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Make anchoring less of a drag

A longtime liveaboard offers his tips and techniques for successfully hanging on the hook

A longtime liveaboard offers his tips and techniques for successfully hanging on the hook

When we moved aboard in 1979, we relished the freedom of living on the hook. We’d anchored many times before that, but not as a lifestyle cornerstone. Since then, we’ve anchored for literally thousands of nights in every type of bottom, and in weather ranging from ideal to hurricanes and tornadoes. And we still love it.

When you’re anchored out and see a town or city across the water, its hassle muffled by breeze and wave, your detachment makes you appreciate more deeply not only the beauty of being at sea, but also the life ashore from which you know you can escape. But if not properly executed, anchoring can be a stress maker and a cruise breaker. Even if you own a dayboat, good tactics are critical. You never know when hooking the bottom can save your life or your boat.

Our favorite anchors

We use a CQR and Fortress as our two primary anchors, and always carry both on board. In some bottoms nothing holds well, but we’ve found that between these two anchors we have options that work best for us in the greatest number of circumstances.

The CQR has proven itself repeatedly and has been a favorite among hard-core cruisers for many years. It can deeply bury itself in good bottom, and in the rare times it breaks free, it usually resets quickly. The Fortress will hold in bottoms good for the CQR, as well as in some bottoms where the CQR won’t hold, such as hard-packed sand or soft mud. Made of high tensile aluminum magnesium alloy, the Fortress anchor has an impressive weight-to-holding power ratio, which is important when you carry two hooks.

Fortress models FX-85 and FX-125 recently received the “Super High Holding Power” rating from Norwegian certification agency Det Norske Veritas. (Fortress anchors also have a lifetime warranty.) However, these anchors can pull out and slide along without resetting if the current or wind reverses and the rode snags on the stock as the boat moves in the opposite direction from which you set the hook. The same goes for any anchor of this configuration. Therefore, if we expect those conditions and the bottom is appropriate for the CQR, that’s the anchor we deploy.

Chain, chain, and more chain

Using chain for your rode — the more the better — is invaluable to successful anchoring. Its weight makes the direction of the pull more horizontal to the bottom, which helps with setting and holding. And it won’t be cut by sharp objects on the bottom.

Popular myth has it that chain lacks elasticity. Chain actually provides great elasticity if used properly. Its weight dragging along the bottom dampens sudden jerks. I’ve often dived to the bottom to watch rode and anchor react as storm gusts blow through. Usually the stress of the gusts, even very strong ones, never reaches the anchor secured by chain. It’s absorbed as it tries to pull the chain along and out of the bottom. Nylon rode can whip and snap short, sometimes pulling out the anchor.

We add more elasticity to our all-chain rode by attaching a nylon snubbing line with a chain hook. Once the anchor is set, we droop the chain from its roller, down under the water surface, and back up to the end of the snubbing line, as shown in the illustration below. The snubbing line should be thin enough to provide as much elasticity as possible without breaking easily. We use half-inch snubbing line for our 53-foot motorsailer. (We’d use heavier nylon for a primary rode.)

With properly deployed chain, the anchor often never knows there’s a blow. Before the force of the gust ever reaches the anchor, it must lift the weight of the drooping chain to straighten the rode’s pull, overcome the elasticity of the nylon snubbing line, then pull the chain along through the mud or sand and lift up its weight. If the snubbing line breaks, the chain jerks tight like an alarm, and you can put on another snubber.

Deploy at least 5-to-1 scope, measuring from the top of your prow. If weight and space prevent an all-chain rode on your boat, use as much chain as you can.

Choosing your spot

It’s important to carefully choose where you will anchor. Determine the bottom contour by looking at your chart and carefully circling while reading the depth finder. We have a depth finder in the dinghy to check out really questionable areas. Assume that wind and current will change during the night, so you’ll need enough room to swing around and clear any submerged shoals or obstacles.

Don’t anchor too close to other boats — the more separation, the better. Determine where the anchors of nearby boats are located. Boats anchored with chain won’t drag the rode across the bottom in light wind or current, resulting in a situation where the anchor may be off the stern even though the chain runs off the bow and into the water. If necessary, ask the skipper about his or her anchor location.

Consider the swinging characteristics of your boat and others nearby. For example, current will have greater effect on a boat with deep keel and low windage, while wind will have more of an effect on a large, boxy boat. Also, a boat anchored with mostly nylon rode will sail all over the harbor, possibly breaking free in a squall, while a boat with all-chain rode likely will ride more stably.

Bottom conditions

Soft sand and mud of moderate viscosity offer great holding. Mud with gray clay is even better, but it requires more work to dig the anchor in. Exceptionally soft mud might not grab your CQR sufficiently, but you’ll probably get the Fortress to dig in.

If you can’t see the bottom, ask other anchored boats, look for notations on the chart, and study nearby shoreline for clues as to what’s below. If all else fails, briefly drag your CQR along the bottom on very short scope (not in grass or coral), pull it up and see what’s there. Good mud should still be clinging, as will traces of soft mud. Sand usually washes off. You’ll feel or hear a rocky bottom through the chain.

Never anchor in or near coral; it is living. And avoid anchoring in grass or rock. Grass may hold temporarily, but as the winds blow and that last root breaks, you’ll find yourself scudding along with a clod on your anchor. (In some protected areas, particularly in Florida, you can be severely fined for anchoring in grass.) Edges of rock can break without warning, and reversal of the direction of pull can easily dislodge a wedged-in anchor.

If you must anchor in grass or rock, we’ve found that a grappling hook or a kedge anchor (also known as a fisherman’s or yachtsman’s anchor) works well. Owners of smaller boats usually prefer the grappling hook because they come in smaller sizes and, if they have folding flukes, stow easier.

Setting the anchor

One person should be at the bow when setting the hook. Doing it all with the push of a button from the helm may be fine for a quick stop where you’ll be awake and watching, but you should do much more for overnight or weather anchoring. The people at the bow and helm must be able to communicate. We use hand signals and sometimes voice-activated headset walkie-talkies. Some of these have a voice activation threshold that cuts off the first part of your statement, so test them before you buy.

Back down slowly, steadily increasing rpm. The forces involved in anchoring can be powerful, so keep clear to avoid getting hurt. The rpm necessary to dig in the anchor varies with the boat and circumstances. For example, in soft mud you may have to begin very slowly with a CQR. It’s best to overdo it, as long as you don’t overstress your gear. When backing down, you should have the rode secured to the boat at a strong cleat or other appropriate point. Do this with heavy nylon line if you use all chain. We use a chain hook to attach the nylon line to the chain, securing the nylon to the cleat. Most windlasses aren’t designed to be used as tethering points.

After you think you’re set, there’s more to do for ultimate peace of mind. Let the boat move forward some and then back down on the drooping rode, shifting into neutral just before it tightens. If you’re set well, the boat will jerk, its bow pointing to your anchor. I’ve often watched the process from under water, and this final step can make a huge difference between being superficially set and well set. If the anchor jerks free, be thankful it did so at this point rather than at 2 a.m.

Some think an anchor buoy is desirable because it shows where the anchor is, and it can be used to pull out the hook should it become snagged on the bottom (very rare). An anchor buoy, in fact, can be a hazard. Passing boats may snag it and pull your anchor free. It can capsize dinghies traveling through the anchorage in the dark. And it may foul on your prop or rudder when you swing over it, pulling out the anchor and leaving you dragging along, helpless.

I don’t recommend using an anchor buoy unless you really expect to snag a log or debris and think you may need to pull your anchor out backward. There are specific tactics for unsnagging ground tackle, but that’s beyond the scope of this article.

Two hooks or one?

We almost never use two anchors at the same time. If the rodes become twisted as the boat swings — and it almost always will — getting them untwisted in order to raise the anchors can be difficult, time consuming and dangerous. Sometimes you need to move quickly, as when another boat is dragging down on you, possibly in the dead of night during a storm. Also, if you have two hooks out, you’ll swing differently from nearby boats that have one out, and there will be greater likelihood of bumps in the night in crowded harbors.

Although we frequently anchor in severe conditions, we’ve rarely dragged the CQR or Fortress when set well in good bottom. There are three situations, however, when we will deploy two anchors. First, if we expect suddenly reversing strong current or wind that may pull the anchor out when the boat swings in the opposite direction from which the hook was set, and we’re in a place where it won’t have time to reset before the boat enters a danger area. Second, if our anchorage is too confined to allow the boat to swing around on its rode and we need to keep the boat essentially in the same spot if the wind or current changes. And third, if we expect very severe weather from one direction and we’re concerned about just one anchor holding.

In the first two situations we set anchors from the bow using the “Bahamian moor,” with one up-current (or upwind) and the other down-current (or downwind) from the area where we wish to locate the boat. We set them from opposite directions, usually first setting the up-current anchor by backing down on it, then dropping back roughly twice the length of our anticipated rode and setting the down-current hook by carefully motoring forward. We then take in the first rode to center the bow between the two anchors (see illustration at right).

The boat is held essentially in one spot, although it will spin bow to current or wind. When the current or wind reverses, it won’t pull backward on either anchor. Be careful to avoid snagging either rode on your keel or running gear. This can happen when motoring forward while setting the second anchor, or if you secure the rodes without leaving enough slack for them to clear the boat’s bottom as it swings around. Chain rode diminishes this risk.

In the third situation, we deploy both anchors from the bow and set them in a V out in the direction of the expected wind. We only deploy anchors from the bow. It’s a bad idea to anchor by bow and stern unless you’re in a very small boat in calm weather and current — and have a close enough relationship with The Almighty to know it’s going to stay that way. You should have a very compelling reason to anchor bow and stern, because this setup prevents the boat from swinging its bow to the current or wind, and can create an overwhelming force on your gear.


Unless you have a small boat, a good electric or hydraulic anchor windlass isn’t merely a convenience; it’s a safety item. You’ll need it most when a super squall howls through in the middle of the night and you break loose, or someone else drags by, snags your rode and pulls you loose. Until you get the anchor clear of the bottom and most of the way out of the water, your boat will be largely out of control and sliding sideways downwind, perhaps toward a reef or another boat. You will also be in danger of fouling your rode in your prop as you try to motor-muscle your boat into the wind.

You need a strong windlass to get the anchor in quickly. Then you must reset in the dark, rain and wind. It isn’t unusual to have difficulty resetting in these conditions, which means you may drag again and will have to get your gear up quickly each time. You’ll probably be a quivering, wet mass collapsed on the foredeck unless you have a good windlass working for you.

We’ve used a Lofrans for years, and like it. We prefer a horizontal windlass rather than a vertical one because it allows more versatility, and I like having the motor and gearbox above deck for easy servicing.

To power an electric windlass, it’s crucial to have a strong and appropriate bow battery bank, or a more-than-adequate and properly breakered DC wire run in a conduit back to your main bank. If you use bow batteries, consider AGMs because of their tough internal construction, lower likelihood of venting gas, and relatively high cold-cranking amp rating and significant reserve capacity for repeat usage. If you don’t want to go to that much expense, at least get a high-quality flooded-cell battery, such as the Rolls Series 3000. There are significant charging issues for a bow battery bank, but these are beyond the scope of this article.

Boats and circumstances on the water are as variable as the waves. Other tactics and equipment may better suit different situations, for example severe storm anchoring. I’ve shared what works well for us and many others. Perhaps someday we’ll share an anchorage. n

Tom Neale is an experienced writer, lecturer and boater who has lived aboard and cruised full-time since 1979. His current fleet of eight boats ranges from a kayak to the Gulfstar 53-foot motorsailer on which he and his wife live and work.