Storm in the Anchorage

By Tom Neale, 3/5/2009


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Storm Approaching

I’m sitting here listening to the wind howl in the rigging.  Our mizzen mast comes through the deck just a few feet away from the small desk where I write, and the rain plays a melody with the wind, hitting the aluminum mast. Chez Nous rolls as the gusts hit her, and lines protest but hold.  As usual, the VHF radio is on, tuned to 16.  There’s a remote station next to my desk, so I can switch off to other channels and follow whatever sounds interesting.

Someone’s calling for help.  A dinghy has blown off the deck of a boat.  Apparently it hadn’t been tied down well enough, if at all.  The owner isn’t aboard, so other cruisers are working to retrieve and secure it.  Then someone calls needing fuel, but it’s too windy and rough to come alongside the nearby fuel dock.  The skipper is wondering if anyone would take him and 4 jerry jugs across the water to dock—in their dinghy.  No one bites. They would help normally, but this is crazy.

Then the alarmed cries of anchor dragging begin.  This time, as is usually the case, someone is sitting securely, thinking that all the hard work in preparation for the blow has paid off.  He’s checking out his porthole and popping his head out the hatch every few minutes, taking sightings on the shore, to be sure he’s holding station—to be sure his anchor’s not dragging. It’s not and he’s glad.  Until he looks upwind.  There’s a boat up there, hard to see now in the spitting rain and blowing spray, that doesn’t look right. It’s not swinging to and fro from its anchor, generally pointing into the wind. Instead, it’s sitting broadside to the wind, surging forward and backwards. This can mean several things, but none of them are good. It could mean that the anchor rode has tangled in the running gear or on the keel. If that’s what’s happened, the result is pretty much inevitable. The boat’s going to start dragging. Or it could mean that the boat’s already dragging.  It’s the way a boat usually behaves when its hook is sliding through the mud or across the bottom and the boat moves down under the thrust of the wind.  It sweeps back and forth, fore and aft, cutting a wide path of destruction, until its anchor grabs again, which is unlikely, or until it goes aground or entangles with another boat downwind of it, sometimes several other boats.  When it does entangle with another boat, usually the combined pull of both hulls on that boat’s anchor which held well before, will pull it free.  After all, it wasn’t intended to hold two hulls broadside to the wind and sea.

So the skipper sees that a loose boat is sweeping his way.  He calls on the VHF radio. He may know the boat’s name to call, but often he can only hail “the boat dragging anchor,” describing the anchorage and the location.  Now, as I type, the first of these calls is going out. And no one answers from the dragging boat.  Could it be that they just don’t get it and haven’t turned on their VHF?  You always turn on your VHF in times like this because it’s to your benefit to know what’s going on around you.  The skipper’s calls grow more frantic.  After all, there’s not much he can do.  He can go up on deck armed with fenders and boathooks and hope to cushion the boat as it impacts, but often this is impossible to do without injury.  And then what? If he can get the boat to swing down his side, scraping and gouging his boat as it passes, maybe it’ll go away, to ground ashore downwind, hopefully not hitting anyone else.  But if he is successful in this maneuver, odds are that the dragging anchor from the boat will snag his rode or his anchor and the two of them will careen away downwind, in a maelstrom of boats helplessly tethered together.  And maybe they’ll pick up even more boats before it’s all over.

If only the people on that dragging boat will answer the VHF.  If they would, they would know what’s going on and hopefully be able to start the engine and motor away from the downwind boats.  When you’re dragging you usually can’t round up with your motor and come into the wind to retrieve the anchor, because the dragging anchor holds you beam to the wind and makes normal maneuvering almost impossible. But sometimes you can at least move to the side and miss a boat downwind as you slowly recover your anchor so that you can regain maneuverability and set it again. But no one answers.

Finally someone does.  “There’s no dingy on the boat.  We saw them go ashore early this morning. No one’s home.”  Bravely, several cruisers don foul weather gear, put on life jackets, and take off in their dinghies, hoping that their motors will run well.  I say, “bravely,” because trying to save or divert a dragging boat in a storm, with dinghies, can be very, very dangerous. It can easily result in loss of life, not to mention injury. But several boats around send out parties to try to help.  I don’t know what’s happening now because the VHF is quiet as people in that anchorage watch or struggle to help. (I’m safe in a marina. I don’t like that anchorage.) But from past experiences I know that sometimes the rescue parties are able to put someone aboard and get the engine started. Sometimes they are able to get another anchor over. Sometimes they are able to get a line on the stampeding runaway and maneuver it away from other boats. Sometimes people lose equipment. Sometimes they are hurt.

You ask, “Why?”  We all drag sometimes. It’s part of being out here.  But we can substantially lessen the odds by anchoring well and using good gear, which includes all-chain rode.  But nothing that you do is a guarantee.  Some people think that if they tie on to a mooring they’re safer. But you seldom know what kind of anchor the mooring has and the state of its gear under water. So you hope for the best but prepare for the worst. At the very minimum, this means being on the boat and standing watch when weather is expected. It means taking sightings of shoreside objects and other boats and occasionally very carefully going forward to check snubbing gear and for chafing. And it means listening to the VHF. (I’m talking about normal bad weather that you should expect to encounter while cruising. I’m not talking about weather such as hurricanes and other storms during which you should be safely ashore with your boat stowed ashore or otherwise properly secured.)

This blow that’s sending my pen rolling across my desk right now has been forecast for at least 4 days.  Each day the forecast has been more insistent.  Logging onto radar, if you can get online (and that’s easy to do while aboard these days if you’re not out offshore) you can see the storm line approaching. A boat’s radar also shows it. The Coast Guard has issued warnings on the VHF.  So the people who belong to that boat: what kind of people are they?

Tom’s Tips for Bad Weather Preparation in an Anchorage

1. Always listen to the weather forecasts. Know what’s coming..

2. Chain anchor rode helps immeasurably. Add stretch with a properly rigged snubbing line

Click Here for More Tips

I don’t know, but I know what I think. And I won’t say it here. Sometimes there’s a good excuse.  But not often.  We’re lucky today that we can usually know when weather is approaching. But some don’t get it.  I can hear now that the runaway was saved by the other cruisers.  All has ended well this time.  Until the owner puts back out, probably late this evening, finds his boat isn’t where he left it, can’t see it safely secured downwind where it drifted and was re-anchored, and now turns on his handheld VHF and starts hollering to the Coast Guard that “somebody has stolen my boat.”

Copyright 2004-2009 Tom Neale