Anchoring is an important part of boating. Knowing how to “stick yourself to the ground” comes in handy when you want to fish in the morning, relax at the sandbar in the afternoon, or pause in a cove when entertaining in the evening. Different boats will have different nuances to the anchoring process but overall, the steps are the same and mastering them is essential to building your seamanship skills.
Identify a safe anchoring area
Before you drop the hook, you’ll want to find a safe space out of the way of shipping channels, underwater or surface obstacles, and other boat traffic.
Check for wind and current
Changing conditions can make your previously well-chosen space less safe. Strong currents can make the anchor drag (slip out of its original position), winds can push you close to surface hazards such as rocks or other boats, and a dropping tide may leave you high and dry. Check the tide and current tables and consider how much swinging room (your boat’s movement around a set anchor) you have if things change.
Try to figure out bottom consistency
Charts should help you determine what kind of bottom structure you’re anchoring in – is it sand, mud, rocks or grass/weeds? Sand and mud will hold well but rocks can foul an anchor and weeds will make it not set properly. You can’t determine everything about bottom conditions, but cartography will give you an idea.
Determine how much rode you’ll need
Rode is the line and/or chain that is connected to the anchor at one and the boat at the other. You’ll need a certain scope (length of rode) that’s based on the depth of the water where you anchor. You’ll need 5-7 times the length of rode to the depth of water. For example, if you’re anchoring in 20 feet of water, you’ll need 100-140 feet of rode to anchor safely. This may change with conditions (incoming storm with high winds will require more rode) and a tight swinging room (other boats being too close will mean less rode).
Drop the anchor
In stable conditions, it’s best to deploy the anchor slowly and (typically) off the bow. If you drop or throw a small anchor, the flukes may become entangled in the rode and the anchor won’t set properly. When you do things slowly, it’s also easier to keep track of how much rode you’re putting out.
Set the anchor
Once the proper amount of scope is out, cleat the line and power in reverse to set the anchor into the bottom structure. Don’t hold the line in your hand or you risk getting hurt. If two people are anchoring, communication will be key and can be done with hand signals if necessary. Once the anchor is taught, the anchor is holding or “set”. Power in reverse a little harder to make sure it doesn’t break free.
Note your position and have patience
Once you’re set, check that you landed where you thought you would when you started the process. Take two bearings on stationary objects like fixed markers or structures on land. These reference points should be 90 degrees to one another for the most accurate fix. If they change beyond the arc of swing, chances are that your anchor is dragging. Don’t take bearings on other boats because they’ll be swinging too. It’s best to set the anchor and keep the engine(s) running while you tidy up, giving the boat and anchor time to settle and react to the conditions. This may take patience if you’re itching to go ashore.
Raise the anchor
Dropping and setting the hook is only half the battle. When it’s time to retrieve the anchor, you simply reverse the process. Start the engine(s), uncleat the line (or activate the electric windlass that holds the chain), take the strain off the rode by powering forward slowly and start retrieving the line/chain. Use the engine(s) to maneuver the boat – never use the windlass (or your back) to pull the weight of the boat forward. Take care not to ding the hull when the anchor breaks free of the water and swings. If the anchor gets stuck on something on the bottom, cleat the line off and power forward slowly to drive over the anchor and angle it up and out. Stow the rode and anchor neatly so both are ready to go next time.
If you’re at a sandbar, you can walk the anchor out and dig it into the sand by hand so the boat doesn’t drift off with the tide. You can also tie to a rock or tree on shore. Even small boats should have a length of chain between the line and the actual anchor because that will weight the shank down and keep the anchor set.
Anchoring best practices
Unless conditions (high winds, heavy currents, and lots of boats in a small cove) dictate otherwise, the anchoring process should be slow and steady. Keep your hands and feet clear of the rode and windlass, and communicate calmly with others onboard. The first boats in an anchorage sets the tone for others, so if they’re on one anchor, you should be too to avoid swinging differently and causing a collision. Always motor slowly through an anchorage, minimizing your wake and watching for swimmers. Take it step by step, practice often, and you’ll be a pro in no time.