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Anchors Aweigh - A How To For Caribbean Sailing

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There is something magical about chartering a boat and sailing the clear,
turquoise blue waters of the Caribbean. There is no finer way to get a
break and relax than to sail from island to island.

caribbean sailing

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There is something magical about chartering a boat and sailing the clear,
turquoise blue waters of the Caribbean. There is no finer way to get a
break and relax than to sail from island to island. At some point during
your Caribbean sailing experience, however, you will want to stop.
Whether you want to fish, swim, snorkel or dive, have lunch or stay
overnight, you will need to find an anchorage and either anchor or use a
mooring ball. Anchoring a boat securely is one of the most basic skills
in boat handling. The key is preparation and slow maneuvering. If you
miss the first time, do not be embarrassed. There is not an experienced
sailor afloat who has not encountered this problem. Just go around and
start again. The important thing is to have it right! By anchoring
poorly, not only are you endangering your boat, but also the other boats
anchored nearby. By following these suggestions and techniques, you can
feel confident that you will have safe, hassle-free anchoring.
Selecting the Anchorage

The first step in anchoring is to pick an anchorage. Try to arrive at
your anchorage relatively early enough in the afternoon. This allows you
enough light to avoid any shoals or other hazards like rock/coral heads,
fish nets or boats, ferries, freighters, mooring balls, crab pots and
cables. In addition, during peak season (December to April) many popular
spots throughout the Caribbean become very crowded. By arriving early
enough, you have extra time to go somewhere else before nightfall.

When choosing an anchorage, there are several things to consider. For
instance, is the anchorage protected? A good anchorage offers protection
from the current weather conditions and will also offer protection from
the expected weather. Are there any local weather (wind) conditions or
exposure to swells that could make the anchorage too rolly? How well is
the entrance and anchorage area charted or marked?

How good is the holding? Charts should indicate the type of bottom.
Generally speaking, most anchors will hold well in sandy bottoms. Rock,
coral and shale prevent anchors from digging in. If possible, avoid
grassy bottoms, where it is very difficult to set the anchor. How
crowded, noisy, dirty or smelly is it? Is the band from the beach bar
going to keep you up until the wee hours of the morning or is the diesel
smell of the inter-island ferry going to detract from your ideal scent of
paradise? How pretty is the anchorage when you sit in the cockpit
enjoying the dawn or dusk? How long a dinghy ride is it to shore and is
there a decent place to dock the dinghy? What amenities are available on
shore? What is the depth and tidal range? Enough depth is needed so that
low tide does not present obstacles your boat might swing into and it is
also important when determining scope. Finally, is there enough room? No
matter where your boat is anchored, the largest possible swing range
should be considered.

Getting Ready

Once you have decided that the anchorage is the perfect spot to stop on
your Caribbean sailing adventure, there are several steps to take before
actually anchoring. Before doing anything else, work out a system of
communication between the person at the helm and the crew member dropping
the anchor. Remember that your engine will be running and therefore you
will be unable to communicate verbally. Hand signals usually work best.
Furl the sails and generally make the boat shipshape before entering the
anchorage. Also, shorten the dinghy painter (the line that attaches at
the front of the dinghy) if you are dragging the dinghy behind you. This
prevents it from being sucked into the prop when you put the engine in
reverse. Open the anchor locker hatch, and if your anchor has a safety
line attached to the chain (usually found only in mono hulls), untie and
release it. Get the anchor ready to be dropped by disengaging the anchor
from the bow rollers. This is done by using the remote control windlass
(found in most Caribbean sailing charters) to lower the anchor about two
to three feet. Make sure all fingers and toes are away from the chain!
Finally, take a tour of the anchorage at very slow speed to get a sense
of where you would like to be.

Dropping and Setting the Anchor

After your tour of the anchorage, pick your spot. As the newest arrival
in an anchorage, you must anchor to keep clear of boats already at
anchor. Allow for any change in wind direction. It is always safer to
leave extra space around your boat. Make sure you will have enough room
to fall back on the anchor without lying too close to any vessel anchored
behind you once you have laid out a 7 to 1 scope. In normal conditions,
if you are using all chain, a safe minimum anchor scope ratio is 5 to 1
(chain length to depth).

In heavy weather, the scope ratio is 7 to 1. Depth is the depth of the
water at high tide plus the height from the water line to the bow roller.
Scope is the actual amount of anchor line (chain) paid out when the boat
is safely anchored. For example, if high water is 20 feet deep and your
bow roller is 5 feet above the water, you need 125 feet (5 x 20 + 5 feet)
of scope to anchor if using all chain, or 175 feet if using a 7 to 1
scope. Remember, putting out too little scope is one of the most common
mistakes cruisers make when anchoring.

With the bow to the wind, slowly motor up to the desired spot. Stop the
boat exactly where you wish the anchor to lay and take note of the depth.
Remember that if you are chartering a catamaran, a cat offers less
resistance to the water than a mono hull and thus takes more time to slow
down than a mono hull. Make sure the catamaran has completely stopped.
You can keep a cat straight into the wind by using both engines at idle
speed. Once your vessel has lost all forward movement, it is now time to
drop and set the anchor.

Despite the term, "dropping anchor", you never want to throw the anchor
over the side or let it run free immediately, because the chain will run
out at a tremendous speed and pile on itself rather than laying out
straight on the sea bed. A piled anchor chain prevents the anchor from
setting properly and may actually foul the anchor. Instead, with the
windlass, lower the anchor quickly to the bottom. Let the wind slowly
push your boat back- do not try to reverse. Let out adequate scope as the
vessel moves aft. If you are in a mono hull, do not worry about being
broadside to the wind. When the desired amount of scope has been let out,
snub the chain and allow the wind to straighten out the boat. Once the
boat is headed with the bow into the wind, gently put the engine into
reverse and throttle at 1500 rpm's for about 15-20 seconds. This should
set the anchor and the anchor chain should start to straighten. If it
vibrates or skips, let out more scope. An anchor that is set will not
shake the chain. Once you are satisfied the anchor is set, turn off the
engine. Put on your snorkel gear and visually check the anchor to ensure
your boat is secure. If the anchor is lying on its side, caught in coral,
or the chain is wrapped around a coral head, reset it.

When the anchor is firmly set, look around for reference points in
relation to your boat. These can include other boats or fixed landmarks
like a house, rock formation or tower. Over the next hour, relax in your
cockpit and make sure those reference points are in the same place. If
not, you are probably dragging the anchor.

Dealing With the Dragging Anchor

If your boat is dragging anchor during the day, it is not a major
problem. Start your engine and put it into idle gear. Try to let out more
chain. Wait a few minutes to see if the anchor sets itself. If not, you
will have to re-anchor. If you boat is dragging at night, it becomes a
little more challenging. If you are sound asleep and you do not bump into
anything, you might not even know you dragged until the next morning when
you wake up in a different place. I have friends who are extremely
experienced sailors. They actually woke up in an entirely different
anchorage after a night of dragging. On the other hand, you might become
aware of night dragging when other people in the anchorage start
screaming and flashing lights at your boat. Start your engine and keep it
idling. Try to let out more chain and wait to see if the anchor resets
itself. If not, you will have to re-anchor. Use your depth sounder to try
and find another spot to anchor. Keep all the lights on the boat off to
get the best night vision possible. Slowly move to another spot with
extreme caution. If your neighbor's boat is dragging during the day, try
and get their attention. Put out fenders to avoid damage to your boat. If
nobody is on board the dragging boat (they are onshore drinking at the
local beach bar), you can either get aboard their boat and reset the
anchor, or if you are not comfortable doing that, you may have to move
your own boat. During the night, if you are suddenly jolted awake when
another boat hits yours, immediately start the engine and keep it idling.
Wake up the crew of the other boat (yell, flash your lights, etc), put
out fenders and do the same as during the day.

The Mooring Ball Option

Throughout the Caribbean, but especially in the British Virgin Islands,
professionally maintained mooring balls are located in many anchorages
and are available for overnight use for a small fee. A mooring is a buoy
connected to an extremely heavy anchor or weight. Besides protecting the
coral from damage done by an anchor, picking up a mooring ball has three
other advantages. First, you do no have to go to the bother of using your
anchor. Second, the mooring's anchor probably is never going to drag. And
third, because the mooring's anchor is so heavy and deeply imbedded in
the sea bottom, less scope is needed and, therefore, the boat will swing
around in a tighter radius than it would on its own anchor.

As in anchoring, approach the mooring area slowly with your dinghy pulled
in on a short painter. Have a crew member ready with a boat hook at the
bow to direct you and to pick up the mooring pennant (a line with a loop
at the end). Have one end of a line attached to a bow cleat with the free
end close by. If you have chartered a catamaran, one line is sufficient.
If you have chartered a mono hull, however, attach a second line to the
opposite side bow cleat. Point the bow of the boat into the wind and
slowly approach the mooring ball. By shifting alternately from forward to
neutral, you can coast towards the ball. Shift into reverse to stop the
boat as the crew member lifts the pennant on board and passes the free
end of the line(s) through it. Quickly cleat off the free end of the line
on the opposite bow cleat for a catamaran or on the same side for a mono
hull.. On a mono hull, the two lines prevent chafing and limit the risk
of breaking free from the mooring ball. On a catamaran, the line hangs
low enough that chafing from tension is rarely a problem. Again, do not
be embarrassed if you miss picking up the pennant the first time- it has
happened to all of us! Just circle around and try it again. Once secured,
adjust the lines, if necessary.

To leave a mooring ball, make sure the dinghy is again on a short
painter. Un-cleat the line(s) and simply let go of the pennant. Take care
not to run over the mooring buoy and pennant as you leave for your next
Caribbean sailing destination.

Weighing Anchor

Before raising the anchor, preparation is again necessary. Make sure that
loose items are stowed and hatch covers are closed. (The anchor locker
hatch cover should be open). Shorten up the dinghy painter again. Start
the engine. Most charter boats require the engine on to operate the
windlass. Have a crew member stand on the most forward point at the bow
with the windlass remote control. Using hand signals, the crew member
instructs the helmsman to move the boat forward very slowly in the
direction of the chain. Make sure the helmsman stops the motion of the
boat before overshooting the anchor. While the chain is slack, start
cranking it up. When you get to the snubber, put down the remote and
remove the snubber. Then resume cranking. When the chain is taut again,
with hand signals, instruct the helmsman to move the boat forward again
in the direction of the chain. The whole idea of this is to avoid using
the windlass to move the boat forward, as this causes incredible strain
on the windlass and on the chain roller. At one point, you will find the
boat straight above the anchor. Finish cranking the chain until the
anchor is all the way up and settled on the rollers. Signal the helmsman
that the boat is free. Reattach the safety line to the anchor chain if it
has one, stow the remote control and secure the anchor locker hatch. Then
return to the cockpit to help raise the sails.

No matter where your Caribbean sailing adventure takes you, at some point
you will want to stop. Anchoring is among the most important activities
you will do while cruising. Anchoring is as much an art as a science. The
helmsman and crew have to orchestrate their efforts with the wind,
current and vessel. The important thing to remember is not to be
embarrassed. Even the most experienced sailors have difficulty anchoring
at times. As the old adage says, "Practice makes perfect." To perfect
your anchoring skills and enjoy the most relaxing vacation ever, contact
Virgin Island Sailing to arrange your charter. Nothing else beats
Caribbean sailing!

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