Ben Meakins tries out some methods for dropping and recovering the anchor for singlehanded sailors in crowded anchorages

14 tips for single handed anchoring

The actual ‘sailing’ part of single-handed sailing is fairly straightforward.

In open water you’ve got time to trim sails, navigate, put the kettle on and enjoy the ride.

It’s when you get close to land and other boats that you really start to miss the crew.

This is especially true of anchoring.

In a clear anchorage there’s no real problem, with enough space for single-handers to sort themselves out.

In a crowded anchorage, however, things get much more complicated.

Dropping the anchor is relatively easy with practice, but recovery can be fraught, with the risk of drifting on to other boats while pulling the anchor up, not to mention the physical difficulty of recovering a weighty anchor without crew to motor up to the anchor or help with the recovery.

In an ideal, high technology world, every single-handed sailor would have an electric windlass, self-launching anchor and autopilot with remote control, which would make their lives much easier.

But in the real world, most of us don’t have the money or suitable boats for that level of technology, which means we have to rely on muscle power – with a few tricks and tips thrown in to help.

Here are some ways to make single handed anchoring easier.

Single handed anchoring: Dropping the anchor

In settled conditions, dropping the anchor should be as easy as:

  1.  Head to wind, knock the engine into neutral.
  2. When the boat has stopped moving, walk forward and pay out the anchor chain as the boat begins to drift backwards.
  3. Cleat off the line.

However, this can be a little fraught, especially in crowded anchorages, where you might not want to leave the helm for too long.

Here’s one solution, from a post on the YBW forum:

‘If I’m planning to anchor I have the anchor and the chain I need in a bucket in the cockpit with the rode made fast at the bow.

As the boat speed drops off to nothing I drop the anchor over the side and feed it out as I drop back.

I’m told it’s more impressive if you can time it so that the kettle boils as the rode goes tight, but I’ve not managed that yet!’

Single handed anchoring: Recovery without a windlass


1. The simple way, should everything go well, is to:

a man pulling on anchor chain on a boat

  1. Pull in the chain until it’s straight up and down.
  2. Start engine or hoist mainsail.
  3. Pull up the rest of the chain and recover the anchor on board.
  4. Head back to the cockpit, engage autopilot or lash helm to leave boat on a safe course.
  5. Back on the foredeck, you can secure and stow the anchor and chain, and you’re on your way. In an empty anchorage and benign conditions, this works fine – but often it’s not that simple.


2. In a very congested anchorage

A boat being anchored single handed

If you’re anchored amongst many other boats in a congested anchorage, and don’t have time to sort the anchor and kit out while the boat is not under command, you can leave it dangling below the surface of the water and reverse (or motor slowly) away.

This has two advantages: The motion may wash the mud off – and being just under the surface, the anchor won’t swing as it would if it were clear of the water.

You can now get settled, or sail away to a clear patch of water, heave to and sort it out.

3. Use your primary winches

A man turning a winch on a boat

Your primary winches can make a good windlass substitute

If you’re struggling to break the anchor out or pull it up, try pulling up as much as you can by hand before taking a line, tied with a rolling hitch, back to the cockpit winches.

Take a line running forward from your cockpit winches, tied to the rode with a rolling hitch

Take a line running forward from your cockpit winches, tied to the rode with a rolling hitch

Unless you’re anchored in deep water, this should be enough length to break the anchor out and keep it under control until you’re ready to recover it.

chain hooks on a boat

Chain hooks will speed things up

A chain hook on a long line would make this process quicker – and having two lines would mean you could speed the process up further: but watch your gelcoat!

4. Pulling up the anchor in windy conditions

A throttle control on a boat

You’d normally motor the boat up the chain to make sure you’re only pulling up the weight of the chain, not the boat as well: but single handed, you’ve got no way of controlling the engine from the bow.

Consider placing the boat on autopilot before putting the engine in slow ahead.

With the boat taking some of the strain you should be able to pull up the anchor more easily, and once it’s up the boat should keep herself head to wind.

5. Breaking it out


anchor chain on a boat

If it’s stuck, a useful technique is to pull it up so the line is straight up and down, cleat it, and then stroll back to the cockpit and give the engine a short burst of ahead.

This should drive the boat over the anchor and break it out of the ground, and you can then recover it at your leisure.

6. Anchor chain ratchet

An anchor chain ratchet for anchoring single handed

An anchor chain stopper will let you rest after each pull, and is far less tiring than cleating the chain off every time.

These act like the pawls on a ratchet, allowing you to pull the chain in but stopping it from running out.

7. Use a tripping line

Use a tripping line on a yacht for anchoring single handed


Deploying a tripping line should make it easier to break out the anchor, and may be easier than pulling up the normal way – although you do have lots more string to contend with, which is less than ideal when you’re on your own.

Some people pull the line from the cockpit, recovering the anchor that way.

8. Upgrade the bow roller

A bow roller on a boat

A ‘self-launching’-style bow roller will make life easier.

Not only will the anchor drop more effectively, the bow roller will also allow you to pull the anchor up and leave it, not having to worry about damaging the bow or securing it until later.

9. Cockpit recovery

A man recovering an anchor as part of anchoring single handed

Some people recommend recovering the anchor from the cockpit.

The idea is to take the warp or chain to a stern cleat and cast it off from the bow, letting the boat lie stern-to the wind.

You can then pull it in from the cockpit, reversing up to the anchor if necessary.

However, there are drawbacks to this.

The chain and anchor are likely to make a mess of your gelcoat unless you’ve got a stern anchor roller, and there’s a risk of the propeller becoming entangled unless you’re very careful.

However, if you have a stern roller, as many Scandinavian boats do, it’s worth a try.

10. Recovery into the cockpit Mk2

rope in a black bucket on the deck of a yacht

Another variation on this theme is this, proposed by a YBW forumite. ‘I have a large carabiner on a length on line which I clip onto the anchor rode before it goes over the side, and a large bucket in the cockpit.

When I want the anchor up I motor/sail over the anchor and pull in on the line attached by the carabiner, haul the rode and chain back aboard and drop it in the bucket.’

11. Temporary trug

 a blue plastic bucket

If your boat has a traditional navel pipe and below-decks chain locker, it can be very time-consuming to feed the chain down the locker while the boat is looking after herself.

One tried-and-tested way to help is to use a ‘trug’ or flexible large bucket, as sold in garden centres, to flake the chain into temporarily.

This can be lashed to the rail once full and will allow you to get yourself sorted until you’re in safe, calm water, when you could heave to and head forward to sort the lines out.

12. Mud weight

A mud weight on a boat for anchoring single handed

One forum user has the following method: he uses a lead ‘mud weight’ like those used on the Norfolk Broads, pulling the chain so it’s up and down, and lowering the mud weight on a separate line.

This should hold the boat temporarily, allowing you to recover the anchor and stow it at your leisure.

You can then recover the mud weight, which is quick and easy and much less heavy than the main anchor.

It’s also easier to stow, and the line can be flaked into a bucket.

13. Watch and wait

A graph showing tide times

If you have plenty of time and there’s a rising tide, you can use the tide to break your anchor out.

Pull in as much as you can, so that the chain is as tight as possible, sit back and wait for the anchor to pop out.

This, of course, won’t work if you’ve snagged a large metal object, a wreck or something similarly immobile.

14 The Alderney ring

A digram showing how to anchor with an Alderney ring

Used by motorboats and fishing boats when anchored in open water or at sea, the Alderney ring is another way to make things easier – but it’ll only work in wide-open bays or at sea, and requires a high-powered engine.

The principle is that a large stainless ring, attached to a big buoy fender, is floated out, with the chain passing through the ring.

The chain is made fast at the bow, and when it’s time to weigh anchor, the boat makes a wide swing away from the anchor and motors off at speed.

The buoy’s resistance pushes it down the anchor line towards the anchor, which is then lifted off the seabed and is eventually suspended beneath the buoy.

The boat then stops and hauls in the line, which by now is easy to retrieve as there is no weight in it and the anchor is ‘floating’ beneath the buoy.

Not one for a crowded anchorage, but if you’re in an open bay, it could work.

You need to ensure that the line is always cleated at the bow, and be careful of the boat’s propeller.

The easy way – use a windlass

A switch for turning on a windlass

With a cockpit windlass remote, you should be able to do the whole procedure – motoring up to the anchor, pulling in the line and retrieving it – from the cockpit.

Even single-handed, most manufacturers recommend that you don’t pull the boat up to the anchor with the windlass, instead taking some of the strain off with the engine.

With a foredeck-controlled anchor, you can leave the engine ticking over in ahead, with the autopilot on, and take up the slack with the windlass.

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