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How to Choose an Anchor - 'A Friend In Need'

By: Captain Bill Jennings

A few years ago while running the final leg of an offshore racing event we experienced an engine oil pressure loss and were forced to stop. Being in lumpy seas, halfway between Bimini and mainland Florida, it seemed like a good idea to call in a "PAN" to the U.S. Coastguard. Their response was a total surprise.

"Do you have an anchor?" came the reply. "Well, use it."

I hadn't thought about it before, but unless there is imminent danger to life and limb, rescue organizations are not obliged to send help. While at the time I thought the USCG were not very sympathetic, I can certainly understand their position. I simply figured incorrectly that rescue organizations are just waiting to help boaters with an oil pressure problem. This is not the case. Think about the huge number of boaters who have problems that don't place them in grave danger. Rescue operations could never keep up with this many boater problems, and it is at times like this when a simple anchor can save the day.

An emergency on small lakes may not be as serious as one on open seas, but in either case you still need to buy enough time to find a solution. The best way to do this is to carry an anchor and use it to prevent a small problem from growing bigger. An anchor will provide the time needed to keep you safe without drifting into solid ground.

Taking the urgency out of a breakdown by setting an anchor also gives you some time to analyze the situation, take proper action, and perhaps resolve the problem yourself. If your mechanical ability is limited to opening the engine hatch, you can use your VHF or cell phone to call for assistance.

As long as you lower the anchor connected to the bow your boat will 'weathercock' into the wind, eliminating the risk of water flooding over your transom.

We should note here that insurance companies expect boaters to carry appropriate anchors and know how to use them. If you encounter a situation where an anchor could have saved damage and you didn't use one, your insurance could be voided or at least result in a large price hike.

While I have been referring to using an anchor as an emergency tool, most boaters think of anchors as being used for overnight mooring. This application opens up multiple factors to be considered. Anchors come in many types and sizes, all of which today are designed to hook into the bottom. The major design types on the market are Danforth, Fortress, Mushroom, Bruce, Traditional, Delta, and CQR (or 'plow'). Holding power is generally proportional to the size of the anchor flukes and weight of the anchor. But sea bottoms can vary from soft mud to hard rock and can be covered with grass or kelp and these different conditions affect the performance and effectiveness of the various types of anchors.

Some anchor designs can be difficult to remove if snagged, while others release easily. If you think your anchor could snag, attach what is called a "trip line." It is simply a line attached to your anchor that runs straight up to a floating buoy or fender you set on the surface. If the anchor seems stuck, pulling directly up on the trip line should break it free.

For smaller recreational day boats smaller anchors, nicknamed "lunch hooks," will often suffice, but for cruisers and yachts boaters need to refer to charts that detail different anchor strengths for different loads and varying wind forces. Such charts can be found through a basic internet search. As you would expect, the heavier the anchor the more difficult it is to deploy, recover, and store.

And then we should consider "rode" requirements. The rode is the line that runs from your anchor, to where it is attached to your bow. For smaller recreational boats, one-inch twisted three strand nylon is most commonly used, along with a few feet of chain and shackle attached to the anchor ring, or head. The chain section helps position the anchor shank flat on the bottom, so in its horizontal position it can effectively pull the flukes into the ground. Again, for large boat rode details you should refer to available test charts.

The term "scope" refers to the ratio between the rode length and depth of the anchor. A longer rode length creates a greater scope ratio and provides a flatter pull on the shank for the best "set" of the anchor. A scope of at least 7 to1 is recommended for a nylon rode.

An anchor windlass at the bow can be a necessary accessory for yacht and cruiser anchors, but where a windlass is not used regularly it can tend to stick or foul, so for a small boat I find arm strength is the easiest answer. If you do have a windlass, be sure the chain portion of your rode is compatible with the windlass gears.

You may have heard of a "storm anchor" or "drogue." It is a great accessory for any boat because it is light, inexpensive, and can be folded for easy storage. It attaches to the bow and when tossed over the bow, acts like a parachute under water. While a storm will blow your boat in one direction, the parachute anchor drags in the water, keeping your bow pointing into the waves and preventing water from washing over the stern.

Good seamanship dictates that all boaters know how to anchor properly. Even in a small boat, an anchor can prove invaluable in an emergency. The small price and a little added weight are worth it.

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