How to anchor a boat

Adventure 5 min read

One of my favorite things about boating is getting to spend an entire day afloat. There’s something special about dropping anchor in a beautiful cove and enjoying a carefree afternoon on the water.

But if you’ve never anchored a boat before, the process can feel a bit intimidating. The good news is, with clear instructions and a little bit of practice, you can be an anchor-dropping pro in no time.

How do anchors work?

Anchors are designed to hold a boat in place by digging into the sea (or lake or river) floor. Once the anchor—which is attached to a chain or line on the boat—is properly set on the seabed, the boat won’t go floating off, but may drift in a radius around the anchor point.

While all anchors serve the same purpose, there are a handful of distinct types, each designed to accommodate a specific type of seafloor (sand, rock, mud, or grass).

Here’s a quick overview of the most common types of boat anchors and which is best suited for the different types of seafloors.

  • Danforth/fluke: Danforth anchors use triangular shaped blades (or flukes) to dig into the seafloor and work in a variety of environments, including mud and sand. Their lightweight design makes these anchors easy to transport, store, and install, making them a popular choice for smaller boats and shallower depths.
  • Scoop/spade: Scoop or spade anchors feature a single point designed to dig into mud, sand, and grass seafloors. These versatile anchors are ideal for slightly larger powerboats or sailboats (usually cruisers), as they’re larger and heavier to store.
  • Plow/delta: As the name suggests, plow anchors are shaped like plows, with flat plates attached a central shaft. The tip is weighted to help the anchor dig into any type of seabed more quickly, but the extra weight makes plows harder to store. They’re better suited for larger boats.
  • Bruce: Bruce anchors utilize a claw-like design to hook onto rocks at the bottom of a lake or ocean, thus holding a boat in place. They aren’t well-suited for softer floors, like sand or mud.
  • Mushroom: Mushroom anchors look like, well, upside-down mushrooms. They’re weighted to hold a small boat (like a dinghy) in place on muddy or sandy seafloors.

While every anchor is designed with a specific purpose in mind, most will efficiently hold your boat in place in a variety of environments. But, if you’re in the market for a new anchor, be sure to learn about the type of seafloor you’ll encounter most often. That’ll help inform your decision.

How to anchor a boat

First, find a safe spot

You can’t just drop anchor anywhere. In addition to considering the weather, wind, and tides before you pull out of your slip, you also need to be sure you find a safe spot to anchor out.

Be sure you’re aware of local regulations (many counties have rules about where boats can and can’t drop anchor), observe boat traffic in the area (are there ferries throwing off big wakes or is it a popular spot for wakeboarding?), and see how many other boats are anchored nearby.

Perhaps most importantly, you’ll need to know how deep the water is so that you can properly determine how much chain to let out and what your radius will be. When you drop anchor, you’ll typically want to let out 5 feet of chain or rope for every foot of depth, plus the distance from your bow to the waterline (called the scope). So, if the lake is 20 feet deep and your scope is 6 feet, you’d let out 100 feet of chain (the 5:1 ratio), plus 6 feet (your scope).

Your boat will sway with the wind and tide while you’re anchored, so having enough slack in the chain to accommodate this movement will help prevent anchor drag and unnecessary tension on the line or the bow.

Dropping anchor, step by step

While small vessels equipped with mushroom anchors can simply throw the anchor overboard, larger anchors will need to be lowered into the water gradually (typically using an electric or manual windlass system). The steps below will outline how to anchor a slightly larger boat with a more traditional anchor.

  • Before you start: Ideally, you’ll have at least two people onboard (yourself and another person) when you anchor out. This will allow you to keep the boat in position while the other person monitors the chain. You should also measure the depth of the water and ensure that you’re in a safe, appropriate spot with plenty of room for your radius before you start.
  • STEP 1: Position your boat with the bow facing into the wind. Once you’ve lowered the anchor and let out the appropriate amount of chain, the wind will help blow your boat away from the original drop site, causing the anchor to root into the seabed.
  • STEP 2: Unhook any anchor locks and begin lowering the anchor into the water, tracking the amount of chain you’re letting out (most chains will have markings every 5 to 10 feet).
  • STEP 3: Monitor the chain to ensure it remains pointing straight down. If it’s pulling in a different direction, reposition your boat.
  • STEP 4: Once you’ve released your desired amount of scope, the anchor should set itself. You might drag a bit at first, usually for a minute or so. If there’s no wind, you may need to reverse gently to help the anchor set.
  • STEP 5: If the anchor didn’t set after your first attempt, that’s okay! Sometimes it takes a couple of tries. Pull the anchor back up (see below for details) to just above the water line and repeat steps one through four.
  • STEP 6: Once you’ve confirmed that you’re not dragging, tie the anchor off or use the locking mechanism on your windlass, engage your anchor monitoring system (see below), turn off your engines, and enjoy!

Anchor watch

Some boats are equipped with anchor alarms that will monitor your anchor for drag, but most boaters will have to rely on landmarks to keep track of their position in the water.

Stand at the bow of your boat and hold out both of your arms at a 90-degree angle. Make note of what you see to your left and right. Every so often, return to the bow and repeat this exercise. If you’re still seeing the same landmarks when you hold out your arms, the anchor is holding.

How to pull up your anchor

When you’re ready to head home, get everyone back on board, scan your surroundings to make sure there aren’t any swimmers or small boats nearby, turn on your engines, and follow the steps below.

  • STEP 1: Position your boat so that the bow is lined up with the anchor chain. The line should be vertical with the boat.
  • STEP 2: Untie any knots and release any locks holding the anchor chain in place.
  • STEP 3: Begin pulling up the chain while keeping the anchor line vertical so as not to add extra stress or tension. You may need to slowly pull the boat forward to achieve this.
  • STEP 4: Monitor the markings on the anchor chain in order to track how much line you have left. You may also want to rinse the chain as you go (if you have a hose available onboard).
  • STEP 5: Get the anchor settled into its cradle and lock the anchor back into place (you’ll want to give it a freshwater rinse once you get back to the dock).
  • STEP 6: That’s it! You can now return to your harbor.

Anchor safety reminders

If you don’t have an electric windlass system onboard, or if the rope begins to release too quickly, just let it go. Never touch a rapidly descending rope. You can always pull it back on board and reset. It’s not worth severely injuring your hands.

And remember to always keep the things you love protected with Progressive. To learn more about comprehensive boat insurance, click here. 

Wishing you a summer full of sunshine, warm weather, and fun-filled days on anchor!

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