Sleep Is All About Anchoring

By Douglas Bernon
July 13, 2001
Hunting Cay, Sapodilla Islands, Belize
16 06 791 N 88 16.438 W

We're anchored tonight just inside the barrier reef, about 20 miles east of the Belizean mainland, near Hunting Cay, nearly a half-mile off the beach in 25 feet of clear water. When we arrived here this afternoon from Placencia, we searched and found a precious oasis of sand among the coral patches and heads in which to drop our hook and get a decent hold. I'm pleased that I'm getting used to free diving the anchor at these depths, because six months ago I couldn't do it. Now it's routine. Even so, with the unpredictable wind shifts and thunderstorms we've been having almost daily, our anchorage at Hunting Cay is still pretty much an open roadstead from all but the east, so if the trade winds hold, we're fine, but in a bayama, the local name for sudden nighttime squalls, the winds can be cyclonic, turning you this way and that. I look at the clouds and wonder if I'll get any sleep tonight.

Photo of the waters off Hunting Cay

Here's our anchoring drill. Whenever possible, once the hook is down and we've got at least a minimal hold, I put on my mask, snorkel and fins, and get in the water, so that when Bernadette backs us down to deepen the set, I can keep an eye on the anchor to see how good a grab we're getting, and when necessary I dive down and reset it by hand. Then Bernadette backs down on it with a good and steady pull. Once I see that the flukes have dug in, I climb back aboard, let out enough scope, and "snub" the anchor chain with a piece of rope secured at the boat end to our Sampson post (so the rope absorbs the pulls and strain and not the electric windlass). Then we take turns, first with me on the bow standing on the rope snubber, and Bernadette at the helm putting the engine in reverse and pulling the boat back at a hefty RPM. When the snubber line remains taut enough to lift and hold me up, and when Ithaka swings around but stays in place, those are the signs we're in tight. Then we switch places and repeat backing down. When both of us have done this to our satisfaction, only then do we turn off the engine. If either one of us even marginally doubts that we're completely set, our rule is: "No arguments. Reset the anchor."

Every couple has evolved a routine for anchoring, and we've seen more sharp words on ours and other boats over anchoring than just about anything else. More experienced sailors may not need to go to the lengths we do to feel confident, but we've found our program minimizes arguments (usually) and reduces the likelihood of catastrophes. If all this seems like a bit much at the end of a day, maybe you're right, but so far at least, even in winds over 50 knots, we haven't dragged. (I hate to tempt fate by even writing this down.)

Taking the extra half an hour to anchor has proven time well spent if I'm to have any hope of sleeping at night. This is particularly the case in the Northwest Caribbean, as often we're anchored near islands that are uninhabited, so there are no lights ashore to offer any bearings in the blackness of night. So much depends on not screwing this up, and while we make any number of other errors, we take oodles of time to set our hook.

Photo of anchor off of Hunting Cay Along the Central American coast, we've had to anchor in many places where our hook has just scraped along the hard bottom, and others where it's grabbed deeply into thick mud.

Just last week, we sailed from Glover Reef back to the protection of Placencia for a couple of days, to wait out the series of three tropical waves predicted for the region, to do some re-provisioning, to bring our clothes to the laundry, to catch a restaurant meal and hang out with friends. The harbor is a snug, pear-shaped lagoon between the mainland and a small island. There's a narrow cut at the north, just wide enough to make it through with good light, but small enough to make this a great hidey-hole from northers. At the other end, though, it's broad and big and wide and completely exposed to the southwest, but winds from that direction are rare in these parts. The bottom is rich, thick mud that offers terrific holding if you take the time to dig in.

On our first afternoon we watched a few other boats arrive, no doubt seeking the same protection from the worsening weather. We recognized the names of some of the boats from listening to the morning Northwest Caribbean Net on the SSB, and it's always fun to finally lay eyes on people who you've only heard. A 45-foot sailboat we'll call Vigilante entered the harbor and anchored. We'd heard them on the net, and watched them anchor — basically they dropped the hook and let the boat drift back without much effort at backing down. I noticed this as it contrasted so sharply with our own overkill in that department. We had a good view, as they'd anchored too close to us.

Photo of a dramatic sunset Every night, the sky tells a story.

The sky was full of clouds as sunset surrendered to darkness. We felt the wind pick up. It kept building. Then it shifted, slowly at first, then radically, until it began to batter us from the southwest, our only exposed flank. Within the hour, we had a 35-knot thunderstorm hitting us head on, packing an undiluted punch from the 50-mile fetch between us and Guatemala! Every boat in the anchorage hobby-horsed wildly, our bows rising high and slamming down. With each swell we heard our snubber line stretch and groan. It's the sweetest of sounds, indicating we're still in firm. Through the bayama, all the boats here swiveled in a full circle. At one point, Vigilante was directly in front of us, and despite the howl, Bernadette and I sat in the cockpit, keeping a close watch on our position relative to him and the other boats. We started our engine just in case we dragged, but also so that we could motor evasively, on anchor, to one side or another to avoid what we feared might be inevitable. Mercifully for us, when Vigilante's anchor gave up its tenuous grip, they skidded by us on our port side. Vigilante began scanning his surroundings with a high-power searchlight, but didn't appear to turn on his engine to halt the boat's slide. We hesitated, then called him on the VHF to make sure he realized he was dragging, knowing how confusing things can get in the dark.

"I know," he said. "But my anchor will reset here any second."

As he skated by us, we exhaled with relief that we were spared a collision. But then we watched him bear slowly down, still dragging, toward another, much smaller, sailboat, manned by a single-hander. Vigilante snagged on the little boat's anchor rode, and over and over again in the chop, slammed the daylights out of him, destroying the guy's bow pulpit and bow roller and, we learned later, staving in a bulkhead. In the midst of the squall, two neighboring boats, out of concern for the victim as well as a sense of self-preservation, launched their dinghies and came to the rescue, disentangling the anchor rodes and helping the singlehander to re-anchor.

The next morning the skipper of Vigilante dinghied over to the boat he'd hit, and worked out financial arrangements in which he agreed to pay for the materials needed to repair the damages. Then he stopped at a couple of the other boats he'd almost hit. When he stopped at Ithaka, and told us what he thought he was doing the night before, my feelings of anger were somewhat mollified with sympathy. I could see he was still shook up and felt like hell. I even felt a little badly for him. It's easy to second guess another guy's actions in retrospect, and foolish to get too self-righteous out here. After all, it's mere good fortune that our many mistakes so far haven't caused problems for others. That said, we'll give Vigilante a nice wide berth next time we share an anchorage.

Photo of dolphins decorating the side of a building in Placencia We sailed from Placencia to Hunting Cay with dolphins in our bow wave (This one decorated the side of a building in Placencia.).

Tonight, we're far from Placencia and Vigilante, but this is a season of squirrelly weather, and we remain keen-eyed, as we look toward heading south to the Rio Dulce over the next couple of weeks. As usual, when some fortunate near miss has seized our attention, we review our lessons and talk about what we might have done differently. When Vigilante first anchored, one of us should have motored over in the dinghy, and in a friendly way told him how the weather had been affecting this anchorage, and commented that perhaps we were a little too close under the circumstances. If that didn't work, we could've moved on our own. There was, after all, plenty of room elsewhere in the anchorage, and sometimes victim-hood is a direct result of not getting out of the way when you know better. Secondly, when we called him on the radio, instead of merely asking if he knew he was dragging, we should have been more clear, "Motor forward, man! You're dragging fast." In the midst of out-of-control events, sometimes it helps to hear straight forward advice from people looking on from the sidelines.

As Bernadette and I yakked about the night's events, I was reminded of my father's frequent admonitions when I was a new driver. Just before he'd hand over the keys to the family car, he'd always say, "Listen Doug, it doesn't matter how good of a driver you think you are. Keep an eye on the other guy. Some of them just don't pay enough attention and that makes it dangerous." With each year, in so many little ways, I find I'm grateful for the advice I once resented.