Complete guide to anchoring and moorings

Spending the night in the safety of a marina is not always possible. So, what do you need to know about anchoring safely so you and your crew can get a sound night's sleep?

Each year countless new marinas, piers and buoy fields pop up across the Adriatic for sailors to spend the night at, which makes it perfect if you prefer not to anchor in the seabed. In Greece, however, you won't have so much luck — there are fewer harbours and piers, and the most picturesque bays are designed purely for anchoring. So if you don't want to miss out on the best spots, you'll have no choice but to anchor. Therefore, we bring you our comprehensive guide to anchoring techniques, addressing the most frequently asked questions and problems faced.

Types of anchor

Charter boats usually have one main and one spare anchor. For recreational sailing boats, it is recommended that it carries at least two anchors. The larger main one is located on a mount at the bow and in 99 % of cases this is the anchor you will be using. Weighing around 10–30 kilograms, you'll be able to lift it with your hands if necessary. The spare anchor is usually a smaller folding anchor that can be found in the cockpit locker. However, there are countless types of anchor out there and often multiple names for one type.


The best known anchors are:

  • Fisherman or Admiralty anchor
  • CQR or Plough anchor
  • Delta
  • Bruce
  • Danforth
  • Mushroom
  • Grapnel...
The most common type of anchor on charter boats in Croatia.

Most common type of anchor on charter boats in Croatia.

The anchor is either attached to the end of a chain or rope (the rode). On most of our rental boats, the main anchor is on a chain.

How to choose an anchorage

Although every bay has its own beauty, not every bay is suitable for anchoring. So, what should you consider when choosing a bay to anchor overnight?

Depth

For the chain, it is recommended to cast a length 3–5 times the depth plus the bow height. As the chain length on charter boats is around 50–70 metres, it follows that you'd have no chance of a properly anchoring at a depth of 30 metres. Anchoring at a depth you are unable to dive to or where the visibility is poor is also not recommended. And there aren't many who can dive 30 metres on a single breath. Therefore, this makes the ideal depth for anchoring around 3–10 metres.


YACHTING.COM TIP: Caution! Don't forget to add the bow height when calculating the chain length. Some sailboats are up to 2 metres high and this would even make a difference at a depth of just 3 metres, reducing its effectiveness.

Bay width

Consider that a boat at anchor rotates around a certain point in a radius determined by the length of the chain. Therefore, the narrower the bay, the more likely you are to get dangerously close to the shore. Therefore choose bays that tend to be wider and where moving around will not put you at risk of colliding with the shore or running aground.

Seabed

What type of seabed is best for anchoring? That's the million-dollar question. It is largely agreed that an anchor holds best on a bed consisting of mud and clay, or clay and sand, the worst being rock or very soft mud. It is also an issue when dense seagrass or algae cover the bed, as the anchor can it pick up and not hold as it should.

Expected wind direction

Choosing a bay to anchor overnight should primarily be done with expected wind direction in mind. The bay should be as sheltered as possible. If conditions don't allow this, the wind should at least be travelling out of the bay. A place where the wind blows towards the bay, i.e. driving the boat ashore, is a real hell for sailors. Avoid bays like this and don't attempt to anchor there. If the wind were to pick up and with force, you could literally get trapped here, unable to anchor or fight your way out against the wind.


YACHTING.COM TIP: Don't rely on just one source of information to estimate the wind direction for the night. We recommend combining windy.com with a trusted offshore forecast site like marine.meteoconsult.co.uk. And be sure to check local forecast sites as well — for Croatia, for example, meteo.hr.

Number of boats

Sometimes we simply arrive late and the bay is already full. If this is the case, don't squeeze in between other boats at all costs — you'll be on edge all night as will the captains of the surrounding boats. Physical theory rightly states that all boats should be turning in the same direction at anchor, meaning a collision between boats at anchor shouldn't occur. In practice, however, each boat has a different shaped hull, a different weight, and the anchor doesn't always hold securely. A collision in a bay is not exactly the experience you want to take home from your holiday. So always keep a good distance from nearby boats when anchoring.

View from above a turquoise sea bay with anchored sailboats spaced far apart.

Keep at least a boat length apart from surrounding boats.

Have a plan B

After the tenth attempt, your anchor still might not be holding. The crew will be getting fed up, you'll be tired and night will be closing in. So don't underestimate preparation and always have a plan B in mind in case anchoring at your chosen spot doesn't work out. That's why we also recommend not anchoring just before sunset as you might end up hunting for a suitable spot in the dark. 


Planning on sailing in Greece? Check out our article on how to moor stern-to. This method is frequently required at local town piers, but also comes in handy when away from civilisation.

Where is anchoring forbidden?

Anchoring is prohibited wherever there is a no anchoring sign — a crossed-out anchor (the anchor can also be upside down). Commonly, these are places where the state wishes to protect the fauna or flora on the seabed, often national parks or other natural sites. And it is usually forbidden to anchor near a major underwater cable or other power lines. Information about where anchoring is prohibited can be found either directly on the shore where the sign is located, or in the pilot or charts for the area.

A sign that prohibits anchoring.


YACHTING.COM TIP: For sailing on the Adriatic, we recommend the pilot "777 Harbours and Anchorages". This is a comprehensive guide where you'll find all the bays, harbours and buoys with additional information and tips. You'll also find the anchorages and bays where anchoring is prohibited. This pilot is a must for sailing in Croatia.

More sailing tips:

How to anchor?

So, you have chosen the bay, assessed the quality of the seabed and now all that is left is the anchoring itself. The principle of anchoring is basically simple. However, you'd be surprised how many sailors simply drop anchor randomly somewhere and consider it a success. When anchoring, there are certain principles and procedures that need to be followed, which we will outline below. We will, of course, be dealing with anchoring on engine power, not under sail, although this is possible as well. However, this is more advanced and not common sailing practice.

Take a look around the bay

Naturally, it's a good idea to check the pilot for the area and read up on the bay for basic information on depth, currents and recommendations. Then, take a tour of your chosen bay. Send one crew member to the bow and have them report back to you what they see. Focus primarily on:

  • How close the shore is and whether there are unmarked rocks just below the surface.
  • Whether there are any obstructions, rubbish, cables, thick seagrass, etc., on the seabed.
  • How many boats there are and where their anchors and chains are.

If you are in a bay where there are numerous boats, be careful not to hook your anchor onto someone else's anchor chain or anchor. In the worst cases, a newly arriving boat can pick up the anchor of another boat and cut it off. When the unsuspecting crew of the other boat discover their anchor isn't holding, they certainly won't thank you for it.


Choose a specific place to return to and drop anchor. It should preferably be free of seagrass and algae, otherwise the anchor might immediately get tangled up and won't hold. If this happens, you'd then have to pull the anchor up, remove the slimy algae or grass (which nobody wants to do) and drop it again.

Split the roles up

As with any boat manoeuvre, you need to brief the whole crew on what you're about to do and assign everyone a role. This might simply be just sitting in the cockpit and being quiet. The important thing is that no one obstructs your view, distracts you during the manoeuvre and everyone knows what to do and what not to do. Depending on the length of the boat and the wind, you also need to agree how you will communicate with the person dropping the anchor at the bow. 

Agree on signals

It is useful to agree on the signals you'll be using to indicate whether or not to drop the anchor, and whether to go to port or starboard. You'd be surprised how often sailors don't agree on signals in advance — the person at the bow is pointing to starboard, so the helmsman turns starboard, while the person at the bow is actually pointing to where the anchor is or where there is a shoal, mumbling something under his breath... Although, this makes for an interesting spectacle for the crews of other boats.


There is also the option of sending two people to the bow, one of whom acts as spokesperson, always turning towards the helmsman and shouting what is needed. However, reckon with the fact that in higher winds on a 50-foot boat, the helmsman is unlikely to hear anything clearly from the bow.

A man at the bow of the ship checking the anchorage

Unfasten the cotter pin

Before handling the anchor, be sure to unlock the clevis, cotter pin, rod or string that holds the anchor to the mount. Otherwise, you'll be lowering the chain with nothing on the end, and when you finally release the anchor, it will fall out and flail around destructively.

Switch on the windlass 

This might sound like a joke, but it's often forgotten about, leaving the skipper confused as to why the anchor won't drop. The anchor windlass has a special circuit breaker just for itself which is often located somewhere in the cabin, not on the control panel like all the other switches.

Lower the anchor and reverse

Dropping anchor is best done with the bow against the wind. Manoeuvre above your chosen spot (where there is no grass or obstructions) and lower the anchor gradually. Once it's on the seabed, start backing up slowly and continue lowering until there is as much chain out as you have calculated given the depth.


YACHTING.COM TIP: Caution! There is a lot of tension in the anchor windlass as it has to hold and pull a heavy anchor and chain. When dropping and winding in the anchor, give the windlass a few seconds break. Don't hold the windlass button for too long at a time. You could blow its fuses.

Next, back up a little more and tension the anchor. Don't be afraid to give it full throttle, stare at a fixed point on land, such as a vantage point or rock, and see if the boat backs up. Then put it into neutral and shut off the motor. It is said that the chain of a secure anchor vibrates slightly when reversing at full throttle.

Let everyone know

Last, but not least, when at anchor, you need to display the relevant day shape — the black ball, the anchor mark or anchor ball. It doesn't matter how you call it, as long as you display it. Sailors often don't know where to hang it on a boat but hanging it on the forestay or gennaker halyard and tying it to an auxiliary line has always worked for us (see the photo below). Wherever you attach it, boats in the vicinity will know you are at anchor and will adjust their sailing according to the COLREGs. The day shape for anchoring and for a vessel under sail and power can be found in the storage locker.

The bow of the boat with an anchor ball day shape - an important signal that you are at anchor.


Don't forget to turn on the anchor light after dark. This is even more important than the day shape, because at night your boat will be almost invisible to other boats. It's not uncommon for the crew to have gone ashore for dinner, only for their unlit boat to become the guilty party in a collision.

A boat moored in a bay at night with an anchor light on.

If this boat didn't have the anchor light on, it would be almost invisible without the saloon lights.

Weighing anchor

When retrieving the anchor, assist the anchor windlass with engine power by driving towards the chain. Instruct one crew member to show you where to go to follow the chain. Be careful not to get the chain under the boat or hit the bow when pulling it out. After hauling it out, remember to secure the anchor on board with a shackle.

7 steps to ensure safety when anchoring

What should you take away from this article? To ensure your safety and a good night's rest, here are some key tips and tricks when anchoring in a bay.

1. Check that the anchor is actually holding

When anchoring, the skipper must always makes sure the anchor is holding by backing up and looking at a fixed point on land. This can also be repeated after being at anchor for some time. For example, check after an hour or two to make sure your boat hasn't moved too much.

2. Anchor shape, light, buoy — let others know you are anchored

You are not alone at sea and it's important to let others know that you are at anchor. Don't forget to display the day shape and turn on the anchor light. Some sailors also attach a small buoy to the anchor chain, which then floats in front of the bow to let others know an anchor is there.

3. Regularly monitor forecasts from multiple sources, even at anchor

Don't just take a look at the wind conditions for the night mid-afternoon, anchor, and then forget about it. Forecasts are frequently changing and the information needs to be monitored regularly. When anchoring, be most concerned about the wind and its direction so you don't get blown ashore and the waves don't prevent a restful night's sleep. We recommend that you monitor forecasts not just regularly, but also from multiple sources — often different weather models show different data and within moments may have a completely different forecast for the night.


YACHTING.COM TIP: Before anchoring, look not only at the strength and direction of the wind, but also at underwater currents that could potentially move your boat in an undesirable direction.

4. Check the anchor underwater

All skippers will have already been advised to take a diving course during the captain's course. One of the reasons for this is the ability to check your anchor properly. The ideal situation is if the captain is able to dive down, check the anchor is firmly secured and cut it off if it is snagged. However, it's enough to dive a little beneath the surface just to see if everything is holding as it should or the anchor is not covered with algae... The same applies to a mooring buoy, where visual inspection of the line and underwater anchor is strongly recommended.


YACHTING.COM TIP: Carry an ABC dive kit (snorkel, goggles, fins) with you on board so you are ready to dive down to the anchor, under the boat if you need to repair something, get something out of the propeller or rudder blade, or check the hull.

A man in the water at the stern of a boat with a snorkel and goggles.

5. Put the fenders out for the night

To be on the safe side, put the fenders out at night. Not everyone does this, but in a bay where there are many boats it is recommended. You never know when your anchor or the anchor of other boats will come loose. Fenders will slow down or completely prevent your boat from being damaged at the side as a result of drifting.

Fenders on the side of a boat.

6. Turn on Anchor Alarm or other anchor app

We recommend all sailors install the Anchor Alarm app or similar app on their smartphone. There's a huge range of apps with this feature on the market, most basic ones are free and almost all work on a similar principle. When you drop anchor, you press a button on the app and it remembers your location and the position of the anchor. Using the length of chain you let out, set the radius of your safe-zone. The app will then monitor your boat's movements throughout the night and sound an alarm if you leave your safe-zone. Some modern sailboats have an anchor alarm integrated into the chartplotter or on the control panel by the captain's table, and you can rest assured that it will wake the entire crew when triggered. The next morning, you'll be able to see how your boat moved during the night, which can be useful for evaluating the quality of your anchoring for next time.

7. Set up regular watches during the night

When at anchor, we recommend skippers set up regular night watches to check that the boat is holding anchor. If there are more than one of you on board, for example 8 crew members, you can instruct each crew member to check the anchor once, done at hourly intervals, i.e. to cover 8 hours of sleep. Of course, you can also check it just once during the night, or in the evening and then early morning. It all depends on your confidence in the anchorage and your level of caution as a skipper.


What is your experience with anchoring? Share your sea adventures or any tips you may have of great spots to anchor. Just send us an e-mail at info@achting.com. :) 


FAQ All you need to know about anchoring

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