Tom Cunliffe's May podcast: Next time you tie up to a visitor’s mooring, spare a thought for crews who can’t afford it – there’s nowhere to anchor

‘Having to brass up to lie in what have always been free anchorages is another burden on our creaking cruising budgets’

My first experience of Internet-based weather forecasting for sailors came a while back when I was crossing the Atlantic on a biggish yacht. Not only did the GRIB files we downloaded keep us rollicking along in fair winds, they also slipped us the wink about any square waves headed our
way. At the time, access to such data seemed like space- age wonderland. Now, most of us make use of it, and it revealed much on a recent Caribbean charter.

Cruising there in my own boats years ago, I’d noticed that, despite what should have been perfect shelter, the outer limits of an anchorage would sometimes produce enough swell to roll the rum bottle off the table.

After seeing the predictions on that excellent website, Passage Weather, I now realise that this was caused by a northerly swell hooking down from regions of less settled weather. The only way out of the surge is to creep as close as possible to the beach. This had been my simple policy, but things have changed. So many of the famous anchorages have now been defiled with moorings hogging the best spots, that the passing sailor is condemned to roll his stick out halfway to Panama.

The same is true nearer home. A couple of seasons back, I returned to old haunts in Brittany’s Gulf of Morbihan, that tide-swept inland sea of charm and beauty, only to find that the tiny but vital anchorages tucked out of the roaring tides had almost all been filled with buoys. Some were tenanted, others not. But who had laid the vacant ones, and were they any good? They might not be big enough, or perhaps had not been maintained for years. And if you decided to chance it, you would likely be awakened at dawn by some official demanding money with menaces. Even in the Walton Backwaters and the west coast of Scotland, the blue blots are appearing, and always – you know it only too well – in the very hole where you were hoping to lay your pick. There’s certainly a time and a place for moorings.

My own boat lives on one in the tidal Beaulieu River where the careful placing of buoys allows sensible use of the water and keeps us clear of one another, even in wind- against-tide conditions. Anchoring certainly churns up the sea bed, so in places where this is particularly sensitive, the thoughtful installation of moorings must help the grander cause, but when Porth Cressa in the Isles of Scilly suddenly fills up with buoys for which the passing mariner must now pay, it saddens the heart. This natural harbour is safe in winds that render St Mary’s, the main port on the other side of a neck of land, barely tenable. Now, if you can find an available mooring at all, you must pay for your salvation.

I’m sorry for this rant, but having to brass up to lie in what have always been free anchorages is another burden on what, for most of us, are the creaking pillars of our cruising budgets. Some sailors who lack experience may prefer a mooring to anchoring, but once anyone has known the freedom of a night spent lying to a decent hook well dug into sound holding on a good scope of proper chain, he or she never looks back. I don’t remember the last time I dragged my anchor, and these days most charter yachts have excellent ground tackle too. I suppose we must all search harder for free anchorages and use them.

I have a pal I call Dutch Rob. He sails down to the Channel from Holland most summers and, as a matter of principle, will not pay a penny for berthing. Somehow, he pulls it off. The man should be an inspiration to us all.

Tom Cunliffe