Basic Moves for Anchoring

As this article is designed to encourage those reluctant to drop the hook, I am going to assume for present purposes that suitable kit is on board. I am also going to assume that a suitable anchorage has been chosen in relation to the overnight weather forecast. As this is your first overnight at anchor you have wisely chosen a night with a forecast of light to moderate winds. I suggest there are 5 basic moves:

  • Prepare
  • Stop
  • Drop
  • Stretch
  • Secure

There is no one ‘correct’ method for any of the above moves. I am not going to be dogmatic about how to make these moves but I would suggest that the whole process should take some 15 to 20 minutes if all goes well.


The person on the helm needs to brief the person or persons on the bow. Clarify the sequence of events, commands and feedback. In an ideal world nothing is spoken and it is all done by pre arranged hand signals. This will only be achieved after much practice but in the meantime try to avoid a shouting match between bow and stern. You might want to position someone amidships to relay commands. When working at the sharp end it is futile shouting into the wind. Turn 180 degrees to the person on the helm. There is a chance that you might now be heard!

The person on the helm needs to select a suitable spot and suitable depth within the anchorage and approach this spot slowly head to wind. If it’s an unfamiliar anchorage a good practice is to have a little tour around your chosen spot to make sure that the echo sounder has no surprises in store.

The person on the bow needs to prepare the anchor and cable for the drop. Assuming there is no windlass on the foredeck, take time to secure the lid of the anchor well in the open position as it will be a real nuisance if it collapses on you. If the anchor is not already on the bow roller it needs to be lifted into position. Allow sufficient length of chain to let you to do this then cleat off the chain so that if the worst happens the anchor falls only a short distance over the side. The cable needs to be prepared for the drop. It can be flaked out along the side deck or it can come out of a well organised anchor well assuming the cable has been fed into the well with the inboard end at the bottom and outboard end at the top. Whatever method you choose the cable should be marked at 5 or 10 metre intervals. It’s helpful to have these marks written on the inside of the anchor well lid. On the final approach for the drop the anchor needs to be pushed over the bow roller and as the boat speed reduces it can be dipped into the water.


The person on the helm will be watching the boat speed and the echo sounder if these instruments are in the cockpit. If they are not in the cockpit someone else can relay the information from below. If the boat is creeping very slowly over the ground the person on the helm will probably get it right first time by stopping the boat dead in the water at the chosen depth. If the boat overshoots the chosen depth round we go again for a second approach. Sometimes the speed reads zero while the boat is still creeping forward. If there is any doubt use a visual transit ashore to check that the boat is dead in the water.

What is a good depth to drop the anchor? I wish there was a simple answer to this question but there are many variables. For present purposes let’s assume that you have a reasonably level seabed, a tidal range of 4 metres and plenty of cable. Let’s also assume that you are dropping anchor at the top of the tide and that the echo sounder has been calibrated to read depth beneath the keel. Your chosen depth will probably be something between 5 and 7 metres (on the echo sounder). If you are doing this for the first time, you have wisely selected an uncrowded anchorage!


The person at the sharp end needs to get the anchor onto the seabed fairly quickly. Don’t let the anchor go into freefall if the cable is coming out of the well. Let it out hand over hand quickly but in a controlled manner. If the cable has been flaked out on the side deck and cleated off at the required length it can be left to run out by itself. If there is wind, the bow will blow off to port or to starboard. I suggest you let out more cable by a few metres then snub it off again. Exercise the virtue of patience and observe the cable. If the anchor has bitten the bow will come head to wind in line with the cable. If there is no wind run the engine slow astern. If the bow does not line up with the cable I suggest you lift the anchor and try another spot for a second drop.

The above techniques assume that anchor and cable will be prepared and dropped manually. Until fairly recently, I believe that the length of most owner’s first cruising yacht could be measured in terms of 22-29 feet. In recent years I am told that many first time owners are purchasing cruising yachts in the order of 35-45 feet complete with anchor windlass on the foredeck. If you are anchoring for the first time with a windlass then the techniques I have suggested need to be modified and it makes sense to consult the equipment manufacturer or boat sales consultant.


The bow has lined up with the cable indicating that the anchor has got a bite on the seabed. This is not the same thing as the anchor holding on the seabed for an overnight stay. The cable should now be stretched on the seabed by slowly letting out the chosen scope and cleating off when the appropriate mark is in the water (not at the bow roller). Books have been written about anchor cables and endless formulae have been suggested. For present purposes I want to keep it simple and suggest that for an overnight anchorage in light to moderate winds use a scope of one to four for a chain cable. It says this is the RYA course notes for Day Skipper but I shall look more closely at formulae for scope next month. If you have dropped anchor at the top of the tide with 5 metres on the echo sounder (calibrated to read depth beneath the keel) you are probably in 6.5 metres of water depending on the draft of the boat. You should therefore have about 26 metres of chain in the water.

If the cable has been let out slowly the windage factor on the bow will have it stretched on the seabed. If there is no wind go gently astern with the engine. It will take a strong wind for the cable to come up tight fully stretched but as you are doing this for the first time you have wisely chosen an overnight weather forecast with light to moderate winds. You will therefore need to replicate a stronger wind by slowly increasing the revs astern until the cable comes up reasonably tight.

It is at this point (with engine running astern on a tight cable) that you should be looking abeam (90 degrees) for transits to check if you are holding or dragging. Don’t rush this part. Exercise the virtue of patience once again. In strong winds the stern of the yacht will be swinging about and it can take a bit of experience deciding if the boat is holding or dragging. You don’t have this problem tonight as you have chosen an overnight with light to moderate winds. If you are dragging, now is the time to lift the anchor and start again. If you are holding, put the throttle control into neutral and watch the boat surge forward and come to rest with the anchor cable hanging down from the bow roller.

Forget about anchor watches by the crew and forget about echo sounder alarms and GPS radius alarms as you don’t need them tonight. I shall look at these in a later article. You are nearly finished but before you pour the golden liquid to celebrate you need to secure some bits and pieces.


Here is a checklist: Secure lid of anchor well and secure the bow roller pin. Secure all halyards away from the mast. Secure helm amidships. Hoist the anchor black ball. Prepare the anchor light if not permanently fitted. Tidy up.

Basic Moves for Weighing Anchor and the Buoys

If there is no wind the cable can be hauled up to the point at which it is running vertically from bow roller to anchor on the seabed. The laws of physics dictate that the anchor should now break out. A glance at the echo sounder and the marks on the anchor cable will guide you if there is any doubt about how much cable remains to be hauled up.

Occasionally the anchor will defy the laws of physics and refuse to break out at this point. This can happen if you have dug the anchor in for gale force winds and it is well buried in the seabed. It now needs a little nudge or forward motion to break out. Make sure the chain is cleated off and fingers and feet are clear before asking the person on the helm for a short burst ahead on the engine and back into neutral. When the motion of the boat has stopped it should now come up from the seabed. As soon as you can see the anchor or tell by the weight or length of cable, the person on the helm needs to know that it is off the bottom. Remember to turn 180 degrees and face the helm for good communication. It’s good manners to avoid a shouting match especially if departing early while others are still asleep. Prearranged hand signals are perfect.

If there is wind when you come to lift the anchor let the boat do most of the hard work. You don’t have to be a world class weight lifter to successfully haul up the anchor but you do need to communicate effectively with the person on the helm. As the boat is driven slowly forward towards the anchor haul in the slack cable fairly quickly but be ready to snub off the cable as soon as it comes tight or whenever you need a rest. When the bow is over the anchor on a tight cable it should break out. Remember to tell the helm when the anchor is ‘off bottom’.

In practice this is seldom achieved in one move unless you have the benefit of an anchor windlass. When hauling the cable manually it usually takes several moves and the bow often overshoots the anchor with the cable running back under the boat. This is because the person on the helm is guessing where the anchor is sitting on the seabed. It can be very helpful to have a second person near the bow indicating the direction of the cable.On

On some yachts the cable can be hauled up manually while standing on the foredeck. On many yachts this method will damage the underside of the furling drum so you need to sit on the foredeck with your feet in the anchor well and haul the cable in horizontally. Whatever technique is used the cable may need to be organised inside the well for the next drop and the anchor itself secured to the bow roller or secured inside the well. It is a good practice on inshore waters to sail with the anchor secured on the bow roller but not all stemhead fittings are up to the job and so the anchor is stowed in the well.

If your boat is equipped with an anchor windlass the job is usually an easy one. You can reduce the load on the electric motor by nudging the boat forward on the engine. If you have a self stowing arrangement for the anchor the whole job can be completed without effort.

If you are lucky the anchor has come up clean. If not you have a lump of kelp (or worse) to free off. If you are very unlucky you have lots of smelly mud to clean off the chain, the anchor well and the foredeck. If mud or clay is on the anchor itself it will often come off by manual dunking or driving the boat slowly with the anchor just in the water.

Don’t forget to take down the anchor ball and return halyards to their working positions around the mast.

To buoy or not to buoy?

There is no correct answer to this question. You need to consider the pros and cons, try it out and come to your own conclusions. Most anchors have a small hole or other attachment point near the crown of the anchor. Attach a line to this with a marker buoy at the other end of the line. How long should this line be? The answer is not too short and not too long! Too short and it is submerged at high tide. Too long and it drifts downwind towards the boat. It should of course be floating on the water directly above the anchor on the seabed.

Some advantages are:

  • You see how the boat lies in relation to the anchor.
  • In a crowded anchorage you hope late arrivals will be looking out and avoid dropping their hook over your cable.
  • If your anchor becomes fouled you have a ready made tool for a pull in the opposite direction.
  • When lifting the anchor next morning the person on the helm has a target to point at.

Some disadvantages are:

  • Without a second person on the bow it can be tricky to deploy when dropping the anchor.
  • When lifting the anchor there is a risk of the tripping line fouling the keel, prop or rudder.
  • A nocturnal late arrival to a crowded anchorage might not see your marker buoy, run over it and dislodge your anchor in the process.

There are some clever solutions to some of these problems which are too detailed to mention here. You will find them in monthly sailing magazines and online boat forums.