Anchoring Part 18: Retrieving Lost and Stuck Anchors

If you can’t retrieve your anchor, here are some ways you can coax it up anyway. More importantly, I’ll also show you how to avoid getting your anchor stuck or lost almost all the time.

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One Response to “Anchoring Part 18: Retrieving Lost and Stuck Anchors”

  1. Jerr Says:

    If you can’t retrieve your anchor, here are some ways you can coax it up anyway. More importantly, I’ll also show you how to avoid getting your anchor stuck or lost almost all the time.

    First, let’s look at how anchors become stuck and lost. Understanding the problems, we’ll look at methods to avoid these problems. There are two separate problems, with different challenges: An anchor that’s lost isn’t connected to a buoy or boat and so must be found before recovering. Often lost anchors are easy to recover because their line has parted and they are not stuck. While pulling harder on your anchor rode will free your anchor most of the time, that technique won’t help with anchors that are jammed in boulders, wrecks, sunken trees, etc. and will just make things worse by jamming the anchor and chain more firmly or abrading the line.

    It’s quite helpful to think about what could be wrong and use clues available to discover the probable reasons it’s not coming up. Here are some common possible problems:
    * Rode wrapped around a rock
    * Rode snagged in a wreck
    * Rode jammed between rocks
    * Rode snagged by another anchor, either attached to a boat or not
    * Rode picked up large debris
    * Anchor jammed under a rock
    * Anchor jammed between rocks
    * Anchor deeply dug in

    Some of the reasons for the stuck anchor may be:
    * Wind shift pulled anchor around a rock, snagging rode
    * Poorly set anchor dragged until it or the rode snagged on obstruction
    * Anchor was set in large rocks and jammed
    * Anchor was set in soft sand or especially mud, digging so deeply it’s hard to retrieve
    * Anchor was inadvertently set across another rode, that could be old and abandoned or currently used

    If one can think of these problems before anchoring, they can largely be avoided: Look at the chart for pinnacles and rocky bottoms, versus sandy bottoms. Study the lay of the land and walk your probable anchoring area with your depthfinder, looking for wrecks and obstructions (Previous article in this series – Part 13: How To Get The Lay Of The Land). Don’t anchor near obstructions: Three special cases are important to highlight: wrecks, pinnacles and boulder fields. Both wrecks and pinnacles (sometimes a large boulder) rise high above the floor, so they can easily catch a rode far from the anchor, with the added danger of a lack of elasticity enhancing the danger of abrasion. Wrecks can have sharp edges with hard marine growth that cuts through anchor line easily, so stay well clear of them! Don’t set your anchor just upwind of a boulder field but in sand. It’s much better to anchor specifically in the boulder field, with an anchor best suitable and a retrieval line, than with an anchor that’s suited to sand and the strong possibility of the rode jamming or being abraded apart in the rocks.

    If you are anchoring in a rocky bottom, use an anchor that is less prone to being wrecked: Aluminum is especially bendy and the large flukes and balancing rods of a Danforth are easily bent in rock, so with both those negatives and bolted construction, Fortress are most easily bent in rocky bottoms. Plow anchors are really pretty good in rock; Bruce anchors will grab quickly and very well in rock; CQR anchors will generally give the most swinging while not bending the shank.

    Anchors that are stuck can often be retrieved by pulling them out backwards. While you can drive over the anchor and sometimes lever an anchor backwards on itself, that won’t work when the point or blade is caught under a large obstruction (either wreck or rock). Fortunately, almost all anchors have a hole at the back for attaching a recovery line. This line doesn’t have to be anywhere as strong as an anchor line but does have to be strong enough to pull the anchor out. A minimum 3/8″ and preferably 7/16″ line will work fine. I use old halyards and it’s perfectly ok to tie two together, if needed. A short length of 1/4″ or 5/16″ chain will help avoid chafing and a fender or a bleach bottle (Clorox makes the most sturdy bottles and caps and many discount brands’ containers and caps are too flimsy. There are white clothes detergent bottles now and they are much sturdier, so consider that if you need a great bottle.) makes a great float. Make the line at least 1.5 times as long as the depth you’re anchoring in. If you can give the retrieval line twice or three times the depth in scope, the anchor will pull out easiest.

    Usually you won’t have to use a retrieval line but when your anchor’s jammed in rock, it’s a godsend. When that happens, leave slack in the anchor rode and be hyper-aware of where it is: Guide it and drive off to the side in a loop, so you leave the rode safely to the side and don’t catch it in your prop. I can’t stress this enough – This is a particularly tricky maneuver but the chain will help keep the line safely away if you leave it to a side. Grab your float with a boat hook and motor up to the point where it’s “up and down,” while gently gathering the line. Don’t pull on the line yet! Once you’re above the anchor, drive in the original upwind direction, when you were setting the anchor. When you’re at the bitter end of the retrieval line, in the direction opposite to the direction the anchor originally dug in, haul the anchor out. You may need to motor to maintain position and using swells to your favor is always a good idea (See earlier article in this series – Part 9: Anchor Rode Handling While Anchoring).

    You can attach your rode to the retrieval point and use zip ties to tie it to the shank and normal attachment point at the end of the shank but please don’t do it. This will give you a rode that can double as a retrieval line but it has some serious drawbacks: Those zip ties can be cut easily in rock and when the boat swings, the zip ties are sure to fail. When that happens, the anchor, being held backwards, will pull out and it will not be possible to reset. Remember that anchoring problems happen with dirty weather, so it’s not only much easier to do it right the first time but even only possible to anchor securely in calmer weather. Additionally, the zip ties are non-biodegradable trash and it’s just wrong to purposely litter in this manner.

    If your anchor is dug in very far, the best retrieval is patience and steady effort. Haul the rode taut vertically and at the bottom of a swell, haul it in as far as possible, quickly cleating it. Let the swells pull the anchor out and make sure to keep hauling the line in as is slackens. If it’s mud, driving over the anchor won’t help more: Once the anchor is pointing up, it will start digging its way out but mud is amazingly cloying and simply hauling the chain free can be a chore. Relax, get a book and keep standing by – It will come out… Unless it’s snagged in a buried something. If there is not inching progress after a beer, hopefully you’ll have a retrieval line. If you don’t, you’ll need your other beer!

    Sometimes, SCUBA is the only way to ascertain the problem, attach a retrieval line, or wrestle an anchor out of a crevice. In an anchorage, there is often someone with the gear willing to help, often for a fee. Get on the radio and ask for help.

    If you have lost an anchor from a cut rode, it’s possible to retrieve it by dragging for it. If you have a grapnel, they’re ideal, chiefly because they’re designed for this. A grapnel has usually a number of spindly arms, often rods but sometimes with flukes to help dig in a bit. They are often sold as dinghy, weed or beach anchors and please don’t use them for that: They won’t work because they are designed to be pulled easily through the ground. Attach a short length of chain, perhaps fifteen pounds of weight and a rope of about twice the depth.

    If you don’t have a grapnel, you can use a dinghy anchor (That’s a regular anchor, for your boat or dinghy, commonly readily available for the dinghy. It is NOT a mushroom anchor or grapnel! Mushrooms are made expressly to be sunk as semi-permanent anchors for mud lake use with extremely lightweight boats, like canoes and paddleboats. They sit upright and don’t grab or bury and because of that, are awful anchors for ocean use.) with little or even no chain. The best by far is a standard Danforth or knock-off because it won’t dig in too easily and the tips will dig in a bit, catching a line that is lying on the bottom.

    Drag the grapnel perpendicularly to the direction the wind was in when the line parted, slowly. The process is much like fishing – You will feel the line gradually becoming taut as the grapnel snags the line. When this happens, stop the boat and gently, steadily haul the grapnel in, hopefully with the rode hooked. I like paddling a dinghy because the pull of the retrieval line is most easily felt and stopping is perfectly easy, without upsetting the tenuous grasp of the grapnel. It is possible to snag the line too close to the end and in that case it can slip off the grapnel. The grapnel can also tilt and drop the line. Often a second grab will be more successful than the initial snag.

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