The Right Anchor

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Nothing like steady storm force winds in Greenland to make us glad we have the right gear.

Note that in March of 2019 we published an updated version of this article with substantial changes. We have left this version up, primarily because of the great comments attached, but you should not act on this older version, particularly since a dangerous weakness has been revealed in one of the anchors recommended below.

In the mid-90s a revolution occurred in anchor design that dramatically improved anchors. We can’t emphasize too strongly that the anchors that resulted from this revolution are the only ones you should use for your best bower (the anchor you normally use)—changing to one of these anchors is the single biggest thing you can do to improve your anchoring experience.

So let’s dive in and look at which anchors we recommend—including a couple for special situations—and which we don’t. Don’t worry, it’s simpler than it sounds.

Anchors We Recommend

SPADE

This anchor was the first of the new designs, invented by a French engineer and sailor. He came up with a number of design innovations including weight concentrated on the digging part of the fluke, a sharp chisel-like point, concave blade design and a hollow stock to improve the anchor’s balance, thereby facilitating fast setting.

How fast? In our early days with the SPADE we often dove on it to make sure it was set and we never saw it drag more than its own length prior to setting. Now we have such confidence in the SPADE that we don’t bother to dive on it at all.

We have anchored hundreds of times from the Bahamas to Greenland since buying our first SPADE in 2002.

We have never dragged a SPADE once set, and we have only failed to get a SPADE to set half a dozen times. Even when it has failed our setting torture test (more on that coming in Vol. 2), the SPADE just drags back very slowly with no tendency to skip.

The SPADE changed everything and even now, nearly two decades after it first appeared, it is still the best anchor you can buy for certain usage profiles. More on that later.

Rocna

Update September 2016: We now have new information about problems with the Rocna resetting after a wind shift. While we still feel it’s a good anchor, we are no longer recommending it for a best bower on a voyaging boat. See this chapter for more.

The Rocna was designed by a New Zealand sailor a few years after the SPADE and uses many of the same innovations but in a simpler design that is easier and cheaper to build.

The Rocna we own is at the end of the offshore lines that hold Morgan’s Cloud off our wharf here at Base Camp and it does a great job without budging, even when the wind blows hard from abeam—an anchor holding torture test if ever there was one.

And based on extensive interviews we have done with other voyagers that have used Rocnas for years, we are confident in saying that it’s a great anchor.

During 2011 Rocna was embroiled in controversy when it surfaced that they had moved manufacturing to China and in the process started using a lower grade steel than that advertised on their web site. It is not clear that this actually caused any real problems, but customers were justifiably upset.

Late in 2011 Rocna licensed a Canadian company that has pledged to fix the problem and replace the lower grade anchors for free. As I understand it, both have now been done.

Rocna and a SPADE, a Comparison

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Here is a look at the strengths and weaknesses of each:

Rocna Advantages

Short Scope

The SPADE is not great at setting in difficult bottom types on a scope of less than about 4:1 in relatively shallow water. (Interestingly, at least with a chain rode, the SPADE has no problem setting on 3:1 scope, even in rocky and weedy bottoms, once the water gets deeper than about 75-feet.)

The Rocna will reliably set on 3:1 scope in just about any bottom type and any water depth. (We still recommend a minimum 5:1 scope.)

One Piece

The Rocna is made in one piece and so there is no bolt holding it together to worry about, as there is on the SPADE.

Having said that, despite the well publicized loss of a boat off New Zealand some years ago, we don’t believe that there is any real danger of a SPADE coming apart in use since the bolt is not load-bearing and it is secured with a split-pinned aircraft nut.

Projected Area

We have had occasional problems setting the SPADE in very thin mud, like that in some parts of the Chesapeake Bay, particularly on short scope. The Rocna will do better in these conditions due to its larger projected area for a given weight.

Re-galvanizing

The Rocna is made entirely of steel and so can be easily re-galvanized, whereas the SPADE has lead poured into the tip that will have to be melted out before re-galvanizing and then replaced after—not a big deal but still a bit of a pain.

SPADE Advantages

Stowage

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The SPADE is much easier to stow than the Rocna since it is smaller for a given weight and has no roll bar. Also, it can be disassembled into two pieces to stow below.

More Streamlined

The SPADE is much more streamlined when stowed on a bow roller and therefore subjects the bow roller assembly to lower loads in wave strikes. Don’t underestimate this issue: The loads that a big Rocna is subjected to when the bow of the boat is driven hard into green water are pretty impressive.

Resetting

We have never had (or even heard of) a SPADE fail to reset after a wind shift.

On the other hand, we have now credible information indicating that  Rocnas can fail to reset after a wind shift.

We believe that due to its shape and the weight in the tip, this simply can’t happen with the SPADE.

No Roll Bar

Rocna tout the roll bar as an advantage. We are not at all sure about this. The fact is that any roll bar anchor can be fouled by a rock or other debris and, if that fouling is bad enough, said anchor will be useless until it’s hauled, cleared and reset.

On the other hand, the SPADE has always worked very well for us in hard bottoms full of rocks and weed, and we have anchored in that stuff a lot in the high northern latitudes.

Strength

As far as I know, there have never been any questions about the steel SPADE’s strength and I can personally attest that we have abused ours horribly without any damage, right up to using the full power of our big engine, with the chain rode up-and-down, to tear it out of snags.

And the SPADE’s fabricated construction, particularly of the stock, which is made of three pieces of steel welded in a hollow triangle, is intrinsically stronger, weight for weight, than any other anchor we know of.

Kelp
Even with this much kelp our SPADE regularly burrows through to the bottom and holds.
Even with this much kelp our SPADE regularly burrows through to the bottom and holds.

We have first hand experience using the SPADE in very thick kelp with great success. It just burrows through to the bottom, pretty much no matter how thick the weed. The Rocna has more trouble here, due to its larger fluke area and roll bar—just more to get hung up or fouled in the weed.

Aluminum

The SPADE is available in aluminum which, while we don’t recommend that material for a best bower (main anchor), is a great solution for a secondary anchor since a comparatively large aluminum SPADE can be easily handled and even set from a dinghy. (More on that in the next chapter.) The Rocna is only available in steel, galvanized or stainless.

Other Factors

Ultimate Holding

You will notice that I have not mentioned ultimate holding load, that number beloved of anchor testers. This is no accident. We believe that either anchor, properly sized and set, will hold through just about any storm.

In our own case we have repeatedly rode out full storms and, on a couple of memorable occasions, hurricane force winds with multi-directional gusting—once on just 3:1 scope in 100-feet of water—while securely anchored by our SPADE.

So, frankly, we think that endless discussions of the ultimate holding numbers of the two anchors, derived from tests, are a waste of time.

Expense

The SPADE, because of its fabricated construction, is intrinsically more expensive to build than the Rocna and therefore often priced higher. But that should not enter into your decision until all other issues have been ticked off. We are talking about a piece of gear that can save your boat or even your life—this is no place to put price ahead of other considerations.

Which?

If you are heading for the high latitudes, we recommend a SPADE as best bower (primary anchor). The advantages in weed, rocks, and resetting in the kind of multi-directional gusting you get in the high latitudes are just too compelling to make any other decision.

On the other hand, if you will primarily anchor in places with very thin mud—for example the Chesapeake Bay—then the Rocna is the winner, but be aware of the reseting issue.

Other Recommended Anchors

There are two other anchors we feel comfortable recommending.

Luke

Scanned With Provia Profile

This is, in our view, the best implementation of the traditional fisherman type anchor and has the additional benefit of being built in three pieces, making it easier to stow and handle. Because of its configuration of a heavily loaded fluke being driven in to the bottom by the cross bar and its massive weight, it always sets in any bottom.

However, it has very poor drag resistance in soft bottoms because of the relatively small fluke area and it is a huge pain in the neck to launch and retrieve.

Up until the invention of the SPADE, we recommended this anchor for anyone going to places with rocky and/or kelp covered bottoms (common in the high northern latitudes) because the other anchors of the day were simply useless. We still have our massive 150 lb (70 Kg) Luke, but have not used it once since buying our SPADE.

Now we only recommend buying a Luke as a backup to a SPADE or a Rocna and then only if you intend anchoring somewhere with an extreme kelp problem, like the East Coast of Greenland or Baffin Island.

Fortress

The Fortress is an aluminum anchor, based on the old Danforth pattern. Where it really shines is in ultimate holding, particularly in soft mud where other anchors may struggle.

Note that to get this good soft mud performance you must install the mud palms and change the fluke angle to the course setting.

A Fortress anchor.

Don’t buy a Fortress as your primary anchor since it is near useless if there is any weed on the bottom, or in rocks. It is also subject to bending if the fluke tip gets fouled on something and you have to really yank on it to get it free.

And Don’t set a Fortress on an all chain rode. Unlike most anchors, which set best with as near horizontal a pull as possible, the Fortress needs to have the stock lifted off the bottom a bit to set. This is easy to do with a rope rode, even with a small chain leader, but difficult with all chain.

So, with these caveats, why are we still recommending the Fortress?

The design has three big benefits:

  1. It’s light and breaks up into several easily stowed pieces so you can carry a really huge one, even on a small boat, that could save your boat in a really bad blow.
  2. Its lightness and shape mean that you can easily set it from a dinghy. In fact, our Fortress has saved our bacon on two occasions in just this way.
  3. It could save the day in very, very soft mud.

Summary

Just four anchors make it to our recommended list and two of those, the Luke and Fortress, only for specific conditions.

We know there are other good anchors but these are the only ones that we have enough reliable experience with to recommend without reservation.

Anchors You Should Not Use

You need to know about the problems inherent in these still popular anchors:

CQR

Dead CQR

This was our primary anchor before the SPADE and we can tell you categorically that using one of these will give you endless problems that will make you doubt your ability to anchor and negatively affect your sanity.

The CQR is difficult or impossible to set in many different bottom types including hard sand, weed, and shell. Even when it does set, it only does so after dragging some way, which increases its chances of fouling.

It does work well in the thick glutinous mud of the English East Coast (the CQR’s home turf), but then so does just about any anchor.

If you have a CQR, get rid of it or you will never be a happy anchorer. Ours is now a lawn ornament in Norway.

By the way, if you think a genuine CQR is a poor anchor, the copies are truly useless.

Bruce

Up until the wide adoption of SPADE and Rocna this was the anchor for many experienced long distance voyaging sailors, mainly because it sets very quickly in most bottom types.

Some of these same experienced sailors will tell you that it’s still the best. But that’s only because they have not tried a SPADE or a Rocna.

The Bruce has three dangerous failings:

  • Ultimate holding is very poor. Most users compensated for this by buying a massively oversized Bruce, but even then the holding does not measure up to the Rocna or SPADE.
  • When a Bruce breaks out under load it tends to skip across the bottom, resulting in a very fast drag rate.
  • The Bruce can also foul with round rocks or even, as one friend of ours found out, conch shells. When fouled in this way a Bruce is about as effective as a concrete block.

Delta

The Delta is probably a reasonably good anchor when compared to the CQR, but it does not hold a candle to a SPADE or Rocna, so why trust your boat to one when there are much better alternatives? The bottom line is that no plough shaped anchor is ever going to hold as well as one with a concave holding surface.

Others

It seems like every year some inventor claims to have come up with “the perfect anchor” many of them strange shaped or with weird “features”. If you want to test one of these, fine, but we only recommend anchors that we know work well.

We also see a lot of thinly disguised copies of the Rocna, and most lately the SPADE, on the market. These may, or may not, be as good as the original, but since their usual claim to fame is a lower price or some dubious, at least to me, feature—the rock slot in the stock of the Manson Supreme comes to mind—I wouldn’t bet my boat on it.

Again, our recommendation is to stick with the originals and forgo the copies.

Having said that, as the son of an engineer who was repeatedly ripped off by copies of his patented inventions, I do have a visceral dislike of products that copy the breakthroughs of others, rather than actually moving the technology forward through innovation. The point being, you should be aware of my prejudices (we all have ’em) as you read the above.

Comments

If you have had great results from an anchor not mentioned here, or poor results from one that is, by all means tell us about it, we are always interested and there is always more to learn.

Disclosure

I really liked and had a huge amount of respect for the late designer of the SPADE—we bought our first one directly from him—but then I also have huge respect for the designer of the Rocna, so that’s a wash.

We paid the same price as anyone else for our Rocna, Fortress, Luke and our first two SPADEs. But then five years ago the North America distributor for SPADE gave us a brand new bower to replace our battered and rusty old one, which, by the way, is, I believe, still doing sterling duty on a teaching sailboat.

The same distributor has long been a corporate member at AAC.

I assure you that none of this influenced what I wrote above…the price to corrupt me is way higher than that! 🙂

Finally, the fact that I always write SPADE in caps is not some devious attempt to influence you. The reason is that SPADE is an acronym, although I have to confess I don’t remember what the full name is.

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John was born and brought up in Bermuda and started sailing as a child, racing locally and offshore before turning to cruising. He has sailed over 100,000 miles, most of it on his McCurdy & Rhodes 56, Morgan's Cloud, including eight ocean races to Bermuda, culminating in winning his class twice in the Newport Bermuda Race. He has skippered a series of voyages in the North Atlantic, the majority of which have been to the high latitudes. John has been helping others go voyaging by sharing his experience for twenty years, first in yachting magazines and, for the last 12 years, as co-editor/publisher of AAC.

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