How to Anchor a Sailboat


Last Updated by

Daniel Wade

June 15, 2022

One of the most vital skills for a sailor is oftentimes one of the most confounding ones. Setting the hook in all the different types of anchorages you’re likely to end up in can be confusing to new boaters. Despite how perplexing it can be, this skill is incredibly important, lest you find yourself waking in the middle of the night to the sound of your boat dragging anchor towards rocks.

Good technique and properly-sized equipment for anchoring is vital. Yet, more times than not, even experienced sailors are distracted or in a hurry and skip one of the vital steps for anchoring securely. Even worse, some new sailors never learn the essentials and just throw any anchor-shaped hunk of metal overboard, hoping for the best. That tactic isn’t likely to keep you safe while you slumber so let’s go through what you should do instead.


Table of contents

A Little Forethought

The first thing to do when you’re going to anchor is to pick an anchorage. This may already seem like a lot, but picking a good spot is crucial. You must understand the conditions of that spot before tossing your anchor into the water and calling it good.

Use the chart you purchased or printed out, making a note of all the vital information. Things like wind direction and speed, tidal currents, and even the forecast can be important pieces of the puzzle. Pay extra attention to anything that might reverse the direction your boat is being pulled to prevent having your anchor pulled out.

The best spot is going to have some protection from the wind and waves. You would prefer to have a sand or mud bottom as opposed to a rock or heavy grass bottom. If you have a brand new chart, it’s probably going to have information on the bottom characteristics as well as some of those good spots marked out. You should also make sure that your spot is a few feet deeper than the draft of your boat during low tide.

Once you’ve picked your spot, it’s time to prepare the anchor. Whether lowered by hand or on a roller, make sure the anchor rode is free to run. If it isn’t marked at progressive depths with tags or color codes, stretch it back and forth on deck to keep track of how much rode you’re letting out. For safety’s sake, plan out at least 6 times the water depth.

Actual Anchoring

The actual technique of anchoring can be a bit tricky to learn but can buy you some peace of mind once mastered. Knowing your boat isn’t going to slip off into the night or ram into a neighbor because your anchor dragged can be a massive relief. No one wants to awaken to a bump in the night.

First, you have to actually position the boat where you want to anchor. For motorsailers, you may find this easier to do under power. However you decide to do it, move slowly. There is no need to rush this. It’s better to take a long time on a secure anchor than to rush and drag later. Once you’re over the position, drop anchor. Be careful not to drop a ton of chain on top of your anchor.

Once the anchor is on the seabed, let the boat drift back gradually as you pay out chain. Don’t disturb the anchor yet. For the anchor to work, you want to pull horizontally along the seabed. You are setting the scope as you pay out the chain. The goal is to get the anchor to pull at 15° to 20°. Once sufficient chain has been let out, secure the anchor chain on deck.

Now we have to wait for the anchor to dig in and take its initial set. Once you have the initial set, begin slowly moving astern until the anchor chain straightens out. While you’re moving your boat, pay very careful attention to the chain. If it jumps, that means you’re dragging anchor. If everything seems alright then feel free to hook up the snubber and let out more chain until there’s a loop of it between the snubber hook and the bow roller. Congratulations on anchoring your boat.

Additional Tips

Some additional tips and tricks are in order. This is just good information to have in the back of your mind when anchoring.

Using the Right Type of Anchor

First, your type of anchor heavily influences your ability to set the hook.  Most cruising sailboats are going to be equipped with at least two types, each with their own separate rodes. The preferred choice for the bower is generally a spade while a lightweight Danforth generally takes the spot as a kedge. Be familiar with the anchors you’re going to be using and how they’re designed to function.

It may seem strange but the good old-fashioned fisherman’s anchor isn’t going to work the same way as a modern CQR anchor. They are also going to do generally better at different sea beds.

Find the Right Size

Match the anchor you’re using to the size of your boat. All anchors are not created equal. If you’re using a 15lb anchor on a 33ft motorsailer, you are probably not going to have it easy. If you don’t appropriately size your anchor for your vessel, you are increasing the chance of dragging.

If you aren’t sure what size anchor to get, check with the boat’s manufacturer. They often have recommendations. At the end of the day, it’s alright to go on the bigger side of things. Don’t choose your anchor for reasonable conditions. Expect the absolute worst situations because you can’t change your anchor when you’re already out on the seas.

Dragging the Anchor

Understand what it really means to drop anchor. This isn’t a literal phrase. You should lower the anchor slowly. Lowering the anchor gradually prevents the chain from falling on the anchor flukes and fouling the anchor. Dropping it too quickly makes it more likely that a fouled anchor is going to drag if the wind comes up later.

Even when you’ve anchored perfectly and everything has gone according to plan, you should still check periodically.  Changing conditions could result in that perfectly-set anchor deciding to drag anyway. Before you take a load off for the night, make sure to have a few ways to tell if your boat is dragging. A modern method is a GPS which can easily reveal a change of positions.

Something a little lower tech would be a small secondary anchor with a noise maker tied to it and dangled over the cockpit. If set up correctly, when the boat moves, the secondary anchor’s rope will pull and cause the noise maker to fall down into the cockpit. If all goes as planned, you wake up to the banging and take any actions needed.

A way to verify dragging is to check the anchor rode at the bow. You may be able to see or feel changes in its tension. If the anchor is bouncing all over the place, it will be easy to spot or feel.

Anchors Aweigh

Keeping your boat from dragging and drifting into rocks, another boat, or a reef is at the top of your priority list. In order to make sure your anchor sets properly and your night of sleep isn’t interrupted by the sound of a boat running aground, it’s best to be safe rather than sorry.

Go through your plan slowly. Make sure you pick the best anchorage for your needs. Check that none of the conditions might change while you’re on the hook, causing your boat to drift in the opposite direction and pull your anchor free. Ensure that you have the right equipment to begin with and make sure to double-check the anchor before you call it a night. It’s better to stay up a little later and make sure your anchor is properly set than to wake up to bad news.

How to Anchor a Sailboat
Daniel Wade

Daniel Wade

I've personally had thousands of questions about sailing and sailboats over the years. As I learn and experience sailing, and the community, I share the answers that work and make sense to me, here on Life of Sailing.

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