4 Vital Anchor Selection Criteria and a Review of SPADE

Nothing like being anchored in Greenland in storm force winds with hurricane strength gusting to make us glad we have the right anchor.

Obviously, when thinking about anchoring, the first step is to select a good anchor.

So I’m going to use our experience with our favourite anchor, the SPADE, to highlight the four things that really matter in anchor selection, and then move on to a detailed review of the SPADE.

That said, if you prefer other anchors, that’s just fine with us. This is not about trying to push anyone into buying a given anchor, but rather about setting a standard for what good anchor performance looks like.

And later on in the book we will cover strengths and weaknesses of other anchors—all have both.

What Anchor Success Looks Like

Phyllis and I have owned SPADEs for 19 years. In that time we have cruised over 100,000 miles and set the SPADE well over 1000 times in every bottom type imaginable:

  • The rock-strewn and kelp-encumbered coves of Greenland and Baffin Island.
  • The hard sand of the Bahamas.
  • The thick mud of Britain and Nova Scotia.
  • The thin soupy mud of the Chesapeake Bay.

We have lain safely to a single SPADE while:

  • Hurricane force gusts, varying in direction by over 100 degrees, came screaming off the Greenland Icecap, slamming us back and forth across anchorages, only to come up short with bone-shaking impacts, despite having a long nylon snubber.
  • Cold fronts came through crowded Bahama anchorages, causing as much as half of the other boats to drag by.
  • Late fall storms blew steady storm force with higher gusts in anchorages like Great Salt Pond at Block Island that supposedly have poor holding.
  • Anchored off islands and in open roadsteads where few other yachts dare to anchor—we have a thing about exploring offshore islands.

In all that time, and with all those sets, we have never, not even once, dragged once set.

The Vital Four

…Wait, let’s think about what I just wrote.

#1 Never Drag

This is the single most important thing to focus on when buying an anchor. Every other strength or weakness that an anchor may or may not have is insignificant if it drags, even once, and puts us on the rocks.

#2 Setting Reliability

The next most important criteria is setting reliability across a wide range of bottom types. Here again, SPADE excels: we have only had ours fail to set on the first attempt less than 20 times in all those years and only been forced to find a new place to anchor with a better substrate less than 10 times.

#3 Resetting Reliability

Note how the SPADE can remain balanced in its setting orientation. And even this 55kg model can be tipped into this position using a little finger at the chain attachment—a useful test to perform on any anchor being considered. (The use of two shackles is suboptimal. We have fixed this since the photo was taken.)

Our SPADE has never failed to reorient and/or reset in a wind shift, even a radical one. My theory is that because the lead-weighted tip and hollow stock provide very high tip weight percentage, it orients into the setting position regardless of how much crap may have stuck to it, and also because the clean design allows debris to exhaust off the fluke as it digs in anew.

#4 Strength

Unlike most anchors, the SPADE stock—the most vulnerable part of any anchor to failure—is made of three pieces of metal welded together into a triangle, with a hollow in the middle, resulting in far higher strength than any other anchor.

Here’s a quote from a study done by Mantus anchors comparing the stock strength:

The HT-Steel Spade is not shown and only because its predicted Bending Strength is twice that of the highest ones shown so it falls far outside chart boundaries.

Yup, twice as strong as the next best, and that from a study done by a competitor.

And this is not just theory. On at least five occasions over the years we have brutally ripped our SPADE out of obstructions by pulling in the chain until it’s vertical, locking it off with our massive chain stopper, and then surging our 25-ton boat back and forth with the full power of our engine—when you are in Greenland and your best bower (primary anchor) looks like being lost, you do whatever it takes. None of this has damaged our SPADE.

A cruising boat’s best bower must be able to withstand terrible abuse, including high off-access loading—a bent primary anchor is a cruise ender and in a remote place could be a boat wrecker.

Not Just Our Experience

And it’s not just us. In the some 15 years we have been writing and hosting thousands of comments about anchoring, we have never had a SPADE owner say that the anchor has let them down.

Secondary Selection Criteria

But what about the secondary stuff? Glad you asked:

Fast Setting

Not only does the SPADE set reliably, it sets fast. When we got our first SPADE I dove on it after pretty much every set to find it fully buried in less than its own length from the landing mark. And this was in the hard sand of the Bahamas.

These days we always set a waypoint on our GPS at the drop point and the SPADE (except on the few occasions where it has failed to set) always ends up setting on that point.

(We check by measuring the chain veered and then checking the distance to the waypoint while setting—surprisingly accurate with a modern WAAS-equipped GPS.)

Not only is fast setting comforting, it also dramatically reduces the chances of the anchor fouling on something on the bottom, and ensures that we end up where we intended to in crowded or small anchorages.

We Love The Way Our Anchor Drags

Now there’s a counter-intuitive headline. Let me explain. On the few occasions that our SPADE has failed to set, it has only dragged back very slowly and never at less than 450 pounds (204 kg) of rode load.

By the way, a useful, albeit rough, rule of thumb is, assuming a reasonably efficient propeller:

rode load in pounds=HP x 22.5

rode load in kg=kW x 13.7

Note that the HP and kW variables are measured at the shaft, so we need to use our engine power curve to arrive at that from RPM (except at wide-open throttle.)

So if our SPADE ever did start to drag once set, it would do so slowly, probably at less than a knot, even in gale force winds, giving us time to deal with the situation.

An anchor that drags quickly with little resistance, or worse still skips along the bottom, has no place on a cruising boat, at least as best bower. More on that in a later chapter.

Easy to Stow

The SPADE is much easier to stow securely on a bow roller than anchors incorporating a roll bar.

And, better yet, it can be disassembled into two parts by undoing one bolt, making stowage below much easier.

By the way, there was a lot of hullabaloo about this last feature some years ago, after a boat was lost off New Zealand when the SPADE she was lying to came apart. I’m not sure what happened there, but I’m as certain as I ever am about anything that the fault did not lie with the anchor, since the bolt is not load bearing in use.

Anyway, SPADEs are now shipped with an aircraft nut, which can’t back off, and said nut and the bolt are drilled to take a split pin—if there ever was a problem, it’s solved.

Streamlined

The SPADE is streamlined when viewed from ahead of the boat. Don’t underestimate this benefit: The loads that some large fluke area anchors will subject the bow roller to when the bow is driven into green water are pretty impressive.

Deep Setting

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.

There are two other benefits to this clean design:

  • In kelp-encumbered bottoms, where many other anchors fail, the SPADE just burrows through to the bottom below—we have tested this in Baffin Island and North Labrador where the kelp beds are so thick that the fronds often break the surface in 20 feet of water.
  • In very soft bottoms, where many anchors will skid along the soupy surface, a gentle hand on the throttle while setting can work a SPADE through to the thick mud deep down. This is, I think, why we have successfully anchored, through gales and even storms, in places that have bad reputations for holding.

No Roll Bar

Roll bars have long been touted by the manufacturers of anchors that have them as a desirable feature. And, yes, they do help the anchor orient into the setting position reliably without the need for ballasting the anchor much, or even at all.

That said, I now believe that roll bars are probably more a bug than a feature, since they:

  • Increase the chances that the anchor will foul with a rock or other piece of debris.
  • Add resistance that will prevent the anchor digging into the bottom as deeply.
  • Will make an anchor less effective in thick kelp—this is backed by substantial anecdotal evidence in the comments.
  • Will, I think, particularly very large ones like that on the Mantus, subject their mounting points to huge leverage loads in a fouling situation. So, particularly if bound for the high latitudes where rocky bottoms are the rule, we recommend an anchor without a roll bar.

Yes, I know, many of you who love your roll bar anchors are now severely pissed off. Sorry. When you have had a chance to cool off, do think seriously about whether your belief in roll bars is based on logic or simply because you have been told they are great for years by the companies that make roll bar anchors.

Bottom line, the roll bar anchor manufacturers, starting with Rocna, have out-marketed SPADE by a huge margin for years. And, further, because so many roll bar anchors have been sold in recent years, confirmation bias will be what is primarily shared on forums—understandable, but not the basis for good decisions.

All that said, if you decide that roll bars are great, particularly for your usage, that’s just fine with me. My purpose here is not to stir the shit, but rather to make sure we have all really thought about this “feature” and not just assumed it’s a good idea.

Downsides of SPADE

So is the SPADE perfect? Of course not, nothing is. Let’s take a look at some negatives:

Expensive

The fabricated construction that contributes so much to the SPADE’s functionality also makes it expensive to build. So the SPADE price is typically substantially more than most competitors.

Poor Availability

Particularly in the early years, SPADE did a poor job of distribution and product delivery. The result is that major chains like West Marine stopped selling them and most marine stores don’t stock the SPADE.

For example, here in Canada there is only one dealer that actually sells the SPADE—others claim to but will try to sell you some other anchor if you call.

The result is that a buyer will be faced with shipping charges on top of the already higher price of a SPADE, as well as the hassles and expense of cross-border clearance in countries with no dealer.

Poor Galvanizing

Over the years SPADE anchors have had galvanizing quality control issues ranging from mild to severe. And the yellow paint “feature” is, in my opinion, just plain silly because it only lasts for a few months of real cruiser use.

The galvanizing problem was exacerbated by SPADE going through a period where they sold a paint kit as a suggested solution to this problem. Of course this did not work worth shit, and only served to make already pissed-off owners of rusty SPADEs understandably incandescent after the paint failed—they still sell the kit, but I understand no longer push it as a solution to the rusting problem.

And, if all that were not bad enough, getting a SPADE re-galvanized is a royal pain since the lead ballast in the tip must be melted out first and then replaced afterward.

The good news is that the US distributor has a very generous warranty replacement policy.

The bad news is that the European distributor’s warranty is not nearly as good. What the heck does “The galvanisation of the steel version must be kept in right order” mean? Sounds like a cop out to me.

Having said all of that about rusting, in my experience, and we had a bad one, the issue is cosmetic only. It does not affect the strength or function of the anchor.

And, frankly, I think getting worked up about a few rust spots on the deck is a mistake, since the first few feet of chain will have rust spots on any boat that has really been out there cruising—banged-up anchor gear indicates real experience.

Short-Scope Performance

The SPADE is not great at setting in difficult bottom types on a scope of less than about 4:1, particularly in relatively shallow water.

That said, recent testing has shown that the SPADE holds well on shorter scopes after being set. However, I have never personally tested that since we generally prefer larger anchorages where we can use at least 5:1 scope.

Further, we feel that being anchored in a tiny anchorage on short scope is one of the more dangerous compromises a cruiser can make—if the anchor does move, even a little, there will be no time to react before buying the beach.

(If forced to use a very small anchorage, we prefer to use shorefasts and longer scope, rather than anchoring on short scope.)

Also, be aware that some interesting analysis in recent years seems to show that some of the attributes that contribute to exceptionally good short-scope setting ability may have downsides for general use.

Bottom line, beware of fixating on a secondary benefit like short-scope setting when selecting an anchor.

Thin Mud

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. That said, the problem can usually be managed with good setting technique. And, once the SPADE has burrowed through the thin stuff, it holds great.

In fact, we have ridden out two gales securely anchored in the same creek where Fortress did their much-ballyhooed testing that purported to show that the SPADE, and most all anchors other than Fortress, were dangerously useless in soft mud—the setting protocol used in the test was badly flawed and skewed the results.

Once again, we need to be careful about prioritizing thin mud holding too much, since the fluke angles required to score well in that bottom type can result in an anchor that performs poorly in harder bottom types. For example, a Fortress set at its high fluke angle is near useless in hard sand.

Also, very large fluke areas can, I think, reduce the anchor’s ability to bury itself really deeply and, counter intuitively, actually result in lower ultimate holding—see Colin’s SARCA Excel review for some experience that seems to support this.

Update July 2021 Not Stainless

Everything I have written above only applies to SPADE anchors made from galvanized steel. We strongly recommend against buying a stainless steel SPADE for the following reasons:

  • It will come as a surprise to many, but stainless steel is substantially weaker than the high quality galvanized steel used by SPADE and, yes, even a bit weaker than the SPADE made of aluminum.
  • We have also received a disturbing report of setting failures with a stainless steel SPADE.

Summary

OK, clearly we love our SPADE anchor. But that’s not the point of this chapter. Rather, the takeaways for all of us, no matter what anchor we end up with, are that it must have the following four attributes, listed in order of importance:

  1. Reliability: An anchor that drags, once properly set, even occasionally, has no place on a voyaging boat.
  2. All-round setting capability: A voyaging boat needs a best bower that will set reliably in a wide variety of bottom types: hard sand, rocks, thick kelp, weeds, and on it goes.
  3. Resetting reliability: A cruising boat’s best bower anchor must dig right back in again after a wind shift, no matter how radical, regardless of how much crap is stuck to the fluke.
  4. Strength: When far from home, a bent best bower is at best a cruise ender and at worse a boat wrecker.
That’s it. Everything else, including rusting, short-scope setting, ease of stowing, and anything else we can think of, is secondary and should only come into our selection process after the above big four have been satisfied.

Comments

I’m pretty sure I will have upset some of you with this chapter, particularly with my thoughts on roll bars, and it may even cost us a few members, but before you go off angry, or tear me a new one in the comments, let me say, once again, that this is not about trying to sell you a SPADE.

It’s about highlighting what really matters in selecting a voyaging boat anchor. So if you feel that your present anchor (or a different one you plan to buy) satisfies the important criteria above, even if it has a roll bar, by all means say so in a comment. I may not agree, but you have every right to your opinion. Let’s not fall out over it.

Further Reading

Disclosure

I really liked and had a huge amount of respect for the late designer of the SPADE—we bought our first two directly from him and we paid the same price as anyone else.

But then, ten years ago, the North American distributor for SPADE gave us a brand new anchor to replace our battered and rusty old one.

I assure you that this did not influence 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 no longer remember what it stands for.

Like what you just read? Get lots more:

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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