Taking the ‘adventure’ out of anchoring

Guest perspective/Michael Camarata

Many boat owners leave their home marinas for a weekend or a summer cruise only to go to other marina docks or, perhaps, a mooring field. They never anchor. Maybe they’re afraid. Or nervous. Or perhaps it’s simply inexperience. There’s nothing wrong with patronizing these important businesses. They provide security, and are a base for services boat owners need. They’re a major contributor to the economies of their communities. And, they make cruisers comfortable. Ah, comfort.

As full-time liveaboard cruisers, my wife Carol, and I, like comfort. We don’t think adventures, in the pejorative sense of the word, are something to aspire to. We cruise a few thousand miles each year on the snowbird circuit to the Florida Keys and back, and do everything we can to avoid adventures. Anchoring instead of docking doesn’t have to be an adventure. We don’t look down upon boaters that never anchor. In fact, we really appreciate them. They leave more room for us!

To our way of thinking marinas have several major disadvantages. They have other boaters there. They have kids running around. They have music from different boats competing with each other. They have vehicles moving around, creating dust and noise. They have conversations going on we’d rather not hear . . . at 2 a.m. But the biggest issue? Marinas want our money. Lots of it. When we’re cruising south there are a number of docks that are provided at no cost (with time limits) for cruisers, and all these disadvantages seem to disappear. We can put up with a lot more, apparently, if it’s free.

Even if you never anchor, you really should be prepared to. Being on a boat means unplanned things can happen. Weather changes. Engines break down. Sails shred. Fun stuff like that. Your anchor can save your boat, or even your life.

Who am I to talk about anchoring? Well, I’ve been anchoring for more than 30 years. I’ve taught and taken United States Power Squadron courses for about the same length of time. And, for the last eight years, Carol and I have cruised the ICW (AIWW), anchoring nearly every night we’re underway. Each year we pay for slips about four times. We pay for a mooring in our homeport of Mystic, Conn., and in Marathon, Fla., for part of the winter. That’s it. We anchor at least 60 nights a year.

There are many different anchors to choose from these days, and designs have changed a bit in 30 years. Different anchors are better in different types of bottoms, so you have to look at your charts to see if you have mud, sand, gravel or grass. You can read the advertising brochures as a guide, but, remember, all the manufacturers will claim theirs is the best. A few years ago “Cruising World” and “Practical Sailor” magazines did a joint-study on different anchors. That would be a good place to start with your research. My advice is not to buy the latest and greatest anchor. Wait until it has a track record. I’ve seen’em come and go. Although some have proved to be excellent, I’d rather wait until cruisers start recommending them, not the advertisers.

It’s not just the anchor that’s important. It’s the entire system. The swivels, shackles, chain and rope all contribute to anchoring safely and securely. They must all be sized correctly and secured so they can’t come undone. Though the manufacturer’s guides are pretty good for anchor, chain and rope sizes, I tend to go a little bigger (although not more than two sizes bigger, except for a storm anchor).

Once you have a proper-sized anchor, you need the right diameter nylon line (the rope) and the correct size chain to prevent chafing on the bottom. Many guides will tell you the minimum length of chain is 6 to 8 feet. My own personal preference is that it should match the length of the boat. When this isn’t possible, especially aboard smaller boats, try to get chain at least half the boat’s length.

Next, you’ll need to know the depth of the water you’re anchoring in. That is, how deep it will get and the height of your bow above the water. Also, while this might seem obvious, be sure there’s enough water at low tide. Add the maximum depth to your bow height and multiply by seven. That’s your scope, or how much rode (chain and line) you’ll need to let out.

Don’t throw the anchor. Stop your vessel and lower the anchor from the bow to the bottom. Pay out the rode as you slowly back your boat down and start some resistance when you get to a scope of about 3-to-1. At about 5-to-1, start snubbing your rode to set the anchor and secure the rode, and then come out of gear at 7-to-1. Now recheck your location in relation to other boats, the shore and other hazards. Consider backing down a bit more. Re-anchor if anything doesn’t seem right. Make sure you’ve anchored where you’re protected from the wind, or from a future forecasted wind direction. Plan the direction in which you’ll escape should the wind pick up more than expected, or from a non-forecasted direction. It happens.

If you have a vessel 35’ or more, you should consider using an all-chain rode. This means you have to have a windlass, as that much chain is heavy. Your boat itself has to be able to handle the weight, too. But, with all chain, you can reduce your scope to 5-to-1, as long as there’s a nylon section of line to absorb shock loads and to keep the chain from chafing your boat.

How many anchors should you have aboard? At least two, preferably three. And they should be different types and sizes. One should be much larger than the others, to use as a storm anchor. I have a large Fortress for that purpose. The relatively light weight of this anchor allows me to oversize the anchor and still not have too much weight on my bow.

When anchoring, you need to consider what other boats around you have out to figure their swing circle compared to yours. When anchoring next to European boats, keep in mind that many of them think Americans use way too much scope. With chain they rarely go over a 3-to-1 scope, and only 5-to-1 with mixed rode. Stay clear of previously anchored boats, but don’t shorten scope if newcomers say you have too much out. It’s your boat and your crew’s safety you need to worry about.

An option to decrease your scope, should it be necessary, is to use two anchors in-line. Attach 10 to 20 feet of chain and a second anchor ahead of your primary anchor. This is attached to the trip-line hole on the primary anchor. In storm conditions, however, don’t shorten scope. In any kind of adverse weather consider a scope of at least to 10-to-1.

There are many more options and opinions regarding anchoring. Consider taking a United States Power Squadron or U.S. Coast Guard Auxiliary boating course. Or read Charles F. Chapman’s “Piloting, Seamanship and Small Boat Handling.” This was the source material for many USPS courses, as Chapman was one of its founders.

Anchoring doesn’t have to be an adventure. With the right gear, following a few simple guidelines, anchoring can be incredibly safe – many experienced cruisers we know actually trust their gear more than a mooring. A good set will not only give you peace of mind, but it will reassure the folks moored and anchored around you. Here’s to a good night’s sleep.

Michael Camarata and his wife and co-captain Carol Zipke are full-time liveaboard cruisers, mostly snowbirds, whose home is the 44-foot catamaran, Infinite Improbability. They’ve been boating for more than 35 years, and, Mike says, “no longer do we own any dirt-based property.” They are both Senior Navigators and Past Commanders of the Waterbury (Conn.) Power Squadron of the USPS. Mike is also a Cruising Editor for the “Waterway Guide” (Northern Edition).