Knowing how to anchor a sailboat properly is an essential skill every sailor must learn. As a solo sailor, I frequently anchor my 41-foot sailboat alone. With some practice and a good plan, it is pretty simple in most normal situations. However, there are a few things that you need to pay extra attention to and some cases and conditions that require knowledge to get right.
These are the steps to anchor your boat safely:
- Plan and research the location you want to anchor.
- Identify obstacles and hazards in the area.
- Get the anchor ready.
- Locate the spot you want to anchor, preferably a sandy patch.
- Navigate to your place and set the boat up against the wind.
- Aim at your spot and drop the anchor at the bullseye.
- Pay out your scope of chain and rig up your snubber or bridle.
- Tension up the chain and set the anchor.
- Test your ground tackle’s holding.
- If the test fails, pick up the anchor, return to step 4, and repeat the process.
- Optional: Inspect that the anchor is adequately dug into the seabed.
Let’s break down the steps and go into detail.
11 steps to anchor your sailboat safely
Anchoring is a hot topic amongst cruisers, and there are several ways to do it properly. The steps in this guide are guidelines and should give you the theoretical knowledge to understand the process even if the conditions differ. This method is doable alone but is easier with a pair of extra hands. The basics are the same, no matter how many hands you have on deck, though.
How you anchor depends on the weather conditions and if you can see the seabed you want to put the anchor in. It is easiest if you can see what type of bottom you have. If the visibility is terrible, you’re basically throwing spaghetti at the wall to see what sticks.
I have spent many years in the North Sea on commercial anchor handling vessels, installing massive anchors for oil platforms and FPSOs in various conditions. We anchor our sailboats using the same principles but on a smaller scale. My professional experience means that I know a thing or two about anchoring. Years of anchoring Ellidah single-handed, in addition to the above, means I have made some mistakes and learned from them.
1. Plan and research the location you want to anchor
The first step in safe anchoring is planning and research. Gain some knowledge of the place you plan to anchor. Ensure that anchoring is allowed; some areas are protected and illegal to anchor in.
Figure out the level of protection from the weather, water depth, and seabed conditions. Also, make an escape plan in case of emergency – conditions change quickly, and your escape plan may save you and your boat someday.
In the scenario for this guide, we are alone on board and will drop the anchor at 10 meters depth on a small sand patch in an area with a lot of seaweed in moderate wind.
2. Identify obstacles and hazards in the area
The next thing you want to be aware of is if there are any rocks, reefs, shallows, buoys, and other dangers in the area. Your charts often give detailed information about what to expect in the anchorage.
If you use Navionics on your device, the Active Captain community will have valuable information about the anchorage and what to be cautious about. The information is written by other sailors and is invaluable to help you get an overview of the anchorage.
Another app I highly recommend is Navily. Navily informs about anchorage locations, conditions, and protection levels. I actually wrote an in-depth review of these apps that I highly recommend you read!
3. Get the anchor ready
When you have done your planning and research, it is time to get the anchor ready to drop. Put on your autopilot or lock the rudder on a clear course. Head up to the bow and prepare your anchor to be dropped.
I prefer to lower the anchor into the water and hang it below the surface. If you leave it in the air, it might bounce into your bow, and we want to avoid that.
We also don’t want the anchor hanging deep enough to catch on to something before we have found our anchoring spot and navigated the boat into position.
Return to the cockpit when the anchor is ready and take back manual control.
4. Locate the spot you want to anchor
Take the boat for a swipe around the area and look for a sandy area to place the anchor. When you find a good spot, take note of the depth and decide your scope.
Consider your distance from the surroundings, and ensure you have enough room to swing around without hitting anything or bumping into another boat. Please give yourself a little bit of extra space. No one likes it when someone anchors too close to them.
Pro Tip: When we say scope, we refer to the amount of chain you put out in relation to the water depth. I always recommend at least five times the water depth – 5:1 or more, but if you are in a tight anchorage that is well-protected and the seabed holding is good, you may get away with less. I never go lower than 3:1 and always put out a minimum of 30 meters of chain.
5. Navigate to your spot and set the boat up against the wind
Position the boat so you can approach your location with the bow against the wind.
Here comes the tricky part: Depending on how much wind you have and how big of an area you have to drop the anchor in, you need to consider how far the boat will drift in the time it takes you to leave the helm and get up on the bow to start lowering the anchor.
You may want to drive ahead of the spot and position the bow with a slight offset to either side. Now, say you are 10 meters ahead and slightly to starboard of the spot. Stop the boat and turn the bow slightly to the port.
Lock the rudder, head back up to the bow, and get ready to drop the anchor. The wind will catch the starboard side of the bow and push it over to port, and by the time you are prepared at the bow, you should be approaching your spot.
6. Aim at your spot and drop the anchor at the bullseye
As soon as you are positioned at the bow, start paying out the chain, but leave the anchor just above the seabed until it is right above your sandy patch. Once the anchor is in position, land it on the seabed and continue paying out the chain as the boat drifts along.
If you miss the spot, lift the anchor to just below the surface again and reposition yourself.
Don’t stress this step. It is perfectly normal to make several attempts. People on other boats will probably pay attention to you and sometimes even shout, but ignore them for now. You are anchoring and can only do one thing at a time.
Get ready for a new attempt and repeat steps 4 and 5 until you hit the bullseye.
If the entire seabed area is nice and sandy, you can skip step 7 and drop the anchor in any decent position.
7. Pay out your scope of chain and rig up your snubber or bridle
Now that the anchor is placed perfectly in your sandy patch continue to pay out the chain as the wind pushes the boat back. Count the chain length and continue to pay out until you reach your scope of 50 meters for this example.
You may have to stop and wait for the boat to drift if there is little wind or even head back to the helm to reverse the boat. We don’t want to make a pile of chain in one spot, but lay it out nicely.
Once the entire scope of the chain is out, it is time to rig up a snubber.
Pro Tip: A snubber is a rope or bridle you attach to the chain and secure to the boats’ cleats. We use snubbers and bridles to take the load off the windlass. Ideally, we want the boat to hang off strong cleats instead of the windlass.
8. Tension up the chain and set the anchor
Now that your snubber or bridle is rigged up, head back to the helm and put the engine in reverse. Take your time and wait for the chain to get stretched out.
You will feel when the boat comes to a stop, and now is time to make a note of your exact location while you keep the engine at low revs in reverse to keep the tension on the chain.
There are two easy ways to take note of your position:
- Find a spot ashore and another place between yourself and the shore spot that lines up to each other.
- Add a marker to your chart plotter or start a snake trail. I like this method.
Increase the reverse revs on the engine slowly and ensure that the boat stays in the exact location. We want to ensure the anchor isn’t dragging through the seabed. Continue to increase the revs up to the rpm you usually use for motoring at marching speed.
For a Volvo Penta or Yanmar engine, you typically end up at 1800-2200rpm.
9. Test your ground tackle’s holding
Term: Ground Tackle
When we say ground tackle, we refer to everything holding the boat to the ground. In this case, it is the snubber, snubber shackle, chain, chain shackle, and anchor.
You can learn more in The Sailors Guide to Nautical Terms by clicking this box.
Now, we’re going to test that our ground tackle is holding. Keep the revs up and monitor your two aligned spots or markers on the chart plotter for 30-60 seconds. If you haven’t moved during this period, your anchor has dug into the seabed and is holding.
Slowly ease off the throttle until the engine is back in idle. The boat will start to move forward as the weight of the chain pulls the catenary down. Once the boat stops, the wind will push the bow to the side and swing you over until the chain is stretched up again. Be patient and let the vessel settle.
Well done, you should now be safely anchored! Unless your anchor dragged, which is pretty normal.
10. If the test fails, go back to step 4 and repeat the process
If the anchor breaks loose during the process, you will see that your two aligned spots will start to unalign, or you will drift away from the marker on the chart.
Sometimes, you’ll feel a slight bump in the boat as the anchor loses grip and notice you aren’t holding the same position.
Pro Tip: A good trick is to head up to the bow and put your hand on the snubber or bridle while keeping the reverse tension. You will feel a vibration if the anchor drags through the seabed and hear scratching if the anchor rubs against rocks.
If the test fails and the anchor is dragging, you must take the anchor and chain back up and start over from step 5.
However, if you have made several attempts in the same spot without any luck, you may have to find another location and start again at step 4.
When you get more experience, you will realize that some anchorages can be harder to anchor properly in than others. It is part of the game to have some failed attempts, and I have spent hours and countless attempts on more occasions than I can count.
11. Optional: Inspect that the anchor is adequately dug into the seabed
You are usually pretty safe after testing the ground tackle by reversing, but there is one last thing I like to do to be 100% sure that the boat is safely anchored. Now, I cruise in the tropics, where the water is usually clear and delicious, so this step may not apply to you.
Jump in the water with a mask and snorkel, follow the chain to where the anchor is, and ensure it has adequately dug into the seabed. I quite enjoy this exercise, and it gives me great confidence. After countless dives, I know pretty well how my anchor behaves in different seabed conditions.
Optional 2: Have an anchor drink
If you ever sail with a Norwegian, you will probably come by the term “Ankerdram,” which means Anchor Drink. You celebrate a successful anchoring by having a nice beverage of your choice. Since I am Norwegian, I like to practice this tradition with a cold beer!
The key to proper and successful anchoring is to do it thoroughly and correctly. If you don’t do it properly, you risk the boat drifting out to sea with or without you onboard. Or even worse, into another vessel or onto the ground!
I was anchored in Ibiza when a charter boat started dragging and crashed into Ellidah without anyone onboard. We handled the situation and saved the charter boat, but the skipper was clueless about anchoring and told me that he usually just dropped the anchor and a bit of chain on top of it, and that was that.
Another time, me and a friend were anchored in the Holandese Keys in San Blas on a gorgeous sunny day. A Backpackerboat was anchored poorly next to us and started to drag rather quickly when a sudden 50-knot squall came through violently. We had a massive choral reef behind us, which the backpacker boat was only inches from hitting.
Don’t be like those guys. Anchor correctly EVERY time!
Take some time to practice and perfect your anchoring skills. Eventually, you will master how to properly anchor a boat like it is the most natural thing in the world. Sometimes, it may take as little as 10 minutes from your start until you have your anchor drink in your hand!
If you want to learn more sailing basics, check out my ultimate beginner’s guide here!