How to Retrieve an Anchor

Plan it out to avoid problems

Close-up of anchor
Barry Winiker/Photolibrary/Getty Images

Anchoring a sailboat is typically not difficult once you've learned the process. And retrieving your anchor later is usually a simple process although it calls for advance planning to avoid problems that can occur. In addition, if the anchor fouls on the bottom and refuses to come up, you need to take additional steps.

Follow these steps to retrieve your anchor safely and without sudden problems when the anchor breaks free:

  1. Plan your approach and exit before getting started. Consider the wind, any current, and the proximity of other anchored boats or obstructions in the area.
  2. When possible, it's safer and easier to weigh anchor under power. If you must raise the anchor under sail, be sure you have a clear path to set sail immediately once the anchor breaks free. Raise the sail(s) before starting, but keep the sheets free so that the sails are not drawing as you manually pull the boat forward by taking in the anchor rode.
  3. Motor slowly toward the anchor, staying downwind, while crew on the bow (or the windlass) brings in the rode. Your goal is to get directly over the anchor before breaking it free.
  4. When the bow of the boat is directly over the anchor and the pull of the rode is straight up, the anchor should break free. Once the crew signals that the anchor is coming up, use the engine to try to keep the boat in the same position until the anchor reaches the boat. If there is too much wind or current to hover in place, turn in your direction of exit but go as slowly as possible.
  5. If under sail, and the boat is facing the wind as the anchor breaks free, wait until the anchor is up and secure before backing the jib or mainsail to turn the bow so you can sail off. If you must sail off only on one particular tack, then back the jib to the other side just before breaking the anchor free, to ensure you'll be going in the right direction.
  6. If you are singlehanded, your goal is to get the anchor up as quickly as possible before the boat drifts into trouble. Never leave the engine in gear if you must go to the bow yourself. If conditions are such that the boat simply will not hold its position long enough to get the anchor aboard, you can cleat the rode temporarily and run back to the engine controls to change direction or motor in reverse to stop movement, then hurry back to the bow to continue raising it. Obviously, if the boat is moving, control its direction toward deeper water so that the anchor does not hit bottom again before you can return to the bow to raise it rest of the way.

If the Anchor Is Fouled

A fouled anchor has snagged something on the bottom with its flukes that prevents it from easily breaking free when the rode is pulled straight up. This is usually the worst thing that can happen when attempting to retrieve an anchor.

Prevention is better than having to break free a fouled anchor. In any harbor near a port, especially one where boats may have anchored for a century or more and debris on the bottom is likely, it's best to take steps in advance to prevent fouling. You can rig an anchor trip line or deploy a device like the AnchorRescue, which work by pulling the anchor flukes out backward from the crown.

Without a trip line or other device, first try to use the boat's own buoyancy (rather than your brute strength) to attempt to yank up the anchor; cleat the rode down tight and let waves or the wake of another boat bounce your boat up and down. If you have a number of crew, move everyone forward to lower the bow, cleat the rode tight, and then move everyone aft to see if the pivoting boat can work it free. If that doesn't work, motor ahead slowly pulling the rode from the direction opposite to which the anchor was set.

If all these efforts fail, if the water is not too deep or too cold, it may be possible for someone wearing a dive mask to get down to the anchor to free it. If all else fails, you may have to leave the anchor there, buoyed with a fender or other float, and - if the anchor costs more than a diver - send someone back for it later.

Other Articles about Anchoring

How to Anchor a Sailboat
How to Use an Anchor Trip Line
The Rocna Anchor vs the Classic CQR
Use Anchor Rescue to Prevent Losing a Fouled Anchor
How to Choose an Anchor for Your Boat