Seamanship and Anchoring

By Tom Neale, 1/5/2015


It's hell to wake up in the middle of the night in roaring winds to find your boat's sliding sideways before them and to have to start the engine and wrestle with muddy chain to re-anchor, sometimes again and again. Anchor Dragging isn't fun and can be dangerous. It's great to get it right.


I indicated in my last column here that there are at least three inherent problems with absolute anchor protocols. (1) Anchoring well requires old fashioned seamanship which, in my opinion, is far more complex than that which can be defined by any one protocol. (2) Anchoring is an art as well as a science. And (3) all mud isn't created equal. Put another way, you seldom know what you're trying to set in and that's very important.

Feeling chain with toes
Author feeling chain with toes. Be careful.

Look for good mud. Although many say mud isn't conducive to good holding, good mud is in fact very conducive to good holding if it's the right kind of mud and you know how to work it. There's mud and there's mud and there's mud. The mud I like least is pluff mud. It's black and loose with very low viscosity. You're most likely to find this, at its worst (from the anchoring perspective), in coves or quiet backwaters where leaves and other foliage has been falling into the water for thousands of years with little or no current to scour it out. But you can also find it in rivers and moving creeks, especially in deep bottom contours. To get a good bite, an anchor needs to get below that mud and into the good stuff. I rate the best mud as five star mud ... just my idiosyncrasy, you're entitled to yours. This good stuff is somewhat like gray clay. Sometimes it has sandy grit or small pieces of broken oyster/clam shells mixed in. (This doesn't seem to impair its holding qualities — sometimes it improves holding.) It has a particular smell, it's thick and you can ball it up in your hand almost like play dough or clay. It's a holding material that I deliberately look for when there's a blow coming ... or any other time, for that matter. I like to sleep soundly.

To get your anchor down into the gray clay type of mud you have to take certain steps to work it through the loose mud and into the good stuff. You can seldom just lower it down and start reversing to get a secure hold. Steps you take depend in part on the anchor you're using. Different anchors may need different setting tactics to perform at their best. You need to let an anchor do what it needs to work through the soft mud to hopefully reach a better holding material below. For example, it may include letting the anchor sit for a few minutes. It may involve pulling back very slowly at first. It may involve giving it gentle jerks or tugs.

Sand: Fine white soft sand can make an excellent holding bottom, especially that found in some areas of the Bahamas. Here you can stand on the bow and as the vessel backs down you can watch your anchor and chain melt under the sand far out of sight. Other areas have sand that's rather firm. If you walk on it you don't sink in. This thwarts the setting of many anchors, depending on its firmness and the anchor. My CQR has a difficult time digging into this. The Fortress and Danforth type anchors usually do well with this type of bottom as well as mud.

Getting into firm sand often involves tactics that allow the leading "point" of the anchor to punch through the thick upper layers of surface. Often (not always) it's much softer and better holding down below, but you've got to get your anchor into that area, often by jerking and tugging, letting it lie, and maybe directing the flukes by briefly shortening the scope.

Pay heed to any instructions that may come with the anchor. For the first 4 days of the Fortress anchor test in the summer of 2014 (see my last column here), Fortress, consistent with its philosophy of treating all anchors the same, ignored its own setting advice which is to use a shorter starting scope (such as 2:1 or 3:1) when initially setting a Fortress in soft mud, to insure that the shank does not sink below the flukes, which could then point up instead of down into the bottom. (I never found this to be an issue.) The pulling protocol for the test was to pay out a 5:1 scope + 100 feet, and then pull back 100 feet at a rate of 10 feet per minute. After the first 48 test pulls using this method they, for the last series of pulls, tried initially pulling the anchors at a shorter scope to see if that might help the other anchors set better as well. Fortress reports that it didn't.

Tom's Tips
Tom's Tips For Better Anchoring

1. Bring more than one anchor and make sure they're good tried and true anchors.

2. Try to know your bottom. "So" on the chart doesn't necessarily tell you the bottom is soft. Look at the banks. Drop your anchor and retrieve it to see what's on it; or drop over a small grappling hook, drag it around the boat and pull it up.

3. Take into account your surroundings. For example, if you're in a narrow creek with strong reversing current and high wind blowing across the creek, you must plan for much less swinging room and zero tolerance for dragging and circling around the anchor. If that creek has little or no current, assume that it may have a layer of poor holding pluff mud.

4. Develop techniques that work for YOUR boat, YOUR anchor and YOUR bottom. For example, a heavy displacement hull with low windage and a keel may require substantially different tactics than a light flat bottomed boat with a high superstructure. And a boat built for day trips may not have enough storage or weight carrying capacity in the bow for heavy anchors and chain.

5. Anticipate what the winds and current are going to do to your boat once you've settled in. Usually they're going to change and they can present powerful forces and stresses to your ground tackle and the holding dynamics.

6. Different conditions may warrant different anchors, and, on a few very rare occasions, the deployment of two anchors may be needed. The two anchors on my bow are the original CQR and the Fortress. I wouldn't be out without both of them. I seldom worry about the CQR being tripped by my chain if pulled in the opposite direction from the setting, but I've found that there are bottoms where the CQR won't set and the Fortress digs right in.

7. If possible, always anchor in a spot where you have ample safe dragging room. We can't always get it right. Try to leave room for you to drag before the upcoming wind line and others around you to drag, without entangling you.

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With any anchor it's important to use chain (or perhaps, in some cases, steel cable) rather than just nylon or nylon with a very short length of "token chain." My primary rode is all chain. I believe that this is best, as long as you utilize properly rigged snubbing gear once you're set. (This is a whole ‘nother subject and very important.) You need to pull your anchor on the bottom at an angle so that its fluke(s) dig down rather than slant up or are parallel to the bottom. Chain usually does this well, digging into the bottom, particularly if it's soft sand or mud, and coaxing the anchor's attack point into that bottom. Unlike some I've never found a properly set up Fortress to need to have its stock pulled up off the bottom a bit by shortening the scope temporarily, and certainly not the CQR. (Fortress recommends this for its anchor and others use the tactic for other anchors such as the CQR and Bruce.)

Use whatever tools you can to sense what's going on below. My primary tools are the toe and chain. I keep toes on the chain as we're slowly backing down. The chain telegraphs up numerous signals to me. For example a smooth scraping vibration, like the chain and anchor are being dragged along a sidewalk, means a very hard bottom. Small jerks mean I need to slow down a little. A rattling chain means rocks or a thick oyster bed. (Many say this is too dangerous ... and it can be although I still have all ten.) Some place a hand on the chain. Others just listen to and watch the chain. A wire would also telegraph well, but a nylon rope will absorb a lot of the messages. There are many more tricks in the bag and none of them require hydraulics, computers or engineers.

Use the right anchor for the bottom and circumstances. Often different anchors work better in different bottoms. When I cruise I have aboard three different types of anchors: the original CQR, the Fortress and the Herreshoff anchor , sometimes called the "fisherman's anchor." I've found that, in my opinion, the latter anchor is a relatively poor holder in most bottoms. But it will hold in two types of bottom when most anchors won't. One would be a rocky bottom or hard bottom, as with shale or sandstone, which has holes or indentions in it. The point hooks in and you're usually tight until the wind or tide shifts and perhaps unhooks you. It'll also usually dig through a bed of heavy grass with relative ease, hooking under the mat giving you some security (until the last of the roots of that mat of grass breaks around 2:00 AM). But I never use this hook in mud or sand where I prefer to anchor.

I've found the CQR to set well in mud if it's not too loose (too pluffy) and in soft sand. If the sand is hard packed I've found the CQR to have problems setting. I will prefer the CQR if I'm over a bottom in which I know it holds well and I also know I'm going to be swinging from reversing directions or circling as the weather blows through. I've found the Fortress to set in soft mud, thick mud, soft sand and packed sand...in other words, in almost any bottom I'd choose to anchor. I've found neither of these to do well in rocky bottom or grass. I avoid these areas, but sometimes one gets trapped by the weather over these bottoms, which is why I have the Herreshoff onboard.


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