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Learn to set anchor in troubled waters


By early afternoon Sunday, a couple of thousand boats had made their way to the mouth of the Severn River to watch the Blue Angels, the Navy's precision flying team, practice for Monday's performance.

Among the late arrivals were a 48-foot trawler and a 25-foot sailboat, both of which attempted to work their way toward the center of the spectator fleet and drop anchor.

In neither case did they succeed.

The trawler seemed to give it a good try, paying out a large plow anchor on a chain rode and then backing down to try to set the hook. But it seemed from a distance that the crew aboard was inexperienced, and the skipper wisely retrieved his chain and anchor and headed elsewhere.

The sailboat managed to get its hook over the side, and its skipper, wife and infant child settled onto the cabin house to watch the show.

By the time they were settled, the sailboat was dragging its Danforth type anchor, drifting quickly away through the other anchored boats, the skipper moving from side to side to soften collisions with a rubber bumper.

In fairness to both skippers, the conditions in the mouth of the Severn Sunday were unusual -- the tide was ebbing, the wind was coming out the river and the wash of the spectator fleet had built a formidable chop on the water.

On a normal day, no one would have chosen to anchor there.

With a minimum of practice, anyone can set a lunch hook in a quiet harbor. With a little more experience, one can set a working anchor in a secluded cove and sleep soundly.

But the skills of setting the hook are never more important than when there is no room for error -- when the engine is broken down and the tide and wind are carrying your boat toward a bridge piling; when you find yourself overpowered in a breeze and close upon a rocky bottom on the lee shore.

The trawler and the sailboat were in danger only of embarrassing themselves and angering people around them Sunday. But the conditions required that they set the anchor and that it hold.

The confounding factors: building tide, quartering breeze, a chop of two and sometimes three feet, bottom changing from a mixture of clay and mud to soft mud and limited room in which to maneuver.

The best thing either boat could have done would have been to attempt to anchor elsewhere because each was equipped with what appeared to be suitable ground tackle. Barring that, the following steps would have worked:

* Before entering the anchorage, the skipper should be familiar with the types of bottoms in the area. With burying types of anchors, firm sand, a mixture of clay and mud or sandy mud make decent holding ground; soft mud and grassy areas should be avoided. If one is single-handing, then anchor, chain and line already should have been brought to the deck and the line inspected to be free of kinks or knots, the connections of line to chain and chain to anchor also should have been rechecked.

* Knowing where you want to anchor, approach the area slowly and select a spot that will allow your boat to swing clear of others in the anchorage, no matter what direction the wind or tide might change to. Remember that larger boats will require longer anchor lines and therefore will swing through longer arcs.

* Bring the boat bow-on into wind or tide, depending which is stronger and allow your headway to stop. Lower your anchor as the boat begins to drop away from wind or tide, letting the anchor settle to the bottom and then paying out a few feet of line. Do not throw an anchor, as it may foul on the line as it settles.

* With the anchor on the bottom, back the boat down slowly. This will cause the anchor to dig into the bottom and become set.

* Once the anchor is firmly in the bottom, let out enough line or rode to ensure that a surge in tide or increase in wind strength does not dislodge the anchor, letting it drag. A good ratio is 8 to 1. If you are anchored in eight feet of water and the deck is two feet above the water line, then let out 80 feet of anchor line.

* If you, as the spectator fleet was Sunday, are anchored in a heavy chop, then the height of the seas must be included in the ratio. If a two-foot chop is added to the eight feet of water depth and two feet of freeboard for a total of 12, then the scope must be increased to 96 feet. If the conditions are extreme, then a ratio of 15-1 might be required, but rarely will one need more than 10-1.

In an emergency, your salvation might well be your anchor, and the business of planning an approach and backing off to set the anchor might be impossible.

Here you will have to rely on basic preparation. Your anchor line and chain should be marked in 20-foot increments, your anchor should be oversized (the one I use most is rated for a 30-footer, even though my boat is 16 feet), anchor and rode should be readily accessible, and the line should be free of tangles.

Don't scrimp on the type or brand of anchor you buy (Danforth and plow type anchors will work throughout most of the bay area), be certain that you include enough chain to keep the shank of the anchor down on the bottom (eight-degree rise is considered maximum), buy enough quality nylon rode to provide the maximum scope you could need in your boating area.

And then go out and practice.

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