15 Steps To Getting Securely Anchored

The payoff for good anchoring technique. “Morgan’s Cloud” in the midnight sun, Arctic Norway.

When thinking about anchoring, it’s easy (and kinda fun too) to just focus on gear, but good technique can contribute at least as much to getting securely anchored.

Phyllis and I were sharply reminded of this a couple of seasons ago when we experienced several setting failures that were most assuredly caused by problems “above the boot”, as skiing instructors are wont to say.

So what contributed to a guy with a half-century of anchoring experience getting lax? Simple, much better anchors. Back in the day of the CQR and other old-style anchors, if our technique was not perfect, the chances of a secure set went to near zero, at least in some substrate types, which definitely kept us on our toes. 

But technique is still vital with new-style anchors—even just half-a-dozen anchor setting failures a year are too many.

So here is a step-by-step reminder chapter for us all, that will be particularly useful as a primer for those new to anchoring.

One more thing, this is part of an entire Online Book on anchoring technique, so in this chapter I’m assuming that we have already selected a spot to drop the anchor (covered in the previous chapter).

Let’s get a solid set first time:

#1 Stop The Boat

This one is going to sound just too obvious, but it’s amazing how often I see fellow cruisers dropping the anchor while still moving forward, even though the engine is in reverse—it’s an easy error to make because it’s actually quite difficult to assess when all forward way is off.

Here are a few tips that will help:

  • Don’t gauge forward speed by looking at the water surface right next to the boat. The reverse thrust from the prop makes it look as if we are stopped, or even moving astern, long before we actually are.
  • Don’t look at a through-the-water speedo. Once we are in reverse, the water flow from the prop can cause a false zero reading while we are still moving forward.
  • Don’t use the GPS speed. The damping set on most units means that we will actually be moving backward at quite a clip, not good either, before we get a zero reading.
  • Do look at the shore abeam.
  • Do look at the water surface abeam and about a boat length away. Very often a piece of weed or some other piece of flotsam will provide a reliable reference point.
Our goal is to be absolutely stopped, or making slight sternway, before starting the drop.

This is doubly important for single-handers, since otherwise we will be moving way ahead of where we want to be while we run forward to drop.

#2 Run The Chain

You know those windlass up-down switches that are oh-so-conveniently installed on the binnacle of many modern cruising boats? They are one of the biggest contributors out there to failed sets.

Don’t use ’em. Slow veering of chain using the windlass results in dragging the anchor across the bottom, thereby hugely increasing the chances that it will foul on an obstruction and/or that the fluke will fill with mud, which can obstruct setting on many anchor types.

Instead, run the chain by releasing the clutch and brake, and do not stop until at least 5:1 scope has run out. (The one exception to the 5:1 rule is a Fortress anchor, which actually sets better on shorter scope and so may benefit from a check of the rode run-out at about 3:1 scope.)

#3 Set a Waypoint

At the moment the anchor starts to run, the person at the helm should set a waypoint on the plotter or, better still, a drag alarm point; that is, if the plotter has a drag alarm feature that’s worth a shit…but that’s another article…and rant.

If you are singlehanded, press the button just before you scamper forward. As long as you have the boat stopped it will be close enough. Ditto step #4 (below).

#4 Know the Water Depth

Just before we hit reverse hard (see #6), we need to glance at the depth sounder and make a mental note of the water depth so we know how much chain to run. (Once in reverse, the depth sounder will misread due to turbulence.)

And we should not assume that a reading we took earlier in the approach will be right. It’s amazing how often there’s a big hole just where we drop the hook.

#5 Know Our Prop Walk

In anchoring, like docking, it’s vital to know which way our boat’s stern will kick in reverse. In our case it’s to port (right-hand prop) so we always approach the anchoring point with the wind about 20 degrees on the starboard bow.

The result is that when we reverse hard, the boat is more likely to back directly (or pretty close to directly) down wind.

#6 Hard in Reverse

As soon as the chain starts to run, the person at the helm should hit the throttle hard in reverse—I’m talking hard here, half throttle or better, don’t be shy—for 5 to 10 seconds or until we are sure we have about a knot of sternway on, then go into neutral.

The idea here is to lay the chain out on the bottom, or at least the first part of it, away from the anchor, which speeds up the next step.

That said, don’t worry too much about the chain fouling the anchor. A lot of people use this worry as a reason to veer slowly, but in all my years of anchoring I have never fouled the rode on the anchor, even though I know I have screwed up a bunch of times by being slow with reverse and thereby dumping a pile of chain right on top of the anchor.

If you are singlehanded, this hard reverse step gets a bit tricky, so just make sure you have a little sternway on prior to leaving the helm, and stay forward running the chain until you have at least 5:1 scope out. Yes, it will be a big pile on the bottom, but that’s not a huge problem, it just means the next step will take longer. And with a rope rode, you can just scamper back and forth from bow to helm, since the rope won’t run under its own weight.

#7 Don’t Worry About Staying Head To Wind

Despite steps #5 and #6, with most boats the bow will blow off to leeward, leaving the boat abeam to the wind or even slightly bow down. Don’t worry about it and, above all, do not check the chain or cleat a rope rode in an attempt to straighten her out.

Checking the rode too early is the second most common mistake I see, after not running the chain, and often has exactly the same result: a failed set.

I know, many of us are now worrying the boat will put her bow all the way downwind, or even do a circle and tangle the rode around the keel or rudder, particularly when anchoring on rope.

To stop this happening:

  1. Turn the helm to the stop as if steering the bow into the wind.
  2. Give a short burst in forward to stop dead in the water.
  3. Let her drift leeward, and the rode will gently straighten out as she goes.

Do not try to reverse out of this situation, doing so will just make things worse, although a hard burst in reverse without sternway (after the burst in forward) can help kick the stern to leeward—much the same technique as we learned in our Coming Alongside (Docking) Made Easy Online Book.

A tip that makes this easier:

  • right-hand propeller boats are better off with the wind on the starboard side,
  • and left-hand propeller boats with the wind on the port side.

This way both prop walk in reverse, and prop wash in forward, are working for, not against, us, so we need to bias our approach to achieve this—see step #5.

Of course, some boats steer well in reverse and so will obediently back down straight. And a bow thruster pretty much obviates the need to worry about any of this, since it can be used to keep the bow into the wind. If you have either of these, be happy.

That said, don’t get carried away and back down faster than the rode can run out and thereby drag the anchor before we have enough scope out to set it. This warning goes double for boats equipped with windlasses that don’t have a clutch and brake, an increasingly common, and very wrong, trend.

One more time because it’s the key to reliable setting:

Don’t place any load on the chain until there is at least 4:1 scope out, and 5:1 is better. And don’t forget the height of the bow above the water when making this calculation.

(I will cover chain marking in a different chapter, but suffice to say, we need to do that.)

#8 Bad Holding

At this point, if we are concerned that the bottom may be a poor substrate for anchoring (thin mud is often the worst), veering 7:1 or even as much as 10:1 scope may make setting more reliable.

We can always shorten up after the anchor is set, although if we do that we should recheck the set at the new shorter scope—see #15.

#9 Unload The Windlass

Eventually the boat will drift to leeward far enough for the rode to straighten out and pull the bow back up to windward. We are now ready to set the anchor. But first we need to unload the windlass, since setting against it is bad for the bearings and brake and can even bend the windlass shaft.

The best way to transfer the load is a good quality chain stopper but, failing that, installing the snubber will do.

#10 Stand Back

For years Phyllis used to stand forward while setting, to check if the anchor was dragging. A dangerous situation that was entirely my fault, because when she first came to sail with me she had little experience, so it was my responsibility to make sure she was not at risk. 

Anyway, a few years ago the light finally went on in my brain about the risk of injury to the woman I love if something broke.

Most of you are probably smarter than I was about this, but I do still see crew on the foredeck during setting—don’t do it, everyone should be in the cockpit out of harm’s way.

#11 Slowly Increase The Load

It is absolutely vital to start the set off very gently, and this goes double if the bottom is thin mud, one of the most difficult substrates to get a good set in.

If we start the set with too much rode tension:

  • The anchor will tend to plane along on top of the thin mud, rather than set and burrow through to the dense good stuff underneath.
  • The rode will be pulled partially, or even near-completely, straight, a bad thing since all anchors (except the Fortress) set better with the lowest possible angle (measured against the horizontal) made by the rode where it attaches to the stock. Note that it’s particularly important to be gentle when using rope rode with a short chain leader.

So how gentle? On no account start with any more than idle RPM in reverse, and even this will be too much if the boat drifting with the wind has not straightened the rode completely, so be ready to go into neutral if the boat starts to make appreciable sternway, otherwise, when she comes up short, there is a good chance of dragging the anchor before it can set.

And for motorboats with huge engines, idle RPM will still be too much, so go in and out of neutral to keep the load on the rode low.

#12 Patience

Once we are absolutely sure that the rode is straightened out on the bottom, leave the engine at idle RPM in reverse for a good 30 seconds, and as much as 1 minute if we suspect that the bottom is thin mud. This will gently rotate the anchor into its setting attitude and start it digging in without dragging it.

Some people advocate for “soaking the anchor” by leaving it for a much longer period with the engine off before setting, but I have never found this to work as well as the above technique. Probably because without at least some pull on the rode, the anchor will just be lying on its side.

#13 Know Where We Are

Next, use the plotter to measure the distance to the drop point where we placed a waypoint or drag alarm point. The answer should be just a little less than the chain length we have out. Accuracy will be surprisingly good with a WAAS-equipped GPS. Note that phone and tablet internal GPSs may not be accurate enough for this since most (all?) don’t have WAAS.

#14 Start Setting Slow

We are finally ready to put some load on the anchor. Very gently increase the throttle in increments of about 10 to 15% of the entire range from idle to wide-open throttle (WOT). For example, if we have an engine that idles at 800 RPM and has a WOT of 3600 RPM, a good increment would be 300 RPM.

Pause for 5 to 10 seconds after each increase of the throttle to let the anchor set deeper while keeping an eye on the land abeam to gauge if we are dragging.

Also, watch the distance to the anchor drop on the plotter. This will increase a bit as the rode straightens out but, obviously, if the distance is more than about 50-feet longer than the chain, we are dragging, something that can be surprisingly difficult to assess without the aid of electronics, particularly for those new to anchoring.

If the anchor does start to drag, it may be possible to save the set by immediately easing up on the throttle and then starting the process again, but even more gently. On no account should we just keep dragging the anchor backward in the hope that it will eventually set. It won’t and, worse still, by so doing we are taking a substantial risk of fouling the anchor on an obstruction.

#15 End Setting Hard

The next big question is how hard to set? Our rule on Morgan’s Cloud is that if we plan to sleep, the answer to that question is always at the same rode load as imposed by 30-knot winds with higher gusts. In our case that means 1800 RPM (WOT is 2350) on our 87-HP engine turning a big three-blade MaxProp, or a bit under 1000 pounds of rode load.

We can scale that down a bit for smaller boats, but on no account would I go under say 600 pounds for a 40′ boat. This generally equates to enough load to straighten a chain rode bar taut.

A useful, although pretty rough, rule of thumb is, assuming a reasonable efficient propeller:

rode load in pounds=HP x 22.5

Note that the HP variable is shaft HP, so we need to use our engine power curve to arrive at that from RPM.

And, yes, I know, it’s always tempting, particularly when tired after a long passage, to not set the anchor this hard for fear of dragging it and having to start again. This is a mistake because, even in settled weather, we can always get a thunder storm or squall, so better to have one firm rule and stick to it.

In fact, I would go a step further and say this policy is much of the reason that Phyllis and I have not dragged our anchor, once set, in over 20 years.

Conclusion

By combining the above step-by-step technique with a modern anchor, we can reduce our setting failures to less than one in a hundred, a rate where getting securely anchored becomes no more stressful than parking a car.

Further reading

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Learn About Membership

  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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