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What Is the Best Way to Retrieve Your Boat Anchor?

Kate is a lifelong Californian who has over two decades worth of sailing summers under her belt.

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When I was young, I spent many weekends sailing with my grandfather. I remember always being in charge of the anchor line. Over the years my skill set improved beyond anchors, but knowing how to properly set and retrieve an anchor is probably the most skill I developed.

There’s much more to retrieving an anchoring than simply “how hard to pull.” In fact, methods for properly dropping and retrieving a boat anchor can quickly change depending on weather, boat weight, and anchor type – so its important for a boater to be well-versed in how anchors work.

What’s the Best Way to Retrieve a Boat Anchor?

You can use the natural movement of the boat on the waves to free a stuck anchor.

  1. Make sure the bow of the boat is positioned directly over the anchor.
  2. Tail off the anchor line by wrapping it once around the bottom of a cleat.
  3. As the boat dips into the trough of a wave, cinch the line down tight.
  4. As the boat rises with the next wave it will free your stuck anchor.

Make sure to keep your fingers away from the cleat area so they don’t get pinched as the line gets taut.

That's my preferred method of breaking a stuck anchor loose so it can be easily retrieved. There is another, more traditional method however which involves using the forward movement of the boat to dislodge the anchor. Here’s how to do it:

Getting an Anchor Un-Stuck the Traditional Way

Even if you're an anchor expert, chances are there's at least a couple techniques you could use a refresher on like that you should:

1. Anchor Correctly to Begin With

The anchor secures the boat in place, but depending on the amount of rode (anchor line) used, the vessel will have free range of movement around the anchor. This means that the boat can (and will) move 360 degrees around the anchor point, so consider the following before dropping your anchor:

  • The Wind. This is one of the primary forces that'll move the boat around in the water. If it's particularly windy, the boat will move further, faster and be more difficult to anchor in place.
  • The Current. Currents and waves also move the boat around the anchor point. Particularly strong currents can even dislodge an anchor, causing dragging.
  • Obstacles. Obstacles can consist of other vessels, rocks, and reefs (which can be damaged by anchors and lines). All of these need to be considered from a 360-degree view, along with the length of the anchor’s line.

2. Bring the Boat to the Anchor

Anchors work by lodging themselves along the bottom in different ways, so pulling them from a distance isn't going to do much to dislodge it, and may end up causing dragging, which can damage reefs (so not cool) and even get the anchor stuck in a more difficult position (ughhh). So, the best method for anchor retrieval is to motor (or sail, paddle, etc.) to the anchor spot and then do this:

  • Move the boat towards the anchor at a very slow speed (at a slow idle).
  • Loosely wrap one turn of the line once around the base of a cleat near the bow of the boat. Pull the excess line as the boat gets closer to the anchor.
  • At about the time the cleat is directly over the top the anchor point (so the anchor line is close to vertical), securely tie the line to the cleat.
  • At this point, the boat's forward movement should break the anchor free.

3. Pull the Anchor Up

The old-fashioned way (hand over hand) is still the most commonly used method to retrieving an anchor. However, if your back isn't up to the task or your boat's anchor is super heavy, try one of these methods:

Methods for Pulling a Very Heavy Anchor Up

Electric Windless MethodAnchor Puller (Anchor Retrieval System) Method

These motorized anchor retrieving devices can be pricey, but are more than worth the investment for older boaters or larger boats that have heavy anchors.

Inexpensive and highly-effective, ring style and bolt-style anchor pullers can effectively release an anchor from the bottom using the boat's movement, utilizing a buoy to bring the anchor to the surface where it can be more easily retrieved.

When choosing an anchor for your boat, choose one with the least amount of holding power that will also safely anchor your boat.

When choosing an anchor for your boat, choose one with the least amount of holding power that will also safely anchor your boat.

What to Do if You Lose the Line

If the line detaches from the boat the first thing you need to do is consider how safe you are since the vessel is no longer anchored and free to drift. If you're in a safe position to retrieve the line you can do it by buoying the end of the line which will cause them to float and be easily retrieved or to use chains and other heavy lines which will sink. If the water is not shallow enough for them to be safely retrieved, they should be abandoned.

The Best Boat Positions for Retrieving the Anchor So it Doesn’t Get Stuck

The best method is to position the boat directly above the anchor, with the line pulled and tied off as tightly as possible to the BOW of the boast. Sometimes though, this isn't an option in which case you can try the following things:

How to Retrieve a Stuck Anchor

Worst case scenario, your anchor won't budge. If this happens, you have three more options left:

  1. Buy an anchor retrieval system (if you don't already have one)
  2. Try getting unstuck the way you got stuck in the first place by using the wind to pull you in the opposite direction of your stuck anchor
  3. Abandon the anchor altogether so you can sail free.

1. Use an Anchor Retrieval System

As I mentioned earlier, these tools utilize a ring and buoy to create a pulley system, which can be combined with the pull of the boat to dislodge the anchor.

However, before moving under anchor, it's important to first move the line to a stern cleat to avoid any dangerous entanglements or engine interactions.

How an Anchor Retrieval System Works

2. Pull Into the Wind

The wind pushing the boat is what caused the anchor to lodge in the first place. Using the same power that dug your anchor in, try idling forward in the opposite direction to pull it out.

3. Sacrifice the Anchor

So sad. But if the anchor just won't budge, even after you've tried everything else listed here, then you're probably going to have to cut the line to free the boat.

You can always buoy the line and come back later with more help or different tools. However, if you decide to abandon the anchor altogether, make sure to cut the line short so that it doesn't float up and get stuck in the props of passing boaters.

How Much Holding Power Do You Really Need?

Your anchor's threshold for staying anchored is called "holding power" (I'm sure you already knew that). How much holding power do you really need? Possibly less than your current anchor has. But why would you even want an anchor with minimal holding power? Well, the more you pull your anchor sideways, the deeper it's digging in. That's why pulling it straight up, not to the side, gives you the best chance of loosening its grip.

The more holding power your anchor has, the trickier it can be to bring it up when your'e ready to take off again. So depending on what kind of boating you do, an anchor with light holding power might just be your best bet for avoiding getting stuck in the first place.

Best Types of Anchors for Minimal Holding Power

Danforth / Fluke AnchorsGrapnel AnchorsMushroom Anchor

These anchors range in weight depending on the size of the vessel. They use two long flukes to dig into the silt or sand below. They are easy to retrieve with upward pull.

These resemble a grappling hook and usually come with retractable flukes. They function well in soft sea bottoms but can be stuck rather easy on rocky outcroppings.

This type of anchor has a heavy “bowl-like” design, that helps it dig under the silt and “suction” itself to the bottom.

When You Really Need Maximum Holding Power

Motorboats and large sailboats need lots of holding power to keep them from going adrift or to keep the anchor from dragging. This is especially true if you’ll be anchoring in rough seas or windy conditions. These are usually heavier anchors and bit more awkward to stow, but can also securely hold 100 to 200 times their weight on the surface.

Best Types of Anchors for Maximum Holding Power

Plow Anchors Scoop Anchors

Plow anchors are almost all fluke (meaning they dig in without much effort), and will securely embed themselves in the sea floor until pulled up vertically. They range in weight from 10 to hundreds of pounds.

The scoop anchor resembles a plow anchor but with a flat bottom rather than a blade. It functions much the same way, however, putting out incredible holding power for its weight.

Related Questions

  • Should you anchor from the bow or stern of a boat? For easy retrieval, the anchor line should generally be tied to a cleat at the bow of the boat. This allows the vessel to rotate with the engine pointed away from the anchor. However, there are some situations in which anchoring to the stern is safest.
  • How long should your anchor line be? The rule of thumb for determining the proper length of an anchor line is to multiply the depth of the deepest water you expect to anchor in, by eight. So if you plan on anchoring in 30 feet of water, your line should be a minimum of 240 feet long.

© 2018 Kate Stroud