February 20, 2011

New Generation Anchors?

Anchor talk in the boating forums is usually heated and opinionated, and lots of fun too! There is lots of discussion right now about what some are calling the "New Generation" anchors, and how they compare to what I guess we must now call the "old generation" anchors. Putting myself into that old generation, some of us feel a bit defensive about the term--they're not old, just well tested! And that is what sets the old generation from the new. Yes, there have been a few well-publicised anchor tests in recent years that were apparently won by the new generation anchors, but if you take a close look at these tests they have some critical flaws.

The test that got these anchor wars rolling in the U.S.A. was the one conducted by West Marine and SAIL magazine, and published back in the fall of 2006. Results also appeared in Yachting Monthly in Europe, and in other publications, with varying degrees of quality in the reporting. The results have been argued about endlessly on the forums, but the general conclusion was that the new generation anchors, including the Rocna, the Spade, and the Manson Supreme, did significantly better than the old generation, except for the aluminum Fortress anchors, which I include in the old generation because they are closely based on the Danforth design.

However, I would argue that this major test was fatally flawed from the get-go, despite the best intentions of the testers and the organizations involved. For some reason unknown to me they chose a location with a firm, hard sand bottom, that was obviously highly variable based on the results. Now, there is nothing wrong with anchoring over sand, which many have to do while cruising in the tropics and other locations, and sand generally produces the highest holding power of any bottom material.

The problem lies in the difficulty in getting a proper anchor set in sand, particularly the hard kind like the type the test was conducted in. Those of us who have dove on anchors in sandy bottoms in places like the Bahamas, Florida, and the Caribbean know that it can be both the most welcoming bottom and the most problematic. Texture can vary from deep, soft, and accepting, to more like the compacted surface of a sandy airport runway, and practically everything in between. The former will produce outstanding holding with almost any anchor while the latter may not allow even the sharpest anchor to penetrate. Holding becomes more a matter of what you can get one point or another of the anchor hooked into.

I can vividly recall numerous anchor sets in the Bahamas, where the water can be crystal clear, where we could apply full reverse on the anchor, yet when I observed it underwater there was nothing hooked in but the tip of the point. To me that is not good holding, and anchor test results generally come to how sharp the anchor's flukes are compared to the competition, possibly how much weight is on the point, and also how lucky you are with where the anchor ends up on the bottom.

Back on that Bahamas bottom where the anchor was barely hooked in I could snorkel around and find a nice dip that might be filled with soft sand providing an ideal nesting place for the hook, once I dragged it over there. I might then sit out a tremendous blow in total confidence knowing the anchor is in a good spot with good holding, but if the boat next to me dragged I also knew it probably had very little to do with the holding power of the anchor and everything to do with the quality of the bottom and the luck of the drop.

This fatal flaw means that the West/SAIL test is near worthless in telling us anything other than the new generation might have some promise. I will take a look at more of these tests in further installments.