Thursday, April 3

Anchoring - Get Hooked

Setting a proper hook can be the difference between a nice lunch on the hook and calling your insurance company. It can also be the difference between keeping your crew safe at sea in a storm and ending up in a funeral home. It can truly be a life or death scenario. Now that I have your attention, let’s keep it light and get back to that nice lunch.

If you've ever been in the playpen (just around the North side of Navy Pier), you've likely seen many boats anchoring with terrible procedures, form, and witnessed a boat or two breaking free. I know I have. Maybe you've never anchored before and you’re just not comfortable with it. In this article I will provide you with a solid starting point. The rest simply takes practice. Let’s get started.

First you need to know what anchor you have. Check out the images of the more popular anchors below.

     Plow – Delta

    Plow – CQR

    Claw (Bruce)


Recognize yours? Good. Now let’s go through their working characteristics.

Plow Anchors – Plow style anchors offer good holding power in a wide variety of situations. This style of anchor is quite popular for day sailing boats, cruising sailboats, and powerboats alike. These are generally not recommended for soft bottoms.

There are two different plow type anchors, the Delta and the CQR. The CQR has a pivot on the shank and helps with changing winds or tides as the anchor rolls on the bottom. The Delta sets fast and digs deep but will break its hold easier than the CQR.  

Claw Anchors – Claw anchors are unique in their shape and allow the anchor to turn without breaking free.  These anchors set like a plow style anchor but the rounded shape allows setting easily regardless of how it initially hits the bottom. Claw anchors are commonly called Bruce Anchors.

Danforth Anchors – Danforths are lighter weight and have two pivoting flukes. The design allows for the flukes to dig in and bury the anchor and even part of the rode. One great aspect of the Danforth is holding power to weight ratio. They perform very well in hard sand or mud. Avoid rock or grassy bottoms with these units.

Now that you know a little about your anchor, or your future anchor, let’s talk about size. Yes, size does matter. For this article’s purpose let’s assume we are working with a 40’ boat weighing approximately 20,000 pounds. With a boat this size you want a Bruce (Claw style) that weighs 22lbs, a Danforth that weighs between 20 and 40lbs (depends on materials – high tensile or not), and a Plow that weighs 35lbs. All of these are approximate and recommended for ideal conditions.

If you’re just hanging out for a few hours and will be awake and aware of your position while at anchor, size is a little less important. If you plan on napping, are in rough waters, high wind conditions, or sleeping through the night you’ll want to use the sizes mentioned above as minimums. You can go a little smaller and use what is commonly referred to as “lunch hooks” if staying for a short time in calm conditions. On my 10,000lb sailing vessel at 33ft in length we typically carry a lunch hook. It’s a Danforth and only weighs about 10lbs. Needless to say we only anchor in protected areas for a short amount of time and someone is always on watch to make sure our position hasn’t shifted.

Of course the weight of your anchor may very well depend on the size of your anchor locker or anchor roller. If you plan on doing any extended cruising and anchoring get the biggest anchor you can of the appropriate style for the bottom types you’ll encounter that your vessel can hold. Since we are on size, let’s talk about diameter and length of anchor rode.

Rode: A rope by which a boat is anchored

There are 3 basic ways in which to connect your anchor; rope only, chain only, and a combination on the two. In the Chicago area, for general use, I highly recommend a combination of rope and chain. Choosing the diameter of rope will depend on a couple of factors.

If you have a windlass you will need to make sure the rope/line and chain will work with your unit. Using the example above the 40’, 20,000lb boat would need approximately 7/16 or 1/2” rope. I would choose the 1/2”. You will then have to choose the correct chain size for the rope size.

In terms of length first decide what the deepest water you anchor in will be. If you never, ever, leave the Chicago lakeshore and won’t anchor out past 5 miles or so, you can pretty much be certain the deepest water you’ll encounter is between 35-50’. Always check your chart. 

Now factor in an 8:1 ratio for safety. Sitting on the hook for a quick swim and a cocktail in very mild conditions? You can go with a 5:1 ratio. The ratio refers to what’s called scope. See the image below for a good example of scope.


To simplify, take the deepest water you will anchor in (50’) and multiply that by 8. For a quick lunch, you will want at least 200’ of rode. For an overnight, at least 400’! Now, don’t get me wrong, I've skated by many a time with a 4:1 ratio in the playpen while taking a dip for an hour or two in calm waters but I do not recommend doing that, especially if you’re a beginner.

Moving forward, we now need to look at Catenary. Catenary is a curve formed by a wire, rope, or chain hanging freely from two points and forming a U shape. See the image below for a good example of catenary.

Of course we aren’t going to get real technical here. What you really need to know is the amount of chain you have at the anchor end of your rode will drastically affect your catenary. Using the above image of scope, you will see there isn’t any chain lying on the sea floor. In the next image you will see the catenary curve as it exists in more moderate wind conditions of 20 knots using chain (source:

The example above is what we are looking for; safe scope, chain on the sea floor, all working together. Don Casey, the well published boating and safety expert, recommends 20’ of chain and personally keeps 30’ of chain on his anchors. I keep 15 (likely the minimum). Now let’s do a quick walk through of anchoring procedure.

I’m going to simplify the process into steps.

1.)    Find your spot. Where do you want your boat to sit while at anchor? If the wind shifts, will you swing into another boat? What if your anchor slips during the set? Will you have enough space behind and to the sides of you? What about the boats around you? Can you see what kind of scope they have out? Have they been swinging with the wind? These are all important questions to ask before deciding where to set the hook. Now that you have your spot let’s imagine you are going to let out 165’ of rode (15’ of chain and 150’ of rope).
2.)    You want to motor (yes motor) very slowly directly upwind to our spot. Use just enough power to keep steerage. You will have the windlass/crew ready to lower the anchor. Please make sure it’s attached to the boat on the boat end. Once you are almost at the spot put her in neutral, drift upwind, come to a complete stop, and immediately call to lower the anchor. Let the rode out as fast as your crew can handle and as fast as the sea will take her while staying in control and safe.
3.)    Let the vessel drift in reverse doing your best to keep the bow pointed towards your designated spot. You may need a bit of power (forward and or reverse) to keep her steady. I will typically keep her in reverse idle to keep water flowing past the rudder.
4.)    Using your forward or center line deck cleat, make the rode fast at 165’. Your rode should be marked every 10-25’ so you know how much is let out. You will want to do this before all the line is out!
5.)    Once you feel a “tug” on the line, the anchor is almost set. Once I feel that tug, I another look around me (always keep an eye out) and then throw the engine in reverse, if not already, and increase the RPMs to really dig the anchor into the bottom. You’ll know it’s set when the rode is good and tight and you stop making any way in reverse.
6.)    Put the engine in neutral. Keep the engine on for a good 5-10 minutes and watch your position in relation to fixed objects and other boats around you. Watch your swing radius, be sure you’re happy with your spot, and make sure you feel comfortable. If you didn't get it right, start over. It’s quite possible to think the anchor is set but only to be caught on a rock that comes loose in the mud below.
7.)    Shut the engine down, feel satisfied, and relax!

Does this make sense? I hope so. Remember if you’re brand new to the procedure try a dry run by going through the steps but never lowering the anchor. By doing this you will learn your vessels tendencies while operating in reverse for longer distances and how it responds to just drifting in the breeze. Each step will take some common sense and practice. There’s no other way to get it right except for doing it over and over.

Now let’s go through the process in reverse. After all we have to get home at some point.

1.)    Start the engine and let her warm up.
2.)    Organize the crew, put away the drinks and snacks, and get ready for business.
3.)    With a crew member forward and ready, engage the engine in forward idle or with just enough power to slowly bring the vessel towards the spot.
4.)    Your crew should be gathering the rode as you move towards the spot. Take up all slack and be sure to have clear communication between the aft and forward ends of the boat.
5.)    When you've pulled back up to your spot, you may have an anchor so well set that it’s nearly impossible to get up by hand or even with a windlass. If the anchor comes up smoothly, keep the vessel as steady as possible to allow time for the anchor to come all the way up and be in its home. 
      If the anchor is stuck I suggest tying off the rode to the same cleat you used to tie off while at anchor and then drive forward with the engine. This will likely pull the anchor out. You should be able to see (the rode go loose) and feel the anchor break free. Once free, get her all the way up and back on board before moving on.
6.)    Tidy up. Make absolutely certain that your crew is ready and that no lines are left overboard.
7.)    Head out to sea or back to the slip, mooring, or club.

Anchoring can be so enjoyable. Some of my favorite times on boats have not been sailing but hanging out on the deck, swimming, relaxing, and having drinks 5 miles out where there are no crowds or sounds except for Bob Marley on the radio and slapping waves of the sea.

Please remember that this article serves as an intro to anchoring. We haven’t covered the different materials available for rope or chain, making sure your cleat is appropriate for anchoring (backing plates?), etc. If you have any questions please do not hesitate to email me at Of course if you want to share your hints, tips, tricks, successes, or failures, please contact me and I will post them in a future article or blog.

I leave you with a few tips and words of wisdom.
  • Always brief your crew and guests of the procedure. Planning makes perfect.
  • Divide the number of feet of rode being let out to boat lengths. It’s a great way to judge distance.
  • Know the bottom you’re digging into. The holding power of any anchor will greatly be affected by the bottom type. Check your charts for more info.
  • Periodically check to make sure you’re holding. Never hurts to check.
  • From the wisdom of Don Casey, “No anchor ever dragged because it was too big.”
  • Notice I’ve never said drop the anchor. Always lower the anchor.
  • Never leave the rode in your windlass while at anchor. It's a surefire way to damage the unit. 

If I missed something, let me know. See you on the water soon friends. Until then stay warm and dream of a South breeze.

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