Friday, July 9, 2010

Adventures in Anchoring

Squint . . .  and it's the Coast of Maine!

So we’ve left the safety and security of the canal systems our boat was made for (the Erie and Trent-Severn) and are out on Big Water again—this time, Lake Huron.  We’re cruising Georgian Bay, in the northeastern part of the lake, the area called “30,000 Islands.”   

And it really does seem like there are that many islands—rounded mounds of pink granite sprouting graceful white pines that lean away from the wind.

Sailboaters famously come here to “gunkhole”—slowly exploring the shallow parts of remote little bays and islands.  Rather than stay at a marina, with its dock, store, showers, and services, the thing to do is to“anchor out.”  

It’s not exactly wilderness camping, since you have all the comforts on your boat—soft bed, three-burner cookstove, fridge with beer—but you’re pretty much out in the middle of nowhere. If things go wrong, you need to handle them yourself.

Everything we know about “how to set an anchor,” we learned from books.  The on-line course we took from U.S. Power Squadron includes an on-line animation that makes the process look clean and simple. There’s a white cartoon boat; a little anchor drops from the bow; the boat backs up; the anchor digs into the bottom; and presto, the boat stops, anchored!

If you're an experienced boater, I know you're rolling your eyes at the way I report, in wide-eyed amazement, details that are common knowledge to you experts.  But for non-boaters reading this, some context:  

Most powerboats our size have a bowsprit—a structure that juts out from the bow—where the anchor lives all the time. It’s right there, ready to go. When you want put the anchor out (or haul it back in) you use a hand-powered or electric winch.

OUR anchor, on the other hand, lives in a metal bin under the seat in the bow. To get the anchor out, you have to unscrew some bolts and remove the heavy little round table from the bow and lay it out of the way on the floor in the salon; remove the large, floppy cushions from the bow seat and put THEM out of the way; remove the heavy plywood cover from the bin, and voila, there’s the 50-lb plow anchor, resting on a pile of white nylon rope.  

Unsnap the canvas-and-and plastic window covers in the bow and flip the flaps up on the roof, and you will finally be able to get the anchor out of the bin and heave it over the side of the boat.

As for winching it back on board?  Our anchor goes out and comes back aboard by Bill-power.  Sustainable . . .  but a grunt.

You might think (I did) that you just drop the anchor over the side and that’s it. But not at all. If you drop the anchor straight down and leave the boat floating directly over it, the anchor will likely pull out.

You need to drop anchor and then back the boat up, paying out line as you go. (The exact amount of line you need depends on the water depth plus the distance to the bow of your boat, so you have to do math. But seven times the depth is a good estimate.  Water 10 feet deep? 70 feet of line.)  

If the water is deep, you will end up putting out a whole bunch of line, which means your boat theoretically can swing in a great big circle around the point where it's anchored, and end up grounded in shallow water, or on those rocks you failed to notice on the chart when you chose the anchorage.

We’d done a test anchorage on the Trent Severn, in a place called Lost Channel.  Today, we were going to try anchoring overnight. 

We cruised up Monument Channel to an anchorage recommended in our guidebook, behind Starr and Galbraith Islands. It was a lovely spot—a protected area with pretty rock formations where terns and gulls rested in the sun.

We had stopped that morning at Beausoliel Island, a national park, where we docked next to Paul and Jane, retirees with a handsome steel-hulled trawler they had built themselves, all decked out with cherry trim made from wood cut from their property and a positively spa-like head! They had decades of cruising experience and gave us some anchoring tips. That test anchorage? It was in water WAY too deep (gee, we thought 30 feet was shallow!)

Anyway, this day we’d studied the charts and the depth finder and picked a spot we thought would work. We got there and ran through our routine.  Anchor down, pay out line, back the boat up till the anchor digs in.  Good!  We're anchoring out like real sailors!

Then I made dinner (pasta with Italian sausage in a tomato-red wine sauce with fresh oregano from our rooftop herb boxes, crusty ciabatta rolls, green salad, and a bottle of Canadian Shiraz that I chose for the picture of the indigo bunting on the label. Yes, Mom, we’re eating well on this trip).

We had set the “anchor alarm” on the GPS. This is a handy little function: You mark your location and then electronically place a circle around it with the radius a little larger than the length of the anchor rope. If you are anchored properly, the path of your boat scribbles a neat little scribble in the center of the circle.

This display holds kind of a deadly fascination.  If your boat drags anchor, the scribbling inexorably moves from the center to the edge of the circle and then across the edge and . . . an alarm sounds.

During dinner the alarm went off.  “Oh, we're just at the edge of the circle—it means I didn’t draw it big enough. We’ll drift back to the center,” Bill said, and flipped off the alarm.

But the alarm KEPT going off, so we tried re-setting the anchor. This process involves the captain in the bow, hauling rope and using hand signals to give directions--down 41 feet of boat--to the crew, at the tiller running the engine and steering.  

If you have never done this before, let me pass along the handy tip that you need pre-arranged hand signals because you can’t hear over the sound of the engine. Factor in that you are maneuvering in a small space with toothy rocks hovering nearby, and the anchor is @#$!$%# heavy. The process can invoke marital tensions even between the most compatible partners who have just had a nice dinner and some wine, even when it’s a sun-kissed evening, the air is perfectly still, and the surface of the water is a polished mirror.

Now fast forward to 2 AM (it’s always 2 AM when bad things happen).  A fingernail moon low on the horizon.  Starlight reflected in the water.  Along the dark horizon, only one single tiny faraway cottage light. A breeze is blowing through the window. The anchor alarm goes off again. 

We scanned with our portable spotlight. We were headed for some sharp-looking rocks near the shoreline. We needed to re-set the anchor, in the dark. No possibility of hand signals. But we HAD to make it work, because it was hours till daybreak and we couldn’t exactly drive off in the darkness, with the likelihood of uncharted rocks ahead.

We survived to tell the tale with boat and marriage intact--and we apologize to the folks in the cottage if you heard us bellowing signals down the length of the boat.  

And now we know a bit more for our next anchorage.


  1. Cynthia and Bill,

    Thank you for sharing your adventures - a part of my daily routine now. Congratulation on progressing to level four of surviving marriage. And I thought wall-papering a small bathroom with my wife was an achievement. Happy trails.

    Gary M

  2. LOL!!! I had NO idea that anchoring was so challenging. I really did think you just dropped it off the side and presto, you were good to go. From an obviously non-boating librarian - Cathi Alloway

  3. If you've seen the inside of a boat you know wall-papering a small bathroom together is the perfect analogy to daily life!

    As for anchoring, the one good thing about being clueless and taking all your boating knowledge from books is that the experts are really happy to give you advice!