dragging anchor Gardner Canal

What a Drag | the Realities of Cruising

Friday, September 16, 2016S.V. CAMBRIA

There's an old nautical saying that goes something like this: There are two types of sailors. Those who have been aground, and those who lie about it. I'm pretty sure the same can be said about dragging anchor. Surely it happens to all of us at one time or another . . . or maybe I just like to think it does.

It was another beautiful day in Gardner Canal*. We'd spent the previous night tied to a mooring in Europa Bay but were ready for a change, so we rode the flood tide down to Owyacumish Bay truly one of the most stunning places we've ever stayed. But anchoring there can be a little tricky; it's steep-to and shallows very quickly near the head of the bay. On our first try, we ended up a little too close to shore so we hauled in the anchor and had another go. Our second attempt was successful and we spent a spectacular day surrounded by high, sheer mountains, listening to the thundering waterfall and exploring the river by kayak. The wind picked up a little in the late afternoon, but only to about five or six knots, and we had a quiet evening aboard. That all changed around 10 o'clock.

Here's what David wrote about it in the ship's log:

I was caught without one of my key senses once again, this time at 10:00 pm when it was pitch black and there was no prospect of a moonrise during the night. I took a quick look-around the anchorage and something wasn't quite right. I couldn't put my finger on it but the niggling in the back of my head just wouldn't go away . . . .

I turned the instruments on including both GPSs and radar  with eyes out the window, trying to make shapes out of shadows buried in the blackness. The faint, vague silhouette outline of a mountain . . . were we moving? I wasn't sure. I set a "Reference Check Waypoint" on the GPS. To the best extent that I could visually make out, this didn't appear right . . . it looked as if its aspect was changing. The GPS showed a speed 0.2 kts, but I've seen more than that before while swinging at anchor. The GPS then showed 20 feet to the check-point. Eyes out the window. Not much help. I couldn't get a good range fix on the navigation light across in the channel. The depth meter read 0.00 metres. No alarm present so it was clearly reading the freshwater surface outflow, not uncommon in areas of concentrated glacial runoff, though the fact we've experienced this before doesn't help in a situation such as this where every scrap of data is significant in making good decisions. Regardless, I was unable to rely on depth meter or depth contours for positioning.

Stephanie got up and I advised her of my concerns. The GPS was still showing 0.2 kts and the depth meter still showing 0.00 metres. The GPS showed 60 feet to the check point . . . then 100 feet. Okay, there was no doubt the anchor tripped for whatever reason and we were drifting.

I reset the GPS waypoint to the Brim River approach we were close to a half-mile away from the waypoint "Brim River Anchor" set in 2014. So, there was absolutely no question . . . we were drifting into the channel, probably under the influence of the outflow current from the waterfall. Quietly, but drifting steadily nontheless.

The anchor had to come up . . . but I needed a much better fix on our position, and the problem is that unless the boat is moving 1 to 2  knots, the chartplotter GPS does not "recognise" movement and therefore does not update the vessel's position.

I reset the GPS to the "Reference Check Waypoint", now showing a distance of 150 feet. The depth meter was still reading 0.00 metres. This was a bit nervy so for a plan of action we continued to drift on or reasonably close our present course, presumably, while we retrieved the anchor, then turned under power in the direction of the channel a turn to port of between 120° and 180° at best initial assessment, established an accurate position as soon as possible, reset the GPS waypoint to Brim River Drop before turning back towards the anchorage, proceeding carefully at between 2 and 2.5 knots the minimum speed in the conditions to maintain steerage control.

Stephanie stood watch at the bow with a spotlight, and me still waiting for a response from the depth meter, which finally appeared well within 0.2 miles of the shoreline. All of this was accomplished while essentially blind in particular, the blind approach directly towards the shoal areas near the shore was fairly unsettling, demanding absolute focus, and, although it worked out well and according to plan, the waterfall outflow current presented enough of a problem on the first attempt to force a necessary withdrawal to re-establish our position and regroup, eventually anchoring successfully in roughly 25 metres depth on the second run in. I set a new "Reference Check Waypoint" on the GPS at this position. It is now 02:20 A.M., a little over four hours after first becoming aware of the problem, and over two hours since setting the new check waypoint, and although we've moved around a little, we're currently sitting within 18 feet of the reference point. So we're all done for the evening, I think. Finally! 

Postscript: It's 3:00 AM and I'm still a little uncertain about our holding the boat motion is "unusual" and  I'm not certain why, so all instruments turned on again. Per the GPS, although we've "sailed at anchor" during the past hour moving about 160 feet in total, we're still currently sitting within 7' of the last refererence check waypoint. The sky is beginning to lighten allowing a better assessment of our surroundings and the boat's relative positioning, and we look good. A couple of minutes thought and reflection and that's it! I'm satisfied. So really all done for the day now and time for a few hours of rest. All told, an excellent illustration of efficient crew performance under difficult circumstances and one which I think we could have both done quite well without.

Although written days afterwards, my recollection of the night is similar to David's. For me, it started shortly after 10 pm when I was woken up from a sound sleep by the sound of the windlass. I quickly got out of bed and came out to see what was going on were we dragging? or was David just letting more chain out as a precautionary measure? It was the former.

While he was working off the Reference Check Waypoint he'd set, I pulled out the iPad and loaded Navionics. The screen was zoomed in to show Owyacumish Bay, but there was no sign of the boat. Where the heck was it? I zoomed out and found the red icon situated a half a mile or more away from the spot where we'd anchored yes, we were drifting. David started the engine and I moved to the bow with a spotlight. All of the working lights were turned on the deck light, steaming lights and navigation lights but there was nobody around for miles to see them. We brought in the anchor and a quick look in the chain locker reminded me that we had at least 60 metres (close to 200 feet) of chain out. So, why did we drag? We had a good set earlier. Currents and freshet off the waterfall, presumably.  

It was pitch black outside and we couldn't make out the sillouttes of the mountains that were surrounding us, which made the task at hand all that much more difficult. The spotlight was of little help and it wasn't until we'd been motoring back towards the anchorage for what seemed like hours (but was really minutes) that I finally saw what looked like shoreline to our north. Without the help of my vision, my other senses were working overtime. I could hear the waterfall in the distance and then I could smell it . . . the scent of musky earth. We were getting close.

David gave me the command to get ready to anchor and we started the drop, only to pull out within a minutes to back away, turn around and try it all over again. I'm not sure what caused him to pause; but we had to get this right and, without being able to see, were placing 100% confidence in our equipment an unsettling prospect. The second time was a charm and we got the anchor to set in 25 metres of water. After a short time, I felt we were fine and went back to bed while David stayed up and kept an eye on things.

The next morning, I woke up early to find the boat exactly where I would've expected her to be as if nothing had happened. And as much as I know that I'll miss this incredible place called the Inside Passage and Cambria after she's sold, nights like this I'll be happy to leave behind.

*From Wednesday, 24 August 2016.

Have you ever dragged anchor? And why can't we say 'drug'? Wouldn't that be more interesting? To 'drug  an anchor'? But what I really want to know is why do these things always happen at night?

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  1. Indeed, that is really the question! Although we did begin to drag during the day while anchored off Tofino (a place to which I have no desire to return). That time, I was the one to see it, mostly because we were anchored off a muddy area of varying depths and the mud seemed to be approaching our aft quarter in a way I didn't like. It's funny how a good set anchor can work loose with the gentlest of movements going in just the right direction. Those nights with no sleep because of alert senses are not something I look forward to. Sounds like you are ready to be done. But enquiring minds want to know what you like in a spotlight.

    1. I really am done, Melissa. And that's not a good thing considering we still have so many miles to go before we can end the season. As for spotlights, our preference would be a hard-mounted one that can be pointed directionally and runs off 12 volt so it would never die out!

  2. What a riveting and terrifying read! I get turned around easily enough in the day- where did I park again? So re-anchoring at night with no references is not on my list of fun things to do.
    We have dragged- at night- in a 50 Knot storm. We only got 50-100 ft before it reset itself, and we didn't have enough scope out. Thankfully we were far away from shore and other boats.
    You may not be dragging in your long boat, but I'm sure there will be something waking you up at night- cows in the distance or pub crawls turned rowdy!

    1. Pub Crawls turned rowdy. LOL! I look forward to that. Oh, wait! Chances are David would be involved. Not that he's a big drinker, but he has almost gotten us kicked out of bars a time or two thanks to his "enthusiasm".

      Here's a weird one for you, Lucy. I used to have a recurring nightmare that a cougar climbed aboard and trapped us in the aft cabin. We had a dog then (Sally) and I was so afraid she was going to be attacked because we had a friend who's Terrior was taken by one.

  3. Scary stuff! I've spent plenty of nights awake and on watch worrying we were dragging. But haven't so far. It must be pretty difficult when you can't get a visual fix on where you are.

    1. For me, it was. The most difficult thing was placing 100% trust in our electronics. David used to fly planes, so it comes a lot easier for him.

  4. What a scary ordeal! You guys work well together as a team. Glad it all worked out in the end.

    Yes, why can't we say "drug anchor"? Actually, if we all agree we can, then we can. Languages change all the time, let's be the one to make this change happen.

  5. Exactly. Always at night. You will love being able to sleep through the night after the boating adventure, Stephanie. It is such a different experience in your cruising area than we are used to. We rarely anchored in deep bays (we liked the shallows better in our cat), but when anchoring in 20 or more meters, we would have 3:1 scope out, which should suffice. Maybe you had a bit less out? Or, the anchor could have held on to a rock that shifted in the night... You really have to trust your gear and instincts when you can't see the bottom when anchoring. It always made me nervous as well. The positive thing is that you both have developed sixth senses to know when something is wrong, like dragging (everyone drags, by the way), and you have the experience, routine and skills to deal with it successfully as a team. I'll keep my fingers crossed for beauty during the day and decent sleep at night for the remainder of you time on the water. :-)