Wilson: The Story of an Anchor Buoy


By Jennifer and James Hamilton


Rattle. Rattle. Rattle. I stood on the bow near the head of Indian Arm, counting off the rode markers as the windlass pulled up the chain: 175 … 150 … 125 …  Calump! The bow jerked down suddenly as the chain pulled tight. I let a little out and tried again with the same result. We eventually got more serious and tried letting more out and then pulling Dirona this way and that, but it was no use—in 70 feet of water we were pinned hard with 125' of chain out. The only two choices at this point were to dive for it (we carry scuba gear) or slip the anchor. 70 feet is not very deep for a recreational dive, but not having been diving recently, it seemed too risky to descend into the dark, cold water with poor visibility to work on a heavy anchor and chain likely entangled in cables that could pose a similar hazard to divers. So we decided to cut off our 44lb Bruce, which regrettably included the 200 feet of chain to which it was attached.  Fortunately, we carry a spare anchor, unused until now, so I spliced its chain onto the remaining 300 feet of line and we finished our trip without event.


Once home, with some modifications to our bow pulpit, we armed ourselves with a brand new 66lb Bruce and another 200 feet of chain. We had actually been considering getting a larger anchor anyway, but this was not exactly how we had envisioned the process. The next step was to avoid a reoccurrence by rigging a trip line system, which allows the anchor to be retrieved by its crown rather than its shank, hopefully releasing it should the flukes be fouled in a cable or something similar. After much trial and error, we have come up with a system that works quite well for us and has become a standard part of our anchoring regime. Hopefully, as does carrying an umbrella mean that it will never rain, we will not foul another anchor.


We wanted a system that would be flexible, easily managed, and work in waters ranging from roughly 10 to 100 feet. The resulting setup consists of an 8-inch orange buoy and 100' of leaded line, marked every 10' with colored wire ties, with a carabiner attached to one end. At the 10 and 20-foot marks, we have attached very small fishing buoys which keep the line above the seabed so that it will not be pinned under the anchor while setting. Since we rarely moor in more than 50 feet, we keep the last 40 feet of line coiled and securely tied with a short length of 1/8-inch line. (We also carry a spare 100 feet of leaded line with a carabiner on one end and a permanent loop in the other. Should we need to anchor in depths greater than 100 feet, we can hook the spare line between the anchor and the rest of the kit.) 

To deploy, we clip the carabiner to the anchor's trip line eye, running it over the bow and up through the pulpit so the buoy can be tossed off through the railings. Then we measure off high-tide plus ten feet of line, and run a loop of line at this point through the buoy's eye, which then forms the bitter end of a bowline knot tied to secure the buoy in place.  The remainder of the line is coiled and tied to the last 40 feet using the ends of the 1/8-inch line, through which the bowline's bitter end loop is also run, providing extra security on the knot, as leaded line does not hold knots very well.  

As the anchor is lowered, we feed out the trip line, keeping it taut so that the anchor does not spin and wind the line around the chain. When the trip line is completely out, we toss the buoy into the water, which floats above the anchor with varying slack as the tide changes, the unused line hanging neatly below. The use of leaded line minimized the chance that we or someone else will become ensnared, as would be more likely with coils of line floating at the water's surface. We initially tried several variations of running the line through the buoy, with the intention that it would slide on the line with the tide, but there was too much friction and it tended to be pulled under with higher tides. Also, it was unwieldy to deal with the line when the buoy was attached to it.  

To raise anchor, we aim the bow down-current so that the buoy streams away from the vessel to avoid running over it when powering forward to release the anchor. Once the anchor is back on deck, the carabiner is detached and the buoy removed from the trip line, which is recoiled and stored for next time. When the anchor is back on deck, the carabiner is detached and the buoy removed from the trip line, which is recoiled and stored for next time.


Besides allowing us to retrieve the anchor should it become fouled, the buoy also marks where the anchor is, making it less likely that someone will foul our tackle with their own. We actually saw this occur the day after we had slipped our anchor—as one boat in the anchorage weighed anchor, another boat shadowed its every move. The departing vessel had entangled its anchor in the other's rode by mooring too closely, and quite a long time was spent getting them separated.


Having an anchor buoy deployed also has some useful features that we were not expecting. When setting the anchor, it is very obvious that we are dragging without any other clues, as the buoy jerks along the surface when the anchor moves. When retrieving the anchor in strong winds, it is helpful in allowing a more accurate assessment of where to place the bow to slacken the rode, as the wind tends to blow the vessel in random directions. We were surprised to discover that, unless the wind is blowing quite strongly, Dirona tends to remain very close the anchor, no doubt influenced by the first 200' of our 500' rode being chain. It is also amazing how far away the anchor appears to be when you have 150 feet of rode out and the wind is up. We use the anchor buoy in all but the shallowest water -- we have found that when anchored in much less than fifteen feet that, due to the floats at 10 and 20 feet, the buoy can become entangled in the running gear as the boat drifts around. We can easily dive for the anchor if it is pinned at that depth anyway.

The first few times that we had deployed it, knowing the buoy's location became a bit of a game, and it is still one of the first things we check upon rising in the morning. The little buoy floating out there alone reminded us of the volleyball from the movie Cast Away, so we soon dubbed it Wilson, as in "Where's Wilson?", "How much line should we give Wilson?", "Boy, Wilson is a long way off!"



This article originally appeared in Nor'westing June, 2003.



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Copyright 2012 Jennifer and James Hamilton