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Seamanship: Rethinking Anchoring

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Originally published March 16, 2023

Adam Cove - Sail Magazine

It’s 0930 and we are approaching our destination, having gotten under way early to avoid melting under the Caribbean sun. As my wife, Alison, and I sail Ben-Varrey, a 1969 Luders 33, through the anchorage, we pick out a couple spots that we like and agree on a favorite. I head forward to drop the jib as Alison takes the helm. I return to the cockpit, and we lay out our game plan for dropping anchor, along with a plan B in case something goes awry. We also acknowledge that it’s all right to come around a second time if things aren’t lining up; we’re in no rush.

Under just the main, the boat moves at a calm speed and lets us point as much as we need. We weave among other anchored and moored boats to arrive to our final glide path and turn the boat to irons. As the speed drops, I’m back on the bow to drop the anchor. Alison gives me a signal to let me know our speed is near zero and we’re where we want to be.

With a splash and a light clanking of chain, our anchor heads for the sandy bottom. As it touches, I slow down the chain and let it begin to lay straight out on the bottom as we drift back. While I’m doing this, Alison has already stepped forward to drop the main. It flutters as it descends to the boom. Alison confirms the depth sounding, and we come to a stop as the chain tightens. A healthy 5:1 scope is plenty for these mild conditions in a protected bay. We smile at each other and proceed to tidy up the boat, making sure we’re set, adding a snubber, putting sails away, and coiling lines.

Adam and Alison talk through every anchoring evolution ahead of time.

Adam and Alison talk through every anchoring evolution ahead of time.

Photo by Adam Cove

With our sunshade up and a second breakfast under way, we take turns peering around the harbor as other boats begin to arrive. While a few make quick, efficient work of anchoring—notably a small Farr-designed sloop from the Netherlands who thankfully becomes our neighbor—others don’t fare as well, with many ending up too close to other boats or dragging on the harder bottom with their—at best—2:1 scope. One boat runs aground, while a second uses all of its available horsepower to stop before running aground as we wave them away from the shallows.

The moorings aren’t any better; the balance of the boats seem to be performing circus stunts to lasso them, and the speed at which they approach resembles nautical whack-a-mole—get the moorings fast or they’ll duck underwater and hide. Our favorite move by far comes from the catamaran skippers who motor clear over the mooring at breakneck speeds, throw it hard in reverse, and then pick up the mooring off the transom, scratching their heads at how they are now going to move that line to the bow. There was also the boat that picked up a mooring and remained in gear, spinning around the mooring until the prop cut the mooring line. The mooring ball then went adrift with them as they cursed at the mooring.

This was a typical day in one of the harbors of the Virgin Islands, and a common thread we noticed was a man at the helm and a woman on the bow. Add plenty of yelling from the back of the boat, with occasional choice words, and always lots of boat speed.

Total damage for the day was somewhere around a dozen bruised egos, maybe one divorce, some minor gelcoat scratches, a broken mooring pennant, and hopefully nothing medical. I write this not to pick on these individuals but to say that I’ve made my fair share of mistakes too, and there is a better way.

Ben-Varrey shares an anchorage in the Bahamas with a sharky neighbor.  

Ben-Varrey shares an anchorage in the Bahamas with a sharky neighbor.  

Photo by Adam Cove

Back to Basics

At the community sailing center where I learned to sail, there is a fleet of Cape Cod knockabouts, and one was named Bloody Stump. Rumor had it that one day an instructor approached a mooring way too fast, and the student catching the mooring caught it and refused to let go. The name reflected what was left of the boy’s arm. I doubt the program would still be around if that actually happened, but naming the boat to teach that lesson was pretty clever. From a young age, I knew to approach moorings slowly and that there was nothing wrong with coming around again for another try.

I taught in the same program for seven years, completing hundreds of moorings. If that isn’t the best practice for honing boathandling skills in a crowded harbor, I don’t know what is. Every time was different, and unlike anchoring, we had to hit an exact target—read the waves, the wind, and boat speed so that the boat stopped on her own, right as the bow hovered over the ball. All of this was accomplished through advanced planning and communication as we rolled through the motions. If they spent a summer with us, 8-year-old students could approach a mooring better under sail than most adult cruisers under power.

The same basics we taught those youngsters can be applied to sailors handling bigger boats, and they start with planning and communication. First, examine charts of your desired anchorage in advance. Get familiar with hazards and gain a general sense of the bottom contour (and bottom type, if anchoring). Check the tide. If possible, do a sweep through the anchorage first. Is there current? Is the wind shifty or puffy? Does the chart reflect what you are seeing in real life? Is anyone swimming?

Lay out a game plan when you are not rushed, can hear each other clearly, and can ask questions. This should include a backup plan. Make sure you are on the same page with hand signals, too.

All of this is fairly straightforward, but the next part of the evolution is where you might need to change your thinking and your strategy.

Adam goes for a snorkel after finding a nice spot to drop the hook.

Adam goes for a snorkel after finding a nice spot to drop the hook.

Photo by Adam Cove

When the time comes to anchor or moor, someone needs to be on the bow, and someone at the helm. You want the physically strongest member of your team at the bow, and frequently for a heterosexual cruising couple, this means the man should head forward and the woman should be at the helm—the direct opposite of what we were seeing that morning in the Virgin Islands and that we have seen elsewhere.

To broadly generalize, she probably has more finesse with steering the boat and is more cautious and aware of surroundings. Women are also less likely to have the machismo-fueled ego that almost powered over us a couple months ago as we were sailing up to a mooring (with plenty of empty ones around us).

If anything does need a bit of muscle, the physically stronger person on the bow is better equipped to handle it. If something goes wrong, that power can also be used to rehoist a sail or do whatever else is needed. It provides more options for getting out of trouble, which is always a good seamanship and boathandling strategy.

Many of my cruising friends use this exact arrangement, as do we. There also seems to be far less tension on these boats, which allows for more fun for everyone.

If this a change to your current approach, practice boathandling in open water and then mooring and anchoring in an open harbor. As my father constantly reminded me, quoting Vince Lombardi: “Practice doesn’t make perfect, perfect practice makes perfect.” It takes time to build these skills. You will not only become good at anchoring and mooring, but you will also become a stronger team.

The same thinking should apply to weighing anchor or leaving a mooring. Before jumping to any action, discuss a thought-out approach and familiarize yourself with any previous or new hazards in the area. Place the stronger individual on the bow and make sure your boat is ready to sail.

Sailing is Learning

A college friend recently came to cruise with me for a couple weeks in the Caribbean while Alison was away for work. He has dinghy experience and had spent a few weekends with us on Ben-Varrey before, but he doesn’t sail all that often anymore. I had him take the tiller on and off every anchor and mooring the entire two weeks.

To his credit, he is a very quick study, but we talked through a game plan every time and took our time with each maneuver. I typically leave our electric inboard on standby, just in case, but he did a phenomenal job under sail. Solid communication made everything go smoothly, and he received praise from other boats in the harbors for his boathandling.

Alison and I recently had a challenging time sailing onto a mooring that lay a couple hundred yards off some cliffs. As we made our final approach into the wind and were about to stop on the mooring, the wind swirled around from behind and accelerated the boat at full force towards the mooring. We quickly abandoned the attempt. Given the strange conditions, we regrouped in the cockpit to talk through a new strategy. The next time it didn’t happen, just like during our exploratory pass.

There will always be surprises, so it’s important to be ready to adapt. We knew that if we didn’t get the mooring, the primary objective was to keep the boat away from the cliffs, and that’s exactly what we did; we went back out to safe water. This provided us all the time we needed to reevaluate our strategy.

Sailing is for the curious. We will never be done learning. Work with your crew to elevate each other and build your skills. Reconsider the best position for everyone on board. And when you make mistakes, as we all do, try to make them slowly, and your crew-mates will be able to help you recover

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