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Anchoring Etiquette: Rules of the Rode

Let's unpack some anchoring etiquette tips to keep tempers from flaring when the hook drops.

Anchored at sunset

Few things are as relaxing as a peaceful anchorage. Here are some tips to keep it that way. (Photo:

Few boat topics are as likely to generate strong opinions — and colorful language — as anchoring. Volumes have been written on how to anchor and which anchor works best. But to hear some of the comments at the dock, there's precious little written about the etiquette of anchoring. We'll give that a whirl here.

Come In Slowly

Anchoring is kind of like moving into a new neighborhood. You want to make a good first impression so your new neighbors will invite you over for a drink and not call the local water police. Wakes are a no-no in any anchorage, so you want to come in very slowly and stately (plus it gives you more time to scope out the place and decide who you want for your temporary neighbor). If you come in fast enough to overturn somebody's lunch, you'll likely end up an outcast and probably get an earful.

When you're weaving your way through an anchorage, pass behind anchored boats; it's nerve-wracking to see someone passing right over where you know your anchor line is. Also, if you come in at night, try not to blind your fellow boaters with a million-watt spotlight, ruining their night vision. Keep the light aimed low, have all your own deck lights on, and keep your voices low and clear.

The First Boat Sets The Precedent

While there are no laws addressing priority, anchoring is traditionally on a first-come, first-served basis. If there are lots of boats already there, your position is low man on the totem pole. Really, all that means is that boats that come in later need to respect the space needs and the 360-degree swinging room (with rode stretched out) of all the other boats there. If you were the first one in, congratulations, you're king for the day. If you arrive later, don't anchor too close to other boats, or in their swing radius.

It's perfectly OK — in fact it's preferred — to talk to your potential neighbors, whether a new boat coming in or already anchored. If you're gliding by looking to anchor near a boat and the owner is in the cockpit, compliment their boat and ask if they're OK with where you plan to anchor. Ask them where their anchor is and how much scope they have out. Perhaps ask about the bottom. Some are good and some are bad for holding. Don't be surprised (or offended) if they're not OK with your plan for whatever reason. Everyone has his or her own social limits. Plus, there may be important issues at play: they might have multiple anchors out; there may be shallows or obstructions nearby; they could have engine trouble, meaning they may appreciate a little extra room "just in case;" or maybe your neighbor is waiting for another boat to raft up with them. So just say thanks, let it go, and move on to the next potential spot.

Getting ready to drop anchor

Before you drop anchor, check to make sure you won't swing too close to your neighbors. (Photo: Billy Black)

If there's simply no room, DO NOT try to squeeze in. Find another anchorage. Conversely, if you're already there and you're not comfortable with where the new folks want to anchor, go ahead and politely let them know why. "Politely" is the operative word. Shouting at a potential anchoring neighbor is as effective (and irritating) as shouting at your crew.

Once The Hook Is Down, Don't Just Hop In The Dinghy

Nothing screams newbie louder than tossing an anchor over and leaving before your boat has settled back with the wind and really "set" its hook. An anchor has to grab the bottom, dig in, and set to really hold, which usually entails letting out enough scope (5-to-1 rode to depth, measured from your anchor roller to the bottom), backing down on it slowly until it hooks the bottom, and then more strongly to dig its flukes in until it's clear the boat will remain in place. Even after whatever tactic you use to set it, you should still see how it does before you leave.

Conversely, don't put out more than 5-to-1 scope unless it's really needed; otherwise you will swing over on top of another boat if the wind should shift. If everyone uses this same 5-to-1 ratio, an anchorage of boats should swing around together if they have similar bottom and windage characteristics. Always drop your hook behind the stern of a neighbor's boat, never alongside it; this ensures that you'll both swing in your own circles.

The wind may be nothing now, but when that little dark cloud on the horizon starts growing and getting closer, not only the strength, but the direction of the wind will probably change. If you're ashore with a poorly set anchor, you may be the one responsible for the slow-motion boat-sized pinball game that ensues. Not cool, and you're sure to create damage to your boat and others.

Sound And Scent Carries Farther On The Water

The annoying sounds of dogs barking, generators running, and TVs and radios blaring are obvious, but water — especially after dark — has the curious ability to transmit even quieter sounds. Cellphone conversations in the cockpit (or constant ringing), loud talking, and amorous encounters can all be heard by a sizable part of the anchorage. Don't be that person who leaves your cellphone behind to ring at all hours. If you need loud tunes, use headphones. If you must run a genset for your air conditioning and icemaker, anchor near other boats similarly equipped, as you'll all probably be closed up anyway; or select a time of day for battery charging when most folks are out and about, not cocktail hour or quiet evening time.

Scent also carries far on the water. Perhaps the worst thing a boater can do is pump the head overboard in an anchorage. Not only does it smell, it's illegal and clearly a safety hazard for swimmers, even many hours later. Never do it. Use the pumpouts.

In the end, boating etiquette is pretty simple: Be a considerate neighbor and use common sense.


Charles Fort

Contributing Editor, BoatUS Magazine

Charles Fort handles BoatUS Magazine’s exclusive Reports section, a group of in-depth tech features in every issue written to help readers avoid accidental damage to their boats. He’s also on the BoatUS video team, and writes investigative features for the magazine. He writes BoatUS Magazine’s Consumer Affairs column, is member of the National Association of Marine Surveyors, he’s on ABYC’s tech committees, and has a 100-ton U.S. Coast Guard license. Charles once took his young family cruising for a year, before returning to head up BoatUS’s Consumer Affairs department, helping Members with dispute-mediation when they have consumer issues with marine products. He lives in California, where he’s BoatUS Magazine’s West Coast editor.