Choosing Ground Tackle for Cruising

A broad range of choices confronts the sailor in choosing ground tackle for cruising. Advertising claims would lead one to believe that each type of anchor is best. Well, don’t believe it!


Choosing an anchor best suited to your cruising style must take into account the area you are cruising, the type of boat you will be sailing, and the demands you will make on your gear. Purchasing an anchor and its chain and rode can be an expensive proposition.

This choice should be made with some care. Testing anchors to compare holding power, the ability to reset after breaking out, and the tendency of the anchor to foul on its own rode is a logistical nightmare. In order to do so, one would have to set each type of anchor in identical conditions, document what is holding the anchor via a diver, test for ease of setting the anchor, test for holding power under load, and ability to reset after breaking out. This is complicated by the difficulty in creating identical conditions for such a test. Once an anchor has been set and disturbed the bottom, the next anchor might not hold as well.

Finally, tests should be performed not only in mud and sand, conditions in which all anchors will perform reasonably well, but in kelp, grass, and on rocky bottoms and perhaps on coral. This would require conducting the tests in widely divergent locations. In spite of the potential benefits to be gained from running such tests, no one has yet put it together. Betsy and Miles Clark made an effort (Cruising World, May, 1989) but fell short of the mark. Their in-the-water tests were performed on sand and mud bottoms, conditions in which most sailors have little difficulty in anchoring.

Furthermore, their tests on tensile strength only confirm that one should purchase a properly made anchor from a well-known anchor manufacturer rather than a cheap imitation. Any conclusions that one anchor type is better than another based on such tests is highly suspect, especially since comparisons were made between anchors of differing weights.

Let us build the sailor’s ground tackle inventory slowly, starting, as most of us will, with the dinghy. For a dinghy or small, outboard-powered boat of up to about 15 feet in length, the most important feature of an anchor is its ability to stay out of the way and avoid injuring the crew. Such boats most profitably use the handy anchor which folds flat and out of the way. This makes for an easy storing, lightweight anchor which can handily be let overboard and just as easily retrieved. A 2-l/2-pound Danforth might be just the thing for a little foot dinghy. An eight-pounder might be better for the 15-foot runabout. A grapnel is sometimes used in areas with a rocky bottom, but is harder to stow and dangerous to ankles and toes.

The Danforth standard fluke anchor may be considered an excelent choice for holding in soft sand or mud. It has sharp, pointed flukes which dig in well under these circumstances and have considerable holding power for its relatively light weight. For the small boat sailing in areas like Chesapeake Bay, Buzzard’s Bay, and Cape Cod, it is hard to beat. If the wind direction changes, the anchor is likely to flip over and dig in again from the new direction. It stows conveniently, either in its own chocks on deck, or hanging from a specially made bracket from the bow pulpit. It should be shackled to at least 12 feet of heavy chain before attaching 200 feet or more of nylon rode. A 13-pound anchor is perfectly appropriate for a 23-foot sailboat, while a 22-pounder would satisfy the needs of the 30-footer.

The manufacturer will make recommendations for your size boat. I generally choose one size larger than the manufacturer recommends. The Danforth has the greatest holding power for the lightest weight and is more easily retrieved by hand. Heavier anchors can strain the backs of aging sailors.

Other anchors which handle mud and sand especially well are the Bruce and the CQR (or plow). The Bruce is specifically designed for this purpose and, pound for pound, it will probably handle such conditions at least as well or better than any other. Unfortunately, it does not seem, in my experience, to deal with kelp or eel grass very well. It does not dig in under these circumstances and will slide over the entire ocean bottom when such plants are profuse. I had this experience in Halifax, Nova Scotia. The outer harbor has areas loaded with kelp. Our Bruce would not grab, whereas a 45-pound CQR held reasonably well. We knew it was kelp, because on retrieving the CQR, it brought up great long strands of the stuff.

The CQR with its pointed tip will more reliably dig into eel grass or kelp. Since the CQR will also handle sand and mud equally as well as the Bruce, it has more overall uses and therefore finds its way more consistently aboard larger cruising boats. It should also be married to chain before attaching the nylon rode. Chain is always used with an anchor because it will hold the line down and help to direct the pull on the anchor in a direction parallel to the ocean bottom. For this reason also, sufficient scope (or length of line) must be let out so that the pull on the anchor does not tend to lift the anchor out of its grip on the ocean floor. A minimum of three feet of scope for every foot of water depth is required. Five feet is even better; seven feet is better still. At this point, I might also mention that Danforthnot only makes a standard fluke anchor, but a “deepest plow” which looks very much like the CQR. In tensile tests described in the Cruising World article, this anchor failed relatively early, due to weakness at the swivel pin.

If you are going to extend your cruising to the shores of Maine or the coral waters of the Caribbean, then the Herreshoff or yachtsman anchor should be considered. The bottom of many Maine harbors and places such as the Isles of Shoals have rocks. Anchors meant to dig in and bury themselves such as the Danforth, Plow, and Bruce have no place to take hold.

The pointed fluke of the Danforth might grab onto a rock, but this places enormous forces on a small area and the anchor might bend under the load. Similarly, the plow might, by chance,grab onto an outcropping of rock, but has a limited ability to do so. The yachtsman anchor has two heavy, pointed flukes, one of which will grab onto a rocky outcropping and hold on. A crossbar will keep one of the flukes in contact with the bottom at all times. In the Caribbean, many island harbors have a thin layer of hard-packed sand over a coral bottom. Your Danforth or CQR will have a difficult time finding a spot that it can dig into. The yachtsman will dig in and catch on almost anything. The biggest problem with the yachtsman is that it is hard to stow.

*** For the this entire article please click on the link below…

Choosing Ground Tackle for Cruising

Darrell Nicholson, editor of Practical Sailor, grew up boating on Miami’s Biscayne Bay on everything from prams to Morgan ketches. Two years out of Emory University, after a brief stint as a sportswriter, he set out from Miami aboard a 60-year-old wooden William Atkin ketch named Tosca. For 10 years, he and writer-photographer Theresa Gibbons explored the Caribbean, crossed the Pacific, and cruised Southeast Asia aboard Tosca, working along the way as journalists and documenting their adventures for various travel and sailing publications, including Cruising World, Sail, Sailing, Cruising Helmsman, and Sailing World. Upon his return to land life, Darrell became the associate editor, then senior editor at Cruising World magazine, where he worked for five years. Before taking on the editor’s position at Practical Sailor, Darrell was the editor of Offshore magazine, a boating-lifestyle magazine serving the New England area. Darrell has won multiple awards from Boating Writer’s International, including the Monk Farnham award for editorial excellence. He holds a U.S. Coast Guard 100-ton Master license and has worked as a harbor pilot and skippered a variety of commercial charter boats.


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