Freedom Afloat:  Breaking free from the dock

Anyone can make a boat go. The real test is if a skipper can make it stay put when he wants it to!

Sleeping aboard a boat at a marina is kind of like staying at a full campground; although, you are closer to your neighbors at the marina. There is nothing like having a domestic dispute 4 feet away from your cabin or a spontaneous dock party only steps from your hatch.  Countless times my wife and I have drifted off to sleep in a beautiful resort marina only to be roused out of our bunk by the dockside band tuning up about 11:00pm. “This is going to be a long night”, I would moan.

 In contrast, staying aboard a boat at anchor is like having acres of the most pristine waterfront property all to yourself!  I’m no Donald Trump, but I dare say I’ve stayed in some of the most beautiful places on the planet, with million dollar ocean front views from my back porch (cockpit).   All absolutely free of charge!


It has been said that anchoring is 20% equipment and 80% technique. For example, the best anchor in the world will not set without proper scope. Studying the process helps but the needed skills are gained only by time “on the hook”. Early on I remember waking every hour to check gear and position in 5 knots of breeze. After a while though I was able sleep like a baby while waiting out a gale, knowing the hook was securely set. My anchor has held in over 100 knots of wind, although, that time I was NOT sleeping!

 Start off spending the night in calm seas and light wind. Try anchoring on a windy day first and enjoy an afternoon meal while you swing. Plan to stay through the tide change or a wind shift and watch what happens to your boat and ground tackle. 

Never “throw over the anchor”, always lay the anchor and rode out on the seabed. Let it dig in naturally, not by jamming the engine in reverse. Let the wind and motion of the water work the anchor into the seabed. Feel the rode with your foot for vibration, which means that the anchor is dragging. “Snub up” several times (partially cleat off and as it begins to catch, pay out more line) as you are paying out scope. Once set you can back down on it with the engine, but only to check your set.

The rule of thumb is that the ratio of scope to water depth should be 7:1 for a rope rode and about 5:1 for chain. You can get away with less for a short stop, use more for an extended period or if a front is coming through. Measure the water depth (use the max high tide depth) add the distance from the water to your anchor roller and multiply that times 7.  If there is not enough room, consider using a kellet with your rope rode. When the wind picks up, let out more scope. If the anchorage is too crowded to let out scope, move. 

Sit in the cockpit for a while and take bearings of fixed objects ashore, keep checking them. Don’t be in a hurry; extra time here makes for peace of mind latter. Many chart plotters have anchor drag alarms and I even saw an anchor monitoring app for an iphone. Great stuff to use if you have. I’ve used a handheld GPS on windy nights so I could check boat position without getting out of my bunk.

Choosing an anchorage:

Location, location, location. Basically, if you are not in a channel and it’s not marked as a “no anchor zone” then you can anchor there. Don’t always head for the cluster of boats, or the anchorages marked in the cruising guides, be creative, explore!

A great anchorage will have:

     Good holding seabed

     Adequate water depth (not too shallow or too deep)

     Protection from wind and swell

     Little or no current

     Little or no traffic boat traffic

     Beautiful setting

     Convenient to desired amenities

The water may be deep enough where you currently are but check the water where you will be if the boat swings around your hook. Will the tide drop significantly enough to ground you or raise so that your scope is too short?  A good anchorage has protection from the swell, good swing room, little or no through traffic and a good escape route.  Take a bearing of your escape route and write it down. It will be ready in case you need to leave in reduced visibility.  Avoid a lee shore, if you drag, you don’t want any dangers behind you.

Ground tackle/Equipment

First, your boat. While sitting rock solid in the same direction with an evening libation, I was entertained by a 40’ sailboat anchored behind me “sailing” at anchor. It would turn sideways, the wind would hit the hull and blow the boat off to port. It would reach the end of the anchor rode, then WHAM, get jerked around to the other direction, then sail off to starboard and repeat the cycle. Vary entertaining from my cockpit, not so much from his. How does your boat ride at anchor? This is a good issue to find out before you buy a cruising sailboat, you will probably spend more time at anchor than under sail.

Endless heated debates take place at dockside bars about what style anchor is best, so I won’t recommend a brand. Do some research and make a decision on a primary anchor, then go at least one size up from what the manufacturer recommends. I will tell you that I think a Fortress is best for a secondary anchor. I’ve had to dinghy my secondary anchor out numerous times, and the fact that it is made of aluminum and I can easily pick it up and throw it in the dinghy, is a huge factor.  It comes apart and stows nicely too.

Each anchor should have at least 200’ of rhode, decide if chain or line is best for you. I like having 400’ of chain and about 400’ of line aboard. A box of shackles, bridles, seizing wire and chaffing gear is also stored near my windlass.

Once a boat gets over 35’, I like having a mechanical or electric windlass. Especially as I age, I like doing less work.

Required amenities

You may have air conditioning and the generator to power it, but most likely you won’t need it at anchor. Well made sailboats are designed to have the air flow through them naturally when pointed into the wind with hatches open, as you will be at anchor.  A boat once anchored next to me and immediately fired up his generator and AC units for the night. I was very glad when he decided to leave the cove late in the evening.  In the morning I discovered (as did he) that he did not decide to leave, but had dragged anchor and was now up on the rocks. He never heard a thing. 

I like listening to the water on the hull and when the sound changes significantly, it’s time for a quick position check. So… AC is out.  A little bit of electricity to read a book after dark and I’m good. Don’t use your start battery or you may be anchored longer than expected.  

Anchoring Etiquette

There are some unwritten rules to anchoring, but if you break one, others will act as though you have committed a felony. Better to know what they are so you can avoid uncomfortable confrontations.  

First rule is that the last boat into an anchorage is the first boat that needs to move if there are problems. Wind shifts, changing currents or weather can cause your boat to become a hazard to earlier arrivals. In such a case, you need to re-anchor elsewhere.

First boats in determine anchor set up. If the boats are all swinging on one hook, don’t set up a two-anchor system like a Bahamian moor, and visa-versa.

It is considered rude to maneuver through the field and anchor in front of everyone. Be courteous and drop your anchor somewhat offset from the last boat’s stern. Never drop your anchor more than one third of the way up another boat’s stern. At best you will end up bumping in the night, worst case scenario will have an insurance claim accompanying a bad night of sleep.  

If a boat (or boats) anchored prior to you are uncomfortable with your boat placement, it is nice to move. You cannot please all the people all the time, but they have first dibs on the anchorage. I’ve had novice sailors pull up in front of my boat, let out way too little scope and settle back just off my bow. I know they will drag if the wind picks up and if I do not politely ask them to move, I will get a terrible night of sleep, waking and watching THEIR boat all night long. I have been known to move my boat when a particularly rude novice comes in, just so I can sleep soundly.

Try for about a 3 boat length distance from any boat. It’s not always possible but the further away you are the better everyone sleeps.

Cruisers are typically friendly people and will greet others in the anchorage. Do not dinghy over or start hailing on the VHF while a boat is anchoring. Let the skipper pay attention to what he is doing. Once he’s hooked and he will be much more amiable to chat.

Be polite, we are all out there on vacation.  Even if you need to ask someone to move, share your concerns with them first. Invite them over for Hors d'œuvre afterwards.