Anchor Watch


There is nothing more excruciatingly terrifying or altogether boring than Anchor Watch. You don’t DO anything. You just sit there, staring at your surroundings – and never when your surroundings are pleasant. It is, in my opinion, the worst part of this whole sailing adventure. On a sailboat, there is always something to DO. Even with the autopilot on in perfect conditions – there is something to do. Why is it that the only time you have NOTHING to do is when you’re at anchor, in heavy weather no less? And why is it that the only thing you CAN do, the only thing you HAVE to do, is sit there… and stress the @#$% out?! Let me backup and put my ravings in some context for you.

Our buddy boats now gone, Kelley and I decided to hang out in Green Turtle Cay and explore the historic New Plymouth settlement. On our second day of site-seeing, a local we’d met named Jimmy was jawing us up about a storm on the horizon. He said, “You should take a mooring ball in Black Sound. The winds are going to hit 40+mph tonight; your boat is in no place to be in that kinda weather.” We were anchored right in front of New Plymouth, which had no natural protection. If he was right about the weather, we had to move. If… Jimmy seemed like an excellent salesman so we decided to investigate.

Since we had internet access, we poured over our usual weather sources. Sure enough, Jimmy was telling no tales. For next 48 hours, a storm front was going to bring sustained winds ranging from 30-35mph with gusts up to 50mph. Rain, lighting, 180 degree wind shift, you name it. We needed to move. We had only two real choices, Black Sound and White Sound. Black Sound charged to moor and even anchor. White Sound had moorings as well, but it also offered a free anchorage. We’re cheap, so White Sound it was.

Green Turtle Cay

{Green Turtle Cay and our anchoring options}

We had lots of company in White Sound. Mingled amongst a field of mooring balls were dozens of boats at anchor. 2-3 boat lengths was all that separated any given boat. It was tight, but we found a spot nestled between a pair of Island Packets from Australia and a Jeaneau from Canada. We dropped the hook and set a scope of about 6:1 – any more and I’d be playing bumper cars later on. For good measure, I dove the anchor (as I usually do) just to make sure we were well set in good sand. Our neighbors seemed to think this silly judging by the looks we were given. But no matter, it made me feel better.

That night, the winds kicked up as expected but it wasn’t too bad. For a while all was well. We ate dinner, passively kept an eye on our surroundings, prepped for bed and so on. By 10pm the winds REALLY kicked up. Lighting and thunder rattled the boat. Heavy rains fell. You know the scene – your basic doom and gloom, end of the world sorta thing. And there was no way I was going to get any sleep through it. Our little anchor dragging event in Vero Beach left me scarred. So I did what every good (and nervous) Captain would do, I began my Anchor Watch. I was not the only one. On every boat around me, people were in their cockpits. Watching. Waiting.

I’ll say this again. There is nothing more simultaneously terrifying and boring as Anchor Watch. You just sit there. Watching. Waiting. Staring. Thinking. I had my laptop and tried to watch a movie, but I was too damned nervous to STOP staring at the boat directly in front of me (aft of us). Its pitch black and winds are roaring. For those of you who don’t know, the internal dialogue goes as follows:

“Is that boat getting closer? Am I dragging? If I am, I’d only have seconds to react. I AM SO CLOSE. I can practically spit to that boat. If I break free I’m likely to collide before I can start the engine. Should I drop a second anchor? Should I move the boat? NO! I am fine. Relax.” 10 minutes later, repeat. And for hours, that’s how it was.

To my right, spot lights start blaring in and around my boat. Not good. The two Island Packets are hustling around their cockpits, shining lights everywhere. And one of those lights is getting closer. One of them is dragging and slowly coming right at us. He gets within 15 feet of our bow before his engine finally beats his momentum and propels him forward. He drops his anchor again. Sets. And the lights turn off. All is well. Back to the Watch.

The VHF blared, “Sailboat to my right, you are dragging! You are headed for the pylons!” Now, WTF is that??!! Sailboat to my right? Who the hell hails on 16 in a crowded anchorage and says “sailboat to my right??!!” Luckily someone with fewer curse words in mind beat me to respond. I listened in. A boat at the other end of the sound had in fact dragged into the pylons. Others were acting. Nothing I could do to help. Damn. Back to my Watch – and that damned boat in front of me. Is it getting closer?

When day finally broke, no one was where they were. No one except those on moorings and… wait for it… US. We held fast. A dozen boats around us all dragged, raised anchor, played musical chairs, and so on. We… (insert vainglorious laugh) We, held fast! The winds of day were no calmer than they were at night. Although I felt a little more secure, I never left the cockpit. Never left my Watch. Boats around us left and took slips in one of White Sounds’ two marinas. Others grabbed a ball or tried to find better holding. Us? We held fast.

The winds finally calmed down that evening. Enough for me to take leave of my post. It was only blowing 15-20 mph now. The worst was over. Perhaps now, I can actually lay my head down and get some sleep. I didn’t need to worry anymore. 15-20mph was nothing. A normal day at the office. And it was only going to die down from there. “Jason get the @#$%^ UP NOW!! WAKE UP!!! We dragged!!! GET UP!!!”

Sure enough. We were broadside against the pylons that protected the houses along the sound. Somehow, miraculously, we seemed to gently run aground right before we hit the pylons. So from a stranger’s perspective, we had somehow managed to parallel park and float our boat perfectly 18” away from the dock – between two houses. I couldn’t make this @#$^ up if I tried. Kelley was in her underwear pulling up the dragged anchor. I was naked and starting the engine. A dinghy from the nearby Jeaneau came over the help as well. After a double-take and an awkward exchange of words, he used his dinghy to push our bow out, our engine did the rest.

We found a new spot and dropped anchor. With our anchor set again, we waved a thankful and em-bare-assed goodnight to our new friend. I stared out into the night and at the newly arranged boats around us. I was up. No sleeping now. So I grabbed a sleeping bag and a pillow and propped myself back up in the cockpit to begin my Watch. I took a mental snapshot of the boats around us, “Wait, does that boat seems closer than it did a minute ago… are we dragging….?”

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  1. Hey Jason,

    We’ve been following you guys for a while. Love your posts. This one was particularly entertaining! I had some awesome mental images of the drama taking place. Thanks for sharing a day/night in the life of liveaboard cruising.

  2. By the way… I get the terrifying bit about being anchored in close quarters. I’ve left anchorages where people are two close several times to be in sketchier less crowded spots. We have had boats drag I to us in the past and it sucked. Our pulpit is still damaged.

  3. I’m trying to follow your island hopping on electronic charts, mainly my Garmin BlueChart Mobile on iPad.

    There is a review for the Bluff House Yacht Club & Resort in White Sound that points out the benefit of joining Royal Marsh Harbor Yacht Club for discounts throughout the islands. At this marina, the RMHYC rate is $.50/ft for transients.

    I did some further checking on the RMHYC web site and learned that membership cost is $120 for a one-time initial fee and then $30 a year. Their discounts include: Fuel, Publications, Merchandise, Recreation,
    Dining,Air Fares, Marinas, US and Bahamas! No idea if the cost/benefit ratio makes it worthwhile or not, but the review I read spoke very highly of it.

    Here’s the web site address for RMHYC.

    Also, according to the web site, “Morning Meetings of the Royal Marsh Harbour Yacht Club are broadcast live from the Sea of Abaco on VHF Channel 78 at 8:00 a.m. every Monday, Wednesday and Friday. Please join us, hear the latest club news, and get help with questions.”

  4. Glad you both and Chance are OK! I know exactly what you mean about the anchor watch paranoia. Have played those tapes in my mind quite a few stormy nights myself! The worst is when its a crowded anchorage! Glad the worst thing that happened was being embarrassed! Here’s wishing you both fair winds!

  5. Curious – why not use the anchor alarm on the GPS (in addition to a occasional visual check)? Often dragging anchor can happen so slowly, it can be difficult to tell that you have moved. The GPS alarm will catch it every time. We also have a phone app for anchor watch.

    Let’s hope the folks in the dinghy didn’t have a blog and a camera!

    Mark and Cindy
    s/v Cream Puff

  6. Mark and Cindy, We normally would, but because we were in such close quarters the anchor alarm would have been useless. We would have bounced off two boats before it sounded. When we dragged, it was only 60-70 ft. to the sea wall. Most alarms are 100ft. to allow for swing. we’re looking into Drag Queen now. 🙂