Everything About Anchors

by Brett Brown

Scrimping on anchors and anchor line is much like buying an expensive automobile with cheap brakes.

Anchors keep you off the rocks if your motor or the wind fails. Anchors set up your boat for convenient fishing. Anchors can save your life in extreme conditions. Anchors and their lines, called rodes, are the ground tackle that can make a critical difference. Unfortunately, most boaters fail to select proper ground tackle. Others buy decent rode (lines) and anchors and simply do not know how to use them.

Some use five pound anchors on 30 foot yachts and anchors big enough for yachts on canoes. Some toss anchors over the side, then realize that the anchor wasn't attached to its rode. Some drop anchors over the side with rode, but without a knot at the boat end. Some use 10 feet of rode in 30 feet of water or so much rode that, when the wind or tide changes, their vessel smashes into other craft, wharf pilings or a coral reef.

Anchors drag, snag in rocks or coral and dump boaters in a current. It's still a wonder such a simple process causes so many problems even though everybody who boats eventually has trouble with anchors. My favorite dumb move came as a teenager when we attempted to free a fouled anchor by shortening up the rode until it was drum-tight to the bow of our 21 foot classic wooden runabout. We were a few hundred yards from the ship channel and had figured that the next big bow wave from a passing freighter would pull the anchor off bottom. We didn't allow for the much larger waves from loaded freighters. So we took three feet of green saltwater over the bow and broke the bow cleat off. Since then I've paid careful attention to anchors!

The efficiency of anchors depends on a number of factors. First, the type you select should match your bottom. Second, the anchor should be sized to fit your boat. Third, the anchor should be attached to the right size rode. Fourth, a proper anchorage should be selected. Fifth, weighing and setting anchors should be done in a seamanlike manner.

Anchor Types

Anchors come in all types. A good choice for most small boats is the Danforth with movable flukes which reduce the chance of hanging up on your rode. These anchors come in standard and Hi-Tensile types; both work well. Small mushroom anchors and convenient folding anchors from L.L. Bean and others work as "lunch hooks" for canoes or skiffs if you are aboard fishing or whatever. The yachtsman's kedge or Northill Utility which suit larger craft with chain lockers seem a bit bulky for small boats. A yachtsman does hold extremely well on rock or ledge bottom, but, like other anchors with an exposed fluke, it can foul rode. Navy-type anchors aren't as efficient.

Note: anchors do have names for each part. For example, the flukes hold bottom, the crown is the part which hits bottom first.

If you canoe or drift fish or often anchor on bottom that can cut line, you might add a four or five foot length of BBB Chain with a snap or shackle on each end. You can drag such a chain over the stern of your craft to slow down drifts while you fish. Or, over rough bottom, you can snap the chain on between your anchor and rode to improve the anchor's holding ability.

Another type of anchor, the sea anchor, also slows drifting and in extremely stormy seas is a way to keep the bow of a boat into the waves. It is a subsurface drag made from weighted canvas or whatever. A batch of plastic jugs, three-quarter filled with water and dragged on a piece of rode works fairly well in an emergency situation. Rag baggers can drag sails.

Anchor Size

If it neither fills nor sinks your boat, nor breaks your back you can't really buy an anchor that's too heavy. You may buy one that's too light. Canoes, prams, inflatables and very light skiffs can make do with a four or six pound anchor. Heavier stern-drives, sailboats and displacement craft might need to go to an 8-S or even a 13-S Danforth Standard or a 20 or even 30 pound Yachtsman's Kedge. The best way to select and size an anchor is by asking questions around the fishing club or waters. Just make sure you question skilled boaters or marina staff.

I should note here that I always carry two anchors on anything larger than a canoe. With a Danforth and a small mushroom or folding type and a short length of BBB chain you can position your boat so it does not swing and, if you lose one anchor, you have a spare. Two sets of rode complete the outfit.

Anchor Rope

The best anchor won't hold if you are not connected to it. Most use nylon rope for rode. Manila rots. Pounds breaking strength (PBS) is marked on most nylon polyethylene rope. Use a rode at least strong enough to lift the weight of your boat. In most cases this is 3/8" for canoes, 1/2" for skiffs and up to 9/16" for craft longer than 20 feet. If you often anchor and up anchor you may find a larger diameter rode less likely to cut your hands. If you manually haul anchors a pair of gloves is most helpful.

At least 75 feet of rode is a must to set anchors on smaller bodies of water if you use the "seven to one" rule. You may need 100 to 150 feet to even 200 feet of rope to safely anchor out in deeper water. Do buy rode in one piece! Knotted rope loses 30 to 50 percent of its strength. Since this is the case, many boaters splice line to an eye that they snap onto their anchor. Note: If you often boat in stormy weather you should go up a size and increase your length by 20 percent.

Anchor Setting

A proper set starts when you make sure your rode is not tangled. Only then should you lower the anchor over the side after you make sure the end of the rode is fastened to the anchor and to a cleat or something solid. Do learn the right way to cleat line so it won't jam instead of tying a knot. Cleated line holds well and in an emergency such as a fouled anchor in strong current, you can dump your ground tackle if needed.

Never throw an anchor; you may hang rode on a fluke so your anchor will not hold. If you haven't got the anchor rode tied down you may, as I did one day on San Francisco Bay after sailing, find yourself being dragged over the side. I went into the drink but held the rode until Dad could reach it. He had several comments about his, but I do remember he reached down for me first, then for the rode! Incidentally, I have seen, but not so far managed, folks toss anchors into the bay without any rode!

Do try to head upcurrent or upwind and start to slow when you anchor so you don't foul your prop or hang rode on a fluke. Come to neutral if you power or slack off sails to slow down. Then lower the anchor until it hits bottom crown first. At this point marks on the rode tell you bottom depth. As wind or current moves your boat pay out FOUR times as much rode as bottom depth. Only then tighten up on the rode and the anchor should dig in. If you tighten up with less rode out, you will likely pull the anchor up and off, rather than across and in, the bottom. This is the reason you need adequate amounts of rode.

Note: after you gain experience you can tell by feel whether your anchor skips or digs in and, indeed, the different "grinds," "grates" and "bumps" of mud, sand or rocky bottom. This skill can help pinpoint fishing action too.

If the anchor holds, pay out enough rode to suit conditions. This distance is called the "scope." Scope seven times the depth in average weather; five times suits light conditions and up to 10 or even 12 times works for storms. If the anchor does not hold, try again at a slightly different spot. Take a look around. If your boat swings as wind or current changes, make sure you won't end up on the bank or barge into other boats. Only then cleat off your anchor line.

Once you anchor, take bearings on two markers at roughly 90 degrees on the shore. Watch these for 10 or 15 minutes before you consider leaving your boat. If they change, your anchor is dragging. You may need to increase your scope, use a larger or second anchor or move to better bottom.

A second anchor can keep your boat from swinging in current or wind. To set the second anchor steer your boat into wind or current until it is 90 degrees from your first anchor -- the line between both set anchors should be at right angles to the current or wind. Take care not to foul your first rode. Then drop the second anchor, set it and adjust both lines until your boat rides nose to current or wind without yawing (swinging to land lubbers.)

It's often useful to set out anchors off the bow and stern to position boats. To do this drop the bow anchor first, then back off twice the distance of the rode you want to set. Drop the second anchor and work both lines until your boat is in the right place.

You may, at times, want a "quick release" anchor system. For example, if you anchor in a river or tidal rip where you may need to follow fish you hook, you should consider a float on the boat end of your rode. Jugs, cans or anything that floats well enough so it won't be drawn underwater in the current works. Simply snap a short, easily released line between the float and your boat. Follow your fish and you can simply moor onto the float when you return. In rivers crowded with boats during shad runs, the float also saves your spot!

Anchor Weighing

Given the trouble it sometimes takes to get an anchor to hold, you would think anchors would weigh more easily. In the ideal situation you slowly head upcurrent or upwind as you take in rode so slack won't foul your prop or rudder. When you get over the anchor you snub the line -- a couple of turns -- on a bow cleat and the anchor breaks free. Then you coil in line, slosh your anchor in the water a couple of times to get ride of mud and such and lift the anchor over the side. Hopefully you have chocks or other attachments to hold the anchor in place. Rode is neatly coiled and stored in a convenient spot.

In the real world anchors foul, lines jam and all sorts of exciting challenges make unprepared boaters lust for the life of a couch potato.

Fouled Anchors

In slack water fouled anchors can normally be freed if you pay out two to three times more line than the water depth and circle. If that won't work, and the water is fairly shallow and reasonably warm and you have a strong swimmer aboard, you might have the swimmer try to free the anchor. USE A LIFELINE TO THE SWIMMER. You can also tighten up on the rode and use swells to pull up the anchor if you are extremely careful -- I saw a bow cleat pulled out this way. If all else fails, add a float and cut your rode. It's sometimes economical to hire a diver to retrieve your ground tackle.

At this point you probably wonder about foul-proof anchors.

These use a sliding or breakable shackle or pin and seem a decent choice if you don't rely on them to hold in a storm, as pins always seem to break at an awkward time.


If you check anchors and rode for damage, rinse them with fresh water and touch them up now and then, they should last for years. Anchors get chipped and rusty. A wire brush and a touch up with primer and paint keeps anchors in good shape. In most cases problems occur with shackles. Take these apart -- a little WD-40 may be needed -- and see that threads are not rusted.

Rode tends to wear at the shackle and where it bends and chaffs. Pad rod with a spirally cut section of garden hose or commercial chaffing gear where the rode crosses your gunwale. Sun and grit also ruin rode faster than is need. Try to keep rode smaller than 1/2" in diameter out of the sun. Larger diameters turn white on the outside, but don't weaken.

Remove grit by washing with a hose at low pressure so you don't drive grit into the fibers inside your rode. Once or twice a year, inspect and twist your rode to check internal fibers. These can break and weaken your ground tackle.

Slipshod Ship Wrecks

Anchoring isn't difficult. In most cases you can get away with all sorts of slipshod seamanship. You might go for years without problems. Then, suddenly you can face strong winds, a dead motor, lee shore and night coming up. At this point it's too late to buy decent ground tackle and learn to use it the right way.