SPOTLIGHT: Anchoring Blues

Once in a great while, we find ourselves trying to anchor under the most challenging of circumstances. Of all the places where I have anchored around the world, my worst anchoring nightmare was not too long ago at Little Fisherman’s Cove, Catalina Island.

For those of you who have anchored in that tranquil, little corner of the larger Isthmus Cove, Little Fisherman’s faces a swell from the west but also gets a strong breeze from the isthmus lying to the south. So when our boats naturally nose into the wind, the swell has our boats rocking crazily, dumping plates of food from the dinette table onto the cabin sole and fraying our nerves like exposed hot wires.

The solution for most of us, of course, is to deploy a stern anchor towards the beach, forcing the bow into the swell, calming the vessel’s movement and allowing us to relax. Anchoring bow to the swell with a cross-wind greatly reduces or totally stops the pendulum, offering crew a quieter, more peaceful stay at anchor.

Anchoring properly in a cross-wind, however, requires practice and, just as important, agreement among all skippers in the limited space to follow the same anchoring practice. On this particular occasion, I had anchored my 1966 Cal 30 sloop “Saltaire” fore and aft and was quietly sipping a cup of coffee below decks when I heard an anchor chain being dropped into the cove not far from my vessel. I immediately jumped up to the cockpit and saw a 40-foot ketch with its skipper dropping a single anchor into the shallows. After he was done, I politely asked if he needed help with this stern anchor. “What stern anchor?” he replied, grinning arrogantly.

I explained to him there is no written rule about anchoring procedures in Little Fisherman’s or anywhere else in the Channel Islands for that matter, but our local custom in this cove is to anchor fore and aft to keep from banging into each other.

An intense exchange of words, some of which would have made Captain Bligh blush, ensued for a few seconds until The New Guy flipped me off and finally went down below without having set a stern anchor.

As morning yielded to noon, the southerly breeze began building up through the Isthmus, and the errant vessel slowly began to wander in my direction. I popped up again into the cockpit and yelled, “Hey, your boat is getting too close! Hurry up and do something!”

The New Guy popped his head out of the companionway, flashed me a scowl and angrily stomped toward the foredeck. I was hoping he would get in his dinghy and drop a stern anchor near the beach. So what the heck was he planning to do with the bow anchor? Shortening the chain would still keep his boat within swing range of my boat and lengthening the chain could have had him hitting another boat on his port side.

Slowly, The New Guy began cranking up the bow anchor. Within a few minutes, he had stowed the anchor and was underway out of the anchorage. While I was happy to see the embittered skipper leave, a part of me wished he had simply followed local practice and set a stern anchor, assuming he had one onboard. I can’t imagine any ocean-going vessel without a minimum of three anchors, each with ample chain and nylon rode, stowed aboard.

As I reflected on The New Guy’s untimely departure from Little Fisherman’s Cove, I wondered, did he know how to set a stern anchor? And if not, how many other sailors out there still need to learn this important skill?


Setting the Bow Anchor

            The first, most critically important step in anchoring is selecting the spot to drop the bow anchor. When anchoring in a cross-wind, your goal is to point at a more or less 90-degree angle into the swell while temporarily allowing swing room for the cross-wind. Your depth sounder will tell you how much chain or rode you will need to pay out for the bow anchor, with a three-to-one ratio being the absolute minimum.

Naturally, a physical obstacle downwind of the vessel makes this procedure all the more challenging. Such an obstacle could be another vessel, a coral or stone reef or worse, a cliff with sharp, protruding rocks ready to attack the hull like cutlass-waving pirates.

            Drop the bow anchor at your selected spot, allowing for a bit of hull drift, depending on wind speed. If possible, pay out a bit less chain than you actually plan to use, perhaps slightly more than a two-to-one ratio. Naturally, wind speed, tidal current and sea bed conformation will dictate how much chain you need initially.

After setting the anchor, spend a few minutes observing the boat’s position. If you detect anchor drag, either pay out more chain or reset it a little farther upwind. When you set off in your dinghy with the stern anchor, you need to be assured of your main vessel’s safety, plus the safety of surrounding boats as well.


Setting the Stern Anchor

Before dropping the stern anchor, be sure to tie the rode to a rear deck cleat. With the dinghy secured to the side of the main vessel’s hull, hang the stern anchor on the dinghy’s transom and pay out the chain and rode into the dinghy between the thwart and the transom, right under your feet, keeping the rode attached to the main vessel. Next, proceed to the spot where you intend to drop the stern anchor, paying out nylon rode and then chain as you close the distance.

Drop the stern anchor right off the transom and row back to the main vessel. Once back aboard the mothership, you can fine-tune the anchoring arrangement by adjusting the two anchor rodes for best angle into the swell. To retrieve the stern anchor, first untie the rode from its deck cleat and pull the dinghy up to the anchor as you haul up the anchor chain and rode.

Setting and retrieving the stern anchor takes more work than the bow anchor, but a stern anchor can be the key to happiness when anchored bow to the swell in a cross-wind. It takes practice, but it pays off.


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