On Anchors and Anchoring

The gentle weather of the past few weeks is a distant memory, and has been replaced by the more traditional “muscular” winds associated with these parts. In mainland Britain and Europe , the receipt of a gale warning sends sensible folk scurrying for the shelter of secure harbours and marinas , but out here it’s a question of picking a bay or loch sheltered from whatever direction the wind is expected to come from , and anchoring, just as mariners have done for centuries. With two gales in the last 36 hours we have learned a lot about the skills and anxieties inherent in this activity and as ever have emerged with huge respect for those sailors down the ages who faced these conditions on a daily basis, but without an engine to get them out of trouble when things went wrong.
For our first gale we chose Vatersay Bay, at the south end of the chain of islands and surrounded by relatively low ground and sand hills. The bay opens to the East and is big enough to take a fleet so there is no problem with other boats dragging on to you. The lack of big hills means you are exposed to the full strength of the wind, but on the other hand you don’t get the furious katabatic squalls from all directions that explode off the mountains further North. The head of the bay is shallow and sandy, so that although at high tide there is a good quarter of a mile stretch between you and the shore, the sand is ideal for anchors to get a good grip. This was a well behaved blow ( despite being forecast to be “occasionally severe gale 9”) that got going at dawn , and had veered and dropped to a “gentle” 20 knots by lunchtime and we quite enjoyed ourselves. We hoisted the wind generator and used its copious gale driven output to power the watermaker and top up our tanks.
Because we have no anchor winch, we have developed a technique of using multiple anchors. Each one, with its chain and rope rode, is within my physical capability to haul up, and most of the time we use just one set. On this occasion we used two in a vee, held together below the water with a lead “angel” which is lowered down the ropes to improve the catenerary and elasticity of the system. There were 4 other vessels in the bay , all with all chain and single anchors ( although two had 2nd anchors dangling ready to let go). At the height of the blow even the head of the bay was covered with white horses, and all of a sudden one boat dragged its anchor and was away, blowing downwind at a rate of knots. With such an open, safe roadstead they were never in danger and were soon motoring back to re-anchor, this time with success.
The second blow was an altogether nastier beast. For a start it was at its peak from 0200, and everything always looks worse in the dark. We had chosen Bagh a Bhioran , a little pool reached by an intricate passage from Loch Eport and surrounded by the mountains of Norh Uist with absolutely nothing else for miles. It is an utterly delightful place in calm weather , its rocky shores covered with mussels ( duly scrumped the previous evening) but no chance of getting out once the gale had set in , and those same mussel covered rocks just 10 boat lengths to leeward leaving little chance if the anchors dragged. The barometer read 1004 as we set our anchors at midday , and by the time we were tucking in to the mussels it had fallen to 998 and was still plummeting down. The wind was falling off the hills in random directions but our two anchors were coping well with this, each taking the strain in its correct orientation rather than being wrenched out by the varying gusts. Nevertheless I settled down to the first all night anchor watch I can remember, because if something was to go wrong we would have very little time to deal with it before we came in unforgiving contact with the cousins of those mussels we had for supper!
By 0300 the barometer was down to 992 ( it bottomed out at 988 when the front went through) and the gusts were regularly in the mid 40’s although the mean wind strength was only upper 20’s. At one stage the dinghy was flying astern like a kite and ended up upside down on top of the vane steering gear. I deeply regretted not having the 3rd anchor attached to its rode and ready to go, but I guess that’s the point of these experiences, and a learning point for next time. In the event the anchors held perfectly and by 0700 the wind was down sufficiently to have some sleep.
So which was the better place to “hole up “ for a blow? In relatively open Vatersay it was quite choppy for a while, and the mean wind strength was probably higher, but steadier. Furthermore if things had gone wrong we would have been able to re-anchor. Bagh a Bhorain on the other hand was infinitely more sheltered ( in a nearby bay a neighbour claimed to have had a steady 50 knots for a while) , but prone to vicious anchor plucking gusts off the hills , and with no margin for error. I guess Vatersay gets my vote.
The deep low is set to hang around for a while, but conditions are quite manageable and Festina sends her greetings from the Hebrides which are looking stunning in the clear, bright and brisk cold sector air.


  1. Is there anyone out there?

  2. Egill Kolbeinsson

    Dear Philip, I can see from your blog that you never got to Færeyjar last summer as you ment to.
    It does not matter Iceland should be your goal this summer.
    You sent me Emails with drawings for your inner stay on Festina Lenta. I lost them when I updated my laptop. Could you send me this again also information about the holding tank.
    My visit to your boat last May during David Thomas dinner was rather short and I am slow in accumulating such information in short time.

    it would nice to hear from you.

    Egill Kolbeinsson on Embla IS 2208

Leave a Reply