'Til the butter melts

Pursuing the cruising dream in 32' of sailing ketch


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The Art and Science of Anchoring

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(Note: This is what we call a “technical” post. If you think discussions of gear and techniques that are directly applicable to sailing and cruising are “Deadly Boring”, you might want to move on to one of my normal, funny offerings. Really, I won’t be offended.)
In this post, I’m going to outline my patented, never fail system for choosing anchoring gear, selecting a location, and setting your anchor for a secure night or an extended stay. Ready?

Just kidding. There’s no such thing.

But if there were, and if I had it, I could make a killing. Wherever two or more cruising boats gather, the talk will – eventually – turn to the subject of anchors and anchoring, and the opinions will sometimes be as diverse and contradictory as the subjects of an election cycle. 

Well, maybe not THAT contradictory, but I promise there will be strongly held yet conflicting opinions and methods. 


Take this boat, for example. These poor guys have been having a hell of a time the last 48 hours, having anchored, dragged, re-anchored and even moved to a marina for the night (see the blown fender hanging at the side? Likely a victim of a dock bash during the night) before returning to the area where we rode out the storm without moving an inch. And at that they had to try to anchor three times before it held…

If it holds…
So what can you do to increase the odds of staying put? There are some basics that I’ve learned from reading and experimenting, but before I do that, let’s look at the picture above more carefully. I see (or saw) three things straight away that could be done better, and those deal with Scope, Shock, and Windage.
Scope: Scope is the length of rode (chain or rope or both) deployed. The more scope out, the more likely your anchor is to catch and hold well. Recommendations for scope are given as a ratio between the depth from bow to the bottom and the amount of rode deployed, with 3:1 is a minimum for chain rode. 5:1 is better, and 7:1 is reasonable for a gale of 40 knot winds. But more than a minimum is better, always.

But in the case of this boat, we watched them let the anchor out the first time they tried this morning. One fellow at the bow was holding the anchor chain with the anchor dragging in the water, probably 5 or 6 feet down. When they’d picked their spot, he released the chain he was holding, and the chain ran out for maybe 20 feet before it stopped. Since we’re here in 12-15 feet of water, and the distance from the surface of the water to their bow is close to 4 feet, that means they have – at the most – a scope ratio of 2:1. Not even enough to stop for lunch, much less for the night.

Shock: Boats move at anchor. Some even sail back and forth, tugging at the anchor at the end of each swing, and the boat pictured above is a sailer. The problem with that is that chain doesn’t stretch – not even a little. As soon as the chain comes taught, there’s an enormous shock as 14000 pounds of boat is suddenly denied its freedom of motion.

The answer to that problem is a snubber (described below) or – as we’re using right now – a combination of chain and nylon line in your anchor rode. For the last two days we’ve been riding to 75 feet of heavy (⅜”) chain plus 35 feet of ⅝” nylon line. Now nylon is wonderfully stretchy, as much as 20%, so on the occasions when Sionna decides to swing, that line acts like a shock absorber, easing the load onto the anchor progressively and spreading the load over time. The anchor is therefore much more likely to stay put.

And what’s a “snubber”? Simply a short (15-20 feet) length of nylon line with a hook on one end. The hook gets attached to the chain, the end of the line is attached to the boat, and enough chain is let out so that the nylon line is taking the load, with the excess of chain loose in the middle. 

Windage: The wind is a powerful force – a force to be reckoned with. And the stronger it blows, the greater the force it can exert. Not only that, but it’s power increases at twice its speed, meaning that if the wind speed doubles, the force it exerts is multiplied by four. In situations where you expect strong winds, therefore, it’s very important to reduce your windage as much as you can. Look at the picture again:


They removed the main sail – that was a good idea, as sails can create a lot of drag, but see the dinghy? It’s hanging from the stern like a glorified wind scoop – the worst possible position from a windage standpoint. Laying flat on deck, yes, or even trailing in the water behind, but this…

So aboard Sionna (I’ll stop picking on our neighbors now) we have a list of things we do to reduce windage, reduce shock loading, and maximize the holding power of our anchor when we’re expecting significant winds at anchor, but it began long before, when we were choosing the anchoring equipment we have aboard. 

You see, when it comes to anchors, heavier is always better, up to the point when the crew is not able to handle the weight. Same for the chain attached to it – so we chose a 35# anchor (slightly over-sized according to the books) and ⅜” chain – one size larger than normal. To that we attached ⅝” nylon line, again slightly over-sized, but also easier to handle than a finer line.  

The business end of the 35# CQR anchor


Chain and snubber deployed. The snubber takes the load while the chain acts as a backup.
What else? Anything on deck that might come loose, or which presents a significant amount of resistance to the wind. This includes our stays’l (which is stored in a bag on deck when not in use), the sun awning, the sailing rig for the dinghy, fenders, BBQ grill, throwable life ring…

Dinghy sail and mast on the starboard side deck.


Sun awning on the port side deck.
Stays’l (Stay Sail) on the port side deck forward.
BBQ grill (green) and the fenders (blue opposite, usually there are three tied there).
Throwable life ring (“Lifesling”) in it’s bag.

And finally there are the sails themselves. These enormous pieces of cloth can become dangerous should they begin to catch the wind. In a minor blow (say, less than 40 knots) we take lengths of spare line and snugly wrap them, inside their covers.
Wrapped sails in preparation for Tropical Storm Hermine.
We also tie a heavy line around the rolling head sail to be sure it doesn’t decide to unroll – something that has frequently resulted (on other boats) in loss of the whole mast.  
And for stronger winds? Or even a hurricane? The sails come off entirely and are stowed below, along with everything else previously mentioned. Yes, a storm-prepped sailboat is a mite cozy below! But all of these things add to your chances of staying anchored and undamaged in a real storm.
And that, really, is the point. Keep the boat attached to the ground and in safe water, and keep the crew safe aboard or – if it’s a better option – in shelter ashore. Safety first.

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Let’s Talk About Forecasting…

“Everybody complains about the weather, but nobody DOES anything about it!”


Winds 20 gusting 38 – not trifling!
So Mark Twain is claimed to have said. Of course there are lots of things attributed to Mark Twain – and doubtless many famous people – that they never said, but since Twain was known for the pithy one-liner, we’ll let him have that one.

Particularly because it’s true, and will likely stay true – chem-trails and other conspiracies not withstanding. The weather is still out of our control, and seems likely to remain so for my lifetime, at least. 

Yesterday Nicki and I left Breakwater Harbor, off Lewes, Delaware at 8am, and headed out around Cape Henlopen for the open Atlantic and a 35 mile jaunt down the coast to Ocean City, Maryland. The forecast as we departed was for seas of 2-3 feet and winds peaking at around 15 knots before diminishing in the afternoon to 8-10 knots. From there, the forecast also called for a front to move in and pass, bringing rather more wind for the overnight, so we planned to tuck in to Ocean City behind Assateague Island to wait out that bit of weather before continuing south.

But our 8am departure was basically the only part of our day that went completely according to plan. Rather than seas of 2-3 feet, we found 5-6 and occasionally 8 feet, and the wind continued to build slowly throughout the day, gradually being supplemented with rain. We passed through the inlet at Ocean City about an hour after slack water, and we’re very glad it wasn’t any later, as it was still a rough ride. There’s also an unmarked shoal in the inlet, which we only dodged at the last minute. 

And now it’s Thursday, and the 12 hours of expected rough weather has turned into at least 36, as the low pressure system that’s causing it all refuses to move off the coast, and in fact seems to have strengthened as it’s slowed – we’re seeing steady winds of 20 knots, and gusts nearing 40. The anchor is well set, thankfully (we watched our neighbor anchored near by drag about 200 feet toward a set of pilings before they gave up and headed in to try and find a slip at the marina. (Not an option for us, it’s a very shallow marina basin.)
Just a thrill-a-minute, this cruising thing!

Meanwhile we’re getting notes from other cruising friends who are many days ahead of us in this southward migration, and they’re sending lovely sunset pictures and stories of their more pleasant adventures.


We could do with some “more pleasant” any time now, you know?

So that’s the state of weather forecasting – which was the whole point of this post, you may recall. Only a forecaster can go to work day after day, get it right less than 50% of the time, and still be considered to be performing adequately. 

I’m not bitter about that – just saying it’s a funny world.


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The Jersey Shore

September 15, 2016

Atlantic side of Sandy Hook, NJ
Beautiful. Over-built. Flat. Vulnerable.

Those are some of the descriptives that come to mind from our last four days, as we’ve made our way down the coast of New Jersey toward Delaware Bay. Beautiful bays, marshes and dunes – and there’s a large, often garish, “what were they thinking” house built on most of them. Or being re-built, as the reconstruction from Hurricane Sandy in 2012 is ongoing.

It must be my country childhood/Maine-based eye that sees it all as just “too much” Too many buildings too close together, too many boats (my God there are a lot of boats!) going way too fast. Faster than any reasonable human should want to go.


And flat. If you grew up here, you probably don’t notice, but the only thing higher than the houses is cell towers and water towers. And probably that’s what makes it feel vulnerable. There’s no shelter from anything meteorological that might happen, nowhere to run, nowhere to hide. 


As we’re finding out this morning. Our Monday morning wake-up routine of coffee or tea, an English muffin and talk was rather rudely inturupted by the arrival of a squall from basically out of nowhere. I saw a little rain coming, went back on deck to let out a little more anchor rode “just in case”, and just made it back to the cockpit (almost) when a wall of wind hit us like a brick: 40-45 knots, the anchor chain stretched out straight and the GPS and visual reference points showing Sionna very slowly dragging back from the force of it, plowing a trench in the sand below, but slowing… slowing…


And stopping after 80 feet or so. Meanwhile we’ve started the engine in case it’s needed, and stripped down to minimal clothing in case an “all hands on deck” becomes necessary. Comes a quick break in the rain, I go back to the bow and let out a proper storm-scope of anchor rode.  Then the wind begins to easy, and we begin to breathe…

We had intended to move farther south today, but this isn’t what the forecast was calling for, and now we’re glad we were a little slow getting started today – being out in these narrow canals in that wind would have been a mite tricky. 

Sometimes being lazy is a good thing.