Dropping the Hook

AnchorIn a little more than 10 months, we have “dropped the hook” (anchored) in more than 70 different places. (In comparison, we have stayed in 17 marinas.) Anchoring can be simply lovely or downright uncomfortable, depending on a number of factors.   When we drop the hook, we always “back down” on our anchor, which means we put Benevento in reverse and throttle up, slowly and incrementally, to 2,000 RPMs to ensure that our anchor is dug in. If the wind picks up, we can feel a sense of security knowing that it would have to blow pretty hard to match the drag we put on the anchor with the motor. After we’ve anchored, we also take bearings, which is a position (i.e. “180 degrees”) of three fixed points on land. If the position of those fixed points changes, it may mean that our anchor has dragged.  Also, if we anchor in an area prone to fog we will note, on our binnacle compass, our escape route should we have to suddenly pull the anchor and leave.  Also good to have should you need to abruptly shove off at night, perhaps due to a strong wind shift presenting you with a lee shore.

Darold and I have also worked out a system of hand signals to communicate with each other while anchoring. (Hand signals are easy for my Italian American husband Darold.) If the wind is blowing, it’s impossible to hear each other and it also looks ridiculous to be screaming commands at each other if anyone else is in ear shot. So while I’m at the helm, Darold will let me know when I should throttle up, turn the wheel, go in reverse, etc., during the anchoring process.  Periodically we switch roles for practice.  We also deploy an anchor bridle connected to the chain and lead back through the port and starboard bow clats.  This takes the strain off the windlass in rougher conditions.

We carry six different anchors on board, and our anchor is attached to 300 feet of chain. Our anchors are a 55 pound Spade (our primary anchor), a 45 pound Bruce, two 44 pound Danforth, a 47 pound Fortress Aluminum (Danforth), and a 70 pound traditional Fisherman’s (storm) anchor.

Darold, Dante and I have anchored up and down the coast of California, as well as in the California Delta region before leaving on our trip. Now that we’ve anchored along the coasts of Mexico, the Sea of Cortez, Panama, the San Blas Islands, Jamaica, Puerto Rico, the Bahamas and up the East Coast from Georgia to Pennsylvania, we have started to amass a general knowledge.

Here is a little bit of information we take into consideration each time we anchor – in layman’s terms:

  • Holding – The bottom of the sea is important to know whether your anchor is going to stay where you’ve put it. Sand is the best to anchor in and it has a distinctive feel at the helm when you are backing down on the anchor. A rocky bottom is the least desirable as it can foul your anchor and make it impossible to retrieve. We carry different cruising guides aboard, and it will often tell us about the holding. In addition, navigational charts will often tell you what the bottom is, for example denoting “s” for sand. We have a lead weight and can drop that down to see what kind of bottom there is as well. Once in the Bahamas we had trouble anchoring because there was a thin layer of sand over coral, making it difficult for the anchor to dig in. But you can easily realize when this happens as you will feel  the anchor skip along the bottom.  By holding the chain (be mindful you don’t get hurt) you can fell the skipping as it telegraphs up the taut chain.  We had a similar problem in Georgia trying to anchor in a thin layer of soft mud over hard mud.  But by waiting and letting the anchor settle in, and very slowly backing down, we were able to dig in.  And then she held great.
  • Access / Entrance – Another consideration is how easy is it to get to the anchorage? Is there a shoal (shallow spot) at the entrance? Do you have to navigate around reefs or other hazards? Is it easy to identify the entrance? Nighttime is not a great time to enter an anchorage, but we entered into one entrance on the Gold Coast of Mexico at night after a 5-day sail and because the entrance was straightforward we had no problems. It was a large bight with deep water right into the anchorage. In the Bahamas, the anchorage in Georgetown should only be entered during the day because you have to navigate around coral heads that are visible only during the day.  Sometimes, you just have to heave-to and wait for day break.
  • Depth and scope – I’ve often been asked if we can anchor at night when we are at sea for more than a day at a time. The answer is: Nope. You can only anchor in places where it’s shallow enough that your anchor chain can reach the bottom. More than that, you can’t actually drop your anchor until it just touches the bottom. You have to put out enough “scope” so that your anchor can adequately hold you. A typical scope for us in a well-protected anchorage where we aren’t expecting any type of bad weather would be 3:1. If you have a nylon rode you should probably increase that to 5:1.  Meaning, for each foot of water, we put out three times as much anchor chain. For example, our depth sounder measures the water depth from our keel, so we need to add five feet for that to bring us to the surface.  From there it is about five feet to our anchor platform.  And at high tide we will be five feet higher.  So in this example, if our depth sounder reads ten feet we will add 15 feet, that is we need a 3:1 scope for a depth of water equal 25 feet, which means we need 75 feet of chain.  If we are expecting heavy winds or if the holding isn’t as good, we will put out much more scope. Sometimes as much as 7:1 or more.  However, we only have 300 feet of chain attached to our anchor so if we were in 40 feet of water (which is deep for an anchorage), then a 7:1 scope would be our maximum. However, we also have a spool of 600 feet of ¾ inch 3-strand nylon rope that we can attach to our anchor just in case we ever need it!
  • Protection – The best anchorages will provide protection from waves so that you aren’t pitching and rolling. It is often desirable to have some protection from wind, but only if you think that the wind will cause wind waves. We were anchored behind a reef in the San Blas Islands and it was blowing 20 knots consistently day and night. This was great because it meant our wind generator was putting amps (energy) into our batteries, but the reef was protecting us from wind waves, best of booth worlds. The wind can also keep bugs away. On another occasion, we were anchored off of Baja California in a Bahia Magdalena, which is a large bay about 15 miles across, which means that there was a lot of “fetch”. Fetch is the unobstructed distance over water that allows wind to build up wind waves. The more fetch, the bigger the wind waves. The 20 knot winds in Bahia Magdalena (which was a result of the remnants of Hurricane Raymond) were traveling across 15 miles of water which meant that the wind waves had time to build up, and as a result we were bouncing up and down quite a bit. The bow plowing under occasionally.  We had to anchor outside a protected harbor once in Southern Mexico, and the swells were rolling in to shore, causing a very uncomfortably rolly night for us.
  • Tide – It’s important to know what the tide is going to do and where you are at in the tidal fluctuations. On the Pacific Coast side of Panama, the tidal fluctuations range 15 feet, while on the Caribbean side of Panama the tidal fluctuations are only about a foot! If you drop your anchor while you’re at low tide and you don’t put out extra chain, then when the tide rises, you will not have enough scope. However, in the sandy Bahamas, the tidal fluctuation is very minimal and we have safely anchored in less than 2 feet of water without worry. (Though, I admit, it was really strange to anchor in water that shallow!)
  • Swing Room – When you set down your anchor, you have to keep in mind how much the boat will swing around on it. This will depend on how much scope you have and what the wind and currents will do. It’s not cool to anchor too close to another boat (not to mention it can be dangerous). If you’re the only boat in the anchorage, it’s first come, first served.  Also, different boats will swing differently.   Sailboat are more influenced by current with their deep underbellies, and power boats more by wind with all their freeboard.
  • Visibility – It was a luxury in the Sea of Cortez, the San Blas Islands, the Spanish Virgin Islands and the Bahamas to see through clear water all the way down to your anchor. You can tell if it is dug in and how the chain is laying across the bottom. Plus it’s beautiful.
  • Access to a dinghy dock / landing – If you’re anchored and don’t want/need to go to shore, this is a non-issue. However, if you need to go ashore you need somewhere to put your dinghy while on land. Sometimes you have to pay for landing your dinghy, other times it’s free. The Kuna Yala people in the San Blas Islands would charge $2 to land your dinghy on the beach or you could buy a beer (also $2) instead of paying the money. This gave us a week of landing privileges. The first night, Darold consumed a month’s worth of landing privileges (as well as for a few other boats.) Panama City had a dingy dock that was free but notoriously bad, due to the high tidal fluctuations. It had a floating dock to tie your dinghy to, and then you had to get in a wobbly boat where you pulled yourself by rope to a set of stairs which were mossy and slippery due to the fact that the stairs were often underwater due to the tides. Let’s just say it sucked. It’s all part of the adventure!  Other place we just landed on the beach, and since we have dingy wheels it is pretty easy to pull her further up, clear of the tide.
  • Distance to Shore – If you are anchored out, and want to get to shore, you want to keep in mind how long of a dinghy ride it will be. If it’s really short, we won’t don’t put the motor on the dinghy (that’s a whole process in itself) and Darold (or Dante) will row us. If it’s a long ride, and if the wind has picked up, it can mean a wet dinghy ride to shore or back to the boat. In Panama, it was notoriously choppy, in the afternoons, going back to the boat and we would inevitably get wet. A a long and wet dinghy ride with groceries or freshly washed laundry in the dinghy is a bummer.
  • Current – It’s important to know what the current will be doing while you’re anchored. In many places up and down the east coast of the U.S., tidal fluctuations during the day will cause a current that will swing your boat 180 degrees a couple of times a day. This can cause your anchor to twist itself loose, but with enough scope and the proper anchor it should reset itself.   It also has an impact on where you point your bow (the front of the boat) when you set your anchor. Generally, you point into the wind when you are anchoring so that the wind will let you drift back while you are letting the chain out, making a nice line of chain along the bottom. However, if the current is overpowering the wind, you need to point your bow instead into the current.
  • Sights and Smells – What you see around you, and how it smells can make an impact on how much you like the anchorage. Pulling into our first anchorage along Mexico’s Gold Coast, I was struck by the earthy, tropical smell (mixed with burning trash, which is more pleasant than you might think) and the verdant green of the surrounding vista. We are currently anchored off the Delaware River near Philadelphia and I will tell you that it is more for convenience than for scenery! We stayed in several really beautiful and serene anchorages off the Intracoastal Waterway in Georgia and North Carolina that we had completely to ourselves. Darold absolutely loves the fact that you can sail during the day on the East Coast, and then pull into a beautiful anchorage in early evening for a proper night’s sleep. We just don’t have that on the West Coast. There was another anchorage in Virginia that had a fish processing plant nearby and we didn’t have the anchor down for more than 15 minutes before we brought it back up and moved.
  • Current and predicted weather – It’s good to keep an eye on what the weather will be doing while you’re at anchor. Thunderstorms can bring high winds that can make you worry about your holding. When we were anchored in the Elizabeth River between Norfolk and Portsmouth, Virginia, we would be gone during the entire day sightseeing. Fortunately, there was a NOAA weather bouy in the anchorage and we could call into a number to find out the conditions in the anchorage.
  • Which anchor? How many? Usually we use only one anchor at a time. However, it can be useful to use two anchors (often off the bow and stern) if you want to make sure that you aren’t swinging on your anchor, or if there is a really strong current that gets in a tug of war with a strong counter wind, which can cause the anchor to twist around itself and against your hull. We used both a bow and a stern anchor while we were in Charleston, South Carolina so that we would stay parallel to the sea wall and not swing into the channel. Which reminds me, you can’t anchor in a channel!
  • Local boater etiquette / traffic – We were recently in a “General Anchorage Area” and the local boaters would motor through the anchorage – often way too close for comfort – leaving a wake in their path that would roll us uncomfortably. Other cities we’ve stayed in have local boaters who mind the “no wake zone” a little better. The most notorious offenders everywhere we’ve seen, including California, are the ferry captains.

We have heard a funny story from cruising friends we’ve met about how they have seen other sailors drop the hook in a crowded anchorage and not leave any scope out – they just simply set the anchor until it just touches the bottom. (Usually these are chartered boats, not cruising boast.) And then they immediately leave to go into town. (We generally wait a little while before leaving to make sure we are properly set.) After watching one boat do this, our friend then saw this boat “drag” (float away). He zipped over in his dinghy, and re-set the runaway boat’s anchor. But instead of setting it in exactly the same spot, he anchored it out further – with proper room to not hit other boats. He wondered what happened when the crew came back (probably after drinking) and looked around and said, “Dude, where’s my boat?”

This may all sound like a lot of work, but it’s actually easier than getting into a marina where you have to get your fenders out, get your lines hooked up, find the slip, navigate into the slip (which can be tricky) and then get settled in. Plus, the price is right..

4 Responses to Dropping the Hook

  1. Melissa

    We just went to Santa Cruz Island for the weekend and your post is perfect. We watched a large powerboat take out three other boats anchors because they were not properly anchored. It took many people several hours to get the situation resolved and everybody re-anchored. It did provide much entertainment for us. We called it “Pelican Bay TV”. Thanks for spelling it out for this “lay person”. I should have read the post before we went as we were using our children as walkie talkies and they sometimes left out some crucial details. Hand signals would have been much better as we were also providing entertainment for others.

  2. Brian

    Very informative. I’m impressed you can back down at 2000 rpm and consistently anchor. I find that sometimes you have to live with 1500 rpm in soft mud. If concerned about a blow, I’d put out a 2nd anchor and then back down full.
    One small quibble. “If we have 10 feet under our keel, we will put out 30 feet of chain.” Fails to get across the point that scope is from the bottom to the point where the chain/snubber comes aboard. On my boat that adds 10 ft (5.5 for the depth of the keel and 4.5 for ht. of bowsprit above surface). 30 feet of chain would give you a scope of 1.5 (30/20) in your example. Your point about the tide is of course critical as well.

  3. Darold Massaro

    Great point, Brian. We do in fact account for the extra length needed from the bottom of the keel (we draw 5.2) to where the chain comes aboard. Thanks for pointing that out.

  4. charles

    This is one of your best posts yet. Just found your blog and have read it through from the beginning to here in two days. I can’t wait to find out what happens next.

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