The Art of Anchoring

sailboat aground and listing, anchoring too close to shore

There are certain guidelines for securely anchoring a boat for the night, but try as you might, sometimes things just don’t work out. When they don’t, it helps to get good pictures.

Attend to the Tide

Enroute from our Fort Lauderdale vacation back to Beaufort SC, we were pushing hard to make as many miles as possible each day.

We left Jekyll Island, Georgia at 6 AM, though the tide was low. Consequently, we got into some very shallow water at the north end of Jekyll Creek. I grounded us briefly where a smaller creek flowed in, so Tom (who has more experience with grounding the boat) took over and maneuvered off the shoal. All in all the going was far slower than we wanted. Though we enjoyed the beautiful scenery of south Georgia.

I’d lobbied for a day offshore. The weather forecast a south east wind, we could sail, stop the noisy motor for a while, and get farther than if we stayed on the meandering ICW. In reality, once we were out in the ocean the light wind blew east north east, a headwind that was not enough to be helpful, just enough to make the ride uncomfortable.

After motor sailing hard all day against wind and current, we made Wassaw Bay Inlet just before sundown, with the wind finally picking up – from the wrong direction.

Faced with the choice of continuing on overnight, we opted to head into the inlet as fast as we could. We weren’t prepared to stay out on the ocean, as we’d reach our destination, Port Royal Inlet, in the middle of the night.

The tide was at extreme low again and about to turn. Using Navionics and the depth finder, we felt our way across the very shallow (6’9″) bar between Red nuns 2W and 4. I fought the side current to stay in the deepest water possible, avoiding shrimp boats and their dolphin entourages, while Tom took down and secured the sails.

Tom took the wheel and I acted as a glare block, positioning myself to keep the blinding setting sun out of his eyes as he headed up the Wilmington River toward the anchorage at Turner Creek. Slow going, but we made the mouth of the creek with some remaining light. Then promptly got stuck again on the 4 foot sandbar.

The tide was coming in now, so we didn’t have to sit there long, but we lost more time. We didn’t want to be stuck inside the bar the next morning, as we had to be on the move at first light. We needed to find another anchorage.

Communicate Clearly

As we re-floated and turned out into the river again, the light disappeared and exhaustion setting in. That’s when our communication skills misfired.

Tom said, “Let’s go to the next anchorage.”

I took that to mean, the next anchorage up the river in the direction we were heading. The depth there was better and we shouldn’t have any trouble. Except with the darkness that would be complete by the time we got there.

Halfway there he said, “It shouldn’t be this far, on the chart it was right next to the creek.”

“You said go to the next one, the next one is Herb River, a little farther up.”

“I meant the next one, as in nearest one.”

“But that was down river.” I my defense, he usually hates to backtrack as much as I do.

The tenor of this conversation was not as friendly as it appears here, laid out in simple words with no inflection.

Survey Your Surroundings

He swung Sunshine around in the gathering dark and headed back to the anchorage in the river just downstream from Turner Creek. In the dark, it took some doing to find a place that wasn’t too deep and seemed far enough from docks and shore. We finally decided on a bight between the dock of a defunct hotel and the house next door, dropped and set the anchor and hit the sack.

The current was swift, but the wind was calm, so we didn’t worry about Sunshine doing her dance around the anchor. That only happens when the wind blows.

Pay Attention

Early the next morning, I woke when Sunshine spun 360 degrees. Obviously she’d wrapped the anchor line around the keel after all. I raced to the companionway, ready to start the engine, afraid she’d sever the line or pull up the anchor. But she straightened out and came to a stop. Heart thumping, I checked the time, 5:10. We had another 20 minutesf for another 20 minutes before the alarm went off. I went back to bed.

I should not have done that. Tom got up twenty minutes later and found us listing slightly.

“We’re grounded.”

I jumped out of bed and tried to spring into action, but it was too late. Well stuck, we listed more every moment. Clearly, Sunshine had struck the mud bank at the same time she reached the end of her anchor line. If only I’d noticed how close she’d swung to shore I might have been able to start the engine and drive to deeper water. But groggy with sleep, I wasn’t that observant, so now we were in a bad situation.

sailboat grounded and listing, anchoring

And when things go wrong in the anchorage:

Be Proactive

Listing away from shore is worse than listing toward shore. If the incoming tide doesn’t lift the boat fast enough it can swamp it. I was very afraid. As the angle became more acute, things tumbled off the chart table and the shelves and shifted in the refrigerator. I couldn’t sit still. I wanted to be doing something to fix this situation. There must be something I could do to forestall disaster.

trying to walk in mud, anchoring

Our boat cat, Tito, was almost as afraid as I. After yowling a few times, she hid in the tumble of cushions in the aft cabin. I got my phone and the Towboat number and went looking for a way to take a line to shore. My idea was to tie the mast to something solid to arrest the lean and give the hull a chance to re-float. So I tested the mud to see if I could walk to shore. All I got out of that foray was some mud stained clothing and an endorsement for Crocs. The mud tried to pull them off my feet each time I took a step, but I was able to pull them out using the strap. Boots would have filled with mud and disappeared. Love my Crocs.

Be Realistic, but Be Positive

Tom, very stoic and zen about it all, assured me physics would save us After all, sailboats are designed to lean over and then right themselves. Everything would work out. He manages his fear better than I do.

standing level on listing sailboat, grounded, anchoring

I had a very hard time being passive and waiting for nature to take its course. In my mind’s eye I saw images of every beached wreck we’d passed along the ICW. An awful lot of them leaned toward the waterway, full sand.

The tide was only an hour from extreme low. Which was some relief, as it would be coming back in soon. But I worried that Sunshine could roll quite a bit farther. According to the chart, not far from where she sat, the bottom dropped away sharply. We hoped she wasn’t lying on the edge.

With a couple of hours to wait and unable to make anything better, I tried to adjust my attitude and see this as one of those opportunities life gives us. A chance to slow down, relax, smell the roses. Yeah right.

Grumbling to myself that we should have gone on to the “next” anchorage, I rowed around in the dinghy, ready to call Towboat if things looked bad when the tide started to rise, and took pictures in case this was the last of Sunshine.

Rejoice in the Happy Ending and Vow Never to Do That Again

refloating grounded sailboat, anchoring

In the end, Tom was right. The tide lifted Sunshine quickly and smoothly. As she righted herself, Tom tightened the anchor line little by little to keep the water from swinging her stern closer to shore, and before long she was upright and floating free.

sailboat refloated after grounding, anchoring

I have never been so happy to hear the sound of the engine as when I started it to drive on up the Wilmington River.

leaving anchorage after grounding, anchoring

Define Grounded

Friends who have lots of experience on the ICW say you’re not really grounded if you don’t have to be pulled off. Though we let the tide do the work this time, I’m not so sure we didn’t qualify as truly, madly, deeply, grounded.

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  1. Wow. I can feel this happening. I would have the same reaction as you. Good writing!

    1. Thanks Donna. It’s nice to know an actual scientist might sometimes succumb to emotion just like an English major.

  2. Yep, you were grounded. You don’t want to have to be pulled off. All’s well that ends well.The weather looks great.

    1. Time and tide wait for no man, eh? I laughed Candace, to see everyone else commenting on science and you quoting Shakespeare. So completely appropriate. How’s the novel coming? I’m looking forward to reading it.

    1. Thanks Jesse. I think more to the point, I have to learn to trust positive science. I got stuck thinking of all the horrible things it could do to us.

    1. Physics totally rocks! On a boat you get to learn all the ways those boring high school science classes can come in very useful. If only the lessons had kicked in a little earlier we might have paid attention to where the tide would take us!

  3. Well haven’t you always been told that experience is the best teacher? Even in this hysterical recounting there is the joy, …. of survival! This event turned out so much better then it’s exact opposite of marine mishaps, when one launches the car and trailer as well as the boat where the rising tide is a definite bad thing.
    Love the pictures of your joy! Mud really sucks!

    Did you realize your audience on shore probably cheered?


    1. Oh the things you learn when you set off in a boat … I can only ask, what does experience have to teach me next?

    1. You’re so right. That’s one of the pleasures of living on the waterfront, it’s a passing show of all kinds of activity. We were quite happy to be a story with a happy ending.

  4. Seems like even Sunshine needs a little rest every now and a then! Any damage? Looks like all nice soft mud- she probably needed a bath after!

    1. No, thankfully Sunshine sustained no damage, thanks to having settled in nice Georgia pluf mud, which is far preferable to the rocks of New England. We were careful with the rudder as we started up, as that could have been knocked askew just by leverage, but all is well. As for the bath, the ICW coats every boat with a brown scum. I learned that the remedy is lemon juice, which fits nicely in my environmental boat care kit. You just spray it on, let it sit fifteen minutes or so and hose it off. Magic!

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