Neuse Sailing Association

NAUTICAL SKILLS/ Anchoring: cable vs. chain


Editor’s Note: Hans wrote this story for the Neuse Juice a few years ago. We’re reprinting an edited version after Hans reported that his use of cable instead of chain with his anchor was again tested successfully in a windy anchorage during this year’s Week-Long Cruise. Another member’s boat dragged and had to leave the anchorage. In addition, in February, Practical Sailor published its test of cable vs. chain for anchoring and reported that indeed the anchor with steel cable allowed it to dig 26 percent deeper than the anchor using chain.

By Hans Nickstadt
s/v LuLu

My boat came with a 15-lb. Danforth type anchor, six feet of coated chain and 120 feet of ½-inch 3-strand nylon rode. After a few anchor-dragging incidents, I bought a 14-lb.anchor/rode package deal for an emergency. The first few years I dragged anchor on Brown Creek, South River, Silver Lake, Tuckahoe Point, Tailor Creek, Cape Lookout and many other places. Wherever I anchored, I had trouble with my anchor dragging and was desperately looking for a solution. Talking to other sailors, I realized that this is the way I have to live with my boat. I met other sailors who gave up boating for this reason and bought an RV. One thing I could not understand was, we had walked on the moon but were still using an anchoring system dating to the time of Christopher Columbus.

A friend moved his boat to Matthews Point Marina, which has a mandatory evacuation policy. When a hurricane was predicted, he went there by himself to anchor his boat with a conventional anchor set-up using a long chain. His boat was the only one that dragged anchor, ending up high and dry. It had to be towed off. He told me about his mishap and how well the other boats, which were using steel cable, fared. This was the answer I was waiting for. I dropped everything and went to Matthews Point Marina to look at the boats, which still had their anchors with steel cables lying on their foredecks. Fortunately, Jet Matthews took the time to explain the concept of anchoring with a steel cable. They use Fortress anchors and the angle of the flukes can be changed to increase holding in soft mud.

This conversation with Jet has changed my boating life forever. I went right to the suggested place and bought a 3/8-inch galvanized steel cable and a 3/8-inch swivel. After seeing the Fortress prices, I took a good look at my anchor and decided that if I made the slot deeper, it would achieve the 45-degree angle just like the Fortress. Presto, it worked beautifully.

Soon I found a different way to set the anchor quickly. Just drop the anchor in the water and keep a slight tension on the rode to lift the shank so that the flukes can catch the mud. While the boat drifts back, keep the tension until you reach the proper scope (7 to 1), then cleat the rode and the boat will come to a sudden stop. (Don’t motor; if you do, you’ll just rake the soupy mud and have to take the anchor out to clean it.) The boat will start to swing or veer from side to side. That makes the anchor work itself deeper into the soft mud until it reaches the heavier clay-like mud below. The steel cable cuts the mud like a wire cuts cheese. (A chain is too thick and prevents the anchor from reaching the clay-like mud.) There is always a straight line between anchor and boat. The anchor follows any movement the boat makes, even a 180-degree wind shift. More wind will accelerate this process to the point where it becomes difficult to retrieve the anchor and you would have to motor it out, sometimes with many attempts.

With my old anchoring system, I would not dare to anchor the boat in the creek. With extra lines attached, I left it at the dock during a hurricane. After a few hairy incidents, I was lucky that my boat and dock survived with little damage. After I equipped my anchors with steel cables, I knew I could anchor my boat in the creek. I bought a 25-lb. Hooker and also modified it and equipped it with a steel cable. Now with 15-lb. and a 25-lb. anchors, I was ready to face any hurricane coming our way. A friend living close by has the same boat with the same modified anchors. To set the anchors in a V-pattern would be a mistake. You would only use the holding power of one anchor and when the wind shifts, the other rode would wrap around the keel. Setting the anchors about eight feet apart ensures that both will always follow the movement of the boat. The rodes may wrap around each other but the tangle is close to the boat and it does not affect the anchors.

We’ve already had surges of 10 feet, so it is important to have enough scope out. My friend was on a three-month trip when a hurricane approached. I took his boat and anchored it in the creek the same way I anchored mine. Our boats were the only ones still holding. I left his boat in the creek for two months in case another hurricane came. The two anchor rodes on his boat were wrapped around each other approximately 50 times. We ended up putting the whole tangle of rodes in my neighbor’s center console, and with his powerful motor were able to get the anchors out. Usually we bring the boat back to the dock after a hurricane and the anchor rodes might be wrapped around each other two or three times. With the bitter end of one rode in hand, it is easy to untangle the rodes. It is a great help if you have another person to help you set the anchors as they have to be dropped at the same time to keep them close together and both rodes have to be paid out together. Some times I have to do that by myself.

The previous owner did not clean all the mud off the 15-lb. anchor, which ate part of the galvanized coating and caused the anchor to rust badly and stain the anchor compartment, I had to decommission it. Also over time the galvanized steel cables rusted and with a little more money I replaced them with ¼-inch stainless steel. I now carry an 18-lb. Hooker modified to 45 degrees, with a 10-foot stainless steel cable and 5/16 stainless steel swivels on each end. Under that, is the 14-lb. Hooker with 15 feet of stainless steel cable and stainless steel swivels each attached to 120 feet of nylon rode in a 10-inch deep anchor compartment. For hurricane deployment, I use two 25-lb. modified Hookers with 15-foot cables, which I usually don’t carry with me. One of them will hold the boat, but two are better because of the chafing problems. On a longer cruise, when extended weather forecasts are unavailable, I take along one of the 25-lb. Hookers. In case severe wind is predicted, I pull the boat over the 18-lb. anchor and drop the 25 lb. right next to it. Again, I have to pay out the rode with tension and cleat it alone. After a few hours, when the anchor has wiggled itself deep into the mud, I cleat the other rode.

On a cruise I had to anchor in an inlet exposed to tremendous tidal current and wind. I was sure that there was no mud on the bottom, probably hard sand and I only had mud anchors with me. I was surprised when the anchor set right away and held beautifully all night. The anchor came out clean when I retrieved it, so I assume it was hard sand.

Safety is one of the important concerns when you travel single-handed. Everything has to be calculated beforehand, every possible situation thought over and the conclusion or remedy chiseled into your brain. The most important thing is that the anchoring system is reliable. A dragging anchor could put you in front of a barge or a ferry. It is also important that you can deploy the anchor quickly.

My engine quit once while traveling the Intracoastal Waterway and in seconds I was standing on the bow with the anchor in my hand waiting for the boat to lose forward motion. The anchor set right away and after bleeding the system, I was on my way again. (Eventually, I was able to find the air leak in the system.)

If for some reason I have trouble with the 18-lb. anchor, I grab the 14-lb. and drop it in the water. With a ton of chain in the compartment, you would not be able to do that. You would need an unlimited towing contract from Boat/US. 

I also carry a sharp knife in the compartment. If the situation becomes unsafe, I just cut the rode. The incident where four football players lost their lives is a good example. We were in Cape Lookout with the NSA, at the picnic, when suddenly the sky darkened and a tremendous storm developed. Some club members made it back to their boats to close the ports. My friend had anchored his boat with a long chain close to mine. I had already modified my 15-lb. anchor and used a steel cable, which held my boat without any problems. His boat dragged anchor through the whole fleet and was saved by club members before it ran aground. This incident convinced my friend to modify his anchor and he also bought a ¼-inch stainless steel cable. Later during a club raft-up he was the cruise leader and all the other boats rafted up to him, Late in the afternoon, the wind increased to 25 knots and everybody was amazed that this little 13-lb. anchor held five boats. The next morning as expected, it took some time to get the anchor retrieved. His boat does not have an anchor compartment. He used to drag the muddy chain on deck, flush the mud off with a pail of water and let it slide down through a tube to the bilge. He is very happy that he could get away without the chain, only his nylon rode and part of the stainless steel cable is in the bilge.

Owners of larger boats have a love affair with their push button windlass, rusty chain and plow anchor which have very little holding ability, but they are convenient and easy to operate. A plow anchor does best at what it is designed for, it plows the mud. It is OK if you just anchor to have lunch, but when the wind starts to blow, you’ll want to have a Fortress with a steel cable in your storage locker.

Fortress anchors are the best but come with a price, the 15 lb. FX23 sells for $350. The 18 lb. Hooker for $48 and the 25 lb. Hooker for $55. A stainless 5/16 swivel costs approximately $19. You need two swivels and two stainless ¼-inch thimbles. A 15-foot ¼-inch stainless steel cable will cost about $45. For approximately $150 you can have a reliable anchor system assuming you use your present nylon rode. The Fortress 15 lb. is about the same size as the 25 lb. Hooker and is recommended for boats up to 45 feet. With the weight of 15 lbs. it is easy to handle. For a short time I used a 10 lb. FX 16, which is about the size of the 18 lb. Hooker. Unfortunately, it did not set as expected; I think it is too light, with 10 lbs. it floats in the soupy mud. I sold it and bought the 18 lb. Hooker. If money is no object, just get the Fortress. If you decide to enlarge the slot on the Hooker 18 lb. or 25 lb. to 1 1/8, drill 1/8 holes and use a hacksaw blade or a chisel on the sides to break the piece off. To smooth the cut use a file or a carbide burr in a drill. Make a cardboard 45-degree template. According to a chart on the Internet, “Fortress selection guide”, an anchor set to 45 degrees has double the holding power in mud than at 32 degrees. If you don’t plan to anchor your boat in a river when a hurricane is approaching, for a single “everyday” use, I would recommend an 18 lb. modified Hooker for boats up to 34 feet and the 25 lb. Hooker for larger boats that will give you good holding power even if an unexpected storm appears.


About the author
Hans Nickstadt is a Lifetime Member of the NSA. He lives in Oriental and single-hands his 29.5-foot Seidelmann. 

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