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The anchoring follies are fun if you're not part of the show

2010 May 1
Imagine that—moorings in the anchorages of the British Virgin Islands.

I'm sure that's old news to many SAILING readers, but it was a big revelation to me when I sailed in the BVI in late winter. It had been years since I had been there, and back then we secured our boat for the night the old-fashioned way-we dropped an anchor.

The moorings are great progress, of course. It's easier and quicker to pick up a pennant on a mooring ball than to perform the anchoring ballet, and it's worth $25 (the going rate to use a mooring for a night) to get a good night's sleep free of anchor anxiety. What's more, they protect endangered coral from careless anchorers.

On the minus side, the moorings deprive BVI cruisers of some prime cocktail-hour entertainment. I'm referring to the anchoring follies. A night in Gorda Sound on a mooring off the Bitter End during my recent visit piqued a recollection of a fine show put on in that very place in pre-moorings days.

We had excellent seats for that performance on our anchored boat, where we were waiting for the sun to drop below the yardarm (or at least the top spreader) when a Morgan Out Island 50 powered into a space off our port side. The charterers on board brought the hefty boat in at such speed that it came with a quarter wave that rocked the anchorage. Then they put on the brakes with a roaring thrust of reverse, let the anchor and about 20 seconds-worth of chain fly, turned up the stereo and passed around the rum drinks. This was all accomplished in a few minutes. It might have been lousy seamanship, but as boat handling to facilitate a quick start to a party, it was an impressive piece of work.

We had to wait until after dark for the final act, but then the Morgan began its inevitable slide downwind, the anchor bouncing along the bottom on its abbreviated rode. The drifting boat somehow managed to avoid other anchored yachts, but it was on a course to fetch up on the western shore of the sound, and there was no sign the revelers onboard, all partying below, knew what was happening.

My crewmate Dennis and I zoomed over in the dinghy and after some determined knocking on the deck got the attention of a young woman, who urged us to come aboard. Once she and her friends understood their situation, they were delighted to have us handle it for them. We reanchored the boat with generous scope and made a bit of a production (OK, we were showing off) of backing down hard to set the anchor and test it. By the time we pronounced everything secure and shipshape the male members of the crew had disappeared below, apparently having succumbed to the predations of ol' debil rum. The comely, gracious and grateful female crewmembers, however, showed no signs of flagging energy and they invited us to stay awhile and enjoy the party, which we did.

I don't tell this story to ridicule a few clueless sailors. I know enough not to trifle with anchoring hubris. I might be entertained by other people's anchoring misadventures, but always with the certain knowledge that the expression "there but for the grace of God go I" applies to these situations. I have been there. And yes, I have woken up to find my boat in a place far removed from where I anchored it. And that wasn't even the worst of my anchoring experiences.

The absolute nadir in my personal annals of anchoring occurred in a confined, deep-water anchorage. I got my lightweight Fortress anchor to hold in 60 feet of water, but I had to use every bit of anchor rode on board, nearly 300 feet. I had dropped the hook at what looked to be a safe distance from the nearest other anchored boat, a salty looking little double-ender with a salty looking guy, wearing a beard and a well used Greek fisherman's cap, in the cockpit. I noticed his boat was anchored with thick chain that even in the stiff breeze was nearly vertical. My rode was stretchy nylon line, and with a football-field length of it in the water the boat had plenty of freedom to sail around its anchor, which short-keeled performance boats are wont to do. While she scooted around the anchorage, the doughty double-ender barely moved. Pretty soon I was within chatting distance of her owner. Without a lot of confidence it was true, I said, "Don't worry, we won't get any closer." He didn't deign to reply, but fixed me with a look that conveyed utter contempt for racing boats and their owners, and proceeded to pull out every fender he could find and affix them to both sides of his boat. Then he filled in the spaces-I'm not kidding-with cockpit cushions. Mortified, I lifted the anchor (a 60-foot pull that reminded me that "lightweight" is a relative term when applied to anchors) and moved on.

Anchors are among the very oldest sailing implements and using them is one of the most basic seafaring skills, so it's curious that so many of us can't consistently make them work right and that anchors are still evolving after thousands of years. In Bernard Cornwell's latest book in his rip-roaring historical fiction series about ninth-century Anglo Saxon England, he writes of an anchor used on a Viking ship that resembled an enormous stone wheel. Well, we're still reinventing that wheel.

If you haven't kept up with the state of the anchor art, you might not know that today you can anchor with a Bulwagga, a hook that looks as gnarly as its name sounds. Actually, it has three hooks, sharp flukes arrayed around the shaft. The idea is that however the anchor lands on the bottom, there's a fluke positioned to dig in. Makes sense, at least when the Bulwagga is in the water. What you do on deck with this menacing amalgamation of sharp points that looks like a mace fit for a giant is another story.

If the Bulwagga comes across as too aggressive, you could try the Hydrobubble. It may sound like a bathtub toy, but this is a sturdy looking fixed-plow type anchor fitted with a buoyancy tank intended to keep the plow blade upright and poised to dig into the bottom. Mad scientists never sleep.

I'm all for anchor innovation and I'm pretty sure these ideas are improvements over the stone wheel. But the anchor is only part of the equation; the rest is the rode and scope. There are lightweight anchor zealots who believe you could anchor an aircraft carrier with a 12-pound Danforth as long you had enough elastic three-eighths-inch nylon line to yield a 7-to-1 scope. But most anchoring problems can be solved with chain, the heavier the better to produce the catenary effect that makes the anchor think it has 7-to-1 scope.
I say that as one who doesn't usually have the luxury of using chain and a windlass. There is no place for those anchoring enhancers on a lightweight performance boats, which is why we tend to terrorize anchorages.

I love charter boats with their marvelous windlasses and tons of chain. I like moorings too, even though I would have missed a heck of party if they had been used in the BVI years ago.