by Frank Lanier
Chesapeake Bay Magazine
September 2002

“You like fast car?” asked the wizened Chinese proprietor of the marine salvage store in a thick accent. The question caught me off guard, considering I was hefting an anchor at the time. I was living aboard in Hawaii and had spent the better part of the day scouring the waterfront searching for a replacement for my damaged main anchor. I’d finally found two likely candidates in his cavernous warehouse, and after excavating them from beneath a tangled mass of bronze deck fittings and portholes had wrestled the pair into a clearing for further inspection. Both were plow-type anchors, but I was having trouble deciding between the small one or the more expensive larger one. He politely watched me perform the nautical equivalent of tire kicking for about 15 minutes as I circled, poked and prodded both. Finally he rose from his stooped, wooden desk.

“You like fast car?” he asked again.

“Uh, yeah, I guess,” I said.

“Yes, yes, everybody like fast car. You tell me, what most important thing fast car need?”

“A big engine?”

“Brakes!” he said with a toothy grin, giving the larger anchor a shake. “Fast car, slow car, no matter. Always need have good brakes!”

I scratched my head over this unorthodox bit of wisdom, but wisdom it was. Whether you’re a fisherman trying to stay over your favorite spot or a cruiser in unfamiliar waters, the skill and ground tackle to put on the brakes and stay put are indispensable.

Cruising vessels ideally carry a large main anchor rigged with chain plus a smaller secondary anchor fitted with a short length of chain and a long nylon rode. The chain adds weight to the rode, increasing horizontal pull and helping the anchor remain set while protecting it from chafing. Nylon is handy because it stretches, allowing the rode to absorb the sudden loads and jerks of a boat bouncing around in the waves. The smaller anchor often fills the role of a working anchor, while the heavier primary anchor is better when you’re staying put for any length of time or if rough weather is brewing.

Manufacturers publish tables to help select the correct-size anchor, but a common rule of thumb is roughly 1 pound of anchor weight for every foot of vessel, and about 20 percent less for the secondary anchor. Newer types rely more on design than sheer weight to provide greater holding power, and while in theory this lets you choose a lighter anchor without compromising holding ability, combine the best of both worlds by going with a heavier one where practical. Call me old-fashioned, but I feel there’s no substitute for weight; when in doubt I invariably go with the next larger size. If the design is as good as claimed, it’ll only hold that much better, right? While on the subject of design, I should mention this: Avoid imitations and stick with the name brands. It’ll probably cost more initially, but a quality anchor will pay for itself many times over in security and peace of mind.

It’s No Fluke (It’s a Plow)

Anchors can be roughly classified as hooking or burying types, the latter being the most popular for the Bay’s sand and mud bottoms. Hook-type anchors hook or grab the seabed, have smaller flukes and rely as much on weight as how deep the flukes dig in. The traditional or fisherman’s anchor (also called the yachtsman anchor) is a good example. It’s a versatile choice that works well on a wide variety of bottoms depending on the width of its flukes—narrow flukes being best for rock, coral, grass and hard sand, while those with wider flukes (often called Herreshoff anchors) do better in medium to hard sand and clay bottoms. Neither hook-type anchor performs well in soft sand or mud. And while boaters love its versatility, they curse its awkwardness on deck (although modern take-apart versions make stowage a lot easier).

Burying anchors rely on broad flukes for holding power, often burying themselves and a small portion of the rode as well. The Danforth is a popular example of this type. Its large flukes hold well in mud and sand but are less effective in rock and grass. A pipe-like stock keeps the anchor from twisting and pulling out as the boat shifts, but if the direction of pull goes past 180 degrees, the anchor will most likely break free (and usually reset itself in the new direction). Although its lighter design is attractive, the Danforth can be awkward to stow; it has a lot of angles to snag lines and toes alike. It’s also sometimes difficult to break free once it’s set.

The plow is another common burying anchor. Also known by the trade name CQR (from “secure”), it’s a stockless anchor that is popular for its versatility in sand, mud, grass and shell bottoms. Other benefits include ease of storage, a non-fouling design and its ability to adjust its set while remaining buried (thanks to the swiveling action of the shank). It’s considered by many boaters to be the ideal overall anchor for vessels over 30 feet, and while it may not be the best in any one type of bottom, it holds well in all of them.

Location, Location, Location

The key to successful anchoring is choosing a good anchorage. Look for protection from wind and waves, moderate water depth (enough to keep you off the bottom at low tide but not so deep it requires excessive rode), and bottom composition suitable for your particular anchor. If you’re anchoring someplace new, it’s always best to arrive well before dark, giving yourself plenty of time to scout out the area. Also, check local weather forecasts to see if any special precautions are necessary, such as increasing rode length, using a larger anchor or even selecting a different anchorage.

Good anchorages are finite in number; boaters who want to enjoy them are not. Chances are you will have company. This means added responsibility based on the unwritten—but often yelled—law of the sea that if things turn sour, the last boat into an anchorage is expected to be the first to vamoose. While evaluating the anchorage itself, check out your potential neighbors. Note their type of rode and estimate its length, as well as how changes in current or wind might affect each vessel’s arc of swing while anchored; powerboats generally ride bow into the wind (a tendency amplified by larger superstructures) while deep-keeled sailboats tend to face more into the current. Above all, don’t crowd your neighbors. At best it’s rude; at worst it’s dangerous.

Anchorages are an excellent place to employ the saying “if it looks too good to be true, it probably is.” Cast a jaundiced eye on seemingly perfect spots that have been passed over by the hordes already anchored. Is it open due to a recent departure, or because it’s on the flight path of local waterman (who have no sympathy for snoozing boaters at 4 a.m.)? Other reasons could range from underwater hazards (tree stumps, unmarked wrecks or sandbars) to more mundane annoyances like flies or mosquitoes. Folks already anchored can be an invaluable source of information, so don’t be afraid to ask about their ground tackle or to seek local knowledge.

Scoping It Out

Before you head into the anchorage, get everything ready to go and review procedures with the crew (simple hand signals, length of rode, etc.). Verify that your anchor, chain and rode are properly connected, ensuring that all screw-type shackle pins are moused with stainless steel wire and that the rode’s bitter end is firmly attached to the boat. Secure the bitter end of an all-chain rode with multiple turns of tarred nylon lashing (which can be easily cut if you need to slip anchor or add more rode). This isn’t meant to bear the load of anchoring, but to prevent Mr. Murphy or Davy Jones from stealing your ground tackle.

How much chain do you need for a nylon rode? Suggestions range from the simple (half of your boat’s length for normal conditions) to the complex (a formula based on the weight of chain and anchor, which boils down to the bigger the anchor, the longer and heavier the chain). What it all means is there is no set rule, and it depends a lot on personal choice. I would suggest that a 35-foot sailboat with a 35-pound anchor have at least 15 to 25 feet of chain that matches the tensile strength of the nylon rode you are using.

Verify the water’s depth to determine how much rode to let out. Boats using a combination rode (rope with chain lead) in good holding ground should use at least a 7-to-1 “scope” (7 feet of rode to every foot of depth) in normal conditions. An all-chain rode allows shorter scope (4- or 5-to-1) which can be helpful in tight anchorages. An easy way to know exactly how much rode you’re paying out is by attaching strips of cloth or leather at set increments—every 10 feet, for instance—or using plastic number tabs. Do the same for chain by painting links or attaching plastic wire ties at preset lengths. You can also measure combination rodes by counting arm-spans—roughly 6 feet on most people. (This, by the way, is the origin of the fathom as a nautical unit of measurement. The word derives from the Old English word faethm meaning “outstretched arms.”)

The next step is prepping the anchor for release. If your anchor is stowed on a bow roller, lower it until it’s just clear of the water. If stowed elsewhere, feed the unattached rode through the bow fairlead, under the bow pulpit, then back over the top and attach it to the anchor. Once secured to the rode, hang the anchor carefully over the bow by snubbing it off to a cleat or Samson post. If the rode is stored in a chain locker it should come out smoothly when the anchor is released; otherwise neatly fake a nylon rode on deck in loose coils for easy deployment.

Game, Set, Anchored

Proceed slowly, bow into the wind or current (whichever predominates) until you’re over your spot. Stop all headway, and while drifting or backing down slowly (to keep the chain from piling atop the anchor) release the anchor in a controlled manner, noting the depth marks as they go over the bow. Once the predetermined length of rode is out, cleat it off. As a safety precaution for your hands and fingers, give yourself a few extra feet of rode before cleating so you have enough time to make the line fast before it pulls up tight. Finish setting the anchor with the engine by backing down first at idle, then at 200 to 400 rpm until it’s set.

To determine if the anchor is holding, feel the rode with a hand or bare foot while the boat is backing down. A slack rode means the anchor isn’t holding at all, while a taut rode that vibrates erratically indicates dragging. A taut rode with no irregular vibration means the anchor has set, at which point you can power down. Once the anchor is set, keep everyone in place while you assess how the boat will ride. If it looks like you’re in bad holding ground or you’re fetching up too close to other boats, pull up and try again. Better now than during a midnight thunderstorm while dragging down on your hapless neighbor.

Hold off on happy hour long enough to do a little contingency planning. Neaten up the foredeck, making sure everything is ready to weigh anchor quickly, and always plan an escape route in case you have to leave in a hurry. Record compass courses to make this easier, or even plot it on your chart for quick reference. It’s also a good idea to take bearings on a couple of prominent, permanent land features or structures (such as lighthouses) to determine if you’re dragging. If the weather looks iffy, consider your options: letting out more rode, relocating in the same anchorage or heading somewhere else entirely. Prepare everything in advance as much as possible and let the crew know what they would have to do in any situation.

Proper planning and sound judgment are the keys to successful anchoring. You’ll explore the Bay with confidence, knowing the skill and equipment needed to put on the brakes is no ancient Chinese secret.