoon or evening.
Unsuitable Sea Beds
Part of the anchoring process is checking the condition of the seabed to determine whether it will tolerate your anchor. This is something you need to do every time even if you’ve successfully anchored at a spot before. Always remember, the seabed is in constant flux. It changes according to the weather.
Mud is a suitable surface for the majority of anchors. However, the bigger your anchor, the easier you will find it to stop here. It tends to be one of the simpler places to drop but be cautious all the same. Some mud is deceptively thin and may cause an anchor to drag because it doesn’t have the weight to hold it down.
Being right in the middle of sand and mud in terms of particle size, silt is one of the best materials for safe anchoring. It will comfortably hold most types and sizes of anchors.
Clay seabeds provide a very secure surface for nearly all anchors. In fact, clay is so secure an anchor may be reluctant to come back out. Those with sharpened tips are best suited to the job and will set more readily.
Sand is not as secure as clay or mud because it shifts much more rapidly. Nevertheless, harder sand seabeds are suitable for anchoring. You’re strongly encouraged to check the density of the sand where you are before attempting to anchor. The larger the anchor, the easier is it to stop in this type of seabed.
Neither gravelly, rocky or weedy seabeds are easy places to anchor a boat. All three materials can offer treacherous conditions because they do not grip and hold an anchor the same way as sand or mud. There is likely to be a substantial amount of drag if you try to drop in one of these areas.
Some types of anchors are better at holding in these conditions than others. We’ll discuss anchor styles in more depth later.
Unsuitable (Shallow) Depths
This is less of a concern for boats out on the open water, but something to think about for vessels planning to anchor close to shore. Without a rough awareness of the type of waters you’re sailing through and how to pinpoint their depths and shallows, you can’t know how to stop safely.
The length of chain and warp used must be significantly greater than the depth of the water you’re anchoring in. This allows a portion of the anchor’s chain to lie flat on the seabed. Horizontal pulling forces then place pressure on the anchor which causes it to dig into the ground and create a stronger, safer hold.
If not enough chain gets dropped, the anchor can drag across the seabed and take your boat with it. The rule of thumb is to drop a chain four times the maximum length of the depths you’re sailing in. With warp included, it should be around six times this maximum length. Leave space behind the boat when anchoring to accommodate for swing.
The veering is the process of letting down cable after an anchor drop. For reasons already outlined, a sailor must be able to tell how much cable is beneath the waterline. If you’re anchored close to shore and the tide is dropping dangerously fast, one of the clearest indications will be the condition and position of your cable.
This is why it’s standard practice for sailors to tie brightly colored fabric wraps around anchoring cables. When this is done at measured intervals (every five meters), one glance at the cable tells them how much is still below the water and, more importantly, whether it’s enough for the anchorage to remain safe.
Fabric wraps and cloth ties are most common because pen markings fade quickly. Before creating your cable wraps, devise a clear code that you and any crew members can understand quickly.
For instance, you might use colors of the rainbow (as recited in the children’s song) or attach colored strips to the cable in alphabetic order (blue, green, red, etc.). To determine how much chain is below the surface, you must know the order of each colored tie in the arrangement and the distance it represents (e.g. 15m).
You can make up your own, completely original code. The important thing is that you understand it well. If you can’t work it out in less than five seconds, it’s not a very effective signaling system.
Which Type of Anchor Is Best For Your boat?
We’ve asked ‘where should you avoid anchoring,’ now let’s discuss the best type of anchor for your vessel. There are no hard and fast rules because sailing vessels come in a huge variety of shapes and sizes. The best thing to do is to consider the dominant bottom characteristics of the regions being frequented.
If you’re an experienced boater, you probably won’t be limiting yourself to just one or two regions. However, even well-traveled vessels tend to have a stomping ground. You can’t match every seabed, but you can make anchoring easier by being compatible with the areas you spend the most time in.
Needless to say, the heavier your vessel, the bigger and heftier your anchor must be to hold it stationary in open waters.
Lightweight (Danforth) Anchors
Light, easily maneuvered ‘Danforth’ anchors are commonly used on small pleasure boats. These anchors range in weight from 2.5lbs to 200lbs at their heaviest and produce a substantial amount of holding power for their slim frame and size. This combination of maneuverability and power makes them ideal for vessels with smaller weight capacities
Danforth anchors perform best in mud or hard sand seabeds. They are less effective in slippery, soft mud, and rocky seabeds.
Kedge (Navy) Anchors
This is what most people think of when they imagine an anchor. Kedge (or navy) anchors come in the traditional curved shape. They’re unsuitable for most pleasure boats as they depend solely on weight for safe anchoring. Only very large ships use kedge anchors for prolonged periods. They may be used for short term (lunch) anchoring on smaller sailboats that can tolerate a degree of drag.
As kedge anchors are not for burying (flukes don’t penetrate into the seabed), they’re compatible with grassy, weedy and rocky seabeds. They also perform well in hard sand seabeds. Anything looser (such as thin mud or sand) and you might experience drag as the flukes struggle to hook on a surface.
Grapnel anchors are the cheapest, most widely available anchors. They should be used only with very lightweight vessels such as canoes and Jon boats. Grapnels are unsuitable for serious sailing vessels (even smaller sailboats in most cases). They’re extremely light, easy to maneuver and simple to use but provide minimal holding power.
As such, Grapnel anchors are rarely dropped far from shore. They’re mostly used for short (lunch) moorings, wreck reef diving, scuba diving, and seabed retrieval (locating items dropped overboard).
Plow (CQR/Delta) Anchors
Plow anchors go by various names. You may see them called ‘CQRs’ or ‘Deltas’ after their different shapes. Delta style anchors have a standard shank. CQR style anchors have a pivoting shank to allow for firmer, stronger hold in more tolerant seabeds. Both styles are very effective and commonly used on small to medium-sized cruising boaters.
Plow anchors perform well in grassy, weedy and rocky seabeds because they are good at hooking into crevices. They are less effective in very soft seabeds.
Claw (Bruce) Anchors
Claw anchors are similar to plow anchors in that their curved flukes allow for a powerful hold within rocky, weedy seabeds. The difference is they have a uniquely shaped claw. With a strong enough anchor hold, a cruising boater can fully rotate without pulling its flukes out of the ground.
There’s a lot of room for error with a claw anchor. Its unique shape means even a poorly positioned drop won’t prevent the flukes from finding an anchor point.
Box anchors really work great for offshore anchoring. It also works in lakes and rivers with firmness. These sophisticated high-performance anchors work with almost all types of seabeds.
I recommend this anchor to have in pontoon boats.
Mushroom anchors are very basic. They do not have claw-shaped flukes and, therefore, cannot hook into the seabed as other anchors do. They are straightforward weights that rest on the seabed and use a combination of heft and suction to stay still.
Mushroom anchors perform best in soft seabeds where their hollow bottoms can ‘stick’ to surfaces using suction. They are unsuitable for most large vessels and rarely found on anything bigger than small pleasure boats.
Many sailors and fishermen are creatures of habit and prefer to stick to the familiar when anchoring. However, new anchor designs do emerge occasionally and there are next-generation shapes and styles currently on the market.
They include, but are not limited to, the Saraca Excel (convex), Mantus (hooped), Manson Boss (concave, no hoop), and Vulcan (weighted tip) anchors. These new styles are very effective and suit a wide variety of vessels.
Where Should You Anchor Your boat?
Asking ‘where should you avoid anchoring’ is only useful if we follow it up with practical knowledge of where it is safe to anchor. This next section will discuss safe anchoring techniques and the things you need to consider when anchoring in crowded waters.
Dropping the Right Length Of Cable
We touched on this a little earlier, but we’ll go into more detail now. The rule of thumb for dropping anchor cables is to use four times the maximum length of the water’s depth. This should be extended to six times the water’s depth if including the warp in your calculations. This method produces what’s known as the scope of your anchor, the ratio of cable to anchoring depth.
Get this right and you can leave your boat unmanned while sleeping soundly in the knowledge it is anchored securely. Get it wrong and you may drag, drift and find your boat floating somewhere else in the morning. The most difficult thing about calculating anchor scope is that rules of thumb only get you so far. They are just a starting point assumed for calm conditions in empty waters.
To be assured of a safe anchor scope, you need to get your calculator out and do some number crunching. Remember, the scope is the ratio of cable/chain to the complete anchoring depth. Complete anchoring depth takes into account the total depth at high tide plus any additional height from the top of the anchor roller to the waterline.
The total depth of water at high tide + height of the anchor roller above the water = complete anchoring depth
Total Depth Of Water At High Tide
To determine complete anchoring depth, first determine the total depth of the water at high tide. This isn’t easy to do – not accurately anyway – so most sailors use an approximated figure. As long as you make a reasonable judgment, your anchor will tolerate the extra distance. Figuring out the depth of the water is easy when you have a cable marked with colored ties at five-meter intervals.
To calculate how much deeper the water will be at high tide, use the following formula to estimate.
Tidal swing x (hours until next high tide ÷ hours between tide) = total depth of water at high tide
You should always account for the effects of high tide when anchoring. It’s particularly important in areas known for turbulent conditions. If the tide comes in strong and your sailboat’s anchor isn’t long enough, it could drag and even cause damage to the vessel.
General Rules of Thumb
Standard conditions (calm to moderate) – 4 to 5 x complete anchoring depth
Turbulent conditions (stormy, windy) – 5 to 7 x complete anchoring depth
Short term (lunch) anchor – 3 x complete anchoring depth
In some environments, it is suitable to use a smaller scope than you might normally. For example, areas with limited space such as crowded marinas and popular open water diving spots require a shorter anchor. It’s vital your sailboat doesn’t drift and twist on a long cable when it’s in a crowded area. This can cause collisions with other vessels.
In crowded spots, dockside mooring facilities will be available or prolonged overnight anchoring will be prohibited. It’s unlikely you’ll need to worry about anchoring powerfully enough for the whole evening.
Anchoring In Crowded Spaces
The key to anchoring safely in crowded spots is to determine the full circumference of the circle your vessel makes when the wind swings through the compass. If you anchor around multiple other vessels using rope/cable rodes but you are using a chain, your swing will differ from everybody else’s. They are likely to have a larger swing circumference so consider shortening your own anchor to avoid collisions.
Alternatively, you can ask the nearest skipper what length of chain or cable they would recommend. It’s never unwise to seek advice from others.
Anchoring In Severe Weather
The dangers associated with anchoring sailboats are almost always related to a lack of cable length. In open waters, where there’s no danger of collisions with other vessels, it is significantly more dangerous to drop too little chain than too much. Therefore, in severe weather, there is no reason not to drop extra length if you feel it’s required.
You will have to spend more time and energy hauling the chain back up but, sometimes, it’s better to be safe than sorry. If there are other vessels close by, think more carefully about dropping a longer anchor. Regardless of the weather conditions, you must have plenty of space to safely swing.
Use the following formula to estimate the length of cable required for windy conditions close to shore (4 to 8 meters deep):
Wind Knots + 4 x Water Speed + Boat Length (in meters) = total anchor length required
What Is The Best Way to Retrieve An Anchor?
You’ve anchored your sailboat successfully without incident or accident. Now, it’s time to go home. What is the easiest and safest way to retrieve an anchor and start moving again? As with all sailing and anchoring processes, it largely depends on where you are and what conditions are like.
It is harder to retrieve an anchor safely in strong winds or currents if you are close to other vessels. You don’t have the same freedom to ride with the wind until you hit those calmer waters. Instead, you must account for the position of other boats and, particularly, the approximate time left for maneuvering a safe course after de-anchoring.
Retrieving An Anchor Under Power
The first thing to do is weigh down the boat’s anchor which just means tautening its cable. This is the standard pull and belay method. First, pull in a length of cable. Then, wind it securely around a cleat. Repeat until you can feel the whole cable go taut with no relaxed lengths left resting on the seabed. Belay.
If you have companions, ask a helper to switch the boat’s engine on and push forward at its lowest possible speed. This should be done very gently. All you’re trying to do is slowly dislodge the anchor with a little force. The boat needs only move until the rode is just past vertical. Once tripped, you can turn the engine off and continue pulling the anchor back up onto the boat.
Retrieving An Anchor Under Sail
If your boat is too small to have an engine or you’d rather not use it for tripping the anchor, an alternative method is to raise the sails. This is far more dangerous in crowded spaces so consider the decision carefully. The boat may start moving very quickly once the anchor is retrieved. Do you have enough time to safely maneuver to less crowded waters?
The method is largely the same whether you’re using an engine or sails to pull the boat’s anchor out of the seabed. Raise the sail only after the cable has been belayed and is taut enough to be tripped. Keep the sails unsecured until the anchor has been successfully retrieved and is back on the boat. This minimizes the chances of getting drawn.
Retrieving An Anchor Without Assistance
Retrieving an anchor is much harder and more dangerous when doing it alone without any assistance. It is a physically demanding task and requires a great deal of concentration and skill. It’s not impossible, however, and those who enjoy sailing alone become very adept at hauling their anchors overboard.
Again, the method is largely the same whether you’re using sails or the boat’s engine for tripping the anchor. The difference when doing it alone is you’re responsible for both roles. Alone, you need to pull and tauten the rode, belay the rode, and man the engine or manage the sails.
This is going to involve some rather frantic running back and forth between cleat and engine/sails. The process needs to be fast to ensure you don’t spin out of control while the anchor is being hauled. The more physically fit you are, the easier this will be. The sailboat will begin drifting off course as you pull up the anchor. The key is to do it quickly so you can race back and man the engine.
It’s not easy but, for those who love to go it alone, it’s always worth the effort.
What If the Anchor Gets Stuck and Won’t Move?
It’s a question that sailors have been asking for hundreds of years. Sometimes, an anchor simply won’t budge. No matter how it is pulled, twisted, and pried, it remains stubbornly tethered to the seabed. This can be a source of great frustration because, ultimately, there is no guaranteed way to free a stuck anchor.
If you try every trick and method and an anchor still won’t come free, the only option is to abandon it. This is another reason why it’s important to pick your anchoring spots carefully and only drop-in suitable conditions.
If your anchor won’t come free after using the engine or sails for extra pulling power, try one of these methods.
Pull up and belay the anchor cable until it is reasonably taut. Grab hold of the wrap tightly (wear protective gloves) and wait until the boat dips into the trough of a wave. As it rises on the next crest, pull hard. Oftentimes, applying tension at the right moment is enough to dislodge stuck flukes.
Snap the retrieval ring and the buoy around the anchor’s cable. Then, switch on the engine and push forward at a 45-degree angle. This method applies the ring and the float in a rudimentary pulley mechanism. When combined with a gentle tug from the sailboat’s engine, it’s sometimes enough to free the anchor.
Leave It In Place
This should be a last resort because leaving debris in the water is always strongly discouraged. Nevertheless, if you cannot dislodge an anchor no matter how hard you pull and strain, the only option may be to abandon it.
If you must do this, cut the warp short before you leave the area. This prevents it from obstructing others. You must do this UNLESS you are definitely planning to come back and retrieve the anchor in some way.
The Final Words
In this article, we answered the question ‘where should you avoid anchoring’ and explored others relating to anchoring in crowded spaces, adhering to anchoring restrictions and retrieving anchors in the safest way possible. Hopefully, it has given you insight into the responsibilities and work involved with manning a sailboat of any size or capacity.
Few would argue with the notion sailing is one of the toughest hobbies to successfully learn and master. It’s lucky then that it’s also one of the most enchanting.