PS Advisor June 2019 Issue

Anchoring Legal Responsibility

We often get questions about anchoring rights. While it is commonly understood that the first boat arriving in an anchorage has privileges, many see this as a matter of etiquette, but it is also a legal issue. The below citations are from the case Juniata 124 F. 861 US Admiralty Court, E.D. Virginia, 1903. Other rulings we reviewed generally agree.]

Photo by Mahina Expeditions,

The first boat in an anchorage retains certain rights, but those rights don’t relieve them of all obligations.

1. The first boat to arrive has the right to anchor as she pleases. This includes considerable scope and multiple anchors. While some practices may be considered discourteous in a crowded harbor, there is nothing in the case law limiting this, and opinions about multiple anchors, scope, and seamanship vary according to the boat, geometry, holding ground, and expected weather.

2. Later arrivals are required to keep clear. They are not specifically required to stay outside of the swing circle, but court decisions for ships state that “ample space [must be given]; that is, taking into consideration all the exigencies likely to arise, either by reason of the character of the harbor, the conditions of the weather, and the season of the year, no danger of collision would arise….” The ruling goes on to explain that you should not cut it close and that safety factors are required.

3. Communication is encouraged; “Furthermore, the vessel that anchored first shall warn the one who anchored last that the berth chosen will foul the former’s berth.” While this is prudent for ships, it is often impractical for recreational boats. The first arrival may be ashore or asleep. It’s not pleasant to ask another boat to move after they have placed their anchor. No one enjoys a confrontation, and “ample space” is subject to interpretation. If all boats are anchored by a single hook at similar scope they should swing together, but the amount of scope and number anchors each boat has deployed may not be obvious.

4. If you begin to drag, you are no longer anchored and give up all rights. “A vessel shall be found at fault … if it fails to shift anchorage when dragging dangerously close to another anchored vessel.” Obvious enough. But often the first arrival starts to drag and then blames those around him for anchoring too closely. If he dragged only 10-30 feet, perhaps he has a point. In soft mud bottoms, anchors can move considerable distances during the process of setting more deeply or responding to a wind shift. Later arrivals are expected to take this into account as part of the safety factor (see item 2 above).

5. If you increase scope or lay a second anchor, you have changed your berth and may be considered to have re-anchored, giving up any prior rights if this adjustment changes the geometry of your berth and contributes to a collision.

6. If there has been a collision or is imminent risk of collision, all parties have the responsibility to act to reduce damage. This might include deploying fenders, increasing scope, kedging away, or even abandoning your ground tackle and getting underway. You should always have several practiced plans in mind.

Drew Frye is technical editor for Practical Sailor and author of Rigging Modern Anchors . He also blogs at his website

Comments (6)

Hi, Up here in the Pacific Northwest, we often have a mix of boats in the center part of anchorage who swing freely, and boats at the outer edge who are stern tied. Sometimes, the stern tied boats will tie off far enough from shore so they appear to possibly be within range of the swing range of the swinging boats should the wind or current change.I can estimate 2 or 3 boat lengths, but beyond that, it becomes less clear to me. I purchased a hunting laser rangefinder with 900 yard range, but find that it can be hard to read with my glasses on, and impossible without.

Is there a reliable way to determine the distance to another boat to confirm whether we are far enough apart?

Thank You

Posted by: Captain Rob | June 16, 2019 11:35 AM    Report this comment

A helpful and interesting article.

Can anyone tell me whether there are any similar precedents in law in EU countries that border the Mediterranean?

Posted by: LachlanC | June 9, 2019 1:42 AM    Report this comment

I once was anchored off of Beef Island, by a restaurant/bar called the Last Resort in Tortola in a bareboat when someone anchored right off my how dropping their tackle on top of my anchor. They couldn't be more than ten fifteen feet to windward of us. I was nice to them and pointed out they had fowled us and that it wasn't going to work. Especially with their maybe three to one scope as opposed to my seven to one. The man started screaming at me that I was a violator of the "scope law, I had to much line out,and that I better.....smarten up and pick up and reset." It was blowing at least 18-20 knots, three to one scope and bareboats which are famous for little anchors and at most ten feet of chain. A snowballs chance in hell it was going to work. My wife wakes me up, saying some people are screaming at us and they were hitting us. I come on deck and Mr. SCOPE LAW is screaming that I hit his boat. While fending off and keeping our rigs separated and while he is still dragging and by now his bow is even with my cockpit he tells me I dragged anchor and hit his boat. I pointed out that #1 he was still dragging #2 that he was to windward of me when I told him that it wasn't going to work #3 that he was about to be soon to leward of me in a couple of minutes #4 that in about ten minutes he was going to be ashore. The man never stopped screaming.... but he did tell me I was dragging to WINDWARD!!! LOL. After that one I told him, thank you for pointing out my violation of the scope law, and that I was dragginy to WINDWARD and that I'll move. The funny part? Sure enough Mr. Scopelaw did drop his gear on top of I picked up my gear......his came up with mine. Now he's flying towards a lee shore. And still screaming that I was going to pay damages. We moved far away. But all was not lost....I learned a new way of dealing with leeshores if the wind comes up bigtime. All I have to do is shorten my scope to the " scope law approved three to one or even better....two to one and I'll be certain to drag to winward again and to safety. Hey does anyone think as I'm dragging to windward and deeper water, as my scope goes to one to one......will I drag faster to windward? I sure wish I asked that bright man, guess it's my loss. LMAO!!! ,';^]]

Posted by: Ivansailor | June 9, 2019 12:54 AM    Report this comment

While anchored in Pulpit Harbor Maine one afternoon a Camden based Windjammer Schooner anchored on top of me. I rowed over in my dinghy and addressed the captain in private at the stern of his vessel. I said he had dropped close to me and that we would likely come together when the wind died and the tidal current reversed direction. He said there would be no problem but if there was he would move. At midnight I awoke to the sound of his bow sprit chafing my port aft lower and middle shrouds between which it was lodged.

I shouted for the captain while working to free my vessel and eventually woke a passenger sleeping on the schooner deck who went to get him. He appeared as I cleared the vessels and said: "I'm not moving, you can do whatever you want to, I'm Going back to my berth." He then went below decks.

I weighed anchor and repositioned in the only available space way to close to shore. I spent the rest of the night on anchor watch lest the wind come up and put me on the beach.

In 40 years of sailing this is only the third time I've had an experience like this and the only time with a professional captain.

Mike Ryan

Posted by: Mike Ryan | June 8, 2019 8:11 PM    Report this comment

Despite the well established "rules" and an even longer existing code of nautical etiquette that capable sailors observe, there comes a time when the best course is just "pack up and go." I have so often encountered such blatant lack of knowledge, civility, or total disregard of others in anchoring situations, that at the first sign of a potential adverse situation, I no longer wait for things to decline. It would be nice if things went as they should in anchorages, but all too often that just no longer is the case.

Posted by: kerrydeare | June 8, 2019 2:36 PM    Report this comment

A few years ago, we entered a very large anchorage south of Bold Is. near Stonington ME. We were the third, and last boat in. There was probably 300' between the first two. We anchored off to one side, about 200' from each, and enjoyed a windless, quiet clear evening.
Getting up around midnight, to answer nature's call, I saw one boat had drifted down on the other, about 25-50' off them. I hopped in the dinghy, rowed over, knocked on the hull and told them they were dragging anchor. Eventually, they came on deck and started pulling in their scope and I went below, assuming they were going to reset.
In the morning, I was on deck enjoying coffee for awhile when I looked over my shoulder and saw the same boat's transom about 20' off of ours. They had been back near their location 200' off when I came on deck. I alerted their crew. A gal came on deck and allowed as how she had an all nylon rode because she could not handle any chain. She didn't say how much scope was out, but it was likely 2-300'. She then insisted we had to move because she was first in to anchor, obviously feeling she had the right to drift about uncontrolled. Our position had changed by 25-50' all night. She was like talking to a brick wall & just a little off the wall, so we up anchored and motored over to Stonington to pickup a mooring to have breakfast.

Posted by: Shorty | June 8, 2019 1:14 PM    Report this comment

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