Anchoring etiquette

Photo by Behan Gifford

Photo by Behan Gifford

It’s one thing to learn the mechanics of anchoring. It’s another issue entirely to learn the unwritten rules of etiquette for setting your hook. Here are some tips for peacefully sharing an anchorage in Puget Sound and beyond.

Be informed. Have a sense in advance for your desired destination, how crowded it may be, bottom composition (mud, sand, silt, etc.), bottom topography (flat, sloped, etc.) and other features of the anchorage. Is the bay open in a direction that the wind is likely to blow from? A little preparation will translate to better choices in the moment when it’s time to drop the anchor.

Respect prior arrivals. Boats already anchored benefit from a “first come, first served” precedent. It’s the responsibility of later arrivals to anticipate and avoid the swinging circle of those in place, and to follow any protocol the other boats have established. For example, it could be a spot where it’s essential to set a stern anchor, or use a certain minimum of rode to prevent dragging. If there’s a question about set or rode, ask boats nearby before anchoring. Pleasant communication is better than being subjected to The Staredown.

Avoid the herd mentality. Just because the only boats present are anchored in one corner of a bay doesn’t mean it’s “the good spot” and you should go there too. Pick a location based on your priorities, not theirs, and remember that they might not have had a choice: what now appears to be the center might have been the outskirts of an earlier fleet. It’s also possible that a group is seeking separation, and has set themselves apart for a reason.

Be a good partner. Sharing a screaming match between the cockpit and the bow is not a great way to introduce yourself to the fleet or maintain a happy boat. Discuss the anchoring plan beforehand, and learn a few “constructive” hand signals to better communicate or get walkie talkies. Too often, anchoring drama is simply due to miscommunication, so make communicating easy. It may be a little less entertaining for boats around you, but that moment of relaxation in the cockpit will come much sooner if you can keep the blood pressure down.

Honey works better than vinegar. There’s nothing like the sight of heads popping up like prairie dogs from below decks when chain starts rattling out from a nearby boat. If you think a boat circling to anchor near you is too close, start by being friendly: hail from the deck or over VHF, or better yet, visit in the dinghy to introduce yourself.

Standing on deck, arms akimbo and sunglasses shooting daggers, isn’t necessary. Why start off on the wrong foot? You may need their help later. Besides, nobody likes to be under that kind of scrutiny, and you risk pushing them to make the “it’s probably a good enough set, because I don’t want to try again and look like an idiot” mistake.

Be a good neighbor. Your superpowers do not include invisibility behind a pair of binoculars. It’s poor taste to stare through the lenses at the rest of the fleet from your cockpit. Yes, everyone does it, so try to be subtle if you can’t resist. Likewise, remember how well sound carries over water. Think about your noisemakers, whether it is a pet, a cell phone, a generator or your planned music set, and avoid unnecessary sharing.

Drive slowly through the neighborhood. When using the dinghy in and around the anchorage, keep the speed and wake down. There could be swimmers, fishing gear or other hard-to-see obstacles avoided only at slow speed. Kicking up a wake big enough to get boats rolling isn’t very neighborly.

Anchoring etiquette is based upon respect and common sense. You won’t find these in state boating legislation or COLREGS, but following a few simple etiquette guidelines will go a long way towards a more peaceful – and safer – anchorage.

15 Responses to Anchoring etiquette

  1. Franklin September 17, 2013 at 4:49 pm #

    One more suggestion: if you happen to be gone and come back and a boat is anchored close to you, ask them how much scope they have out as it may not be enough when the wind shifts and you swing into them because you are on say a 7:1 and them a 3:1 or they are in shallower water than you are.

    As for how to tell if you have a good anchor: simple, if it sets in any bottom always on the first try, it’s a good anchor. If not, get a new anchor.

    • Franklin September 17, 2013 at 4:50 pm #

      Opps…ask how much rode they have out…not scope because you don’t know what they think the water depth is where they dropped it.

  2. s/v Eolian September 17, 2013 at 7:50 am #

    Spot on! I hope everyone reads this. Especially the “Herd Mentality” section. I don’t know how often we have been anchored in an empty, or nearly empty bay, only to have the next arrival drop his hook right next to us.


  3. John Enders September 16, 2013 at 9:10 pm #

    I also want to say this is a very helpful and useful list of “do’s” and “don’ts”. You can sure tell the thoughtful boaters from the not-so ones. I was recently anchored at Doe Bay on Orcas Island, swinging wide with 120 feet of rode out. Another sailboat came in, and the captain came close, asking me how much line I had out. He didn’t want to squeeze me. I thought to myself, “Now there’s an ol’ pro.”

  4. John Enders September 16, 2013 at 9:09 pm #

    I also want to say this is a very helpful and useful list of “do’s” and “don’ts”. You can sure tell the thoughtful boaters from the not-so ones. I was recently anchored at Doe Bay on Orcas Island, swinging wide with 120 feet of rode out. Another sailboat came in, and the captain came close, asking me how much line I had out. He didn’t want to squeeze me. I thought to myself, “Now there’s a ol’ pro.”

  5. Stevfe Hulsizer September 16, 2013 at 8:28 pm #

    I find estimating distance over water, even short distances in an anchorage, difficult. If you have radar, set it on a short range – 1/2 nm or 1/4 nm, then set variable range circle at 240 feet. When the other boats are all outside this circle, then it is safe to set an anchor. This is based on 3:1 scope on chain. If the water is really shallow, say approx 30ft , the circle can be smaller. This works for boats up to 40 ft or so, larger boats will have a larger circle. You may be relatively close to another boat when the anchor chain is stretched out to set, but comfortably distant when it is all settled out.

    • Scott Wilson September 17, 2013 at 7:14 am #

      That’s a good tip, Steve… I have the same problem. I’m also really bad at math, so calculating the swinging radius is a chore. I noticed this summer that one of the old guide books (possibly Wolferstan’s Gulf Islands book) had a pre-calculated set of radiuses for depths that took much of the pressure off.

      If you have time to build one yourself, or Internet access, you can use this online calculator:

      • Stephen Hulsizer September 17, 2013 at 4:23 pm #

        John, the formula you referenced is Pythagoras’s theorem, i.e. the hypotenuse (the rode) is the square root of the sum of the sides squared, plus the length of the boat. That might be approximated in a strong wind with a rope rode. For chain, there will always be a catenary effect, a droop in the chain reducing the swing radius. If the wind is strong, hopefully every boat will be lying in the same direction and if using the same scope (including those on rope rodes), everybody should be OK.

        Most of the problems we have seen are people with unmeasured scope with rope rodes in a crowded anchorage. Boats on rope drift more than those on chain (the majority?)in a light breeze or current, and they tend to let our more rode since it is light.

        I set the watch circle at 240 ft radius even in relatively shallow water to allow for some slip as the anchor sets. This occasionally puts me pretty far out, but that’s what outboards on dinghies are for.

        • Scott Wilson September 18, 2013 at 5:25 am #

          For chain, there will always be a catenary effect, a droop in the chain reducing the swing radius.

          Yes; for the same reason you set your watch circle at 240 feet even when maybe you don’t need to, I account for the full theoretical swing radius… it builds in a slight safety factor.

          Very interesting to hear the mechanics of everyone’s techniques here… I think Behan should do a follow-up article “How do YOU anchor?” and catalog them all!

    • Franklin September 17, 2013 at 4:40 pm #

      Best way to calculate short distance over water is by boat lengths. Ask yourself how many of my boat could I fit between me and him, then multiply by the length of your boat and there you go. It’s not totally accurate but gets you very good estimate.

      As to the other poster, do not assume the other boats are a 3:1 scope, always ask.

      Last advice, get rid of those old crappy anchors and get a good one. I’ve seen so many have difficulty setting an anchor or dragging one and it always seems to be old of the old types and of course, they always blame the bottom when I am anchored in the same stuff just fine. Funny how it takes me 5 minutes all by myself to anchor and couples are out there for 30 minutes or more.

      • Scott Wilson September 18, 2013 at 5:36 am #

        Couldn’t agree more with you about the poor habit of making assumptions about scope; or about just about anything when it comes to someone else’s anchoring setup (another reason to avoid the herd!).

        On the other hand, I kind of like it when I see people taking their time about anchoring; at least I know they are paying some attention to their set and taking it seriously. I’d rather watch someone spend an hour at it and know they were checking how they held than see someone do it in five minutes and have to wonder all night if they really knew their stuff, or did they just not care?

        Unfortunately, the scale in use doesn’t make a whit of difference for me… whether it’s boat lengths or meters or furlongs or cubits, I just don’t have a seaman’s eye for distances on the water. I have had some success using GPS and Steven’s and my friend Mr. Pythagoras for plotting distances, but as I think I mentioned, I’m pretty bad at math.

        (Yes, this is a veiled suggestion to folks who might be reading this that I would like a laser range-finder for Christmas.)

        • Franklin September 18, 2013 at 9:49 am #

          It only takes a minute of backing down an anchor at 2600 rpms to know if it is set or not and to dig in the anchor. Best way for me to know if it is set is while I am backing it down hard, watch the gps cordinates…each tick is about 3 feet. You will get some stretch in the beginning but then it will bounce back a little. That’s when you know you are set good.

        • Franklin September 18, 2013 at 9:55 am #

          It might be that you aren’t using the boat length technique correctly. The idea of the technique is to not look at the whole distance, but short peaces at a time. AKA…look at your boat and then see how far from the bow that would be…then look from there to the next point and keep doing that. It does work, trust me. What doesn’t work is looking at the whole distance and trying to guess.

  6. linda edeiken September 16, 2013 at 7:07 pm #

    Great article, Behan, and excellent advice!! When we anchor and are not sure if we are going to settle too close to another boat for either our and their comfort, or we get the feeling that the other boat is uncomfortable, we AlWAYS call them on the VHF, introduce ourselves and ask them if they are comfortable about our position and offer to move if they are not. Seeming scowls usually turn into smiles when they feel they are being respected.

  7. Melissa White September 16, 2013 at 3:01 pm #

    I’d like to print this post out and give it to all new boat owners (and a few who’ve been anchoring for a long time). I think we’ve all had the experience of being at a peaceful anchorage, minding our own business, when another boat comes in and anchors right on our bow. I’ve never really understood that. How could it not be obvious when one is too close? That being said, sometimes it takes people awhile to realize that they are too close. Several times we’ve had the experience of someone anchoring only feel away from us, then as they settled at anchor, realizing they had made a mistake, then picking up and moving further away. Giving them time to realize their mistake worked out for everyone.

Leave a Reply


Skip to toolbar