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Why even sleepless at anchor, I dream of chain

2021 July 1

I have nothing against the decadently plush accommodations flaunted by many of today’s monohulled and multihulled cruising boats. In fact, I am delighted to sail in their laps of luxury when cruising on chartered boats. But for my own boat, I don’t covet interior-designer cabins with queen-size berths, multiple home-size heads and a gourmet galley. I am content with the relative austerity of a high-performance racer-cruiser, with one irritating exception. I lust for a cruising boat’s chain.

Anchor chain, that is.

A steel chain rode is essential for proper anchoring. And I can’t have one.

Chain is too heavy for any sailboat meant to live up to its handicap rating. My boat would need more than 300 pounds of it.

It would be about a sixth of a ton in the worst place to put it from a performance standpoint—the forepeak. 

What’s more, you can’t have chain without a windlass, and that’s another forbidden luxury.

This is not a trivial matter. We sailors tend to obsess over making our boats move fast, when often the more difficult challenge is keeping them in one place. Sailors through the ages have failed that challenge, as the annals of shipwrecks at anchor attest.

In a perfect sailors’ world, all anchors would be attached to boats with chain. Chain is strong and its links march through windlasses like soldiers in perfect step, but its most marvelous feature is its catenary, the curve it assumes between the anchor and the boat when under tension.

The heavy weight that is anathema to racing sailors is chain’s charm. It produces the catenary that brings manifold benefits to the anchor, the boat and its occupants. The weighted curve, described by Galileo nearly four centuries ago, cushions the impact of waves and wind and helps maintain an effective angle to keep the anchor firmly rooted in the bottom.

Achieving a somewhat similar effect with a rope rode requires an inordinate amount of line, an immutable fact of anchoring life that led to one of my most embarrassing moments on a sailboat and accounts for my chain craving.

Anchoring experts—don’t ask me how one achieves that distinction—preach that rope rodes should ideally be seven times longer than the water is deep. At least once each summer, my boat visits a beautiful anchorage that is appealing in every way except for its water depth, which is about 60 feet. You do the math.

I don’t sail around with 420 feet of five-eighths-inch nylon anchor rode aboard. I have a bit more than half that much, and use every inch of it in that anchorage. The four-to-one scope is marginal for holding but plenty long enough to allow the boat do what light-displacement boats with skinny appendages and long rope rodes are wont to do—sail at anchor.

A chartplotter with its tracking function left on overnight on such boats will often record a long and circuitous course over ground as the vessel, at the whim of the wind, sails to the limits of its tether, circling and crisscrossing its substantial patch of water. 

Boats like that can be pariahs in crowded anchorages. That is surely what one sailor thought when he had to share that 60-foot deep anchorage with mine. His was a sturdy 30-foot double-ender, a hard-core cruising man’s boat, so salty looking it had (no kidding) baggywrinkle on the shrouds at the spreaders. Naturally, it was anchored with heavy chain. 

I dropped the hook in the only space that seemed big enough, and was delighted when the anchor dug into the mud bottom on the first try with the boat a fair distance from our neighbor. But during cocktail hour, the breeze turned fluky and the distance evaporated, as the boat began anchor sailing while the chain-anchored cruiser remained steady as a rock.

The neighbor skipper, looking as gnarly as his boat in a Greek fisherman’s hat weathered by sun and spray, didn’t respond when on one close pass I suggested, more hopefully than confidently, that he shouldn’t worry. Instead, he gave me a look that said, “Who invited a racing boat with silly anchoring tackle into this anchorage?” and disappeared below.

He tossed a collection of fenders of various sizes and shapes into the cockpit along with some cushions to be repurposed as fenders, and proceeded to secure the whole works to the lifelines in an array that defended both sides of his boat. 

So mortified I couldn’t sleep, I spent the night on watch in the cockpit, ready to fend off. There were some close calls, but no contact.

Even without the stimulation of acute embarrassment, sleepless nights are a common companion of anchoring, usually owing to worsening sea conditions that make it risky to leave an anchorage and risky to stay.

I’ve endured my share of those, but I have more regrets over a night when I slept soundly, only to wake up to find the boat had dragged its anchor half a mile and barely avoided fetching up on shore when the rode got tangled in a fixed mooring cable. It turned out a weedy bottom had defeated the Danforth anchor.

We chainless sailors are fond of Danforth types—I favor the aluminum Fortress version—because they perform well enough in sand and mud bottoms when used with the stretchy, shock-absorbing nylon rodes we carry, but mostly because they are light. Hauling a 50-pound CQR plow anchor from the depths to the deck by hand is not an attractive option.

Of course, that beast of an anchor would likely have held in the weed-covered bottom. But that would have required chain and a windless, and it seems I am fated to wander the seas deprived of those luxuries.