Pro race navigator Mike Broughton explains the gains that can be had by anchoring mid-race

There are two factors to consider when it comes to racing and anchors. One is whether you might find yourself kedging to avoid getting swept back against a foul tide, and so need to deploy the anchor quickly. But to balance that you want to avoid carrying your heaviest anchor in the bow, which accentuates pitching and kills your speed.

Rules are quite clear about the need for anchors in racing, depending on the Special Regulations category of the race. Substituting a lighter anchor is fine as long as it is ‘fit for purpose’. You might argue that one test could be: would it keep the vessel off a lee shore if the yacht were dismasted and had engine failure?

There is no doubt that getting the weight out of the bow is good for performance and even simply moving the main anchor inboard over the keel will help, but it still needs to be accessible for quick use – not so easy for heavy anchors on yachts over 50ft.

Dropping the hook

Racing on day one of Lendy Cowes Week this year in a Fast 40+ the anchor made it to the seabed in very light winds and an increasing flood tide, although only after I nearly dropped a clanger rather than an anchor!

While I was focusing on speed and course over the ground, the anchor was made ready (which always takes longer than you think), only to discover that we were still in the forbidden anchoring zone between Stansore Point and Gurnard. We may have been a quarter of a mile from the submarine cables, but it wouldn’t have been a great move to snag the seabed power cable and turn off the lights on the Isle of Wight.

So the anchor stayed on deck as we ghosted along for another 20 minutes. The fitful wind died once again, some 300m from the ‘Elephant’ mark in Thorness Bay. We were going backwards so this time the anchor was deployed. It stopped the rot and we made gains on two adjacent competitors. Once the wind filled in again, we rounded the mark in equal first after two hours of racing, then heard on the VHF: “Race abandoned”.

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In offshore racing, many yachts have made gains against competitors by anchoring better. That can be a combination of deploying it more quickly (not staying in denial for too long), having the right type of anchor, getting it back up quicker, or selecting the right place.

After a very light Fastnet Race in the 1990s, class winning skipper Mike Shrives told me they’d made a major gain at Portland, “We anchored best and that was what made the real difference.”

Many times yachts get into the Portland ‘washing cycle’ as they creep along in light winds, then hit the strong tidal steam and get set back, only to try again and again. In light winds it generally works better for bigger yachts to go well south of the tidal race, as they have enough speed to keep going over the foul tidal stream. Smaller yachts often face anchoring in light winds once the tidal stream turns against them.

Overcoming denial

Shrives and his team of Royal Navy students overcame ‘anchoring denial’ early and dropped the pick before close rivals. Little did they realise that they’d timed their anchoring perfectly, as they drifted backwards across the shallow Shambles Bank. Their anchor held, while their main opponents dragged for up to half a mile in the deeper water.

“All we could see was navigation lights getting dimmer behind as other yacht anchors took time to dig in,” he recalled. “When the wind filled in, we were off and garnered a lead of nearly 40 miles heading towards the Fastnet Rock.”

Back in the Rolex Fastnet Race in 2003, I raced on Chris Bull’s J/145 Jazz. After creeping round Bishop Rock at sunset, we headed east in a fading wind with a strengthening tidal stream against us. Keeping close to the rocks helped (and led to some lively navigation) as we made slow progress over the ground. We found ourselves going backwards but were, typically, in denial, especially as the depth was over 70m.

We made it to a shallower area with less current and continued sailing, but really we were in the washing cycle, making tortuous progress east in a weaker tidal stream, only to get knocked back in the stronger stream on the headland. After going round about 18 times, we capitulated and anchored.

The tracker didn’t make good viewing in the light winds as opponents astern slowly made in roads on our lead. In reality, we probably saved over two hours by getting to a spot where we could actually anchor, rather than being swept back westwards to an area, which would have been increasingly deep.

Meanwhile ashore in Plymouth, Charles Dunstone’s Enigma had just finished with several of my friends on board. The leaderboard was showing that they could now only be beaten by Jazz for the overall trophy, and we had to finish within seven hours to win.

My phone buzzed with a dozen missed calls and texts from Enigma, wondering where we were. Had we stopped our signal at the Scillies? Were we in stealth mode? The word among the 22 crew on Enigma was that Dunstone had promised a Rolex watch each if they won overall. They were tense times.

We held our position against the tidal stream, watching other yachts slow behind us, then retrieved the anchor as the wind built once more. But our overall victory had evaporated, Charles generously kept to his word, while Jazz at least held on to win Class Zero.

Mike-Broughton-Headshot-400x400About the author

Mike Broughton is a pro race navigator who has won many titles including World and European championships. He is a qualified MCA Master to captain superyachts and previously had a successful career in the Fleet Air Arm flying Sea King and Lynx helicopters.