The Offshore Voyaging Reference Site

Passage Anchorages

In our early days of a sailing life, the idea of anchoring for the night seems improbable. Logic tells us that we’d be far less likely to come adrift if we’re secured to a buoy, or safe alongside in a harbour.

As time goes by, we become more adventurous but still seek as much shelter as possible. Nothing wrong with that, but it isn’t conducive to making fast passages, especially when sailing coastally and pressed for time.

If we want to cover the ground expeditiously, then we’ll need to look back at what our forebears did: anchor in far less protected places, that sometimes are no more than open roadsteads.

Sometimes we may stay for only a few hours, to get a rest, tidy up, get a proper meal or catch some valuable shut-eye. Or we may make an overnight stop, as part of a carefully planned passage. Whatever the reason, it’s a very valuable addition to our cruising arsenal, which can also bring much enjoyment of some remarkable places, seldom used in these ‘safety first’ times.

Naturally, when I was skippering boats for a living we were always ‘on delivery’ and so soon got used to using passage anchorages. Compared with going in to marinas or right up into sheltered anchorages we saved an enormous amount of valuable time.

Sometimes it wasn’t the most comfortable option, but that wasn’t the point, rather we just wanted to draw breath and get a few hours’ rest. On the other hand, we often enjoyed some extraordinary places in total shelter and exquisite solitude with unmatched views. And we always arrived on time…

Choosing a Passage Anchorage

We would never anchor in unsafe, onshore conditions, ever. So we’re assuming that the only time we’d anchor in an exposed place would be when conditions are, for the most part, ‘in our favour’. But what that means is a relative thing.

So, when picking a passage anchorage, we must ensure we have shelter from:

  1. Traffic
  2. Swell
  3. Current
  4. Wind

And, yes, generally in that order. Let’s take a look at those four in more detail:

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Mark Wilson

Dear Colin

Entertaining and informative as usual. Really whetted the appetite for getting out there again soon.

I see you manfully resisted using the phrase “rite of passage” for that’s what they truly are. A big and satisfying step up in a cruising sailor’s development. And once one has had a good experience of a passage anchorage one actively starts seeking them out. It’s another of the freedoms that cruising offers.

An added bonus is that they often allow the chance to give dogs and children and other reluctant crew members a quick run ashore with less risk of them going absent without leave.

Mark Wilson

Have just been browsing the OCC Fleet Map and see you are under weigh, quite close inshore, making 6 knots so not expecting an instant response. Modern technology !

Mark Wilson

Hi Colin

Half glad and half disappointed that big brother got your position wrong.

Does Lulworth Cove qualify as a passage anchorage? I popped in there, almost on a whim, for the dark hours last April. No one else there. Magical place.

One thing I have to fight against is the need to see another boat already anchored in my chosen refuge to reassure myself that it’s a safe haven. The urge to follow the herd.

Is that blue cruiser racer with the stickers on it your old boat ? Looks like it has been converted to a true cutter rig. And looks fast.

Dick Stevenson

Hi Colin,
Nice article. Thanks.
I have never heard the phrase “passage anchorages”, but the moment I read the title, I knew exactly what you meant and also appreciated the description of the dance one does looking at the charts trying to see if a particular spot is “good enough” juggling all those ingredients that you mentioned.
Passage anchorages are particularly “easy” to come by in areas where the prevailing winds are steady (and sometimes very strong): the Med and the Caribbean come most quickly to mind. There, almost any shore where the wind was offshore was a safe and comfortable anchorage, many of which provided 180 degrees of open water just aft of the boat and some upwards of 270 degrees: not a little disconcerting at first when I was used to “cozy” nooks to feel safe in.
Pretty quickly, they came to be preferred as motoring our way in, reconnoitering a cozy anchorage, figuring an exit strategy etc took time and energy (let alone going to a marina with all its demands). Anchoring on the shore line, was simple and safe (as you noted, you could put out as much chain as you wished) and the exit strategy was simple: head to the open water just aft.
To that end, I never put the boat “to bed”: all sails etc. were as good-to-go as reasonable for the night. I like your idea of having the plotter on if the exit is tricky as our plotter takes what seems an impressive amount of time to start if in a hurry (and on standby, uses very little power). We also ensure the interior is squared away and that our sailing clothes are ready at hand for the morning or for any midnight drills.
I actually do not think I could name any of my passage anchorages although I know I could find many of them quickly if I went looking. One thing about them is that, for the most part, they are situational and forgettable (unless things have gotten exciting: fortunately, I do not remember bailing on one).
It is impressive how much ground you can cover using passage anchorages, especially if willing to get up in the dark to be ready to leave at dawn.
My best, Dick Stevenson, s/v Alchemy

david jansen

Hello Dick –
You may recall I am the new owner of the ex-Sandollar, now Sea Badger. You were quite correct in the assessment of the Monk 36 – I truly have grown to enjoy it over the last seven months.
It is my preference to anchor out, both with my previous sailboats and now the Monk. I have upgraded the anchor and installed all new chain and a generous bridle. I was glad I did as the trip from Newfoundland to Maine found some of those passage anchorages unknown to me, but very suitable and picturesque. Most recently on the way to Florida where I am now sees me anchor out as much as possible. Being mostly a solo cruiser, I have made my mistakes (fortunately, none costly) and learned from them.
I recall the early times, years ago, entering that ‘right of passage’ with trepidation. I am more comfortable now and adhere to many of the steps Colin has discussed. And as he implies, I’ve never regretted having too much chain out.
Wishing everyone a successful and rewarding New Year.
Best –

Charles Starke MD

Hi Colin
Thanks for the good article.
My favorite passage anchorage is a triangle of safe water in East Upper New York Harbor, south of Governors Island. It’s marked by yellow lights and well buoyed, is shallow enough for good anchorage and holding, off the main passages and too shallow for any of the large boats in the harbor. So it’s quite safe, with a good view of the Statue of Liberty on awakening.
40 39.7 N
74 01.8 W
Best wishes
Charles Starke MD
s/v Dawnpiper

Bill Attwood

Hi Colin,
Nice article!
How did you approach Saint Helen’s Pool? I have always been a bit nervous of the serpentine access to some of the anchorages there, but Saint Helen’s Pool looks terrific.
Yours aye,

Rob Gill

Hi Colin,
South and North Minerva Reef in the SW Pacific, are a perfect stop for cruisers transiting from New Zealand to Tonga or Eastern side Fiji, or indeed in reverse. Wonderful spot to break a 10 day trip and well worth their slightly tricky entrances – NM in particular can have strong currents in the entrance, so time around slack water where possible. Once inside you are treated to a golden coral sand bottom. Anchoring in 4 -> 10 m, and avoiding the few bommies (daytime entries advised), you are in the full force of the SE trades. At high tide the horseshoe reefs are mostly covered.
Yet there you are, safely anchored with the unnerving experience (at first), of looking out on a horizon of breaking Pacific Ocean waves as they stand up on the reef just two hundred metres away, whist you bob around in a chop measured in millimetres not metres. At low water you can walk on the reefs and at night collect crayfish that come in to feed in the shallows. Reef sharks (yes a few tigers) and a myriad of reef fish make for some memorable free diving. Some big tuna cruise the outside of the reef and it’s not uncommon for the call to go out on VHF for anyone wanting to collect fresh sashimi or tuna steaks (we never get to cook it – too good).
Br. Rob

Terence Thatcher

On the West coast, just around California’s Pt Conception, is a little roadstead called Cojo Bay. It is wide open to the south, with a beached sailboat at the high tide line attesting to the danger if the common northwesterly shifts to a southerly. But when the wind blows from the north, it is wonderful spot. My son and I used it one late afternoon on a passage from Monterrey to Catalina Island. In a mounting northerly we were pushing hull speed, reefed well down, starting to surf as the waves built. We turned the corner to the east and broad reached a few more miles to Cojo Bay. The northerly still blew, but with no fetch, it was a perfect way station on our trip down the west coast and on to Mexico It blew pretty hard most of the night, but with a riding sail and the Spade anchor well set, we spent a restful night.

Hans Boebs

Hi Colin,
just as Dick I didn’t know the expression of “passage anchorage”, but it’s a good description. One of my most wonderful nights at anchor were off the north coast of this funny island in the Hebrides, where they name their villages after famous single malts, Islay. After a rough passage across from the irish northcoast I tucked in to a spot just east of Loch Gruinart. Not a soul around, not ashore and not at sea, rain pouring, wind howling, but offshore, sandbottom, 35m chain in 3m water, great happiness, a night to remember ! On other occasions I anchored just offshore the sandy danish mainland eastcoast in steady westerly winds. Or when cruising coastally along Norways south coast, getting fed up with tacking. All I had to do was steering the boat among the numerous scerries, search out a bay with some shelter and 5 minutes after I decided to call it a day, I was anchored and had the tea cettle on. The charme on that occasion was that I was expecting a major windshift in my favour, so I put the anchor alarm on a very close range and it worked: The wind shifted, the boat swung around, the alarm got me out of bed and I upped anchor and made the most of the easterly wind.

Hans Boebs

And also this year tacking up Channel: what a relief to anchor under the lee of Dungeness for the night, although a little uncanny, being just between a firing range and a nuclear power plant.

Marc Dacey

An excellent article and your recommendation to “pre-plot” a way out in a hurry is prudent seamanship. I recall hearing something similar in a Yachtmaster course, but I can’t recall if it was “official doctrine” or not. Very sensible either way.

Rene Blei

Thanks Colin,
We havent done enough anchoring as I would like, but 3 words right in your opening remarks, hit me like a ton of bricks : Pressed For Time !
On the road, it means speeding tickets, or worse………….?
On the water……………Titanic, PM Edward Heath, Morning Cloud etc etc.
Many times I have thought about it, and how it would effect my decision making.
We all know how good we are in rationalizing, when under pressure.
Thats why I printed out in bold, large cap, what never to do, and am still adding to it.
However, with wind, current etc, the saying: ¨When in doubt, do nought.¨, does not apply.

Last summer I experimented with minimizing boat rolling in a swell.
Had put 2x4X10ft lenght in a V formation on either side through the scuppers, supported by a line running over the fly-bridge, and at the end 2 mega-bags, used in many industries, these were about 500ltrs. I had laying around. Had them mounted just under the water level in a semi collapsed position, maybe 200kg. , but ofcourse only when being pulled out of the water. It worked better than expected, but needs more fine tuning.
Just love to fool around!
Thanks again,

Dick Stevenson

Hi Colin,
You asked for favorite “passage anchorages” and none came to mind until the following couple.
I was recently reminded of an anchorage that we slipped into with regularity over our years in the UK. We over-wintered 3 years at St. Katherine Docks 40 miles up the Thames River in London and needed to plan for the impressive tidal range and current that the Thames River throws at you. At the mouth of the Thames is an anchorage, Stangate Creek, (see notes below) where we always spent our last night of the season and was our first anchorage of the season when over-wintering in London. Ignore a few power lines and you felt in the middle of nowhere. It had good birding, was completely safe and was an easy entrance at night or with poor visibility. It was also a very nice place to get sorted at the beginning of the season while awaiting tide change to move into the Channel.
My best, Dick Stevenson, s/v Alchemy
The Medway:
Stangate Creek is a wonderful place to spend a night or 2 before going up the Thames River (or when departing). We usually anchor right in the creek when depths hit 4-5m but there are a couple of side creeks that offer more protection and better bird views that we have also tried. Holding is excellent. Leaving the anchorage so you get to the mouth of the Medway at about LW positions you for a nice and easy run up the Thames River with favourable current. The Medway (farther in) has much more to offer which we have yet to take advantage of. We are usually alone.
The other “passage anchorage” is to slip right inside the breakwaters in Dover and anchor off the town. It can be sloppy with the winds wrong and ferry traffic heavy, but is perfectly safe and affords an-easy in easy-out anchorage for a few hours for a tide change or for the night (must chk w/ harbormaster). The marina area (outside the lock in gate) sometimes can provide a floating pontoon for the night that allows for 24 hr entrance/exit—we called ahead.

Hans Boebs

Hi Dick,
what a excellent idea ! I was in Dover a few times but it never occured to me, to just anchor inside the breakwaters. Must try the next time.
Best wishes

Ralph Rogers

Nice article. Now I want to go out.
I love anchoring in places not perfect for all conditions. Anchoring seems so much more, I don’t know, “sailory” when you are going somewhere. it adds another touch of adventure. Like when a kid on vacation. Stopping and camping at night, only using motels when it was time. What fun!

Kenneth McCallum

Magma-Rock ‘n’ Roll Stabilizer System. One flopper stopper is fantastic, two are amazing at eliminating roll in anchorages. Add a medium size rubber dock snubber for added dampening effect.