Anchor Chain Catenary, When it Matters and When it Doesn’t

"Morgan's Cloud" in a West Greenland anchorage. It's blowing storm force with higher gusts.
The quickest way to start a brawl is to walk into a bar full of sailors and yell:
Who believes that chain catenary improves anchor holding?
The fight usually breaks into two opposing gangs: those who believe that having a lot of chain on the bottom increases holding, and those who have actually observed an all chain rode being pulled bar straight in strong winds who cry "bullshit". But the reality is much more nuanced, and understanding that can help us anchor more safely...and avoid bloody noses in bar brawls. Let's turn our attention to the former: how to use catenary to help us anchor, and when not to rely on it.

The Governing Theory

First off, a bit of theory. I'm sure most of us know this, but it's worth revisiting, because it's the basis of everything else I'm going to write about:
With almost all anchor types, both ultimate holding, and speed and reliability of setting, increase as the angle of pull, when measured against a horizontal line, decreases.
(By the way, Danforth-type anchors, including the Fortress, are, as far as I know, the only exception to the rule. They set better if the stock is lifted off the bottom a bit.) Let's leave ultimate holding out of it for a bit (we will come back to it later) and focus on setting. There are three ways we can decrease the pull angle and thereby help our anchor to set:
  1. Increase the scope.
  2. Increase the catenary.
  3. A combination of both.
I'm going to dive into all three in more detail, but first a story.

A Lesson Learned

About 20 years ago, we changed from a CQR to a SPADE anchor, both set on 7/16" (~ 11mm) G40 (high test) chain. The new anchor worked so well that we got a little slap happy about our anchoring technique:
  1. Drop anchor.
  2. Let the chain run to 5:1 scope before putting any load on it.
  3. Wait for the breeze to straighten the boat out.
  4. Back down hard to set.
  5. Have tea.
In thousands of sets, over some 15 years, from the Bahamas to Greenland, our SPADE only failed to set a few times, and we never dragged it once set. Then, six years ago, we changed to 3/8" (~ 10 mm) G70 (heat treated) chain, both to reduce the weight in the bow and to increase the amount of chain we could carry from 340 to 400 ft (103 to 122 m)—in the high latitudes, where anchorages are often deep, there is no such thing as too much rode. Suddenly we were experiencing more failures to set, particularly in soupy soft holding. At first we were totally perplexed. What the heck? Had we forgotten how to anchor? And then the light went on:

  1. Introduction
  2. 4 Vital Anchor Selection Criteria and a Review of SPADE
  3. SARCA Excel Anchor—A Real World Test
  4. SPADE, SARCA Excel, or Some Other Anchor?
  5. Resetting Failures With Rocna and Manson, and Thoughts on Vulcan and Mantus
  6. Some Thoughts On The Ultra Anchor, Roll Bars and Swivels
  7. Specifying Primary Anchor Size
  8. Kedge (Secondary Anchor)—Recommended Type and Size
  9. Third Anchors, Storm Anchors and Spare Anchors
  10. Anchor Tests—The Good, The Bad, and The Downright Silly
  11. Making Anchor Tests More Meaningful
  12. We Love The Way Our Anchor Drags 
  13. Things to Know About Anchor Chain
  14. Selecting a Chain Grade
  15. Anchor Chain Catenary, When it Matters and When it Doesn’t
  16. Anchoring—Snubbers
  17. Anchor Rode Questions and Answers
  18. Q&A: Hybrid Rope And Chain Anchor Rodes
  19. Anchor Swivels, Just Say No
  20. A Windlass That Makes The Grade
  21. The Perfect Anchor Roller
  22. Install A Wash-down Pump—And Save Money!
  23. Anchoring—Kellets
  24. Anchoring—Chain: Stoppers, Termination and Marking
  25. 20 Tips To Get Anchored and Stay Anchored
  26. Choosing an Anchorage
  27. Choosing a Spot
  28. 15 Steps To Getting Securely Anchored
  29. One Anchor or Two?
  30. Two Anchors Done Right
  31. It’s Often Better to Anchor Than Pick Up a Mooring
  32. Yawing at Anchor, The Theory and The Solution
  33. Surging at The Anchor, an Alternative Proven Cure
  34. ShoreFasts—Part 1, When to Use Them
  35. ShoreFasts—Part 2, Example Setups Plus Tips and Tricks
  36. ShoreFasts—Part 3, The Gear
  37. How To Use An Anchor Trip Line
  38. Gale And Storm Preparation, At Anchor Or On A Mooring
  39. Storm Preparation, All Chain On Deck

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 18 years, as co-editor/publisher of AAC.

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