Can you set and weigh anchor under sail, without turning the ignition key? Tom Cunliffe demonstrates a handy cruising skill
How to anchor under sail
Few of us anchor under sail these days – a pity, because nothing beats making a passage without the engine, then letting go the hook to complete a perfect day. Cranking up the diesel doesn’t only make noise, it also erodes the satisfaction factor. In any case, when engine failure looms, dropping the pick in a safe spot to sort things out is the number one safety measure.
My wife and I cruised extensively in a 13-ton gaff cutter with no engine and no windlass. Tackled sensibly with an understanding of what a boat is likely to do when way comes off, the job holds no horrors. Weighing anchor can be more challenging without a powerful windlass.
To explore the skills of engineless anchoring, we borrowed an Océanis 343 in Lymington and cruised out to the roadstead behind Hurst lighthouse in the West Solent. Lots of space there, and a turning tide to spice things up.
For the purposes of this article, we’re assuming that suitable calculations have been made regarding depth to anchor in, and that we’re using a scope – with chain – of three or four to one.
My experience of heavy displacement yachts with meaty ground tackle tells me that 3:1 is almost always adequate. Four is even more secure. If you’ve all the space in the world, loads of chain and a hefty windlass, lay as much as you like and sleep easy. Light yachts, with no forefoot and tiny anchors strung from chain selected to keep weight out of the bows rather than to hold the boat in a gale, generally need more scope.
Approaching the anchorage
Approaching an anchorage, what are we aiming to achieve? The ideal is to drop the hook where you want it to lie, then move the yacht away from it, steadily paying out cable, until you’ve laid the chosen scope for the probable HW depth. At this point, the cable is snubbed and the yacht should dig in her tackle. Under sail, one or two sophistications enjoyed by the vessel under power are not possible, so you can only rely on the weight of the boat to dig in the hook. We look at specific situations over the rest of this page and the next, but first, seamanlike preparation is key. Before actually dropping the anchor overboard, a useful order of events goes like this:
- Sort out where you’re going to anchor and decide on a suitable depth at which to let go
- Drop, or roll away any sails that won’t be needed
- Free up the hook and lower it over the bow so that it can be let go promptly
If there’s a windlass, make sure its brake is ready to knock off or that it’s all set to wind out cable electrically. The cable should be suitably marked, or the windlass itself should read how much chain has passed over it
Without a windlass, flake the cable you’ll need on the foredeck. Make the bight fast at the mark, so that you don’t have to handle the chain if it’s running out under load. So long as the chain is made off in advance, no fingers need be lost.
If a sensible amount of chain is spliced onto a warp to achieve full length, the beginning of the warp is often a useful starting point for making fast. Once all that is done, there are several ways to proceed, depending on the wind and tide situation.
Laying the anchor – wind with tide or no tide
Where there’s no tide running, a yacht can approach her anchoring spot under any sail combination at all. If she sails well under main only, this is generally best, because it keeps the foredeck clear for the hands to work the ground tackle. Where it’s windy and you feel uncomfortable without a headsail for manoeuvring, roll most of the genoa away and set just enough to do a bit of good. Here is how it generally happens on my boat:
- Roll or drop the headsail
- Prepare the ground tackle
- Approach the let-go point on a close reach so you can control speed by spilling wind from the mainsail
- Luff up and, as the last of the way comes off, drop anchor
Ideally, if crew numbers allow, back the mainsail to drive the boat astern. To do this, overhaul the mainsheet so you can physically shove the boom out as far as possible. A well-mannered boat will now trundle off making a controlled sternboard, steering just as she would when going astern under power, while the foredeck crew pay out cable to the mark.
If the boat won’t do this, her bow will certainly blow off as she loses way. Depending on how far this is likely to be – and only experience of an individual boat can tell you – it may now be necessary to drop the main to prevent it from filling. If so, do it smartly as soon as you let go the hook, then let her drift off sideways until the cable is all out. You may feel uneasy about not having any sail set, but remember, unrolling some jib or whipping the headsail halyard up only takes a second or two, so if the whole manoeuvre ends up badly out of shape, you can always get way on in a hurry.
If all is well, you’ll feel the anchor grab the bottom. Coil down, tidy up, and hoist the anchor ball.
Laying the anchor – wind against tide
This is the tricky one and you need to judge the best way to do it for your situation, however there should be no discussion about one thing. If you anchor with the main up, the boat will try to lie to the tide as soon as the hook bites. This fills the mainsail as the wind comes abaft the beam, an all-round bad scene. In a small yacht, you might get away with luffing very quickly and dragging down the main just as you let go, but it’s messy. A far better plan is to stow it early and approach under genoa alone, rolling it up steadily to lose way. Where the breeze is stiff and the tide weak, you can approach up-tide and downwind, or sometimes partly across the wind, under bare poles. However, generally speaking, the following is a good starting point for your thinking and a method I have used many times:
- Sail on a close reach, let off the mainsheet and drop the main.
- Stow it away
- Approach the chosen spot under jib, downwind, stemming the tide. Juggle your speed with sheet and furling line so you can become stationary over the ground just when you want to be. If you have a hanked-on headsail, hoist it part-way up and hold the leech out to give you as much way as you need and no more. This is often easier than letting the sheet fly on the whole sail, because the windage of a flapping genoa can be enough to carry the boat straight past where you want to stop
- Let go the anchor and pay out cable as the tide carries you back downstream
- Snub off when you’re ready, and that’s the job.
Laying the anchor – wind across tide
The best maxim for this indeterminate situation is the old favourite: ‘When in doubt, drop the main’. Modern yachts sail well under headsail only and getting shot of canvas from the boom does away with any chance of a gybing débâcle.
Laying the anchor – crash anchoring
Sometimes, in light going, you can’t be sure the hook has really ‘taken’, particularly if the boat is of modest displacement and doesn’t really develop enough inertia to plough the anchor fluke into the ooze. Similar circumstances can arise when a stronger wind is blowing against a weak tide. If it looks like being one of these days and you’re feeling adventurous, the following procedure removes all doubt. Safety precautions are vital, however. No hands near the chain, please. There can be a lot of load.
- Drop the main and approach downwind under jib, even in no tide
- Let go the pick as you sail over your spot, then let the chain run. Keep steering downwind and try to keep way to a minimum by rolling up the sail or dumping sheet until the hook takes. There won’t be the slightest doubt this has happened, because the boat will spin round in short order. Watch out! There can be a serious lurch
- Make sure that as soon as the hook shows signs of biting, you steer so as to swing the stern away from the cable, which will be running down one side or the other
This is a somewhat extreme process. If you aren’t careful, a fin-and-spade profile boat can do her propeller a mischief, and any boat can give her topsides a mashing with the cable. Care avoids these contingencies. The technique is definitely for the young at heart, but it can be a winner in a light boat that lacks the inertia to crank the pick into the bottom, or for any yacht when you really need to know you are securely anchored.
Weighing anchor with a windlass – wind with tide or no tide
- Hoist the mainsail and have the headsail ready to go
- Heave up towards the hook until the cable is ‘up and down’ – the old term for ‘ready to break out’
- If you’ve plenty of space, break out the pick and let the boat fall off on whichever tack suits her. If space is limited, use a backed headsail to help her decide. Bring the anchor on board, clean up with bucket and deck brush while the cockpit idlers cruise slowly away under mainsail. When all is stowed, break out the jib and blast off.
Weighing anchor with a windlass – wind against tide
1. Keep the mainsail stowed. It won’t hoist easily in any case, because the wind will probably be abaft the beam
2. Heave up to the anchor with no sail set, but the headsail ready to unroll or hoist in short order. You could have it unrolled at this stage, but if you can keep it out of the way the guys up forward will appreciate the clear foredeck
3. When the hook is aweigh, if there is any pressure on you – as there will be in a river, for example, or in a crowded anchorage – break out the jib and get under way. On the other hand, when there’s no stress, why not just clean up, stow, then hoist some sail when you’re ready? If the tide obliges you to use the headsail first, start out with this, then come up onto a close reach, overhaul the mainsheet, shove the boom out and hoist the main. If it can flap as it goes up and any lazyjacks behave themselves, there should be no problem.
Weighing anchor without a windlass – wind with tide or no tide
If the going is light, you may be able to hoist the main then heave the boat up to the hook. Try to build up plenty of way pulling the cable so that, if the anchor is well dug in, the boat’s inertia will break it out as she coasts over it. If it’s windy and you’re struggling, you’ll have to sail it out.
- Hoist the main lying well back from the anchor. Ease the sheet out. Unroll a modest amount of jib
- The person at the helm now backs the jib to lay the boat onto one tack or the other, while the crew stands by on the foredeck
- As the yacht pays off, sheet in the main a little – not too much so as to stall it – then sail away on a close reach
- When you’ve travelled something like the scope of your cable, tack smartly and sail across the wind towards the anchor
- The foredeck crew now gathers in slack on the cable as you go. When he or she runs out of slack, snub the cable. One of two things happens. Either the anchor breaks out and you’re off, or the boat snubs hard, allowing you to tack promptly then sail over the hook on the other tack. Once again, the crew grabs the slack when it’s offered, then snubs. This time the anchor will almost certainly break out. If not, try again, and so on
It goes without saying that careless seamanship on the foredeck in his dynamic exercise can lead to damaged hands, so always be ready to take a turn, rather than relying on pure strength to hold the cable. If it’s chain, keep those fingers well clear of the cleat while you’re doing it. I have rarely known this method to fail in real life, but we did have some fun with it on our YM test. We concluded that it was because we weren’t communicating well enough from foredeck to cockpit and vice-versa. When my wife and I did this every day, we didn’t exchange a word. We just knew what we both needed and did it. With a strange crew, I found that it’s not like this. What’s more, a modern yacht can easily sail to windward beyond and over the anchor. Communication will obviate this possibility, as we discovered.
Weighing anchor without a windlass – wind against tide
Because it is quite likely the boat is lying right over the anchor, or even to windward of it, this is the easier of the two scenarios. As usual, because the wind will be abaft the beam, don’t even consider hoisting the main
- Once again, by far the least dramatic way of dealing with this is to take in all the slack on the cable with no sail set at all
- When it’s up and down, take a good look around to check the space available. If there’s all the searoom in the world, break out the anchor by hand, bring it aboard and clean up, then start to hoist sail
- If searoom is limited, have the jib ready to go the moment the hook breaks out, or hoist/unroll it earlier if things are really tight
- Sail away and hoist the main on a close reach when you have enough searoom.
Anchoring under sail is an ancient art. It involves actions such as drifting around with no sail set and no engine turning which seem strange to a sailor of the diesel generation. In the days before the internal combustion engine, such techniques were commonplace. All that’s needed is a little confidence.
And, as always, practice.
For all the latest from the sailing world, follow our social media channels Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.
Have you thought about taking out a subscription to Yachting Monthly magazine?
Subscriptions are available in both print and digital editions through our official online shop Magazines Direct and all postage and delivery costs are included.
- Yachting Monthly is packed with all the information you need to help you get the most from your time on the water.
- Take your seamanship to the next level with tips, advice and skills from our expert skippers and sailors
- Impartial in-depth reviews of the latest yachts and equipment will ensure you buy the best whatever your budget
- If you are looking to cruise away with friends Yachting Monthly will give you plenty of ideas of where to sail and anchor