Get your ground tackle setup right, and you’ll sleep much easier while you’re cruising. Get it wrong, and your boat could wind up on the beach in a bad blow.
Ground tackle is a complete system, including the anchor itself, the rode (chain, rope, or some combination thereof, which connects the anchor to the boat), and the windlass (or other means of retrieval). Remember this: Good ground tackle can overcome poor anchoring technique, but even the best technique, in the worst conditions, won’t overcome poor ground tackle.
Gone are the days of the plow-style CQR anchor as a primary and ubiquitous bower anchor. Nowadays, a single bower anchor is de rigueur, made possible by the leap in anchor technology over the past 20-odd years, which has made anchoring simultaneously simpler and safer. These are the modern-generation anchors—think Rocna, Spade, Vulcan, Mantus, etc.
It hardly matters which brand you choose; they are all miles ahead of the old guard in terms of holding power in a variety of bottom conditions. To keep it simple, just buy a modern-style anchor of the right weight for your boat.
Crucially, make sure it fits on your bow roller. Modern anchors typically fall into two camps—those with roll bars and those without. We’ve used a 33-kg Rocna on our Swan 48 Isbjorn (displacement 36,000 pounds) to great success since 2015, including two summers in Spitsbergen, one of the more challenging anchoring grounds in the world. The Rocna is a roll-bar style anchor and fits snugly on Isbjorn’s bow roller.
When we bought Icebear in 2019, I knew right away I wanted another Rocna. With her 62,000 pounds displacement, our Swan 59 needed a 55-kg Rocna, which also fit nicely on the bow roller—until we tried to fit the removable bowsprit, that is.
Many modern boats will indeed have some kind of bowsprit, and older boats can be retrofitted with one to make flying light-air, downwind sails that much easier, but this option is virtually eliminated with a roll-bar style anchor. Point being, think this through before you buy.
When it comes to sizing an anchor, the joke is that if your marina neighbor isn’t laughing at the ridiculous size of your anchor then it’s not big enough. The truth is, it’s not really a joke.
Manufacturers will have recommendation charts based on boat length and displacement. Note also that windage plays a huge role in anchor size; modern catamarans, while lighter, have enormous windage and so require heavier anchors, for example.
It’s worth checking the standards these charts are created to. Rocna, for example, uses 50 knots of wind as the standard by which they recommend anchors. Many others use only 30 knots. Just make sure you’re comparing apples to apples.
Put the weight in the anchor and not in the rode. If you’re on the edge between anchor sizes, go up a size, but then perhaps down a size in the chain link diameter.
All-chain rodes have always been the gold standard for serious cruisers, but there are myths around them too. Take catenary, for example. Catenary describes the arc that a length of chain will make between the bow and the anchor in calm conditions when the weight of the chain itself pulls it to the bottom. This does two things: It shallows the angle between the anchor and chain, making for better holding, and it creates a kind of shock-absorbing mechanism as the boat bounces around on the breeze, straightening the catenary curve.
Both of these phenomena are true—until they aren’t. In very windy conditions, just when you need solid holding the most, the boat will be pushed with enough force to overcome the weight of the chain, which is now bar-tight, thereby eliminating both of the catenary’s beneficial effects.
I’ve always been a big fan of hybrid rodes—chain plus rope. Reducing the total chain length keeps a lot of weight out of the bow of the boat, right where you don’t want it, making for a better sailboat at sea. Rope, specifically 8-strand plaited, has a degree of built-in shock absorption that makes gusty nights on anchor quieter and safer. And in a real pinch, if you need to bail on an anchorage in a hurry (such as if another boat is dragging down onto you, as happened to us in Bermuda), rope is much easier to cut than chain.
On all of our boats we use about 120 feet of G4-grade chain, spliced to another 200 feet of 8-strand plaited polyester. In average conditions at normal depths, we’re typically anchored on chain only with a polyester snubber. When it’s really windy, or extra deep, we deploy to the rope, add a chafe guard at the bow roller, and sleep soundly.
If you already have all-chain and want a simple safety upgrade, an extra-long snubber is the key. This setup likely saved my friend Tom’s boat from disaster in the Bahamas during a violent derecho frontal passage that saw winds gusting over 90 knots in the Exumas. Tom had anchored his Ericson 35, Jubilee, on a big Rocna with an all-chain rode but used a 50-foot snubber to secure the boat. At the height of the storm, this long snubber provided enough shock absorption to keep the Rocna firmly dug in and his boat safe. At least a dozen other boats that night wound up on the beach for lack of solid ground tackle.
Electric windlasses are so useful and make anchoring and retrieving an anchor so much faster (and safer) that it’s hard to argue against them for any boat over 40 feet.
Keys to proper windlass sizing are the total weight of the anchor and all of its rode, plus some safety factor. Add the anchor and its rode and imagine hoisting it up from the bitter end, in deep enough water that it won’t touch bottom. That’s your windlass size.
If you use a hybrid rode, make sure that the wildcat (aka gypsy) can accommodate chain and rope, and make sure both are sized properly. I’ve always preferred Maxwell windlasses for what that is worth, and we have a new Maxwell RC-12HD installed on Falken.
What would you do if you needed to ditch your anchor in a hurry? What if the windlass fails when you prepare to leave harbor one day? What if your electrical system fails, rendering your working windlass inoperable?
Think about these scenarios and how they will affect your choice of ground tackle. If you opt for all chain, make sure the bitter end is attached to the inside of the chain locker with a length of rope long enough that it’ll emerge on deck if you need to dump your anchor and cut it free in a hurry. Create a system using the boat’s onboard winches and old halyards tied to the rode with a rolling hitch to lift the anchor in the event of power failure. Practice these scenarios so when—not if—the time comes, you’ll know exactly what to do.
A well-thought-out ground tackle system will make you safer on anchor and help you and your neighbors sleep more soundly. It’ll make cruising more fun. You’ll have the confidence to choose to anchor out rather than stay in a marina and to trust your own (free) ground tackle over that paid-for mooring ball whose business end you know nothing about.