Setting The Anchor

Are we anchored or moored?

After seven years of using a ‘new generation’ anchor, it’s been quite an education to go back to the older generation. A bit like exchanging your Porsche 911 for a Volkswagen Beetle—both will get you from A to B, but there the similarity ends. For the last two years we have chartered yachts for our survey work that came equipped with anchors from the earlier generation; both were of adequate size (a 45lb CQR and a 20Kg Bruce copy) and worked well enough once dug in or, in some cases, if you could get them dug in.

Last year we made five attempts to encourage the CQR to set in a weedy anchorage, before we finally gave up and moved elsewhere. The score for the Bruce this year was marginally better: it took three attempts to set in one anchorage, two in another, and a third anchorage where it failed to set twice, but held at the third attempt—only to discover in the morning that this was because we’d fouled an old mooring! Once in it held OK, although I was happy that we didn’t have any strong winds, as I’ve little faith in the smaller Bruces from previous experience.

What Could Be The Cause?

One of the problems that besets the older brigade in weedy bottoms is that due to their design they rarely dig in quickly. As a result, the plough drags across the bottom, rapidly gathering a big ball of weed, the end result being that the anchor has absolutely zero chance of setting properly. The new generation anchors (Spade, Rocna, Manson, etc) have a sharp tip and are designed to set very rapidly, and so cut through weed and dig in far more effectively and in far less distance. That’s not to say that they work every time, though, and on a couple of occasions we’ve had our oversized Rocna fail to set in really heavy weed—nothing’s perfect, and it does remind us not to be complacent.

Technique with either generation can help though. Dumping the chain out in a big ball and then going rapidly astern is likely to drag any anchor along the bottom and choke it with weed, but we’ve seen this happen time and time again. Far better to go slowly and work the anchor in gently (if the wind and tide will let you). We don’t do anything fancy or different with either new or old generation anchors—our technique is just the same and relies as much on patience and practice as anything else.

What Works For Us

Once we’ve selected our pitch, we have the anchor ready to go, over the bow and only just held on the windlass brake. We make our approach as slowly as possible, go just beyond our drop spot, then stop the boat and go gently astern (with just the aid of the wind if possible) so that the boat is just drifting slowly backwards. At the desired spot we let go manually with the brake, not with the windlass control—once it’s time to lower the anchor we want it out and on the bottom first, not the chain, and in the selected spot. We veer the chain fast but under control to avoid snarl ups, and so that the chain is as far as possible lying out in a straight line and with no tension placed on the anchor. We normally go to five times the current depth, then gently snub the anchor on the windlass brake. Only then do we go back into gear at the lowest possible revs and slowly back up to bring the chain up tight and work the anchor in.

If it drags for more than say ten metres, we bring the anchor up again, as it’s almost certainly choked with weed. In any case if the anchorage is small or busy, we’re probably by now not going to be lying where we had planned, and we’d rather start again and be happy with the end result, rather than endanger ourselves or another boat. If it holds (or seems to), then we progressively up the power until we’re able to hold the boat on station at (at least) half revs astern for a minimum of thirty seconds. This may seem excessive, but there’s a big risk in weed that you have gathered such a heavy ball of it on the anchor that you are not, in fact, anchored, but ‘moored’ to the ball of weed. If that’s the case it will slowly drag when you really put the power on and you’re going to have to sort it out and try again. Otherwise, when the first solid wind goes through, you’ll be doing what we call the “Canna shuffle”, named after one of our favourite (but notoriously weedy) Hebridean anchorages, where invariably, whenever there is some wind, many of the boats that were in one place when you turned in are in quite another when you wake up in the morning.

Once you’re happy that all is well, it’s time to adjust the cable to the expected tidal height as far as space and neighbours will let you. If possible we’ll always ask any boats around us what they have out themselves to ensure that we all lie in harmony if the wind shifts. In fairness this is where we often use our shoal draft to maximum benefit, sneaking close inshore or out to one side of the anchorage where we are unlikely to have another boat drag down on us—we trust our own gear and skills, but we just can’t be sure about others.

Always Rest Easy

It’s vitally important to make absolutely sure that our anchor is set properly. It might be a pain in the neck when you and your crew are tired and simply want to be settled in but, in our experience, that’s the very time not to drop your guard.

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Meet the Author

Colin Speedie

Colin, European Correspondent here at AAC, is a deeply experienced offshore sailor who holds a Yachtmaster licence, and a gifted photographer and talented writer who has added a whole new dimension to Attainable Adventure Cruising. In addition, since Colin and Louise are from England and had their OVNI 435, Pèlerin built in France, they bring a European perspective to our site. You can read more about Colin and Louise and their business at their website.

24 comments… add one
  • John Aug 5, 2012, 8:55 am

    Hi Colin,

    Great post full of good information. Our experience with the old style anchors was much the same. In fact when we had a CQR we stopped even bothering to try and get it to set and just went straight to our Luke, fisherman type. Maybe if we had been as patient as you are when setting we might have done better.

    One thing I can say is that our 55kg SPADE is truly amazing in weedy bottoms to the point that we have never used the Luke since we got the SPADE. In fact, I have to admit that with the SPADE we just drop it, reverse back hard, to layout the chain, and set it hard. Even with this rather rough and impatient treatment it has only failed to set in weed once or twice over the years and it has always gone in on the second, albeit more gentle, attempt.

    On the other hand, in very thin mud, like that you find in the Chesapeake Bay, the SPADE benefits from the more gentle touch that you describe.

    I’m going to guess that weedy bottoms may be a type where the SPADE has a slight edge over the Rocna or just about any other anchor. Conversely, I think the Rocna will do a bit better in very soft bottoms.

    • Colin Aug 5, 2012, 3:32 pm

      Hi John

      We’ve always carried a fisherman for weed, but like you haven’t used it for years. The 33 kg Rocna is so reliable (even in weed), but we may dig the fisherman out for some of the anchorages here in the Canaaries over the next few weeks, more due to rubble and boulders on the bottom than weed.

      In our case above, we didn’t have that option – the kedge was a Danforth, and if there’s an anchor I don’t rate in weed it has to be the Danforth. So you just have to keep plugging away…..

      I haven’t used a Spade, but I’ve no doubt from all I’ve heard they’re a great anchor. If the Rocna has an edge in soft mud, perhaps it’s due to the larger area of the flukes, but that’s just conjecture on my part.

      Best wishes


  • Paul Mills Aug 5, 2012, 10:46 am

    Hi Colin,

    The Canna shuffle …. seen it several times this summer,and even one charter boat – from the same ‘stable’ as yours try about 6 times only to give up and go elsewhere…. at ten o clock at night into a NE force 6. He was using an undersized Delta.

    We found our Rocna worked well in Canna with much the same gentle drop technique you described; it’s amazing how many boats drop the chain in a pile and then motor quickly astern, and are then suprised that it drags, it’s also suprising how some skippers rapidly get tense instead of analytical.

    Another thing we think helped us the second time was lifting our appendages and going in shallow where there was less wind – and less swell.


    • Colin Aug 5, 2012, 3:40 pm

      Hi Paul

      It’s great dance isn’t it – as long as you’re not joining in. Pity for the poor guy who had to clear out, but perhaps better than dragging into someone else, or worse yet going ashore during the night.

      Good point about staying calm and analytical. It’s easy to get frustrated (I know I do), but you have to train yourself to keep cool, and when it’s obvious that it’s not working out bite the bullet and try again. It doesn’t help when you’re the centre of attention, though, and some people do seem to lose it at such moments….

      And I agree, a big plus for real shoal draft boats that can wriggle right in close in the best of the shelter!

      Best wishes


  • Marie Aug 6, 2012, 5:50 am

    we have been there – have seen that. And are now happy with our 43 kg Bugelanker (similar to the Rocna) for our 48 feet aluminum sailboat (16 t). We experienced one disadvantage when trying to get out of Smögen another boat’s Bruce was stuck between the fluke and the arc of our Bugelanker. I was close to getting my knife out to cut his rope …

    • Colin Aug 6, 2012, 1:06 pm

      Hi Marie

      The Bugel has a good sharp point to help it dig in through weed, I’d have thought, and yours has plenty of weight, too, which is all to the good.

      The rollbar is the one area of of this type of anchor that I don’t much like, although I accept that it performs its function (rolling the anchor into the correct plane to dig in) highly effectively. We haven’t collected anyone’s anchor (yet!), but we have picked up a sizeable small tree once.

      Best wishes


  • Roland Aug 6, 2012, 11:01 am

    Hi Colin,
    I do agree with your post. We use the same technique as you. I think 50 % is technique. I prefer minimum 5-6 m as the risk for weed is less if deeper.

    Had a Delta before my Rocna. The Delta was perfoming well, if using the technique you described.. The Rocna is more forgiving and we very seldom have to reset the anchor. It sets directly and certainly makes us sleep better. Sometimes I’m thinking we are over-confident in the Rocna. We are still waiting for the first time it comes lose after setting.

    • Colin Aug 6, 2012, 1:18 pm

      Hi Roland

      I’d agree with your comment re depth in most cases (although in Scotland it seems to be more in 10m +), and it’s certainly the case in the anchorage mentioned here, but the best shelter in this case is definitely in the shallower water in the pool – it’s a trade-off.

      I’ve never had much luck with plough anchors in weed – they simply seem to gather the stuff, partly as I mentioned in the article because they tend to take their time digging in and so choke with weed before they’ve had a chance to set properly.

      Rocnas have worked really well for us, too, although we’ve had to go round again on a couple of occasions. Certainly there’s no comparison with the anchors we’ve used before (CQR, Bruce etc.), and we’ve never had it drag. But we always give it plenty of power astern to make sure it’s holding firm, which usually gives you at least some indication of whether it is really well dug in.

      Best wishes


  • RDE Aug 6, 2012, 2:19 pm

    I wouldn’t dream of getting involved in the pissing match between Peter Smith (Ronca) and Manson, but the new Manson Boss has a number of intriguing features, especially if your stemhead won’t accommodate a roll bar.

    Here is a first hand report of a real world stress test. (For those of you who know the Westsail 32, it is the perfect vehicle for anchor testing because it pitches like mad, increasing shock loading!)

    Anybody else tried it yet?

    • Colin Aug 6, 2012, 3:45 pm

      Hi Richard

      Another intriguing design, and if it’s as good as they say no doubt they’ll find a market. I wonder why they suggest that it’s aimed at the motor boat market? Perhaps it’s to do with the way that most power boats have bow platforms that wouldn’t accommodate a roll bar?

      The roll bar is the least favoured feature of the Rocna (or Manson Supreme) for me, but I accept it does it’s job.

      It’ll be good to see how it shapes up in future tests.

      Best wishes


  • John Armitage Aug 6, 2012, 2:26 pm

    I do not believe that powering astern is a sufficient test to see if the anchor is really set, especially as many sailboats’ propellers do not provide very high backing force. I recommend backing against a slack rode for enough distance to gather a couple of knots of speed, and letting the snatch at the end of the rode do the testing; this will generally provide much more force than just backing statically. Using this technique, I’ve been impressed with how often an anchor which appeared to be set with a static backing load, has come out of the bottom at the greater jerking load (yet this jerking load is still below what might be encountered in strong winds and wave action). Of course that is annoying, but better to find out then rather than later in the dark.

  • Colin Aug 6, 2012, 4:00 pm

    Hi John

    Maybe it’s to do with your boat, and how you attach the rode to her. On our own boat we have a large, efficient feathering prop, more powerful astern than the standard 3 blader. At 2000 rpm astern we’re putting plenty of load on the anchor, and generally we’re trying to work it in, not pull it out. If we’re in any doubt, we’ll put more revs on, and hold it there for a minute or more. It’s never failed us yet.

    In addition, one of the things that makes the new generation anchors so attractive is the way they set fast – in some cases almost too fast, as the chain comes up tight almost immediately. I prefer not to place heavy shock loads on our windlass, so snub the anchor on the windlass brake, just to take the edge off. I don’t doubt that your method works for you and your boat, and I can see the sense in testing the hold vigorously, but personally I’d rather not subject the windlass to such shocks from a bar taut chain if I can avoid it.

    If the wind gets up in the night I’ll have at least one long nylon snubber set up to take the sting out of the shock loadings and get them off the windlass. It’s kinder on the gear and the crew.

    But I couldn’t agree more that it’s better to find out in advance whether your anchor is holding or not, however inconvenient it may be if it’s not – as you say, better to find out now than later.

    Best wishes


  • John Armitage Aug 6, 2012, 4:16 pm

    Hi Colin,
    I agree about not shock-loading the windlass and/or chain— I always used two nylon snubbers, which went on before my reverse momentum loading the rode.

    • Colin Aug 6, 2012, 4:32 pm

      Hi John

      I guessed it must have been something like that, hence my comments. On our boat the layout (we have a sort of extended bow platform) makes it a bit of a pain attaching the snubbers as they are well outboard and it’s awkward to get to the chain to attach them. As a result we tend to attach them once everything is settled down and we’re in the process of veering the final amount of cable.

      But, I’ve never tried your way, and maybe when the ‘right’ moment presents itself, we’ll attach the snubbers in advance and give it a try.

      Best wishes


  • Roland Aug 7, 2012, 2:59 am

    Stress on the windlass is one of the most common reason for them to fail. They are not designed for taking the load when anchored.
    On a vertical windlass you normally have a 20 mm S/S shaft coming up from the motor and gearbox. If the shaft bends just 1 mm it will start leaking water and jam. Always use a snubber!

    • Colin Aug 7, 2012, 5:25 am

      Hi Roland

      I couldn’t agree more. I’ve seen a big windlass blown to pieces due to the extreme shock loads of a storm in shallow water and the lack of a snubber.

      And the snubber should be nylon and a decent length, to allow some stretch, and a bight of chain eased to ensure that it can’t come up taut on the windlass. Too often you see snubbers just a couple of feet long, which is fine if all you want to do is take the load off the windlass and quieten the chain in the rollers, but misses the primary function – to remove the shock loads from the anchor and gear altogether.

      Best wishes


  • Dick Stevenson Aug 9, 2012, 3:48 am

    Colin, I anchor very similarly to what you describe and my experience over the years is that practice gives me permission to sleep well till the wind hits 25-30 knots or so. By that time I am awake, but rarely need to do more than watch until 35-40 knots when it is time for more rode. Dick Stevenson, s/v Alchemy

  • Colin Aug 9, 2012, 5:03 am

    Hi Dick

    I sometimes wonder whether sailors are equipped with an internal anemometer, or some sort of tilt switch, that sends an alert message when pre-set parameters are exceeded!

    That’s why it often seems that we ‘sleep with one eye open’, and wake up in a flash when necessary – a good thing. But as you rightly say, practice helps and gives us the confidence to sleep easier until the wind gets up and reminds us to get back in the saddle.

    Best wishes


  • Dick Stevenson Aug 9, 2012, 5:12 am

    Colin, We have worked to have a very quiet boat at anchor, but the lines adjusting pole height on the mast just refuse to be quiet above 25 knots. I just consider them my early warning system. I hope my internal antenna will function adequately, but the older I get, the deeper I sleep. It is always a shock, when in a marina, to find someone has come in next to you in the night and I have slept right through it. Dick Stevenson, s/v Alchemy, Holyhead, Wales

  • RDE Jul 9, 2013, 7:36 pm

    Surprise! There is a new “best” anchor on the market. Certainly the best to stow, and if their testing is valid, the best to set and hold as well.
    And being a penny pinching Irishman, I like the fact that it is about 2/3 the price of a Spade.

  • Richard Jun 1, 2015, 2:22 pm

    I, like John sometimes in hard packed sand have trouble getting my oversized Rocna anchor to bury fully. I will attach my snubbers and do a bit of a run in reverse as apposed to a study pull, this will usually set it more effectively. This is the only issue I see with having a larger anchor as the area is a lot more with a larger anchor,


  • Chuck B Jun 21, 2018, 12:30 am

    I have a question for the amazing AAC brain trust. I’ve been thinking about this ever since reading “Two Years Before the Mast.” It seemed their anchors would drag at the drop of a hat, so any time the wind shifted the slightest in the night they’d call all hands, weigh anchor and get underway to avoid breaking up on the rocks, etc.

    My question to you all is, with a reliable and two-sizes-up anchor like a Spade, and an overall system designed to ABYC loads, what are your criteria for abandoning an anchorage in the middle of the night? (I’m thinking more in terms of safety than comfort, but of course that plays a part in the decision too, as does the risk of being dragged into by others.)

    With a good modern anchor and a good set, at what point does departing in the dark become the less risky option? What are your personal criteria and thinking processes?

    Thank you,

    • John Jun 21, 2018, 8:45 am

      Hi Chuck,

      I’m glad to say that I have only once, in the last 25 years, had to move anchorage in the dark. That was because of hurricane force gusting, coupled with an un-forecast shift, that was swinging us uncomfortable close to the rocks in a small Greenland anchorage.

      And that brings up a point, to avoid this kind of situation, Phyllis and I tend to avoid the very small anchorages favoured by so many cruisers and guides. The key point being that a well anchored boat with modern gear is pretty much safe from any amount of wind right up to hurricane force. The problems come if too close to land or if swell gets into the anchorage. The latter can make an anchorage untenable even if the wind is not so bad, so protection from swell should always be the prime criteria in anchorage selection.

      All that said, moving in the dark is fraught with opportunities for disaster, so it’s generally better to post an anchor watch and wait for dawn.

      More here:

    • Eric Klem Jun 21, 2018, 5:18 pm

      Hi Chuck,

      I think that there is an important difference which is that in the book, they were anchored offshore, not in a harbor. It doesn’t take much to suddenly find yourself in the surf line in 10’+ breakers in the places they were. Also, it was very tricky to get underway in a boat that was not maneuverable or weatherly. The last time I can remember abandoning an anchorage was in a not too dissimilar conditions minus the surf line part. We were anchored in Broad Sound outside of Boston with no protection for a big event and the wind came up unexpectedly from the northeast and large waves started rolling through while there were many large and un-maneuverable vessels in there.

      To me, large waves are the one thing that makes dragging or breaking something really likely. The kinetic energy of the boat is enough that it is extremely hard to dissipate the energy before dragging or breaking occur.

      I guess the point is that if you feel it is safer to leave than to stay, you need to leave but it is not something to be taken lightly. Large waves and a rocky shore would certainly qualify as unsafe but soft sand, no waves and just a bunch of wind wouldn’t qualify.


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