A testing time at anchor.

January 2022 anchored post.

This post started life as a series of notes in my logbook from when i was alongside the marina in Benodet, south Brittany aboard my Frances 26 WABI” – in fact i was stuck alongside there because the strong ebb down the Odet Fleuve was running onto and through the outer, visitors, pontoon and the force on WABI’s semi-long keel was so great as to be compressing the fenders.

There was no way i could move off until the tide slackened off so i spent some time talking to the nice Dutch sailor who rescued me (my trousers) in the supermarket nearby and we got to talking about ‘salty’ boats like mine ; he commented on my anchors being over sized compared to just about every boat in the marina so i took a walk around just looking at all of the anchor gear on the moored yachts. I remember that the most modern looking yacht there, all wide arse and square windows, had no anchoring gear at all – not even a bow roller and many boats of 35 feet had lighter gear than my 26 foot Frances ; i made some notes at the time and iv’e recently found that logbook and those comments, which this post is mostly based on.

The basic question of this post then is ‘what anchor should i have’ ?

In the summer of 2019 i sailed south from Fowey on the south-west coast of England, down the western Brittany coast, past the Crozon peninsular and then down and out through the Raz De Seine and south Brittany. I’d been there very briefly in an offshore race and then went back years later with my Frances 26 when i first took early retirement from the NHS – the trip went well but my retirement didn’t so i went back to a ‘temporary’ job part time. In the 2019 trip my intention was to take as much time as i wanted working slowly east and then south from the Raz and Audierne, this time in a smaller and much less offshore capable a boat…..this being the 22 foot centerboarder which was nothing like as capable a sea boat but did open up a whole new cruising ground in all of the Brittany rivers and creeks.

With that boat i’d worked out my anchoring equipment well enough and had a new trick which was to keep an anchor aft in the cockpit and deploy it from there – the boat being difficult to move forward on and which seemed to sail a lot better with less weight up on the bow. With a knee replacement i was slightly and awkwardly less nimble around the boat and i gradually worked out several systems of sail handling and anchoring that kept me mostly in the cockpit….usefully next to all of the controls . Iv’e posted about my evolution of anchors, their rodes and those techniques several times in the blog and i note a whole file of photographs just of the boat dried out on a Brittany beach with an anchor out in deep water to haul off with and the second one up the beach, kicked into the sand.

22 foot cat-ketch….a right little swinger at anchor.

When we bought that boat it came woefully under equipped to anchor with a small CQR on a short length of chain and most oddly on a length of sheath-less bare Kevlar line of about 10mm as it’s warp ; i think there was a small grapnel style anchor in the cockpit locker too. When we went to collect the boat that cold spring day i remember the former owner being shocked to see what he thought was an enormous (only 8 Kg) Delta clone going aboard with a length of 8mm chain and a huge coil of Nylon 8 plait …..at least 75 metres of warp. It just so happened that i still had the Delta clone in my shed from the time i owned the Frances and had taken that one off the boat to be replaced with a heavier (10 Kg) Delta original. On the little Liberty the 8 Kg Delta was fine for what we needed at the time although the chain was too long and unnecessarily heavy but there was nothing in the budget left to start buying ‘posh’ anchors with – in fact, what with the small CQR and it’s warp replaced that set up of 2 anchors did us good service for the first year.

However…..putting that time aside, a time when i had a reasonable idea what i was doing and spent a lot of time at anchor i want to go back a few years to when i was refitting the Frances and preparing it for offshore sailing….in fact i was preparing that boat for a much longer cruise ; perhaps even a long term cruising and liveaboard life. In the end that didn’t happen because our lives took a different turn and we ended up with a 160 year old Cornish miners cottage to refit instead. In this post i want to talk about anchors and anchoring in a different way – the way i got to the answer at the bottom of the page – and yes i’ll have to explain that analogy first.

It’s an expression that both my maths and physics teachers used and the first link was that i was and still am very bad at maths which meant that by extension that i was bad at physics as well because physics mostly relies on or finishes with maths ; usually an equation. My maths teacher once said that he was less interested in the answer at the bottom of the test question and much more interested with the working out….how we got there other than cheating. Today i’m still bad at maths and you would have laughed last night when i was trying to work out the critical angle of where a shroud meets the mast ; i know that sin and cos are involved and it should be an easy thing to work out on a calculator or even my old Thornton slide rule…..but i just couldn’t remember how to do it so i cheated with an internet site that did the work for me.

Funnily enough i was spending a bit of down time recently watching some replays of a TV series that featured kids at various secondary schools and often their exasperated teachers ; Educating Essex was one and Educating greater Manchester was another…..is educating Essex (girls) even possible i wonder ?. Anyway , in one episode a couple of the stroppy teenage girls were kicking off in the maths class and one was loudly protesting about the need to ever work out the area of a triangle in real life – that made me grin because i’m probably one of the few who do occasionally need to work out the area (and center) of a triangle or even a shape more arcane….like the high aspect mainsail i’m working on for this post, or right now trying to get the shroud base angles wide enough by (not) using my sin and cos.

Maths……sort of !

So, here’s the problem and here’s my answer to it later on.

I see the problem, repeated again and again on the internet , is that any question about anchors ‘what anchor should i buy’ for example or ‘which anchor is best’ usually elicits several answers where we get an answer, which is usually only an opinion, and not any of the working out. I suspect that the answer/opinion doesn’t usually come from that sailor’s knowledge and experience but is more often an opinion that has been stated by someone else, maybe frequently and loudly, but hasn’t been tested ; for sure there are some notable exceptions which i’ll talk about later.

My example from above is that i managed to once sell an anchor by being both enthusiastic and a bit gullible but above all by having no actual knowledge and experience of anchors and anchoring and having only accepted without question what a salesman told me. That we used that make of anchor twice on that boat and it failed 50% of the time should have given me pause but years later i only went and bought the same make of anchor for my Frances 26 – ok, so i at least bought an actually heavier anchor and one that was relatively much heavier in terms of the displacement of the 2 boats. This, i have to add was after having the same type of anchor fail not once but several times on a much bigger boat during our cruising circumnavigation : for reference it was a Bruce anchor once again and a 50Kg model on a chain and warp rode, the boat was an Ocean 80 (76 feet) , once in the Solent, once off Ascension island and once in a channel in the Caribbean.

I suspect that what happens is that most boat owners don’t anchor very often and commonly only do so on a nice afternoon to have lunch, a beer or two and maybe swim off the back…..nothing wrong with any of that ; but that very few lunch-hookers spend night after night at anchor when there’s a bit of wind and a strong tide or current. As with all other aspects of sailing i learnt a lot more about anchoring by doing it in less than ideal conditions – sailing for example in not enough wind and in too much – and anchoring in strong tidal streams over every different bottom i could find and preferably with a lot of surging back and forth to stress the anchor. In one test , much later on than this period i discovered that the little Liberty could ‘pop’ it’s little Bruce out of a hard sand bottom simply because it would tend to sheer badly at anchor ….. but that’s a much later experience and for now we have to get our boots on and go for a walk.

As i said in a recent post i don’t come from a sailing background in fact i don’t come from at all an adventurous family as none of them are or were so – i’m kind-of the black sheep or more likely the ‘weird sheep’ from the herd that doesn’t do what the rest does. I grew up in Lincolnshire UK which is desperately flat and doesn’t really have a sailors coastline…..doesn’t get interesting until further north (the Humber) and south in the north Norfolk coast – and yes i’m mostly ignoring the Wash. So it didn’t exactly fit the bill that my first major passion (after motorbikes) was mountaineering and rock climbing and then my second one was sailing and the sea ; i learnt both the basics of climbing and sailing in north Wales – respectively Snowdonia and the Menai Straits. There have been times in my life as an outdoorsman that iv’e reflected that i have too many interests to have become really good at any of them ; sailing and climbing are only 2 disciplines and i also include long distance hiking, canoeing, sea kayaking, scuba diving, wildswimming and bushcraft. For sure , several of those disciplines are interconnected and many times iv’e been able to transfer skills and knowledge from one to another and with regard to this post it’s the long distance hiking that is strangely most relevant as it represents the period of fastest change and greatest learning in my outdoor life.

This year we should have been taking on a challenging trip to the Utah canyonlands and at the beginning of this year i was both actively training for the trip and researching, buying and testing all of the new kit that we would need ; just one example being the equipment we would need to collect , filter and carry lots of water. My practice for the last 20 years or so has been to try out and test all new outdoors equipment , often taking out different set-ups back to back and simply rejecting a lot of what i’d bought and passing it on via Ebay – for sure i lost out a bit but it meant that what i kept did tend to work for me and it was an engaging process. Going back about 30 years there was a huge ‘sea change’ in outdoors practice….just to mix some metaphors, in that we went from traditional heavy equipment to a simpler and lighter , stripped down approach that came out of the USA and long distance hiking there. I bought into the new concept and became an ardent early adopter of the new Ultralight philosophy but i found that some of the new ultralight equipment just didn’t work very well in UK conditions and what i ended up with was a kind of crossover between Ultralight and Bushcraft ……which was much more a mindset and skill set.

The principal though was to take things back to first principles , not always staying with the conventional approach but being prepared to go out and test the equipment and techniques in the field – adopt what worked and discard what didn’t. When i came back to sailing a few years later this became my new approach even to the point of turning away from conventional and conservative cruising boats and instead going smaller, lighter , an alternative rig and a boat that could be taken up shallow creeks and dry out on a beach. That approach extended to the boat’s gear ; not many 22 foot boats have a charcoal pansy stove and none that i have seen have 2 interchangeable full spec anchors and the ability to anchor by the bow as normal but handling all the gear aft. I kind-of threw convention away like the black/weird sheep in the herd and went my own way.

Setting up ‘Marilyn’ for Inanda.

What i’m not saying is that i’m right and iv’e found the right answer at the bottom of the page, rather i’m saying that iv’e slowly worked out the working out of how to get there and not much of that comes from advertising and manufacturers claims – as it once did in the embarrassing episode/s with the Bruce anchor.

Today, with my latest project, my starting or reference point might begin with a manufacturers spec sheet except that i’m less convinced by their claims at the very small end (of boats and anchors) and at the large end too…..which doesn’t really concern me today anyway. Why my last 2 periods of boat ownership were so different t anything before was that i spent much more time just messing around with different kit – anchors in this case and trying out different combinations of anchor, chain and warp and in as many different situations as possible. I did just about everything i could to make anchors drag or just break out, played around with different anchoring techniques such as a Bahamian moor, went all ‘Retro’ with Admiralty type anchors and so on and so forth.

When asked what the bottom line is (what anchor is best) i have to say ‘it depends’ and what it depends on is many variables that aren’t just the weight, windage and displacement of the boat because half the battle with anchors might be the owner’s ability to handle and stow them ….many boats from the ex IOR cruiser-racer era simply cannot cope with the weight of a decent anchor and rode up on the bow if that is they actually want an anchor and gear that is fully capable at the top end of conditions that they intend to anchor in.

I find that some other sailor’s experience really does count more than makers claims, especially whe those sailors are long term cruising and liveaboard sailors that rely on their anchors day after day and night on night. This is where two things come into play ; first the value of now historical record – in which i include the work of the Pardey’s because they really did go out and test their gear, and secondly the more immediate world of the sailing internet where new knowledge , or at least new experience, can surface almost overnight. There is a risk of course because so much of the internet is just bloke A is quoting captain B and captain B is referring to something he heard someone else say as an anecdote in a bar somewhere. I know, for example , a great anecdote about Northil anchors and an old maxi called Windward passage ; iv’e no idea if it’s true or not.

My main inspiration when i was refitting the Frances 26 was several books by Lynn and Larry Pardey because they were doing what i wanted to do in an even simpler boat – both Serrafyn and Taliesin having been engineless. I almost went engineless myself when the Frances nearly sank on her mooring and the ingress of seawater destroyed the original engine and a lot of the electrics ; anyway , with this post it’s more their approach to anchors and anchoring that is relevant because they really were mostly either sailing or living at anchor and they sometimes had to anchor in difficult conditions. One of their main points was that for serious cruisers the anchoring gear and anchor deck gear had to be a lot more rugged than for boats that only occasionally anchor on a nice day and this is something that was borne out several times in practice with my last boats.

At anchor off the Exe bar….waiting for the tide to turn.

In the next post i’ll lay out my ‘working out’ as my old maths teacher would have put it.

Until next time.

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