Things I Learned From Three Anchoring Reports

fouled_sarca.jpg
Photo kindness of Kerrie

One of the things I like most about running this site is that hardly a day goes by without us getting an interesting real-world experience-based report in the comments that I learn from.

To understand how important these reports are, we need to think back to the time when the Rocna was generally considered by far the best anchor out there. A view that we now know was based on flawed testing and aggressive marketing, which in turn built buzz, much of it on the forums, not reality.

We here at AAC were fooled, too, but it was field reports in the comments that first gave us an inkling that the Rocna, that we were at the time recommending, had a dangerous dragging modality, eventually confirmed by S/V Panope‘s excellent testing and Colin’s (AAC European Correspondent) personal experience.

In the same vein, here are three recent reports that really jumped out at me for the number of important lessons they contain.

Own-Rode Fouling

The first is from member Kerri:

Just this morning, we had a self-fouling incident with our Sarca Excel, and I recalled reading your latest article on this no more than a month ago. This seems like a remote possibility to me before now. So here’s one data point that it can self foul. 

We had anchored in an area with strong tidal currents that switched overnight. When we weighed anchor in the morning, we kept running into serious issues of the chain jumping off the gypsy due to twist (also an issue we’d never had before this incident), and when we finally got the anchor up (after dumping the chain twice), this is how it came up [see photo at top of article]. Looks like just what you imagined the potential to be: getting caught on the fluke.

Bias?

Now, obviously, one of the reasons I like this comment so much is that it (and the next one, too) confirm my prior positions. And I’m guessing there will be those who focus on that and ignore the great stuff to be learned. To be brutally frank, my answer to that is “not a lot I can do about that” and “your loss”.

Sorry, I know that sounds harsh, but I have noticed lately that there is a rise in the tendency, particularly on forums—not so much here at AAC, thankfully—to scream “bias” and learn nothing as soon as a conflicting opinion is raised.

I think this is silly. We are all biased by our experiences and we all tend to look for confirmation. And, yes, that can be a problem and we should filter the opinions of others (me included) through that lens, but it’s also our loss if we just go off in high dudgeon without really thinking about the report, and thereby miss important lessons.

Lessons Learned

With that out of the way let’s look at what I learned from Kerrie:

  • When I originally raised this concern it was as a possibility only. Something to watch out for.
  • Now that Kerrie’s experience confirms that the modality I postulated can happen, I’m going to update the SARCA Excel review with a warning. Yes, it’s only one incident, but it’s not one to ignore and by publishing we may get verification from others, like we did with the Rocna.
  • Update: 19th July. I should have make clear that this single incidence does not, at least at this time, disqualify the Excel as a great anchor or mean that we will remove it as one of our two recommended anchors here at AAC.
  • Looking at the picture at the top of the post we can learn two more important things:
    • It would seem that SARCA have enlarged the shackle slot to allow the use of a properly-oriented shackle, which corroborates that assurance from the North American distributor. Great news and I will add that update, too.
    • As most of you know, I’m a dyed-in-the-wool swivel hater, but Kerrie makes a strong case for why they need one further down the thread. The key takeaway is that she has the swivel installed correctly with a short length of chain between the stock and the swivel, so it won’t side load. No update required here since we already recommend that setup for those who find that only a swivel will do.

The Real World at The Isles of Scilly

The next of these great comments comes from member Jacob who just witnessed one of those anchor dragging mayhem events that are far more common than many believe:

Last night anchored in a gale in the Scilly Isles I watched four out of the other six boats in the anchorage drag following a 180 degree wind shift as the eye of the depression passed over us.

One with a Kellett on a rope that fouled their undersized Bruce anchor (they are now on the rocks so I went to try to help and saw the anchor).

One I don’t know about, just watched them drag past, and two others with Rocna anchors which failed to reset and then accumulated a huge amount of weed. I know because I spent the morning helping both to clear their anchors and re-anchor after they both spent hours under engine keeping just to windward of me…

…It was only gusting 35 knots, so I didn’t expect chaos?!

One other boat in the anchorage didn’t move at all following the wind shift. He has a Spade. I didn’t lose so much as a meter either – the spade reset in its own length even with a sudden and violent 180 degree shift in the wind (after a period of calm)…

…Now to finish my tea before going to try to salvage this abandoned 35’ sailboat from the rocks on the incoming tide. A boat on the rocks because of a Kellet or Anchor Angel rope tangled around their chain preventing their dragging anchor from being retrieved (plus the rope was in danger of fouling their prop, which is why they cut the engine shortly before their bow blowing off and then going aground) … that’s a lesson!…

…It is also a reminder of why a simple anchor setup of one big anchor on an all-chain rode with a nylon snubber is the right way to go. 

I even used your tip [Colin’s] of hanging a Drogue from the chain at the bow which radically smoothed out my shearing around in the wind and almost totally eliminated shock loading at the apex of each swing. Very useful!

Be Selective About Reports

There are several useful takeaways from Jacob’s comment that I will leave you to parse for yourselves, but the one that jumped out at me is that most cruisers, even some who have been out there for quite a while, have never had their anchoring technique and gear really tested.

The result is that we often hear something like this on forums:

My anchor is great. Why last night it blew a steady 25 knots and we did not move an inch.

The overconfident anchorer

What we are not told is that the commenter was in a nice snug anchorage with a firm bottom and good shelter and, further, rather than taking on challenging anchoring situations, they typically head for a marina or pick up a mooring if it’s going to get even slightly gnarly.

White Sound, Green Turtle Cay, Abaco, Bahamas from the top of our McCurdy and Rhodes 56 mast. Looks peaceful now, but half the fleet dragged in a cold front.

We saw the same factor at work several times during the winter we spent in the Bahamas when as much as half the fleet of anchored cruisers dragged in nothing worse than a cold front with maybe 30-knot gusts.

The lesson here is that making our anchoring gear selection and technique decisions by listening to the majority on forums is a very bad idea. Bottom line, this is one of the many times that the much-vaunted wisdom of the majority is rubbish…err, flawed.

On the other hand, reports like Jacob’s about experiences in challenging anchorages with less than ideal substrates, like the Isles of Scilly, are invaluable. That’s where poor techniques and anchors with bad habits get revealed.

Disturbing Spade Issues

So at this point I’m betting you are all thinking that this is just another article where John supports his favourite anchor. So let’s blow that idea out of the water by highlighting a comment from member Stefan.

We have had a 35kg (77 lb) [Spade] in the Med, Caribbean, Bahamas and now along the US East coast.

It was a galvanized one never let us down, not a single time!

Of course one has to choose the right bottom and get the anchor set etc. We are live-aboards and would say we learned how to do that. 

Due to quality issues (one of the welds of the shaft cracked apart so 1 of the 3 plates the shaft is made from separated). We could get a replacement under warranty from Spade US.

I opted to pay the surcharge and go for the stainless steel version. Same size, same weight, just stainless instead of galvanized. 

And since then: 

We drag and drag. Multiple times. While other boats don’t. I am getting desperate and have lost all my trust into this anchor.

Amendment: It sounds not logical that only the switch from galvanized to stainless can be the reason. Can it be that the galvanized does have a totally different weight balance?

Quality Issue?

First off, Stefan’s comment highlights a longterm issue with Spade anchors: quality control. Or does it? Once again we must think before we go off half cocked:

  • In all the years we have been recommending them, this is the first report we have had of a structural problem with a Spade.
  • Spade replaced the anchor for free, continuing their very good track record in this regard.

Two important points, but the big takeaway for me is that when evaluating any gear we have to be careful not to jump to the all-too-easy conclusion: This brand has a reported quality control problem therefore all other brands must be better.

We all do this, me included, probably because we are used to relatively, but probably still flawed, good quality reporting on things like cars.

But that’s not a good parallel because in the cruising world almost all of our reporting is anecdotal, not analytical, so assuming that because one anchor has a single bad quality-control report means that another anchor is perfect or even good in this regard is a logic fail.

And, further, it’s human nature to draw possibly erroneous conclusions from these reports. For example, there is no question that the galvanizing on Spade anchors is of poorer quality than that of many other manufacturers, probably most, but that does not necessarily mean that Spade anchors are poorly built.

So rather than using this kind of lazy decision making we need to think about the piece of gear holistically and take into account other factors such as the fact that the galvanized Spade stock is twice as strong as the next best.

But wait, does that mean we should discount Stefan’s stock weld failure experience? No! It could be a smoking gun possibly indicating new QC problems at Spade, and by ignoring that possibility we would be just as ill advised as many Rocna users were when they ignored first the company getting caught using sub-standard steel for the stocks and then the dangerous dragging modality.

What to do?

  • Keep front of mind that all of us humans are prone to confirmation bias and guard as best we can against it—I struggle mightily with this every day.
  • Keep an open mind about, and actively look for, other reports that would indicate a systemic problem with our preferred choice. Don’t stick our heads up our…forepeaks.
  • Filter out irrelevant issues like rusting in our analysis. (If you can’t stand rust on the deck and so don’t buy a Spade for that reason that’s perfectly logical, but assuming that a bit of rust indicates a serious structural problem on a galvanized fabricated anchor, or any galvanized steel structure, is another logic fail.)

Bottom line, making good decisions is hard and takes real brain sweat, not just watching YouTube and/or reading the forums until we find some report that confirms our priors.

Stainless Steel Anchors

Now let’s look at Jacob’s very unfortunate situation with his new stainless steel Spade.

Once again, there’s a deeper lesson to be learned here: While perfectly understandable (not taking a shot at Stefan here), it’s dangerous to assume that because a company makes one good product, all of their products will be equally good.

And, further, we should never overlook the possibility that a bad modification was made to satisfy market concerns.

In this case I’m guessing (and it is just that) that Spade may have increased the scantlings on the stainless steel stock to compensate for the much lower tensile strength of stainless steel in comparison to the steel they use for their galvanized stocks, and thereby unbalanced the anchor.

And I further speculate that said change might have been inspired by testing at Practical Sailor magazine that showed the stainless steel Spade stock was susceptible to bending.

This points out another fundamental lesson: when the original designer and entrepreneur who came up with a great product is no longer around to keep things on the straight and narrow, bad stuff is more likely to happen in the name of marketing. (Alain Poiraud, designer of the Spade and founder of the company that makes them died in 2011.)

And this, in turn, got me wondering if the one-piece stamped (rather than fabricated) stocks on smaller Spades, that Steve over at S/V Panope highlighted, may be another manifestation of this problem, in this case to reduce the price of the anchor, which has always been Spade’s marketing Achilles heel.

Once again, that’s a guess, not an assertion, particularly because I don’t even know for sure whether or not the smaller Spades were always made that way.

I’m going to ask Spade to comment on this article.

Well Said, Stefan

Finally, I will end this one by thanking Stefan. Buying an expensive piece of gear that turns out to be defective, or even just not as functional as another option, totally sucks.

But one positive thing we can do, albeit emotionally difficult, is to be realistic about the situation and then share it publicly, which both encourages the vendor to make it right and is a great way to help our fellow voyagers.

For example, if other customers who had bad experiences with GMT masts prior to us buying one had been more forthcoming publicly, we might never have experienced our $50,000 loss.

Thanks for the heads up, Stefan.

I will move our warning about stainless steel Spades from our anchor-sizing article to our Spade review, where it really should have been in the first place.

Summary

  • The majority of anchoring reports from the field are useless because the conditions are too benign to test anything realistically. Heck, most cruisers don’t even set their anchors properly.
  • However, some reports are invaluable. The trick is to stay openminded enough to recognize them.
  • A company that makes one good product can make others that are poor.
  • We must always watch out for product changes driven by marketing and price, not quality.

All stuff I must constantly remind myself of.

Further Reading

Comments

Have you had any experiences that corroborate the above reports, or conflict with them? What about other experiences, anchoring or not, that indicate a potential problem with popular gear or accepted technique? Please leave a comment.

Keep in mind that we haver an entire online book on anchoring (see link above) so please at least scan the table of contents before adding general anchoring comments that we have already covered to this article. For example, if you want to discuss yawing at anchor, please do so here, after reading the article.

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

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