FEAR OF DRAGGING: Anchoring Tips for Scope Nazis and Other Scaredy Cats

Anchoring a sailboat

If you’re paranoid, anchoring out can be a validating experience. On the one hand, it seems rather simple. You walk up to the bow of your boat, drop a lump of metal overboard, let out some rode, and secure it somehow. Then you stroll back to your cockpit and admire your surroundings while enjoying a libation or two.

On the other hand, it can often seem fraught with danger. The closest equivalent I can think of, in terms of destroying a good night’s sleep with raw anxiety, are those guys who sleep out on mountains they are climbing in sacks they hang from tiny pins driven into cliff faces. The immediate result in the event of a mishap may not be quite as dramatic, but the ultimate worst-case consequences (loss of life and putative home) can be just as severe.

Some paranoid people–particularly the I-told-you-so types–revel in this stark contrast. I recall, for example, one friend of mine who tells a story of a fancy cruising boat he once crewed on that was skippered by a nautical know-it-all. As the hook was going overboard one afternoon, my friend–we’ll call him Dave–noted excitedly that the shackle securing it to the rode had not been moused. The skipper (who no doubt, like all of us, had spent much time wrestling with corroded anchor shackles) responded in his best know-it-all voice that galvanized shackles seize up so quickly it is not necessary to mouse them.

That night the boat dragged all over the anchorage and was nearly lost. When the rode was hoisted back aboard in the mad scramble that ensued, it turned out the anchor was gone, as its shackle had come undone. Dave, I know, is much too modest to have actually said “I told you so” out loud, but I am sure he enjoyed his vindication.

Fouled anchor
In this case the shackle wasn’t the problem!

Most cruisers display their paranoia in more passive-aggressive ways. Motor into any anchorage with your anchor cocked in its roller ready to take the plunge and you’ll get a little taste of it. As soon as they hear the rumble of your spinning prop through their hulls, your new neighbors invariably will spring out on deck like jack-in-the-boxes. They’ll give you a friendly welcoming wave, but really what they’re doing is assessing whether or not you are an idiot. Display the least hint of anchoring incompetence and they will glare at you intently, willing you to drop your hook as far from them as possible.

Certain sorts of sailors, when it comes to anchoring incompetence, are always pronounced guilty on sight. Public enemy number one, of course, is the bareboat charterer. The apocryphal tale most often bandied about is of the hapless bareboat skipper who departs from his charter base with one main anchor and a spare aboard. He drops anchor the first night, enjoys dinner in the cockpit with his family, then strikes out at first light the next morning on the next day’s adventure. He anchors out again the second night, enjoys another fabulous adventure the following day, but then urgently radios the base that evening: “Hey! We need more anchors!”

That this story is widely believed gives some sense of the strength of the prejudice against bareboats. I once saw a vivid display of it in the anchorage at English Harbor in Antigua. An innocent bareboater came in and made ready to anchor next to a big fancy Hinckley, whereupon the owner of the Hinckley, instead of just glaring, unleashed such a withering barrage of verbal abuse the bareboat sheepishly turned tail and abandoned the anchorage altogether.

Another major suspect, at least in bluewater circles, is the cruiser who anchors on rope rode instead of chain. I myself was guilty of this sin during my circumnavigation of the North Atlantic back in the 1990s. I can report, however, that I never once dragged my anchor during the entire two-year cruise. One advantage of anchoring on rope, I concluded, is that it actually heightens your paranoia. Because I felt so much more vulnerable than my chain-bound neighbors, I often set a second anchor and spent a lot of time diving on my ground tackle to see what it was up to.

But there can be such a thing as too much paranoia. Few things are more frustrating than to drop anchor at a respectful distance from your nearest neighbor in, say, 20 feet of water, then have him cheerfully announce that, because he has 250 feet of rode out, he doesn’t think there is room enough for the both of you. Because most often it was French cruisers who did this to me, I used to think of this obsession with maximizing scope as “the French anchoring disease.” These days, however, I just call these people scope Nazis.

The worst scope Nazi I ever met was a British singlehander, John, who once anchored next to me in a creek in Gambia. As anchorages go, this creek was nearly perfect–protected on all sides, with a sticky mud bottom under just 10 feet of water. John and I had lain side by side for two weeks without a worry, until one night some thunder squalls came through and the wind pumped up to 30 knots. At about 3 a.m., I heard a furious pounding on my hull and came on deck to find John in his dinghy, begging me to come over and help him reset his anchor.

“You’re dragging?” I asked as we boarded his boat together.

“I must be,” he exclaimed. “Look how far the boat has shifted.” And indeed, though it was hard to tell in the dark, it seemed he was at least 15 yards further down the creek than he was before.

“How much rode have you got out?” I asked.

“About 150 feet,” he answered nervously.

I tried to explain he couldn’t possibly be dragging. Anchored on chain in good holding ground, with 15-1 scope, it seemed likely he was just stretching out his rode for the first time. But John had the fear on him bad and insisted we reanchor. He had no windlass, so I helped him haul up 150 feet of chain by hand. We reset the anchor on 200 feet, but John was worried he was still dragging, so we hauled up everything and reset again on 300 feet, which was the total length of his primary rode. Then, just in case, we set a stern anchor out on another 300 feet of rope rode.

By the time we were done the sun was up and the thunder squalls were long gone. John now felt very secure and two days later ventured into town to seek work as an electrician. He quickly found a good job and announced he planned to stay in Gambia for a while and build up his cruising kitty. I definitely got the sense, however, that this decision had more to do with his confidence in the set of his anchors than it did with his finances.

And I know what you’re thinking now: is this WHOLE DAMN BLOG POST going to be nothing but USELESS ANECDOTES???

So, without further ado…


1. YES! You Can Cheat On Scope

Many cruisers have it permanently grafted into their brains that anchoring on anything less than 7:1 scope is irresponsible and dangerous. No doubt they got this way from reading too many sailing magazines. Of course, when it comes to scope more is always better, but in the real world there are many cozy, crowded or deep anchorages where such largesse simply isn’t feasible.

Anchoring scope diagram
Typical scope Nazi propaganda: except the proportions are wrong!

My personal rule of thumb, given a properly set hook (an important proviso), is that you can usually get away with as little as 3:1 scope. Once you fix this as the minimum limit in your head, it often becomes easier to find a parking place.

When trying to exploit this little secret, keep two variables in my mind. First, a choppy sea state effectively increases your working water depth. Cheating on scope in a well-protected anchorage where the water is always flat is one thing. Doing it in an open roadstead where your bow is riding up and down several feet is another. Each foot your anchored bow rises in a swell or chop requires at least three more feet of rode to keep you secure. In most cases, to compensate for snatch loads, it should be more than three.

Second, the tide will absolutely increase your water depth. Whatever minimum scope you decide to work with, calculate how much rode you want to lay out based on the expected water depth at high tide. Finally, it is often a good idea to lay out as much scope as possible when setting your hook, then shorten up as needed afterwards.

2. Watch What the Neighbors Are Doing

An anchorage sheltering multiple boats is a community, and its members are dependent on each other. When joining the community you need to keep a close eye on how others have anchored their boats.

First look to see what other people are using for rode. Boats anchored on chain normally swing much more slowly when the wind and/or current changes, as they must drag all the weight of the chain they’ve laid out around with them. In moderate or light conditions it may take many hours, or even days, for a boat on chain to get all its rode stretched out in a new direction. A boat anchored on rope, meanwhile, will usually reorient all or most of its rode within minutes of a change in wind or current direction.

Sailboat anchored on rope
When anchoring on rope, setting two anchors is often a good idea

Be sure to take these differences into account when deciding where to anchor. If you’re a rope adherent anchoring in the midst of chain believers, you may need to set a second anchor to keep from swinging into other boats.

Also, check the angles on your neighbors’ rodes. The more shallow the angle, the more rode they have out relative to the water depth and the further they’ll swing when things change. Look for anchor buoys, multiple rodes hanging from the same bow, and any other tips as to how others around you have deployed their gear.

Finally, always remember the primary rule of anchoring etiquette: last in is the first out if hulls go bump in the night. Even if your new neighbor is a greedy scope Nazi and is taking up way too much space, if you can’t politely convince him to shorten his rode, you’re the one who needs to move if he got his hook down first. (For more on this point, see this post here.)

3. Patience is Important

It always pays to take your time when setting an anchor. I’ve often seen cruisers drop a hook and a pile of rode overboard, then back down on it all hard in reverse, only to have the whole mess drag down the anchorage. The skipper howls in frustration, repeats the procedure several times, then concludes the holding ground is terrible and retreats to another venue.

This slam-bam-thank-you-ma’am approach to setting a hook works when the holding ground is perfect (sticky mud or soft sand, for instance), but can be self-defeating in less ideal situations. Get your hook overboard, lay out your rode, then shut down the engine and relax for a bit while your anchor nestles into the ground. In more challenging ground–very soft mud or hard sand, for example–it make take quite a while for an anchor to get a grip on the bottom. The slow steady pull of the boat on its rode will facilitate the process, but a sudden burst of reverse power from the engine can easily short circuit things.

Relaxing while anchoring
Chilling out for a while can be an important skill when anchoring

Instead of backing down on your anchor immediately, first tidy up the boat and enjoy your sundowner while keeping an eye on your surroundings. After a half-hour or so, fire up the engine again and back down gently on your anchor. Slowly increase the revs in reverse until you’re satisfied the anchor is firmly set. Then and only then give it a hard burst of power to make sure. If you take your time like this, you’ll often be able to anchor in spots that more impatient cruisers think are untenable.

4. Think About Topography

Many cruisers have an overly simplistic approach to selecting an anchorage. They look for a spot with reasonable holding ground and some land between them and the wind and leave it at that. They give little thought to the lay of the land around the anchorage and sometimes get caught out unexpectedly.

Here’s an example many New Englanders will relate to: you’ve enjoyed a long day sailing on the prevailing southwesterly breeze and expect a front to shift the wind to the northwest during the night. You find an anchorage with seemingly good protection to the west and settle into it. But when the northwest shift comes in at 0-dark-hundred, you find the wind where you are is actually blowing hard straight out of the north. Quite suddenly, you may be anchored on a lee shore with too much fetch to windward.

Many cases like this are not the result of a bad weather forecast, but instead are caused by topography. An honest northwest wind, for example, can easily get bent and accelerated by some local terrain feature into a hard northerly. You should try to anticipate these little tricks by taking a harder look at the chart when selecting an anchorage. Look at the height of the land around the anchorage; try to visualize its shape and how the wind flows over it.

At first, you may have hard time guessing how the wind will behave in certain areas. But with some time and experience you’ll learn how topography affects wind (and waves) in your favorite anchorages. This knowledge will help you better anticipate topographical effects when anchoring in new locations.

5. Have an Exit Strategy

Even savvy cruisers sometimes get caught out and have to abandon an anchorage in the middle of the night. The savviest ones prepare for this and know exactly where they’re going when the time comes to bail.

Whenever you’re settling into an anchorage where you plan to spend the night, you should always run a late-night evacuation scenario though your head. If you’re in a large anchorage you may be able to relocate without going far, but if forced out of a small one you may have to move someplace else entirely. Identify a fallback parking place if possible and pre-plot a course to it (on paper or, even better, on a chartplotter). If there is no viable fallback anchorage, plot how you’ll get to open water where you can remain underway or heave to until daybreak.

If you don’t have a chartplotter or radar, it is particularly important that you give some thought to what visibility may be like. Will the moon be up? If not, note what lights on shore and afloat you’ll be able to use as references.

Finally, you should also give some thought to how you’ll recover your anchor and rode and should be prepared to slip your rode if you can’t. It should be possible to cast your rode free from on deck if necessary, and you should keep a small buoy or fender handy so you can mark it and come back to recover it later. You should also, of course, have a second anchor and rode onboard so you can re-anchor elsewhere.

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1 Response
  1. David Green

    “They’ll give you a friendly welcoming wave, but really what they’re doing is assessing whether or not you are an idiot.”

    Hilarious, I’m enjoying this article immensely.

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