What to consider when anchoring?

10 May 2016

Exploring uninhabited coves and empty beaches is one of the delights of a sailing holiday, whichever part of the World you are cruising. When done properly, anchoring is a safe, cheap and easy alternative to crowded and expensive marinas. So why are so many novice sailors nervous of using their anchor?

Well, if we assume that they all know how to use a windlass safely and without losing fingers and toes in the process, it’s worth remembering that an anchor can slip. Sleeping at anchor overnight might require you to set an anchor watch routine, with at least one, but preferably two, members of crew being on watch at any time to make sure you don’t drag. If that isn’t an option, modern GPS can be set to alert you when your position changes by a set distance. This assumes that there is sufficient room around you of course. The mark one eyeball is far superior!

To best set your anchor you should first check the chart to make sure there are no hazards on the seabed (such as pipelines, moorings or cables), then check the make-up of the sea bed. Mud and sand might be good for holding whereas rock is less reliable. If sailing in more tropical locations, make sure you don’t anchor on coral. It’s not environmentally friendly, probably illegal and you’ll likely damage it. Iin any event it’s likely to cause you all sort of problems in the process. Trying to unwind an anchor chain from a coral head 18 feet below you is going to spoil your day.

Read our article: How to Choose a Good Anchorage

Once you’ve decided on the best holding for your anchor (remembering that each type of anchor performs differently) you need to find a suitable depth for the amount of anchor chain or rope you have. Generally 4 x times the depth should suffice when using chain and 6 x depth if using warp. If you have more, the old adage “if in doubt let some out” should be considered. The more you have out the better the holding, bearing in mind that every extra metre you let out is increasing the radius of your swing at anchor - and also needs to be pulled back on board after lunch!

When settling on a suitable location it is critical that you also make allowance for any tidal variance during the time you are at anchor. A 4 metre variance in depth needs to be factored into your calculation when finding a suitable location and when paying out your anchor chain / warp. The increase in radius needs to be considered if there are obstructions within the swing radius. If there are and you decide to set a stern anchor to arrest the swing, make sure that your neighbours know this. Otherwise they will swing and you will not. Who wants to have swinging neighbours when you don’t! I mean really..

Something that is critical to deciding on a suitable anchorage is the weather. A calm and comfortable anchorage might well turn into an uncomfortable and boat wrecking location very quickly if the wind direction changes. Lee shores are no place to anchor and recognizing how a change in weather can make a location unsafe or uncomfortable very quickly will make you a safe and popular skipper. Waking at 3 am to the sound of a rolling swell crashing onto what was a picturesque and sheltered beach when you went to bed makes for a very uncomfortable and sleepless night - trust me!

Last, but by no means least, when anchoring be considerate of neighbours. Try and be quiet when arriving and leaving and give give your neighbours space. No-one wants to be packed into a tiny part of a larger bay with two or three others if you don’t have to be. Make sure you set the correct day shapes or anchor light if staying overnight and as well as using the GPS alarm it is prudent to set a couple of transits or bearings that can be checked regularly to insure you are not dragging.

One last thing; if you are swimming off your boat whilst at anchor, make sure that you can all get back on board easily and if there is any tide running have a line with a fender running off the stern so that anyone caught in the rip can grab a line and pull themselves back to safety. Losing someone overboard when at anchor can suddenly become very serious. Can you get the anchor up and recover them before you lose sight of their head in the water? Worth thinking about.

So anchoring can be a bit of a headache, but if you plan your location and check the weather there is no reason why you can’t enjoy a dream evening anchored off a sun-kissed coastline. Now isn’t that more appealing than just another evening alongside in the marina?

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