Skip Novak explains his philosophy on anchoring, based on having to hold fast in some very extreme high latitudes conditions

Anchoring equipment and anchoring techniques are some of the most fundamental aspects of successful and safe cruising. There are many anchor types, some more suited to certain types of bottom than others. In any event, you must assume you will encounter all types of bottom during an extended cruise so success in holding cannot by guaranteed.

One thing is for sure, though: heavier than recommended ground tackle can do no harm. An extra 10-15kg on the bow of a 55-footer, for example, is neither here nor there as regards performance.

Chain or nylon rode? For me, chain every time and, again, two sizes heavier than might be recommended. When it is blowing 50 knots plus in an anchorage, all your cable is out and there are shallows precariously close astern, this choice might put your mind at ease.

We demonstrate the whole procedure of dropping, setting, snubbing and recovering the anchor in the accompanying video (above) – and incidentally after setting the anchor in this location it held us overnight in winds over 55 knots.

The reader will gather I am a fan of heavy gear, dropped once and that’s it. I have no truck with methods of dropping two anchors, or the French system of a lighter anchor attached in series to the main anchor. It all sounds like it will lead to bruised knuckles to me.

Have a bail-out plan

The procedure of approaching an anchorage – we cover how to enter an uncharted bay in Part 9 – especially in high winds, should begin with a bail-out plan. That is, if you can’t position well or if the anchor doesn’t hold or if the engine quits before you are ready to drop, how will you extricate yourself? This may mean sailing yourself out of it.

The mistake many people make, and it appears to be proportionally inverse to the experience of the crew, is to take sail down too early. Sometimes I have even seen crews put on the sail cover and coil up sheets!

I like to keep sail up as long as is practical, which might mean shortening down by taking an extra reef and rolling up the jib, but keeping the staysail up right until the last minute. When lowering the main, keep the halyard on and get everything ready to rehoist. If something does go wrong I know I can make sail and I have a mental plan (now automatic) of how to sail myself out.

For example, on Pelagic I might use a backed staysail and an eased main, which would give me a pretty tight turning circle. By the same token, practise sailing off your anchor – you might have to do it for real.

Dropping the anchor

When the desired position and depth is reached, and the skipper decides how much chain to put out, it is important that everything goes smoothly because in high winds any hesitation or foul up in the drop will mean the anchor position will be way off the mark.

Once forward motion stops, a strong wind will immediately catch one side of the bow or the other and the boat will take off beam to the wind. There is little point in going astern with the engine. The anchor needs to hit the bottom at the point desired and then the chain paid out and laid on the bottom in sync with the motion of the boat being blown downwind. Do not dump vast quantities of chain on top of the anchor as it will foul, trip and hold nothing.

Whoever is paying out the chain needs to play the boat, veering it out in stages so that the bow of the boat is kept into the wind

Whoever is paying out the chain needs to play the boat, veering it out in stages so that the bow of the boat is kept into the wind

Whoever is paying out the chain must now play the boat like a trout, snubbing the chain at the right moment to keep the bow more or less into the wind, then releasing to pay out enough chain so the anchor doesn’t drag. When the desired amount of chain is out (at least 5:1 or more in windy conditions) it is best to lock off the chain with a stopper and take the load off the windlass. Then check for dragging.

Once you are confident that the anchor is well set, rig a snubber on the chain to take the shock off the system when the chain snatches tight, which can be bar-tight in strong winds. We use a large-diameter nylon line attaching to the chain that features an industrial chain claw and a spliced loop to go around a bombproof bollard.

Now set your depth and/or GPS alarm, take some visual bearings and make a cup of tea. If you have a pilot or doghouse take your tea there and observe all things with your own eyes.

Weighing anchor

If it is blowing when picking up the anchor, be completely ready to make sail if there is a hiccup. Have the halyard of the mainsail attached and a bight brought down to the side of the mast so it can be released quickly and hoisted. Have minimum sail ties secured with slip knots and take the others off. At least a staysail should be ready to roll out or hoist, with sheets on the winches and furling line clear.

You will definitely have to motor up to the anchor, taking the load off the windlass, in effect lifting slack chain. Hand signals between the bowman and helmsman are essential to tell the helmsman how many metres of chain are up (paint marks on your chain) and the direction of the chain so he or she can steer along it. Forget about cleaning the chain if it brings up mud; it is best to sort that out later.

Helmsman and crew at the bow communicate by hand signals

Helmsman and crew at the bow communicate by hand signals

If anchored in a blow, it is quite likely that the anchor will be very well dug in and the windlass will struggle to raise it. This is evident when the bow of the boat dips slightly when the chain is vertical; you will also hear the windlass struggling. If you wait for a few seconds the rebound of the bow might be enough to snatch it off the bottom. If not, put the chain back into the chain stopper to prevent damage to the windlass for the following manoeuvre.

With the chain well secured and standing well clear of the chain, signal to the helsmsman to motor ahead slowly over the chain to wrench the anchor out of the bottom. Once it is free you will feel and see the bow rise up, and then you can signal the helmsman to put the engine in neutral. Now, take the chain out of the stopper and continue to lift what is left, which will be about the depth of water.

Chain marks are essential as a guide to how much you have veered. On Pelagic the colour marks are shown on a plate on the foredeck

Chain marks are essential as a guide to how much you have veered. On Pelagic the colour marks are shown on a plate on the foredeck

By the time the anchor breaks the surface the bow will have been blown off the wind line and you can signal the helmsman to proceed. (He/she might be getting anxious by this time.)

If the windlass fails

Assume that one day, at the most inopportune moment, the windlass will fail. It could happen as a result of a sheared key on the windlass drum from shock loading, or an electrical or hydraulic failure of the system. Manual overrides on most windlasses are either too slow or not powerful enough – similar to manual overrides on electric/hydraulic furlers.


What you need to recover it manually is two proprietary chain hooks with line leaders, long enough to go from the bow roller back to the primary cockpit winches. Why two? Because the new lead from the roller will most likely have to bypass the chain brake, so you can use use them alternately, sweeping lengths of chain along the side deck.

Quick and efficient

There may come a time when the excrement hits the fan for one reason or another and to save the boat you have to let the chain go and leave it. If you see this coming, have the presence of mind and a big fender to hand. You can tie this to a light line (as least as long as the depth of water) and the other end to somewhere near the end of the chain in the hope of coming back for a recovery.

You let it out under control and throw the buoy over the side. If this becomes a panic operation, letting the chain run can be dramatic and dangerous, taking the pulpit or the headstay with it. Stand clear!

Preventing potential damage

To prevent damage, every chain should be attached to the bottom of the chain locker with a length of nylon line, spliced into the end of the chain. The line should be strong enough to hold the boat for a time, and long enough so the end of the chain goes well over the bow roller. You simply then cut the nylon line with a knife, and no harm is done. A chain fixed to the boat by a hard shackle is a potential disaster waiting to happen.


Useful equipment

  • A nylon snubber with a chain claw, the longer the better to give more spring and to allow plenty of slack in the chain so it doesn’t chafe on the bow when the boat swings. Ours is 5m
  • Two chain hooks with line leaders
  • Stranded galvanised seizing wire to mouse all shackles connecting the chain to the anchor. Don’t use the cheap monofilament kind

    Kelp chopper – the longer the handle the better to chop kelp easily. Notice the wrist loop

    Kelp chopper – the longer the handle the better to chop kelp easily. Notice the wrist loop

  • Kelp chopper. This need only be a simple garden centre purchase to chop through the roots of bushes. It must be long enough to reach the anchor just on the surface. A full load of kelp will stop any windlass.


Part 11: Tying to shore

In the next part Skip turns his attention to securing the yacht to the shore. In high latitudes, it is desirable to get into shallow water to find shelter and this generally can only be done by setting out warps to the shore

12-part series in association with Pantaenius