The Best Tips for Anchoring Your Boat

By: Richard Crowder


Eric Ward / Unsplash

Anchoring in a secluded bay or a popular anchoring spot with family and friends for a day of fishing, swimming, or relaxing can be one of the most rewarding and enjoyable aspects of boating. Anchoring overnight can be that much more enjoyable and forever memorable. These tips are offered to help make your anchoring more stress-free, pleasing, and rewarding.

Every boat, whether powered or not and whether required to by law or not, should carry at least one anchor aboard. Anchors are rated by weight relative to boat length. A general rule of thumb is about one pound of anchor for every 1½ to 2 feet of length. Larger boats doing serious overnight anchoring and in potentially adverse weather conditions may want an anchor of one pound per foot of boat length.

A light-weight navy-style or folding grapnel-style anchor is great for smaller, lighter boats from ten to eighteen feet. Larger runabouts and cruisers needing digging-style anchors for greater holding capabilities can choose from Danforth, CQR, and Bruce plow-style anchors among others.

Plow-style anchors are more popular with cruisers with electric anchor winches and built-in anchor roller systems as they are less likely to damage the boat’s hull while being carried off the boat’s bow. They’re also one-piece so they don’t rattle while the boat is underway. Danforth-style anchors are more popular when the anchor is stored onboard as it stores flatter.

There are four factors that govern the holding power of any anchor: the design of the anchor, the weight of the anchor, the type of bottom, and the angle of pull. Try to choose sand, mud, or gravel bottom for ease of “setting” and releasing the anchor since clay can hinder the release of the anchor and weeds or rocks can make it difficult to set. Anchors are mostly designed to set (dig in) when pulled horizontally along the bottom. A vertical pull is used to retrieve the anchor.

Current Transport Canada Small Vessel Regulations for Pleasure Craft stipulate 15 meters (50 feet) of cable, rope, or chain in any combination for anchoring for sail, power, or personal watercraft up to 9 meters (30 feet) in length; 30 meters (100 feet) for boats up to 12 meters (40 feet) in length; and 50 meters (165 feet) for longer boats. This cable, rope, or chain, once attached to an anchor, is then called a “rode.”


Jesse Orrico / Unsplash

Since cable is rarely used as it is difficult to find, handle, and store, let’s consider rope and chain as anchor rode. Nylon is the rope material of choice for rode for smaller boats due to its strength, stretch, and sinking capabilities. Braided as opposed to twisted nylon is preferred as it coils better and resists “kinking,” it also stretches more to resist jerking and tugging on your boat.

A minimum of ½ or preferably ¾-inch diameter nylon is heavier than required strength-wise for smaller boats, but is easier to handle and is suitable for boats up to about forty feet in length. Pre-made nylon anchor rode comes with a metal-lined end eye that attaches to the anchor using a proper shackle that is much preferable over trying to jury-rig the attachment yourself. The other end of the rode not attached to the anchor is called the “bitter end.”

Make sure your bitter end is always firmly and permanently attached to an eye or a cleat near the bow. You would be surprised how many boaters have lowered their anchor overboard only to have it followed by the bitter end resulting in an anchor and rode forever lost on the bottom of the lake.

Daytime anchoring is a relatively stress-free activity as you’re not likely to choose to anchor if the weather or water is unsavoury. Your chosen anchorage at a beach, bay, or favourite fishing hole is likely to have little wind and wave action or you’re not going to choose to be at anchor that day.

Given the above, proceed at dead slow idle with a spotter at the bow to your desired anchor location. The spotter is to give you at the helm clear instructions to stop, reverse, or proceed to the left or right if any obstruction is spotted in the water that may damage your boat. All passengers aboard must be seated and be told to be prepared for any sudden stoppage or change in direction.

If you are unfamiliar with the body of water you and are looking for a good anchorage, check the most detailed Canadian Hydrographic navigation chart, local cruising guide, or a local guidebook for reference. Recognized anchorages on a chart (or GPS screen) will be shown with an anchor symbol. This symbol also indicates that if you anchor overnight you will not need to show an anchor light as other boaters will expect to find other unmarked boats in the anchorage and exercise due caution.

Once you have found the preferred location for your boat, proceed forward into the prevailing wind at a distance approximately five times the depth of the water (actually, to be precise, five times the sum of the depth of the water plus the distance from the water surface to the bow of your boat where the rode will be attached.) For example, if the water is five feet deep and the bow of your boat is three feet above the water, then that sum is eight feet, and five times that is forty feet, the appropriate length for the anchor rode. Therefore the anchor should be gently lowered to the bottom forty feet into the wind ahead of your chosen final preferred location for your boat. That ratio of length of rode to the depth of water is called the “scope” and a five to one ratio, or scope, is considered optimal. This means there is enough rode ahead of your boat so that the anchor can lay flat and dig in properly with a horizontal pull on the shank of the anchor from the weight of the boat.

Once the anchor is lowered vertically to its resting spot on bottom, slowly reverse the forty feet to your chosen spot while the spotter at the bow gently releases more rode, or, operates the anchor winch as necessary to release more rode. Never, ever, ever “throw” an anchor overboard. Far too many accidents have been caused by the rode getting caught or tangled resulting in a backlash of the anchor causing personal injury or damage to the boat. Once you have reached your chosen spot, tie off the anchor rode to a deck cleat or set the “stopper” on your anchor windlass to prevent the release of more rode.

Choose an anchorage that is sheltered from wind, waves and current, has ideal bottom conditions to hold fast your anchor without obstructions that will snag it, and is out of the way of the main navigation channel. Make sure the water depth is ideal given the amount of rode you have to allow a proper scope, and where there is sufficient surface area to allow your boat to swing (rotate) on the anchor should the wind change overnight.

If you are anchoring in a location where the required scope will place the anchor more than thirty or forty feet ahead of your boat or, in a location where you think the anchor may get snagged on bottom or be difficult to retrieve, you may choose to add a “trip line” to your main holding anchor.

A trip line serves two purposes. It is attached to the base of the anchor so that when pulled, it lifts vertically to dislodge the anchor. It’s also a good idea to attach a float that is highly visible so it floats right above the anchor. This lets other boaters know where your anchor is set so that they won’t cross your anchor rode or place their anchor rode over yours and possibly get tangled.

On setting the main anchor for overnight purposes, you want to ensure that it is digging in to the bottom so that it does not move overnight from any current or wind. Therefore, once you have it set with the proper length of rode, very gently put the boat into reverse and see if the anchor will hold your boat from moving. If set properly, it will. If not set properly, the anchor will “drag” and your boat will move. In this case, try the setting process over again until the anchor does not drag and holds your boat from moving.

You may choose to also set a stern anchor so your boat stays in relatively the same position all night. If close to shore, you may choose instead to tie the stern to large rocks or to the base of a sturdy tree on shore to hold it there for the night. An important note here is that once you have set your anchor(s), always take sight bearings from your boat to a couple of fixed and notable objects on shore, preferably about ninety degrees apart. This is so you can periodically check that your boat is in the same position as when you first set the anchor(s) and has not drifted.

Check these bearings several times before you retire for the night. If you have drifted, you will need to go through the entire process again. Always set your depth alarm before you retire for the night so if you do drift, you will be awakened before any damage can occur. Also, unless in a recognized anchorage, turn on your anchor light from dusk ‘til dawn. If you are in tidal water or in large bodies of water where surging or piling can occur, ensure that your anchor and/or tie lines to shore will allow your boat to ride out any change in water levels.

Retrieving (called “weighing”) your anchor is the reverse process of setting it. Once you have it up and just below the surface of the water, check for any mud or weeds and, with a boat hook to hold onto it, use a deck mop or brush or bow washdown hose to clean it before raising it to its final resting place within the bow roller or on the deck.

Three final tips are essential here. One is to ensure that you attach the anchor safety strap to the anchor if the anchor stays mounted to the anchor roller off the bow. This safety strap is itself attached permanently to a ring on the inside of the anchor locker or to a deck cleat. You do not want that anchor to let loose and tumble down the bow of your boat while you are underway.

The second tip is that whoever is handling the anchor rode when setting or retrieving it should always use a heavy pair of snug-fitting gloves, preferably with a heavy rubberized coating. These will protect your hands and prevent slippage of the rope or chain which often gets quite slimy and slippery.

The third tip is to regularly clean your entire anchor chain or rope., It it’s rope, dry out its entire length to prevent mold buildup. Dry out and clean your anchor and rode locker too from time to time.

Serious overnight anchoring is a combination of art and science coupled with lots of practice and patience to perfect. But once mastered, you will look for every opportunity to enjoy it.


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