How To Anchor Like A Pro

How To Anchor Like A Pro | Life of Sailing

Last Updated by

Capt Chris German

June 15, 2022

Anchoring can be a simple maneuver. By knowing some basic features of an anchor and following a few key steps, you can anchor your boat with confidence.

However it's when you cut corners and take the easy road, that anchors fail and you run the risk of picking your boat up off the shore.

By knowing the tide, the water depth, the weather forecast and watching how your boat settles, you can park your boat for the night and be sure that it will be there in the morning when you wake.

Let's start by understanding our anchor.


Table of contents

What is an anchor?

Classically defined, an anchor is a mechanism that can securely fasten an object in one place through space and time. More specifically, with a boat, an object that never really stops moving, an anchor is a hook or weight that attaches a vessel to the ground via line, chain or cable.

It can be permanent or temporary and can come in any number of shapes and sizes, but the most common come in one of two forms. The Danforth and the Mushroom.

The danforth is usually crafted from some amalgam of cheap, relatively light, metal and works by attaching the shaft of the anchor to the ground via two flukes which can pivot either forward or backwards and will bury themselves in the ground when a force is applied in reverse. It is usually for a temporary stay and will almost always reset itself regardless of the direction it is pulled

The Mushroom anchor is usually always a heavier grade metal than the danforth and looks just like it sounds, like a mushroom. It comes in various sizes and relies on weight and suction to hold a vessel or buoy in place in a more permanent fashion such as in the case of a mooring. You probably won't use this on your boat except for storage purposes.

The vast majority of anchors produced in the world fall into one of these two categories and they by far and away are the simplest designs that are otherwise so entirely misunderstood by the public at large. For this article though, we will focus on the danforth.

How to use a danforth

To use a danforth anchor to secure your vessel to the ground is quite simple. You tie a line or attach a piece of chain to the eye of the shaft on the anchor and attach the other end of the line to your boat. (You would not believe how many anchors sit at the bottom of the sea because no one thought to attach the other end to the boat.)

Once both ends have been securely fastened, you can deploy the anchor by dropping it in the water. When the line goes slack, you know your anchor has hit bottom and you may then allow your vessel to drift aft to set the anchor into the ground. That is usually where things go wrong. 

When things go wrong with your anchor

Let’s back up for a sec. You are probably asking a few questions. Like:

  1. How do you know where to anchor?
  2. How much anchor line is required?
  3. How do you know your boat is not drifting?
  4. How do you retrieve your anchor when you are done?
  5. What do I do if I can't get my anchor back?

All valid questions and this where things go wrong.

The theory of just dropping an anchor is pretty simple. It's all the above questions that gum up the works and that is what we will work on next.

Where to drop your anchor

There are a few places where you should never anchor your boat. Places like in the channel, around a blind corner and in the state of Florida. The first two are pretty obvious as you don't want to get hit, but the third is because the Florida One percenters have become downright hostile to cruising boaters and should be ashamed of themselves.

But yet I digress.

Picking an anchorage is not that hard. You want a place that is protected from the weather and deep enough that your boat will not go aground, but shallow enough so that you don't have to lay out four miles of anchor rode to reach the bottom.

You may also want to pick a place where you can row ashore if you have a dinghy or a place that is not too far from the attractions of an area. Some folks like to anchor in the middle of it all while others like to get away from it all. Use your best judgement when picking a spot.

It also helps to look for sandy or gravel bottoms as they have great holding power, but mud and crushed shells will work too provided you are prepared to thoroughly clean your anchor when you retrieve it. Also with shells be advised that they can get stuck in the flukes of a danforth and prevent it from resetting properly.

Rocky shores like those in Maine and in the Western lakes are a real challenge when it comes to anchoring. The rocks tend to prevent good holding and the depth can be a nightmare. In the case of Maine they have 12 to 20 foot tides on top the rocks and the Western lakes are 150 feet deep with solid rock shores.

If you have to anchor in places like this, tying off to a tree on shore or digging your anchor in a hole on shore might be a better option than trying to anchor below the surface.

Do you always anchor off your bow?

Anytime anyone says “always” in sailing, you can bet that it's wrong. The only “always” in sailing is to always avoid a collision. The rest of the time there is always an exception. But most of the time, you will anchor off your bow.

That is because a bow is designed to go into the wind and boats ride best that way. If you have to anchor, you will most of the time want to use your bow cleat and lower a single anchor from your bow.

However, there are times when you may want to use two anchors off your bow or even do a bow anchor and stern anchor. You will do this to prevent swing and keep your boat from drifting or pulling free in less than ideal conditions. 

Mostly though, if you do decide to use two anchors, your chances of fouling them or getting the tangled and having the whole mess pull up and drift out to sea goes up. So get good at one anchor first and when you feel really confident, then you can try to double anchor your boat.

The Anchor Rode

I prefer three strand nylon for my anchor rode, but chain is another good option and in a pinch any line will do. The big thing is you want to make sure your line matches your cleats on your boat. Don't pick a tug boat hauser for anchor line if you have a 18 foot daysailer with 3 inch cleats.

When deciding how much anchor rode to put out, you need to know a few things. The water depth, the weather and things you can crash into are all important factors when deciding how much anchor rode you will need.

If the boat behind you is only fifty feet back, you will be sorely disappointed if you lay out 150 feet of line and drift into him in the middle of the night. That's also where the weather comes in because if the wind is expected to pick up in the middle of the night, you will want to ensure you don't blow into other boats if the wind shifts but have enough line out that you wont pop the anchor loose in at the high tide.

A good rule for estimating anchor rode is 3-5 feet per foot of water for nice weather and 5-7 feet of line for inclement weather, but you’ll never go wrong with 7 feet and 10 feet is overkill. With chain, you can pretty much always rely on a 3 to 1 ratio of chain to water depth. 

When figuring out water depth, make sure you figure on the high water depth when letting out line but if the tide does come in and you haven’t put enough line out, it's pretty simple to just lay out a few more feet as the tide comes in.

Vessel on Station

When your anchor has set and your ready to resume festivities, you should do a few things before you pop that first beer.

Look around and pick out a couple of landmarks from your boat. These are called relative bearings and they will tell you if your boat is on station or if you anchor is pulling.

Pick a tree off your starboard beam and use that lighthouse off your port bow. Picking bearings that are close to 90 degrees to each other will give you a better understanding if all of sudden you wake up and the lighthouse is now on your stern quarter and the tree is nowhere to be seen. .

Once you have your bearings, set an anchor watch and tell your first watch stander which bearings you have used. An alternative to setting an anchor watch is to use your GPS or an anchor watch app on your phone that will set off an alarm if you drift more than a certain amount of feet off station.

The electronic watch will allow everyone to get a better nights sleep but if the battery dies in your phone, no one will be there to tell you that your boat is drifting ashore at Zero Dark Thirty.

If you do start to drift, the easiest thing to do is lay out a few more feet of rode and see if it sets again. Worse comes to worse if you can’t get it to set, which is to say you can’t tell if sets, pick up the anchor and try again.

It is really obvious when an anchor has set because the boat will swing around and point in the direction of the anchor and it will stop moving backwards. If your boat doesn’t do this you haven’t set your anchor.

Retrieving your anchor

When you are ready to go, pulling up the anchor should not be any harder than dropping it. Pull up the slack on your anchor rode or use your boat to go slow ahead to retrieve the anchor rode until your boat is directly over top of the anchor.

When you are over your anchor, use the bob of the boat to dislodge the anchor from the ground. Really persistently sticking anchors can be pried loose by driving your boat further forward to try and pop it loose.

Either way you will know it is loose when you can easily pull it up from the bottom. Allow your boat to drift backwards for a bit and use the rushing water to rinse whatever nastiness is attached to the anchor before you drag it up on deck. Some boats have a hose for this purpose but just make sure you keep that stuff off your deck because it stains something awful and smells worse.

My anchor is stuck

Few things are more frustrating than a stuck anchor and there literally are a million things that can catch an anchor and never give it back. Sunk boats, abandoned cars and rock piles have all claimed more than their share of anchors. 

That is why I am such a big fan of the danforth. Sure there are other types of anchors like CQR and Plow styles that can be made of stainless steel and cost a small fortune. But you are sticking it into the unseen world below and you never know if its coming back.

Why would you spend $1000 on an anchor that works just as well as a $60 danforth that you can get as Walmart. To quote Macklemore, “that is just some ignorant sh#@!”

Often enough, you won't retrieve your anchor and you may even have to cut your anchor rode if you want to go home. That's another reason to like the three-strand. You can pull in as much as you can with a line and cut off what you can’t get in. With a chain, you just gotta drop the whole thing in the drink and take it as a loss.

Anchor maintenance

If you use your anchor once, you would be well advised to do some maintenance on it. Most people stuff their anchor into the hold when they are done with it and never think about it again until the next time.

This leads to mold, mildew, rust, dry rot and failure of your anchor when you need it most.

After you use your anchor, particularly in salt water, you should rinse it thoroughly with fresh water and let it dry in the sun. Salt particles can abrade line and cause it to part at inopportune times.

You should inspect your anchor, shackles, chain and line regularly and ensure that they are in good working order. Shackles should all have seizing wire put through their pins to prevent backing out and line ends should all be whipped with sail thread to ensure that they don't unravel.

Since you have it all laid out nicely in the sun, now is also a good time to install measurement tapes into line to help you know how much rode you have let out the next time you need to use it. They make little labels you can weave into the line or some folks just color code their line with paint. For example, red hash marks are 10 feet, blue hash marks are 50 feet and yellow hash marks are 100 feet, but you can use whatever system you like.

While you are doing maintenance of your line, now is also a good time to check your anchor light. The all around white light at the top of a mast is perennially not work on vessels when you need it most.

I prefer a portable anchor light that was made by Guest in the 1980s that I found at my boat consignment shop. It uses a lantern battery and hangs off the halyard and it lasts forever. If the battery dies or the bulb blows out however, I don't have to climb the mast to check it and it wont kill my starting battery if I leave it on all night.

I’ve looked everywhere for another one and I can’t find one. They are awesome to have on board so if you see one, pick it up even if it doesn’t work. It's a simple design that is easy to repair and you’ll thank me for suggesting it the next time you anchor out. 

So that’s it for anchoring. Share this article with the guy on facebook who went viral for burying his anchor upside on the beach or the woman who was calling on channel 16 the other day who asked if the anchor needs to touch the ground to work. Sometimes you just gotta shake your head.

So do good, have fun and sail far. Thanks for reading.

How To Anchor Like A Pro
Capt Chris German

Capt Chris German

Capt Chris German is a life long sailor and licensed captain who has taught thousands to sail over the last 20 years. In 2007, he founded a US Sailing-based community sailing school in Bridgeport, CT for inner city youth and families. When Hurricane Sandy forced him to abandon those efforts, he moved to North Carolina where he set out to share this love for broadcasting and sailing with a growing web-based television audience through The Charted Life Television Network.

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