Yesterday morning, we started up the main engine just past daybreak for a planned run from Widewall Bay along the west coast of Hoy and the Mainland in the Orkney Islands. But the anchor was locked down solidly on the bottom. That’s happened before and we have our tricks. Dropping another 100 feet and pulling straight into the wind usually works but it didn’t this time. Pulling at 90 degrees until the anchor moves and then pulling it up into the wind often frees an anchor when working to one side or the other, but the anchor wouldn’t shift an inch in either direction.
In our 25 years of boating, we’ve only once lost an anchor, when anchored in British Columbia’s Indian Arm area. On that one, we were in 70 feet of water with 7-ft visibility and a water temperature below 50F (10 C). The anchor was tangled in logging cabling. We hated the idea of diving into a rusty mass of log cabling where the risk of entanglement was high. We reluctantly dropped a 44lb Bruce anchor and 200ft of chain and in retrospect, it felt like the right decision.
This morning we were facing what should be an easier problem. We were in 14 ft of 58F water with closer to 20-ft visibility. That makes the dive considerably easier and our 154 lb (70kg) Rocna with 500 feet of 7/16-inch chain is far too expensive to give up without a fight. This morning we got our dive gear organized just past day break. I hate cold water, so was planning to use our dry suits, but it’s been two years since our last cold water dive and the wrist seals had failed. I considered taping the wrists off to my arm with the handyman’s secret weapon (duct tape) but eventually elected to use our new 5-mil wetsuits. The 5-mil is thick enough that it’s plenty for 58F water. What makes this O’Neill wetsuit super-effective is that the wrist, ankle, and neck seals are quite tight. Very little water leaks in.
In order to get the anchor free, we first needed to get the the boat off that anchor. The winds were blowing 25 kts with gusts to 30 this morning, so the boat was pulling back hard. We first dropped another 50 ft of rode and went 60 ft upwind, beyond where our main anchor was. We then dropped our spare anchor on its short chain rode with the remainder being 1-inch diameter rope. This anchor is a Guardian G-85 which is quite large but not that heavy, and can be handled by a single person without windlass assist. We lowered it down and let out 60 ft so that we would be floating directly over our disabled anchor.
It was a great plan and it would have been super convenient but the spare anchor couldn’t get a bite in this hard bottom material with some weed. It would hold for a few tens of seconds but then slip again, and eventually we returned all the way back to swinging on the main anchor. We just kept slowly slipping back. It was looking like we were going to need to re-anchor when suddenly it took a perfect set and the boat stopped like it had hit a brick wall. It was a relief to see the boat finally anchored on the spare anchor so we could work to free the main anchor.
I threw on my diving equipment and jumped in the water and started swimming forward. About 120 ft forward of the boat I came upon our main anchor. Lying on its side, it didn’t even look like it would hold the boat, much less not be recoverable. But as I swam closer, the story became more clear. A massive anchor chain, with single links of nearly 12 inches, stretched as far as I could see to the left and off into the distance to the right. This old anchor chain was so massive that our Rocna 70 anchor fluke had somehow found its way to the center of one of the links. The anchor was actually poking through one of the huge links by about four inches. And, after 30-knot gusts overnight, the anchor was actually sprung in place. I could just barely shift our anchor left and right but the link we were ensnarled in moved with it. It was as if the the two parts were welded together.
Fortunately, I had brought down a very strong 3-ft-long pry bar. Using the pry bar, I eventually got enough metal between our anchor and the large chain and popped it free after applying close to all the force I could muster. The anchor was now loose in the link but still had four inches of fluke through the chain. I couldn’t budge the massive links we were embedded in, so needed to pull our anchor and its attached chain back 4-5 inches to pop the anchor free. It turns out dragging 100 ft of 7/16-in chain along the sea bottom is way harder than one might expect. I wouldn’t have succeeded with that task without the pry bar. Eventually I was able to lift our anchor up over the old chain. We were free!
I swam back to the boat, signaled to Jennifer who was watching from the bow that all was good, and passed up the pry bar. I then decided to play it safe and swim out to the spare anchor. I followed the rope rode and found the spare anchor was fouled in the same discarded chain that appears to cross the entire bay. The good news was that the flukes went under the chain so it was hooked in a big way but wasn’t jammed within the links of the big cross-bay chain. The bad news was the flukes on this large Danforth style anchor are several feet long and so the anchor needed to be pulled back a couple of feet to free it. But the boat was currently anchored on this anchor in 20 to 30 kt winds, so pulling it back likely would be impossible.
It turns out that a big rope rode actually stretches quite a bit and there was some bouncing at the end of a big gusts. I put one fin on each side of our anchor on the big chain we were fouled in and pulled as hard as I could on our anchor. For close to a minute, all my pulling made no difference whatsoever, but we eventually got a big gust that stretched the rode and on rebound the boat load came off the anchor. As the load came off, I got the two feet of anchor motion I needed and just got the anchor free. The funny thing is I was now dragging behind the big Danforth style anchor as it slid along the hard bottom not getting a grip. I worked for a few minutes trying to get the anchor set. I could get it dug in and it would hold for a minute or so before a big gust tore it free again.
I wasn’t happy to have the boat essentially unanchored as I swam back, but there wasn’t much I could do. And it would soon pull back far enough to catch the main anchor where I had left it still sitting on the bottom, and that should stop the boat motion. We did have room for hundreds of feet of slip without worry of dragging into shore, so I continued to swim back. I dropped off the scuba gear while Jen checked to ensure we were no longer slipping back. The main anchor had stopped the slide so we were fine. We pulled in some of the main anchor role so we could get the boat over the spare anchor and I could hand-retrieve it. Then we brought in the main anchor as usual.
We have anchored all around the world, including patchy sand with easy-to-tangle-in coral out-croppings, but have never before been unable to bring up the anchor on the current boat. It’s ironic that we actually needed to dive two different anchors in the same anchorage on the same day, that were both hung up on the same discarded chain.
The Scapa Flow area isn’t a particularly surprising place to have difficulties with ground tackle. This was the home of the British Naval fleet in the First and Second World Wars. In 1939, the German U-boat U-47 crept in and sunk the British battleship Royal Oak early in the second world war. As a consequence, the Churchill Barriers were constructed across the eastern entrances to Scapa Flow. Other entrances were blocked with heavy chain barriers. After the first world war, the surrendered German naval fleet was moved to area. 52 of the 74 boats were eventually scuttled and subsequently salvaged. The bottom in this area has a lot of debris and an anchor buoy is close to mandatory.
We had actually been using an anchor buoy since arriving in the area, but not in this particular anchorage as Widewall Bay was away from the main naval areas and none of our cruising guides warned about a foul bottom here. But even had we used ours, the problem we ran into was only recoverable by diving since the anchor was actually sprung into a large chain link. We would never have freed it without using the pry bar. This is statistically a fairly unlikely event and most other entanglement are managable without diving, using an anchor buoy that allows the anchor to be lifted away by the crown from entanglement. We feel fortunate to have been able to pry our anchor out of the big chain link and be able to recover it.