September 25, 2023

It's you, not your anchor

We all have a tendency to blame the hammer when we hit our thumbs. It's the same with anchors. You sail into a beautiful but crowded harbor, drop the hook while looking forward to celebrating with an evening cocktail, only to find the darn thing isn't holding and instead of that Marguerita you get to look forward to pulling on a mucky chain. Sometimes this process is repeated several times until something goes right and you have a solid bite, or you give up and look for a mooring.

Since I've been anchoring cruising boats for close to half a century I've had many moments of reflection around this problem. Perusing several online cruising forums, I am not alone in pondering why an anchor works sometimes and not others.

Yes, there are elements of luck at play here. For example, we once dropped our hook into a deep hole in the middle of Annapolis Harbor and sat like on a heavy mooring while boats dragged all around us in some severe squalls. On the other side of the coin, we once were dragging our anchor merrily through Newport harbor in a modest bit of wind. When we pulled it up the anchor was firmly wedged in a lobster trap that was not generating much holding power.

Then there are bottom types that are not conducive to a good night's sleep, like the jelly like ooze found up creeks in the Chesapeake. No matter how much you back down on your anchor it just drags through the ooze. Or, the runway like bottom we encountered when anchored off of Tulum in Mexico. I spent an hour walking anchors around on the bottom trying to stick each point into any tiny indentation in the bottom. We spent a restless night hanging on three anchors and as much chain as I dared put out, and it was mostly just the weight holding us in place.

But, more often than not what I see is abundant evidence that we are actually doing something wrong when the anchor doesn't hold. I'm not talking about hurricane conditions. Most of the dragging I have observed has been during normal blows, like thunderstorms, frontal passages, or sometimes just a freshening breeze.

The first piece of evidence for our fallible nature has been observed on my own boat more than once. We drop the hook, it doesn't hold, then we redrop more carefully and all is good through whatever winds come along.

The second piece of evidence is observing this exact same thing on many hundreds of boats on many more nights all around me. Two boats come in to anchor. They both have the same anchor. One holds, the other doesn't. 

The third piece of evidence is observing how people drop their hooks, including on my own boat. When we first got our Mantus we eagerly dropped it in one of our favorite spots where I know the bottom like I do my own. We proceeded to drag that thing all over the place as we backed down. My first thought was, "So much for these so-called "New-Gen" anchors!" But, after pulling the anchor up it was obviously fouled with our own chain wrapped around one of the ears supporting the hoop. Thinking back to the anchor drop we had dumped a bunch of chain way too fast and right on top of the anchor because I had left the anchor brake way too loose. We proceeded to back down and the pile of chain just wrapped up the anchor.

Other times when we have dragged our initial set I have rechecked my scope and realized that I didn't have enough chain out. This is easy to do in a crowded harbor where you are trying to fit in between other boats already at anchor. Another bad move is to try and anchor in a known weedy area, only to fail to hold while cursing the anchor that comes up with a giant ball of grass.

The big problems I see regularly were listed in the previous post here, along with my prescription for doing it right. 

My final piece of evidence for this problem is mostly in the past when we anchored everywhere from Labrador to the Caribbean without the benefit of New-Gen anchors, all-chain rode, windlasses, or scientific anchor testing. We used steel Danforths, CQRs, Bruces, and the occasional fisherman pattern anchor, and we did it successfully in the same places we are struggling with anchors today that have been tested to provide much greater holding power. Yes, the New-Gen anchors set easier and better, and have greater holding power, but it is really overkill in most situations. I've rode out full gales on both generations of anchors in the same location. I see people today doing the same who haven't bothered to change to a New-Gen anchor for some reason. Just the other day I was anchored close to a group that included CQRs, a Bruce, a Spade, a Danforth and some Rocnas. It was the Rocnas that dragged for some reason.

Using these new wonderful tools has spoiled us to the point we expect them to just work no matter what we do. Dump them over the side on all-chain rodes, then break out of the cocktails! Unfortunately, it is not that simple. Before blaming your tools make sure you are using them properly!

See the previous post.

September lighting


August 29, 2023

Cuttyhunk anchoring thoughts

This summer we spent a significant amount of time anchored in Cuttyhunk Pond, one of our favorite spots. We've been anchoring there for more than 40 years so I know it very well. The anchorage in the Pond has a reputation for being crowded and with poor holding, but we have found out over many years there is almost always room for one more boat! 

The reputation for poor holding is well-deserved if you drop the hook in the wrong part of the Pond. Many areas are very grassy, to the point that some people can never get an anchor to hold. However, the main portion of the dredged basin, northeast of the mooring field, has good holding in mostly mud. We've rode out gales there and numerous thunderstorm gusts.

This post will not go into all the nuances of anchoring in Cuttyhunk, but instead is a collection of random thoughts collected while observing numerous boats anchoring in all weather. For further thoughts on Cuttyhunk anchoring just use the search function.

1. Lots of boats don't even consider anchoring in Cuttyhunk Pond. I see them every day circling around the mooring field searching for an available mooring. If the search fails they often head outside to search for a rental mooring in the outer anchorage. Many, if not most, of these boats sports a decent looking anchor on the bow that presumably is connected to a decent anchor rode, but they just don't want to use the gear. Is this because they perceive the anchorage as too crowded? Sometimes, but on other days I have observed this same behavior when I am the only boat at anchor. In our more than 40 years of visiting Cuttyhunk the only time I used a rental mooring is during Hurricane Bob, but I backed it up with multiple anchors on long rodes. Apparently anchoring is becoming something that people don't want to do.

2. I've carefully observed hundreds of other boats pulling or dropping anchors before and after dragging in a blow, and I can make the following observations about anchors. Without a doubt the new-gen anchors with rollbars perform the best and are least likely to drag. We've been using a Mantus since they first came out and it has never failed us. Danforth-type anchors and Fortresses seem to mostly be used by power boats these days, but once in awhile I see a sailboat using one. If they get it dug in and back down hard, no problem. But, sudden wind shifts often dislodge the Danforth-types. There are lots of CQR and Delta anchors still in use, and in calm weather they seem fine. Many survive big blows, but I have also seen a lot of draggers using them. If I see a Bruce or claw-type anchor going down I become very wary of that boat--lots of draggers use those. Various other anchors seem to have mixed performance. The other night a traditional schooner came in, casually threw a Spade anchor on all-nylon rode over the side, anchored in a bad spot close to the moorings, and then proceeded to ride out several blows that sent other boats dragging. On the other hand, I have noticed more than once Spades being pulled up by dragging boats, and inevitably the entire scoop is one big ball of mud and weeds.

3. The #1 problem I see every day is the use of too little anchor rode. Boats come in, let out some chain and sometimes line, then start to back down hard on what is obviously too short a scope--you can tell by the angle the rode makes as the boat slides backwards. Other times, they don't bother to back down at all. Even if you feel it is too crowded to lie to traditional (and safe) 5:1 scope I find that most anchors require at least that much to set properly. Once you've set the anchor hard with the engine, and there is no perceptible dragging, then you can shorten up to as little as 3:1 if you are using an all-chain rode. Just be prepared to let out more if the wind picks up, which it often does at 2am!

4. The #2 problem is dropping the hook in one of the weedy areas outside of the dredged square on the chart. This is done mostly by smaller power craft, but sometimes tried by big cruising cats too. It often takes multiple tries to dig down through the weed in those spots, and with each try the anchor comes up completely fouled with weed. People with power windlasses controlled from the cockpit sometimes have no idea why their anchor is dragging after multiple tries. Check your anchor visually if for some reason it doesn't hold! We have occasionally found upon inspection that we somehow fouled our own anchor with our anchor chain after spinning around and around it in light winds.

5. This last point has to do with these light winds likely to be encountered during lazy summer sailing. Sure, your anchor has been holding great on short scope for a few days, but consider resetting it if a big blow is predicted. This is particularly important if a dramatic wind shift will occur. An anchor that held well in light air from the southwest may not be well positioned to pivot and re-dig in when the 2am blast comes in from the northeast. You may also want to consider putting out a second anchor in these situations, but you have to be careful in a crowded anchorage not to limit your swinging in such a way that other boats on one anchor will swing into you. If when anchored in the prevailing wind your stern is close to the shallows, it is probably safe to consider putting out a second anchor on those shallows. When the wind swings around to come from the direction of the shallows you will stay in place while everyone else on single anchors moves away from you.

Lake Bonita