01 March 2006

Anchors Aweigh!

Parking the Boat is a scary task. For me at least. I guess if you do it every day for years and years, one gains skill and confidence. Both are absolute requirements. But other than guys who work as professional captains or boat jockeys in a marina or boatyard, most boaters worry about it. Some more than others, I grant you. Me, I am at the top of the list of those who lack both skill and confidence, and therefore am at the top of the list of worriers.

As I see it, there are two basic kinds of parking, with subdivisions of each kind.

The most difficult is Docking. What's involved there is a sort of "First Base" mating (the idea is to kiss the dock, not penetrate it). You are dealing with two hard, unyielding surfaces, one totally immovable and inflexible, made of concrete, steel, wood, or a combination thereof, the other totally movable, but made of similarly inflexible steel, wood, or fibreglass. The totally-movable object is controlled by a number of factors. They include: 1) the pilot's manipulation of various control devices, such as throttles, steering wheel, thrusters, etc., 2) the wind, 3) the current, 4) the laws of physics involving things like momentum, prop wash, shaft angle, hull shape, marinized mojo, and 5) the number of people on shore and in surrounding boats who are watching the chaos that resulted from the application of factors 1 through 4. Factor 5 is measurable by the following formula: "The Quantity of Chaos is in Direct Proportion to the Square of the Number of People Observing the Docking Operation. If the Mate is Married to the Pilot, Double All Numbers."

I have done my share of damage to sundry boats, docks, and pilings in my day, and that nightmare is not the subject of today's piece. Today, we talk about the other kind of Parking, i.e., Anchoring. No sex here. No kissing, no penetrating. Anchoring is easy in the movies. In the movies, it is a two step operation: 1. The guy throws the anchor overboard, and, 2. The woman makes lunch.

Before I report on today's humiliating events, a little background: As the operator of small fishing boats in Long Island waters for more than 20 years, I have anchored frequently in the bays and the ocean. I am usually insecure about how well the anchor is dug in, and therefore usually worried about whether the boat is going to drift off station. This becomes much more serious if there are other boats around. Other boats never drift off station. If two anchored boats are getting closer with each gust of wind, I know it is MY BOAT that is dragging anchor. Always. And I am always correct.

A little about anchors--a very little. You know,of course, that it is not the weight of the anchor that holds the boat still. You knew that. What secures the anchor to the bottom is the fact that it is dug into the sand, or mud, or what have you. The deeper in it is dug, the more strain it will withstand. What digs it in? It's shape, and the way it moves. Anchors have flukes, or fins, or points, call them whatever you will. When the anchor is dragged across a sandy bottom in the right way, the flukes dig themselves in. The more strain put on the line, the deeper in it goes. For example, Fish Faster's anchor is sort of a plow anchor. Think of the way plow digs in to the soil and makes furrows. Think of a tractor pulling the plow—a shaft leads from the back of the plow, up into a 180 degree bend, back in the direction of the point, to the tractor. When the tractor pulls, the plow digs in. My plow has a shaft bending upwards in a 180 degree turn leading to the anchor line tied to the boat. ( The whole thing is sort of shaped like a big fish hook, with the point resting on the bottom, and the shaft of the fish hook standing off the bottom, parallel to to the bottom.) When I drag the shaft back, parallel to the bottom, the point of the plow digs in. Unlike the farmer's plow, my plow is shaped so that it does not just make a furrow, but goes deeper into the sand the more I pull it. When it gets deep enough to withstand the strain of the wind and current pulling on the boat, you are anchored. But the plow will only dig in if it is pulled parallel to the bottom. If the shaft of the plow is pointing up, then so is the point, hence no furrow, no dig in. You make the plow pull parallel to the bottom by dropping far more line than the water is deep. That reduces the angle of the shaft to the bottom when the boat pulls back. Weighting the line attached to the boat end of the shaft does likewise. That's why, even with anchor lines made of rope, the six feet of rode at the anchor-end of the line is heavy chain. Keeps the shaft down, makes the plow dig in. There are lots of kinds of anchors, but all operate on this principal. How can this possibly be a problem?

Let me count the ways. If the bottom is not sand, the anchor will not dig in. If the bottom is mud, you MAY dig in, but pull out easily. If the bottom is rocky, you get hung up on a rock and break loose at any time or you may be in so solid you will not be able to retrieve the anchor. If you do not put enough line or chain down, the angle of the anchor shaft to the bottom will be too large, and the anchor will not dig in. If when you reverse the engines to pull the plow and dig it in, you go too fast, the plow just skips along the bottom. Pull too hard before it is set, you pull it out. Even if it is set, if the wind shifts and changes the angle of the pull, the anchor may come out.

In 2003, Pinks and I took a bareboat charter (no crew, just the two of us) of a 42 foot single diesel trawler in the US and British Virgins for a week. We had an anchoring lesson. No big deal. Sandy bottom, little wind, all chain, no rope. Piece of cake. The instructor left after two hours.

The next day we had to go to Big Harbor on Jost Van Dyke, to check in with the British authorities. I anchored in the windy bay, crowded with boats. I followed all the rules, even dived and saw the anchor dug in. We took the dinghy ashore, did our official business, came back to the boat—and it was gone! A 42 foot boat had disappeared. Well, not exactly. We had parked her on the eastern end of the harbor, and found her tangled up with a boat on the western end. Fortunately, no one hurt, no boat damage—the anchor, after dragging a couple of hundred feet, fortunately snagged another boats' anchor line, and she came to rest. Of course, the entire harbor was involved in untangling everything, helping Pinks dinghy out to me, etc. Certainly up there in all-time humiliation. After that, we stopped only in harbors that had mooring balls. Just pick up the line and attach it to your bow cleat. Best $15 a night you ever spent.

That brings me to today. Sunday. Gorgeous day. Took Fish Faster over to Columbier, a beautiful beach and natural bay harbor on the northwest end of the island. Lots of mooring balls but at 2 PM when we arrived, they were all gone. Big test. Fight or flight? We chose fight. Found a patch of green bottom (sand, not rock), dropped the hook, let out lots of line, backed off a little, and waited. When I started the exercise, I was 300 feet in front of a 150 foot motor yacht. When I got close enough to reach his anchor chain with my ten foot boat hook, I thought maybe I hadn't done so well, gunned the engines forward ever so casually, and recovered my anchor. I did this with the nonchalance of somebody who was intentionally dropping and retrieving an anchor. Doesn't everybody play that way in a crowded harbor on Sunday? The nervous mate on the bow of the threatened yacht never said a word, but the sound of him grinding his teeth was audible over the grinding of my electric anchor winch. ( In the good old days of our 22 foot Aquasport, Pinks was the anchor winch. Now we pay 150 euros a month so she can pull on a rope in the gym.)

So we moved to another spot in the harbor. Lots of room, sandy bottom, piece of cake. Not. After a third failure, we were about to depart, when we saw a boat leave one of mooring balls and we jumped on it. Ate lunch, swam off the boat, napped, read. Did not go the beach because we were too far off to swim. Not bad for a day of failure.

I will not surrender. We will go back, during the week when not so many watchers are clucking their tongues, and learn how to do this properly. Of course, I may not sleep the night before, but that's what afternoon naps are for, n' est ce pas?

A bientot.

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