Beyond the harbour: anchoring in narrow bays, currents and swell

Beyond the harbour: anchoring in narrow bays, currents and swell

Get expert advice on anchoring in wild waters. Discover techniques for secure mooring in narrow bays, amidst powerful currents, and through challenging swells.

In popular sailing destinations like Croatia and Greece, typical sailors rarely find the need to drop anchor. While Greece has its unique method of mooring at urban piers that requires a bit of skill – we dealt with in depth here – for the most part, mooring is relatively straightforward. And if you're unsure of the process, you can always check out our in-depth guide on anchoring and moorings.

But what if you find yourself in a specific situation where the conventional methods fall short? Let's take a look at these situations and how to navigate them.

How to anchor in a narrow bay

Primarily, we always try to choose anchorages that provide enough space. The tighter the bay, the more chance you have of getting dangerously close to shore. So choose bays that tend to be wider and where turning won't put you at risk of colliding with the shore or running aground. However, there are situations when you would have to anchor in a narrow bay, for example, in the Norwegian fjords or in Patagonia. 

In such constrained settings, we certainly don't want the boat to drift or turn in any way, and so it is vital to moor it firmly. To achieve this, employ a dual approach – use an anchor and secure your boat to a fixed object on the shore. 

For small sailboats, a stake driven into the ground or an anchor corkscrew is often sufficient, but for larger boats, you'll need something sturdier. And, it's not just a matter of ensuring that the object meets your requirements, but that you don't violate local regulations. While in some places it may be common practice to tie up to trees, for example, in others it may actually be an offence (as an example, Czech inland waterway safety regulations specifically prohibit tying vessels to trees, railings, posts, and the like). So, make sure you check the local regulations first.

Illustration of a sailboat and anchoring, mooring to shore, source:

Mooring stern to the shore

Now that we've sorted out the legality, let's move on to the mooring itself. Trees are the usual go-to. Just check beforehand that the tree is stable and not showing signs of decay. Whether you're tying to the trunk or some strong roots sticking out, always remember – treat that tree with respect and choose carefully what you use to tie it up with. A broad strap with a loop is ideal, from which a regular mooring line or thicker rope can be attached (one that will not chafe the tree). Be sure not to use metal chains.  

Once you have chosen suitable ropes, the next step involves getting them to shore. Directly approaching the shore isn't always feasible, so you might need someone to ferry the ropes ashore in a dinghy. Ensure a sufficiently long rope is affixed to the boat's stern. For added security, especially during unpredictable conditions, consider using two ropes (one on the port side and one on the starboard side) and anchor them to two different points on land.

YACHTING.COM TIP: Make sure you know all the 9 essential knots for sailors. These will come in handy for both routine and unexpected situations while sailing.

About 50 metres before your desired anchoring spot, deploy the anchor and reverse towards the selected location. Next, bring the rope to shore and secure it to your predetermined point. Bear in mind, you'll be adjusting the anchor later, so allow the rope some slack. It's always more straightforward to pull it tight than to give it more slack. After positioning the boat, slowly let out the anchor chain until you feel it taking hold. Ensure your mooring lines are taut and that the anchor points you've chosen are reliable.

This technique should offer the peace of mind needed to spend the night in a narrow bay or in proximity to other vessels.

Sailboat in a narrow bay with only ropes to the shore, clear water

Sailboat in a narrow, soft bay, tied only with fore and aft ropes, without anchor

Anchoring in a channel with a current

Anchoring in a channel where there is a strong current is certainly not ideal, and it is best avoided. If for some reason you have to anchor in such a setting, you'll need two anchors – the standard one at the bow and another at the stern. However, regular charter sailboats are not equipped with two anchors, and frankly, you will rarely be in a situation where you need a second anchor. Some boats come equipped with a sea anchor (you can read about it and other anchors here), but it is not suitable in this situation. Occasionally, there may be a backup, smaller anchor on the boat, but it is questionable how much you can rely on it in case of a really strong current. 

Nevertheless, there are pockets in the world where anchoring amidst powerful currents is the norm. Take Puntarenas in Costa Rica, for instance. Over there, the local yacht club here has buoys between which the boat is balanced fore and aft. It's quite hands-on as the marina crew have to assist you off the boat. Surprisingly, with this setup, your boat remains secure — even when the current shows its might during low tide.

YACHTING.COM TIP: Still unfamiliar with currents, or perhaps you're unsure about identifying them? Dive into our guide on spotting and navigating them safely in our guide on ocean currents in the Mediterranean Sea. 

If for some reason you find yourself needing to anchor in a current, here's how to approach it. Begin by setting the stern anchor. You'll likely require a chain twice as long as usual, ensuring ample room to manoeuvre. If needed, attach an additional rope to it. Next, move forward and set the bow anchor. After setting it, start pulling it taut until it grips. Simultaneously, ensure the stern anchor rope is adequately tensioned. Adjust by loosening or tightening as required. This process is certainly not a task for one person and remember to regularly inspect the anchors to ensure they remain secure.

Illustration of sailboat and mooring, source:

Anchoring with two anchors

Moorings with breakwater

Ideally, we choose calm bays for anchoring, where there is hardly any swell. But unfortunately there are times when we find ourselves in anchorages where waves make the boat sway relentlessly. A notable example is the anchorage on Santa Cruz Island in the Galapagos. Such places can trigger seasickness, so it's essential to reduce the boat's movement as much as possible.

YACHTING.COM TIP: Rough weather might mean your entire journey is accompanied by unpleasant waves. Find out how to navigate and manoeuvre in waves.

For such conditions, you'll need to deploy two anchors - one at the bow and an extra one at the stern. By setting the second anchor, ensure that the bow is facing incoming waves. While this won't guarantee a perfectly still night, it'll make it a bit more bearable.

Emergency plans when mooring in tricky spots

For all three anchoring techniques, always have a backup plan in place. When using two anchors, it's likely you'll need to quickly retrieve the stern anchor, or in extreme cases, sever it completely. That second anchor isn't always fail-safe. It can get dislodged and bring a lot of hassle your way.

If a neighbouring boat approaches your mooring spot, ensure they're clued in about where you've set your anchors or where your mooring lines stretch.

Anchoring typically requires alertness and vigilance, but in these situations, that caution needs to be ramped up. You've opted for mooring techniques that aren't foolproof, heightening the chance of issues arising. Stay updated with the weather forecast, be mindful of shifts in wind direction or intensity, and always be observant of nearby boats and structures.

If things don't seem right, be ready to up-anchor and move. Anyway, first of all, you'll have to charter a boat.

Try anchoring in more remote places in practice. I'll be happy to help you choose a boat!

FAQs: Anchoring in wild waters