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    Updated: 25-Apr-2006

Mother Nature's Humor
Blaine Parks

    There are few things more remarkable than a star-filled sky on a clear night while anchored in a secluded section of paradise.  Even after cruising aboard ‘Charbonneau’ for the last two years, those night skies still leave me in awe.  Over the last few days at anchor, I’ve seen two brilliant shooting stars.  Not the ordinary, ‘gone in a second’ kind, but the kind that streak across the entire sky with a blazing tail.  I thought they were good omens at the time.  But now, as I lay in the cockpit at 3AM covered in our beach picnic blanket (white with big blue & yellow penguins sporting sunglasses), I’m less convinced of the ‘good’ in their omen.  I’m no longer looking for the glowing tail of shooting stars.  My thoughts now drift from the immense star-filled sky to the soft glow of our cockpit GPS, wondering if our anchor will actually hold this time. 

     You see Mother Nature has a sense of humor.  I’m sure of it.  If she didn’t, how could I explain that almost every front, squall, or other major weather phenomenon affecting our floating home occurs in the middle of the night.  It never happens at lunchtime and she wouldn’t even consider bringing in strong winds while we’re sipping sundowners in the cockpit.  Oh no, it always happens between midnight and 4 AM.  And, it only happens on dark nights!  So here I am confined to the cockpit, wrapped in a silly-looking blanket, and staring at the GPS as the winds build to a steady 25 knots, with gusts over 30.   

     It all started with one of those spectacular sunsets that you come cruising to find.  Janet and I watched the sun dip below an unblemished horizon as we sipped our drinks in the cockpit; the smell of just baked bread wafting up to us from the cabin below.  The winds were a gentle 10-15 knots from the northwest.  We had just returned from offering a neighboring boat (85’ luxury motor yacht) a loaf of Janet’s homemade bread.  You’d think that sharing fresh bread with strangers would impress upon the gods just how nice we really are. 

     Mother Nature didn’t buy it at all.  The sound of the wind in the rigging took on an all too familiar sound around 2 AM (after midnight and before 4 AM, remember?).  I climbed out of bed, grumbling something about it being the middle of the night AGAIN, and made my way to the companionway to check our position, wind speeds, etc.  The winds hadn’t switched direction at all, but had increased to a steady 20 knots.  However, we were still holding our ground based on our relative position to the motor yacht anchored next to us.  I was growing a little concerned because we knew the holding in this anchorage wasn’t the best you could hope for.  I was still grumbling as I made my way back to bed.  Unfortunately, I didn’t get to stay there very long. 

     The wind screaming in the rigging went up another notch around 2:30.  So, thirty minutes after my first foray into the cockpit I made my way back again.  You can imagine the names I was calling sweet Mother Nature as I stumbled over the dogs and climbed the companionway stairs.  It was about this time that I remembered Rule #1 on the boat – Never cuss Mother Nature.  When I poked my head into the cockpit this time I had two thoughts, of which only one could be true.  Either the large motor-yacht was motoring closer to say thanks again for the bread or our anchor was dragging.  I chose the latter as the most probable option because even though Janet’s bread is worth a second thank-you, I didn’t expect to get one at three in the morning.  

     I called down to give Janet the good news and asked her to bring me some clothes when she came up.  Not much chance of being seen naked at three in the morning, but I didn’t want to give Mother Nature any free shows after the trouble she’d caused me.  We retrieved our anchor, which continued to faithfully hold onto the clump of ground that once held us in place.  Our anchor had never failed us before and I think he was a little embarrassed by the whole affair.  

     Janet motored us around to a new spot hoping for better holding and giving us a clear run down the anchorage if we dragged again.  We dropped the anchor and settled back on it with almost double the amount of chain required for the depths we’re in – just in case.  Did I already mention that it was pitch black out here? 

     By 3:30, the anchor had been reset and Janet and the dogs were back in their cozy beds below.  I, however, have been banished to the cockpit with a pillow and this silly blanket.  I was well behaved earlier in the day and had no idea that I’d find myself banished from my bed and forced to sleep ‘on the couch’.  But as I proposed earlier, Mother Nature has a sense of humor.  Leave it to her to throw a man out of his bed for no good reason.  At least the stars are still decorating the night sky.  And look on the bright side; I’ll see the sun rise too.  Oh yeah, that’s a reason to drag anchor! 

     See you on the water!  Perhaps you could sleep over (in our cockpit watching for our anchor to drag, while I get some sleep)?

Charbonneau's Anchoring Tips

  • Size your primary anchor to be at least one size up from that 'recommended' by the manufacturer.  Our primary is a Bruce 66 (Bruce 44 was recommended) and has never failed us except for the incident which prompted this article.  Select the 'recommended' size secondary anchor, which should be different than your primary.  Our secondary is a 45 lb. CQR.
  • Use an all-chain rode if your boat can carry the weight.  The additional weight across the bottom and chafe-resistance has been worth the slight loss in sailing performance to us.
  • Develop hand signals for anchoring maneuvers BEFORE anchoring.  When the wind is blowing, you can't hear each other from the bow to the cockpit (and if you can, so can the entire anchorage--loss of ten points for bad form :-)
  • Select a spot with plenty of swing room and be aware of how others are anchored.  If everyone else is on one anchor, follow suit.  If your neighbors are swinging on two anchors, you should also.  If the bottom varies with location, search for a spot where your primary anchor would excel.
  • Agree on a spot to drop the anchor and then have someone move up to the bow to prepare the anchor while the other drives the boat.  If married or dating, I suggest a kiss before heading to the bow.  Anchoring can be stressful and the memory of that last kiss may have to last a while if you end up fighting.
  • Motor into the wind as you get close to the pre-arranged spot.  Wait for the boat to stop its forward motion before lowering the anchor and paying out rode as the wind pushes you backwards.  Dropping all your rode in a big pile does nothing for holding (although we enjoy watching boats drag when they try this technique).
  • Let out enough scope to give at least a 3:1, preferably 5:1 or more, ratio.  The calculation for that ratio should include the HIGH TIDE water-depth plus the distance to your bow roller.  We add 5' to the depth to get our numbers.  (example - 10' depth plus 5' to the bow = 15'.  Minimum of 45', preferably 75' or more, rode to be deployed)
  • As the boat settles back on the anchor, the bow will be pulled up into the wind.  Give the boat a moment to settle down before slowly putting some reverse pressure on the anchor.  We back down at three intervals.  The first is at 1000 rpm, then 1500, and finish with 1800 rpm.  While Janet backs down, I place my foot on top of the chain to feel for hold.  You'll feel the anchor 'jumping' if she isn't holding.   Use several landmarks to determine if the boat is holding stationary during the back-down process.  If you can't get it to hold, pick a new spot and repeat the procedure.
  • Wait a half-hour or more before racing into shore.  Not only will you feel better knowing that you are anchored well, but your neighbors will breathe easier knowing you waited to be sure that you were anchored well.
  • How do you know if you're dragging while you're in your bunk?  A good tell-tale sign is when the boat stops pitching forward-aft and begins a side-to-side roll.  As a boat begins to drag anchor, the bow is usually blown off the wind which will result in the change in motion.  It is very distinct when it happens.  The difficulty is where you get a tidal-surge that rolls you side-to-side already.  You lose that tell-tale sign.
  • You can use a GPS anchor drag alarm or other device to help determine if you're dragging.  Remember to set the drag-alarm distance for at least twice your amount of scope.  If the wind switches 180 degrees you'll be going at least that distance.
  • We have a Captains Compass over our bunk.  Any time the wind increases and/or switches direction, I climb out of bed to have a look.  This habit saved our boat this time and has allowed us to warn several other boats that they were dragging.  
  • Anchoring is easy, but diligence will help you sleep better.