If Your Anchor Could Talk

By Tom Neale, 9/16/2010


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Dragging is a drag. A few weeks ago we put the CQR anchor down in an area where we’d anchored many times before. We knew that the bottom was perfect. We were ready for a nice evening, not for hassle. Hassle we got. The anchor dragged along the bottom like it had wheels. I pulled it up so that we could move over to a different spot, a few yards away. When it broke the surface I saw the ancient long dead remnants of a huge oyster shell stuck on the point. I had to knock it off with a boathook. I wanted to know if this was an anomaly or the norm in this, one of our favorite spots in the area. It could be that an old oyster ground had left many such carcasses, but I didn’t think so. I dove in and swam to the bottom about 15 feet down. As I expected, the river’s bottom was smooth, unobstructed, with a shallow layer of sand over a deep layer of good thick mud. Not another shell in sight. We’d just hit the bad luck of the draw.

Chez Nous two favorite anchors
While anchoring at Wrightsville Beach, NC a few years back, we picked one of the few areas there which we knew had good holding. Most of that place has very poor holding and many boats don’t realize this until 2:00 a.m. in the morning when the wind comes up. But in this “good” area, we dragged like we had nothing on the end of the chain. I pulled it up to see what was going on. Maybe, I thought, somebody had covered the bottom with a cement skating rink down there. What I found when my anchor reached the light of day was a very old Danforth anchor snagged on my anchor, with a long length of rope trailing down into the water. Someone had lost it long ago and it had been waiting there for a lucky guy like me. Unfortunately it slipped free as I was trying to get it aboard, so it’s probably still there, maybe waiting to spoil your evening. I’ve pulled up several other anchors in this manner over the years, but only one was a keeper. The others were too far gone. Each kept me from holding.

One evening as we were migrating down the Georgia ICW we put into a good protected creek, which we knew had excellent holding. A very strong cold front was going to roar through that night. Winds had already begun to build. We lowered the anchor, fell back on the wind, and something strange happened. At first we dragged a little. This isn’t unusual as the anchor digs in, but this dragging didn’t feel right and it lasted a little too long for the type of bottom which I knew was down there. Then, as a gust caught us, the chain suddenly tightened like a steel bar and our bow jerked around like we were hooked onto a sunken battle ship. Being hooked onto a sunken battle ship may have its advantages, but I’d just as soon be dug into good mud. You never know what rusty part of that battle ship will break off in the night. So we commenced to pull in the anchor to see what was going on. I said “commenced” because the anchor didn’t want to come. We spent around an hour carefully working the windlass and the engine, utilizing the bobbing from the wind gusts, slowly inching in our chain. The battle ship turned out to be a thick steel cable. Coils and coils of it disappeared into the water. I had no idea how much was there, but it was a lot. Nearby was a dock used by a commercial shrimping fleet. Sometimes they anchor in this creek for storms or simply to make an early start in the night. They often use steel cable for their anchor rode. We just happened to have lowered our anchor into a pile of cable that had probably broken in a hurricane, or perhaps been accidently allowed to run overboard by a broken piece of machinery or an untrained crew. We couldn’t begin to recover this cable. It was far too heavy. We worked for well over a half hour more, precariously close to the shoal to clear if from our anchor. It may have held us during the blow that night, or it may well have straightened and slipped off our hook. Worse, it may have remained on the hook, making it impossible to bite into the mud, but straightened enough to allow us to drag into the bank. Or, another boat may have started dragging down on us and we wouldn’t have been able to pull our anchor in time to escape.

In clear Bahamas water you can usually see what you get when anchoring
When you cross the Gulf Stream from the Miami area you often enter the Great Bahamas Banks through a precarious cut between Cat and Gun Cays. Many like to anchor to the east of Gun. In most of the Bahamas you can look down in normal anchoring depths and see the bottom clearly, if the light is good. From many years of doing this trip, we know that there was much thick grass on the bottom in this area. Thick grass is bad for anchoring. Not only is there the environmental issue of tearing up the grass, there is also the fact that typically the roots will slowly break as the wind builds and the last one will let go at that proverbial anchor dragging hour of 2:00 a.m. But here you can see small areas of sand, like islands, in the grassy bottom. Many of these areas are large enough to target with your anchor as you lower it. I dove several of these patches and found the sand to be soft and great for holding. We always try to set the hook in these areas when we anchor there and other places with similar bottom.

On our first trip to Nassau, having learned about the sand patches at Gun Cay, we were glad to look down through the water and see that there were similar patches in the very thick grass covering the bottom where we wanted to anchor. We carefully lowered our gear. It landed perfectly in the sand. We began backing down and it didn’t hold not even for the briefest pause. I dove down to the bottom and found that the white sand was very coarse—so coarse that it could hardly be called sand. And so coarse that it would never make good holding, except by use of another type of anchor—which we had aboard and deployed. (It was a Fortress.)

Tom’s Tips About Knowing Your Bottom

1. A clean anchor can mean that the bottom is very hard, as with tightly packed sand, which is going to be very poor holding for most anchors.
2. Loose mud of very low viscosity on your anchor may mean that the mud is too soft to hold well, but not necessarily. Often a layer of very soft mud covers a deep layer of thicker good holding mud...

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I could tell maybe a hundred more stories of being surprised by what is or isn’t on the bottom. If you anchor enough, you’re going to get these surprises. Usually you’ll be in waters where you can’t see the bottom from your deck, and frequently diving will be out of the question and very unsafe. If you have question as to what’s going on down there, feel and watch your rode, feel how your anchor sets, if it does, and feel how it’s dragging if it is. Always have more than one type of anchor to work different types of bottoms and circumstances. Our favorites are the original patented CQR and the Fortress. Others may have their favorites. If something’s unusual, generally the best course of action is to pull it up and check for what may be on the anchor. If you can’t figure out what’s happening, move over a bit. You may have lowered it down on the one and only prehistoric oyster shell for miles around.

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