More and More Moorings

By Tom Neale, 8/4/2011


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St. Augustine, Florida, has recently installed mooring fields. These fields, by Florida Law, preclude anchoring within the field and nearby. It’s part of a state wide plan purportedly to see what works with regard to Florida’s long standing issues with anchoring and mooring. The mooring field concept is growing in some parts of the country. Depending on how and where you boat, you may like this or strongly disagree. Regardless, it’s important that you be aware of some of the issues.

St. Augustine North Mooring Field
To some, particularly in certain areas of New England, mooring fields aren’t an issue because they’ve been there for generations. Examples include Newport, Block Island and Mystic. In some areas mooring fields are so prevalent that many boaters don’t ever really learn to anchor (not good). In some areas moorings are seen as a blessing because you can supposedly cram many more boats into a harbor than you would with anchoring, and storage on a mooring is much cheaper than it would be at a dock, although it isn’t unusual in these areas to see moorings at 50 bucks and more a night, even though you rent them all season.

But in the vast majority of our waters, mooring fields established by the government are seen as much more of an issue. Boats in most areas can and do anchor regularly and there’s a lower density of boats on the water in those areas. It’s a way of life and a part of boating. It’s also considered to be a right of navigation, although this, some say, might not mean squatting in one spot indefinitely. If you’re making passage (not just hopping from one stop to another on a weekend), you often need to anchor to avoid proceeding when it’s unsafe to do so. In many areas there are no marinas as an option, and even if there were, it’s extremely expensive to tie in a marina every time you need to stop making a long passage. We’ve often traveled from New England down the east coast to southern Florida and over to the Bahamas, anchoring whenever we needed to stop, coming to docks only to take on fuel or to seek shelter when there was no good anchorage available. Many boaters, even though they aren’t making long passages, relish the magic of swinging on the hook for the weekend in a pretty harbor. But in some of the extremely crowded areas such as those mentioned in New England, there are so many boats that there isn’t room for them to swing on the hook on Saturday night in that quaint harbor and many local boaters are happy to buy a mooring for the night.

Another mooring plus is that some harbors have very poor bottoms and it’s difficult or almost impossible to get a truly good hold with your anchor. And if you do, the next boater may come in, be unaware of how to anchor well, and drag and collide with you in the night. So the existence of moorings makes an otherwise untenable harbor usable. But there’s a flip side to even this coin.

How do you know that the mooring is securely anchored in the bottom and well maintained? Often you don’t, and we’ve seen many moorings that were jokes. Any weak link, from the device used as an anchor (a few cinder blocks??) to how well it’s dug in, to its connection with the line, to the protection of the lower part of the line from abrasion as it moves around the bottom, to the integrity of the rope and/or chain and every connection---it all must be good and more than adequate for the boats using it and for any surges. Some mooring field operators take great care to keep it good, but some don’t. Minimally you must have a professional diver inspect each mooring at least once, preferably several times a year. But it’s extremely difficult to check out the integrity of a chain or rope in murky water.

And there are other potential problems with mooring fields. In one body of water in Florida anchoring isn’t allowed. You must tie to a marina or rent a mooring “owned” by the political subdivision. As a condition of renting a mooring you must agree in writing to allow another boat to raft with you on that mooring. While this can lead to meeting some very nice people and making new friends, it can also lead to some unknown boat coming alongside and tying to you in the dark. The boat could be full of rats, roaches, drugs, drunks, criminals or whatever. While the odds of this may seem slight (maybe not) it’s not something I’d ever agree to unless I knew the other boat.

Other issues arise from some mooring agreements that you are required to sign. They include waivers of any claims for damage or injury, no matter how negligent the mooring operator may have been, and even a promise to hold harmless the mooring owner/operator from any claims of yours or others---and this to hang off a mooring that you are required to take and pay for if you’re going to stop there. You may, because of weather or darkness have no choice but to stop there. I have to wonder if the owner/operators really think they’re protected from legal liability if they’re negligent. If I were a “town father” or local political honcho, I’d never want the risk and expense and hassle of putting in a mooring field. (But obviously I’ll never be a political honcho.) There have been a considerable number of localities who’ve considered installing mooring fields but who have decided against it for various reasons.

Another thing to consider is that hanging onto a mooring may not give the security you expect. There’s not only the issue of the quality and maintenance of the equipment, there’s also the issue of swinging room. Mooring field planners say that they provide enough space around each mooring for the boats to avoid hitting each other. But often it doesn’t work this way. The more moorings in the field, the more money they make. And different boats may swing very differently. For example, a sailboat with a deep keel will be much more affected by current than a flat bottomed power boat. A large boxy power boat will be much more affected by wind than a smaller boat. When wind and current aren’t both from the same direction, some boats can sail around and around on a mooring, while others may hang straight to wind or current. We’ve seen moorings where boats actually swing in opposite directions, causing stern collisions. And of course boats are of varying length. Mooring operators normally have maximum lengths for their fields, but we’ve seen quite a few exceptions made. Also, some boats add to the mooring line with their own lines, because of necessity or preference. This creates a wider swinging arc for the boat. And boats anchored outside the mooring field—even far outside—may and often do drag into the field, particularly if it’s a tenuous anchorage area, such as off St. Augustine. Many mooring fields don’t provide the security you might expect for paying those bucks to hang onto the bottom with somebody else’s gear.

Tom’s Tips About Picking up Moorings

1. Many mooring operators omit pennants because of the high incidence of theft of pennants. You have to attach your own line to the steel ring or shackle at the mooring ball.

2. Unless you have a very low bow, skilled, strong and dexterous mooring catcher, skilled skipper and very good communications, as with a bow to bridge radio, you should probably plan to launch a dinghy to hook your line to the mooring buoy if there isn’t a pennant.

Click Here for More Tips

But mooring fields seem to be proliferating. Part of the reason is that in some areas they help. Part of the reason, I suspect, is that in some areas there are so many boats that are permanently anchored, unlit, poorly maintained, often very close to private docks and channels, and often seldom attended. They sometimes interfere with anchoring by transient boaters and anger many people ashore who see them as squatters and as future derelicts which will soon join the derelicts already on the bottom or littering the shores. Sometimes local authorities, backed by local citizens, get rid of the so called “derelict boats” by establishing mooring fields in and around which the state says they can forbid anchoring. Of course, the boats then move to other locations nearby. Many boats formerly anchored in the new mooring areas have moved to nearby waters in the St. Augustine area. One anchorage, off the ICW south of St. Augustine, that we and many others used for years is now so crowded with local boats that we would feel uncomfortable stopping there, because of the crowding. The owners of some boats had established private moorings in one St. Augustine area which is now designated as an “official” mooring area. They are no longer allowed to use those private moorings which, I understand, have been removed or disconnected.

St. Augustine has, for years, been one of our favorite stops. But we only anchored there twice, long ago. Each time we swore we’d never anchor there again. The second oath took. This is because the bottom is generally poor holding, there’s a lot of debris down there which can snag your anchor, the fetch is very long and the current is very swift. When a fair to strong wind is blowing against the current the waves can be huge and boats on anchors or moorings sail all over the place. We’ve seen and heard of many horror stories of dragging and other problems when people anchor there. Well established and maintained moorings hopefully won’t drag and debris snagging won’t be an issue, but that doesn’t alleviate the other problems.

The picture on this page is of the St. Augustine northern mooring field on a “busy” summer Friday evening. It looked the same Saturday and Sunday. In spring and fall transient season I’m sure it’ll be busier, but I wouldn’t want to spend 20 bucks a night to deal with all the problems. This is a place where we prefer to neither anchor nor take a mooring. I pay more and stop in Camachee Cove Yacht Harbor, a very nice protected marina with loaner cars, several restaurants nearby and a new Publix being built within walking distance. It’s only a two mile walk to the historical section of town if you don’t want a loaner car, and a few minutes’ walk to the ocean beach. And when the wind howls we listen on the VHF to all the troubles people are having as they heave around on the moorings out in the wild waters and watch other boats swing dangerously close.

Camachee Cove also has a yacht yard that we really appreciate and regularly use. In the past we’ve seen boats from the anchorage area limp in for work after blows or even calm weather dragging situations. I suppose the skippers were at that point wishing they’d paid for a secure marina rather than “saving money.” It’s a matter of preference; ours is to go to that marina in this area. In other places we anchor out. The marina costs more than anchoring or taking a mooring, but we have far more benefits and can feel safe and relax.

Mooring fields are a matter of preference for some, a necessity to others, and denial of rights and privileges and denial of a way of life to others. There isn’t one easy answer, and it varies with where you are. Also, things can change quickly, so much so that you should check for later developments on anything I’ve mentioned here. BoatUS has been alerting its members as mooring issues arise so that we can voice our concerns, whatever they are. If you feel that have no concerns, you may want to take another look.

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