Anchoring a boat can present several challenges. Rupert Holmes looks at how to handle ground tackle on boats without a windlass…

Like many boats of her size and age, and indeed a number of larger and more recent craft, Ammos has no windlass. Most Discovery 3000s now have electric anchor windlasses, but preferring to keep the boat simple to minimise maintenance, I’ve resisted the temptation so far, even though I’m no longer as young as when I bought the boat 20 years ago.

A manual windlass would be a more simple option, given their relative simplicity compared to electric models. However, they are invariably tediously slow to bring in the initial sections of the rode, even when it’s under very little load.

Of course this could still be done by hand, but the presence of the windlass increases the risk of trapped fingers. On the other hand, having previously sailed boats as large as 80ft without a windlass, from the outset I knew that with appropriate technique you can actually cope just fine anchoring a boat without one.

When Ammos was a new charter yacht 30 years ago standard practice was to berth bows to a quay using a stern anchor, usually deployed in relatively shallow water, while the bow anchor was a lightweight one primarily for lunch stops.

Continuing to use the boat in this manner would have been possible, but I spend many nights at anchor, so the bower needed to be upgraded to a heavier model. And even without a windlass (again with the right techniques) it’s easier to anchor a boat stern to a quay when single-handed than it is to approach bows to with a stern anchor.

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Anchoring a boat in shallow water

In any case in shallow water it’s not a problem – with 8mm chain weighing 1.4kg per metre, if anchored in 5m there’s only 23.4kg of weight to haul vertically (bearing in mind the bow roller is almost 1m above the water). In fact the weight you feel is around 12% less than that, thanks to the ‘buoyancy’ provided by the water.

This vertical lift as the anchor comes off the seabed is the only part of weighing anchor that should be strenuous. This applies also to lifting a boat anchor with a windlass, as they’re not designed to move the boat forward to the point at which it’s directly above the anchor – that’s best done using either engine or sails.

It’s also worth remembering that there’s rarely a need to pull the whole rode up in one go. It’s often easier to shorten up the scope, leaving maybe a bit less than twice the depth out, take a breather for a couple of minutes, and then retrieve the remainder.

Even in shallow water good anchoring technique is important to avoid risk of injury. Eventually age may catch up with me – my friends with back problems or hernias are reminders of how important it is to maintain good posture when hauling an anchor up by hand: keep a straight back and let the legs do the work.

If the tension becomes too great never succumb to the temptation to fight it physically. Instead, put the primary winches to use. Unlike most manual windlasses these generally have two speeds and are usually positioned where it is easy and safe to use your bodyweight for grinding, which reduces the required effort compared to just using arm muscles.

Snatch block

Of course you can’t put chain on a winch, but a snatch block on the toerail can be positioned to provide a fair lead for a rope tied with a rolling hitch to the chain near the bow roller and led back to the cockpit winches. If you don’t want the hassle or worry of tying knots that may be put under considerable load a chain hook can be used instead.

Generally, I set up the kit for this in advance if anchored in more than 8-9m. It’s then quick and easy to retrieve the anchor in up to around 15m of depth. Beyond that I replicate the set up on the other side of the boat. That’s obviously more involved and time consuming, but I have used it in depths of as much as 30m.

How big an anchor can be lifted with this method? The larger the boat, the bigger the winches – on the 80-footer mentioned earlier we had four people on the coffee grinders to raise the anchor.

Equally, when my partner, Kass, bought the 36ft Zest we immediately implemented this method of retrieving the anchor – her powerful Andersen 46 self tailing primary winches make it an easy process.


Ammos anchored off the island of Paros in the Cyclades in windy conditions

On Ammos we had an opportunity to test exactly how much weight this technique can lift, using size 40 winches without self-tailers, after fouling the anchor last summer.

We’d been anchored for two and a half days off the north-west coast of Evia, sheltering from a Meltemi that produced gusts of well over 40 knots out in the Sporades, in the north-west Aegean.

We were in a sandy bay, in 10m of depth, with only a handful of local boats on moorings and no other anchored vessels, even though it was August. We were thus able to put out more than 60m, roughly half chain and the rest nylon rode. This had kept us secure, despite severe down draughts off the 600m (2,000ft) high mountains less than a mile inland.


Our anchor with a giant ball of old rope around it, plus a discarded 40kg mooring anchor. Photo: Kass Schmitt

Anchor lifting

But when it came to lifting the anchor, the rode came up tight with only a minimal amount of chain on board. So we set up to winch in the rest, getting around 5-6m on board before the chain reached the snatch block and we had to swap sides.

We assumed we’d hooked some kind of ground chain, so were hoping to be able to winch it to within 3m of the surface, to allow one of us to dive down, pass a rope underneath and then free the anchor.

However, the reality proved different – after around 10 minutes of effort we could see our anchor, with a giant ball of old rope around it, plus what we soon discovered was a 40kg discarded mooring anchor.

A couple more minutes of winching brought it close enough to the surface to pass a line under one of the flukes and disentangle our gear.

The incident was over in 15 minutes, but it required careful thought to handle the line loads involved safely. When the chain and lines led aft are under considerable tension it’s critical to be careful about where you stand so that you’re safe if anything suddenly gives way.

At times like these I’m reminded of the father of a classmate at school, who was lost after accidentally stepping inside a coil of line while shooting lobster pots.

Consider also what might happen if the snatch block fails, or if a rope parts. The overwhelming likelihood is that you’ll be working well inside the safe working load of this gear, but good practice demands that we avoid unnecessary risk when stakes are high.

Watch your fingers!

Any loaded line on a boat has the potential to trap fingers and chain is inherently even more dangerous – especially if you have to manually retrieve the anchor rode because of a seized windlass. Fingers trapped in the gypsy can cause significant injury.


Chain stoppers like this one from Force 4 can make it easier to haul an anchor by hand, as they act as a ratchet allowing you to take a break without struggling to put the chain around a cleat

Useful boat anchoring equipment

The Golf 900 Laser Rangefinder from Decathlon is a useful device for judging swinging space near other boats. Primarily made for the golfing market, it’s also very useful for crowded anchorages.

Snatch blocks are available from Force 4 Chandlery (prices start at £22.95), while chain hooks (£16 for 8mm and £22 for 10mm from and chain stoppers (£44.85 from can also be bought online.

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