July - August 2003 Anchoring
Capable cruisers in a sturdy little boat
Mastering the challenges of living afloat.
Know what you're doing, do it all by the book
So how come you lose it when you drop the hook?

A little disagreement rises to a shout
All the other cruisers get binoculars out.
Wouldn't be anchoring if nobody rants
When they do do do do do
Do the anchoring dance

© Eileen Quinn, 1997. From "No Significant Features"

Anchoring has to be one of the biggest challenges of cruising, especially in the Med, where frequently the bay is small, the boats are numerous, the wind shifts 180º at night, and the bottom consists mainly of seaweed (more than a meter thick) and rocks. Commonly we're on the move almost daily, so we do a lot of anchoring, and while generally all goes without a hitch, we sometimes have major problems. Even when we don't, we rarely sleep well the first night in an anchorage, wondering if our anchor is really well set, if the other boats' anchors are also well set, and if those anchors are where we thought they were (so if the wind shifts we'll all swing together).

Our most dramatic experience recently was at the Isle de Porquerolles, off the Cote d'Azur near Hyeres. This island is sparsely inhabited, with large protected areas covered with pine and oak forests, and has anchorages all along its northern coast, many offering protection against the prevailing westerly winds. As we approached the shore in a 15-knot westerly breeze, we saw there was a well-protected anchorage under one point of land, but it was packed with boats. The next bay had only a few boats in it and seemed to have fair protection, so we headed there. The bottom was mainly weed, but through the crystal-clear water we could see patches of sand (the best anchoring medium). Unfortunately, other boats had already taken the biggest areas of sand farthest up into the bay, but we found a likely-looking patch, offering some protection from the point to windward, with rocks about 100 meters to leeward. We dropped our 65-pound Bruce anchor, paid out the chain and backed down on it. The anchor held firmly, so we felt pretty safe. The seas were about 0.5 meter high, but our bow was directly into them and Akka is big and heavy, so her motion was smooth. We put on the snubber (a line holding the chain at the bow so that the chain doesn't clank against the rollers all night), went for a hike in the hills, and returned for the night.

After midnight the wind came up to 20 knots, setting off the alarm we had set, then increased to over 25. With those rocks to leeward we didn't get much sleep, rising periodically to be sure all was well, examining the chafing gear by flashlight, checking the GPS, re-measuring our bearings to points on the beach, and eying the glow of phosphorescence as the waves crashed into the rocks to leeward.

The next morning, we had deflated and were stowing the dinghy on deck preparatory to leaving the anchorage when a large wave hit Akka. She jerked violently, and the snubber snapped. That should have been only a minor problem, as the chain still went to the windlass, which had the pawl set. But the jerk was so violent that the pawl must have been knocked out of its catch when the line snapped, and in that much wind the windlass clutch could not hold, so the rest of the chain ran out. When it got to the end, it simply snapped the Kevlar line tying the bitter end to the boat, and over the side went the whole rig as we watched in astonished dismay! Being right on deck (and having installed a new switch in the cockpit for engine power), we were able to start the motor quickly, put Akka in gear, and claw away from the rocks under power. After catching our breaths, we circled around, set our oversized Fortress anchor in another patch of sand, inflated and launched the dinghy, and snorkeled around for over an hour looking for the lost anchor and chain. During our search, we found at least three large power cables on the bottom, none of which are indicated on our charts! We finally saw our chain where it crossed a sandy area -- there was no hope of seeing it in the weed -- and, attaching it to Akka by a long line, we winched it in and retrieved the "lost" anchor.

If the snubber had broken while we were asleep below, we would probably not have gotten on deck in time to avert disaster. Lessons learned: 1) Deploy both anchors if there's any chance of a problem (wind, seas, leeward shore nearby). 2) Use the 1½ inch thick line for a snubber -- 3/4 inch line is not strong enough; 3) Leave the Engine Control switch in the ON position on the master panel, so we can start the motor without having to go below. (We had done this, but it was a Lesson nonetheless.)

We had had about enough of that anchorage, and were glad to be away. That afternoon we made a great spinnaker run, reach, and short beat across to the Golfe de St. Tropez. We couldn't afford the marina in StT, of course, so we needed to find a good, restful anchorage within dinghy range. The Baie de Canobière looked perfect. The Mediterranean France and Corsica Pilot (Imray-Iolare) says of that bay, "Sand and weed. Good holding once the anchor gets down through the weed."

Maybe for Iolare's anchors, but not for ours. We found a nice-looking spot near the windward edge of the anchorage, with plenty of room to leeward in case the anchor dragged a bit before setting. It was a good thing there was so much room, because we lowered the Bruce, let out 5-1 scope, and slowly dragged it the length of the anchorage! Undaunted, we weighed anchor (using our trusty windlass -- there's no way we'd be able to do it by hand, especially with all that seaweed attached), went back to a spot near where we'd started before, and again dragged all the way to the leeward edge of the anchorage. We weighed anchor and this time went a bit farther from shore -- hoping that the deeper water would have thinner weed. But alas, it was not to be, as we dragged down onto the nearest boat to leeward. By now, many of the other cruisers had stopped swimming, reading, or sunbathing, and were watching us with interest. We felt a little foolish until we noticed that while they were watching, they, too, were dragging! So there was quite a busy time as boat after boat weighed anchor and either reset or moved away. Finally, we picked a spot at random, away from the ones we had tried before, and lo, the anchor finally bit and held. We quickly deployed the Fortress (see Lesson 1, above), and in the end spent another restless but secure night. The shore was a mile or so to leeward and we could use the GPS alarm to tell us whether we had dragged, but Rob nonetheless slept in the cockpit, rising every hour or so to check everything out (well actually, to worry). The wind came up again, and the two nearest boats dragged off into the darkness. (Next morning they were nowhere to be seen -- they must have motored away to the marina in St. Tropez.) We checked our position again, and with the wind moderating we felt confident enough to dinghy into St. Tropez for lunch and sightseeing. Lots of mega-yachts, lots of beautiful people, but no-one famous that we recognized. Now that we were happy with our anchors, we decided to spend an additional night and get some sleep.

Sometimes, anchoring can be a pleasant surprise. We wanted to stop at the little town of Porto in Corsica, which has a restored Genoese watch/signal tower and a museum with good descriptions of the lives of 16th century warriors and of the duties of the men who manned these remote outposts, as well as spectacular red cliffs and towering mountain scenery. (It's a[nother] UNESCO World Heritage Site!) We figured we'd only make a lunch stop, as the Pilot said of the anchorage, "For the yachtsman the place is a nightmare in anything other than a flat calm. With the prevailing westerlies a swell is pushed into the gulf and rebounds off the steep coast to produce a confused sea that heaps up on itself from different directions ... In calm weather a yacht can anchor off the village on the S side of the rocky outcrop in 6-12m on sand and gravel -- not the best holding." In our case, the wind was light indeed -- about 4 knots from the west -- but there was quite a swell. Instead of going to the anchorage indicated in the Pilot, we motored over to the far end of the big sand beach, figuring if there's sand on the beach there might be sand on the bottom, too; and lo and behold, the bottom there was fine white sand, no rocks, no weed, nothing but the perfect anchoring medium all around. And of course, no other boats, as we all read the same Pilot! The Bruce settled in and almost disappeared into the bottom when we pulled on it, so we set the Fortress astern, lined the boat up with the perfectly-formed swells, and sat almost motionless! We were quite happy to leave Akka to go ashore and see the Genoese tower, and in fact spent the night at the anchorage, dinghying in again around midnight to hear a male choral group singing Corsican traditional "polyphony" music.

Andi used to be fond of the expression "Cruising consists of sailing from exotic port to exotic port, repairing your boat." Now she says "Cruising consists of sailing from exotic port to exotic port, anchoring your boat." So far, we've neither had a disaster nor seen one; but as Eileen Quinn sings,

We like to laugh, we never learn
Day after tomorrow gonna be our turn
They come from America, Britain and France
But all the happy couples
Do the anchoring dance

Ease to starboard
Hard to port
Throttle down
But you come up short
Up on the foredeck
See them prance
When they do do do do do
Do the anchoring dance