Imagine you are cruising along for hours, maybe days, you reach your planned destination, and you pull into your intended anchorage and begin looking for a place to drop anchor. You are tired, the weather is worsening and you're anxious to get the hook down and relax. Then you release your anchor, and nothing happens. It will not go down, the chain is tangled. Lynn and I wanted to share our experience about this phenomenon of Anchor Chain Tangle. This is just another of those many 'learning experiences' in cruising that we didn't find warnings about or preparation suggestions before we left on our 15 ,000 mile cruise. Our voyage took us through Central America, the Caribbean, and around the Eastern United States and The Great American Loop. Anchor chain tangle is one of the technical problems you experience in cruising that we were to discover was not well covered in the main stream of published information when preparing our boat for long range cruising.
Lynn and I found that our particular preference when stopping was to anchor where possible rather than look to stay in a marina. I guess while cruising we are not the marina preferred type, so we find ourselves anchoring quite a lot. And when we did experience this chain tangle, we had to learn the hard way. If you haven't experienced anchor chain tangle, and you are going on a long range cruise, take note and check your current anchor chain set up. We will give some suggestions here. If you don't have more than 50 feet or so of chain in your rode, you probably will never experience this problem, at least with your chain. You may experience rode tangle, and I expect the solutions are similar. However, those of us who carry 2-3oo feet of chain are very susceptible to this conundrum, and chain is infinitely more complicated to untangle.
We outlined our 'Gulf Crossing Experience', which was our passage from Isla Mujeres, Mexico, to Key West Florida, in our article, "Wind, Waves, When To Go". This leg was the one time that we received a NOAA weather forecast that turned sour on us. We spent a day and a half experiencing waves over 6 feet, which creates quite a pitching and rolling motion, even in our 25 ton DeFever trawler, "Cottonwood". This motion tends to pitch and roll the chain within the locker. When we reached Key West, Florida, we were exhausted from our 45 hour passage, and just wanted to drop the hook and fall into our bunks. The weather had calmed and although it was still dark when we arrived, we had good charts and could easily distinguish the anchorage we wanted. We pulled our trawler into an area where several other boats were anchored and determined there was room for us to anchor and safely swing. While Lynn kept the boat in place, I maneuvered forward to our central swing area and gave the signal to Lynn to drop the hook. It would not go down. We pounded on the chain with a heavy rubber mallet with no success. I went down to the anchor locker and started to pull and twist to unclog the chain, like you would with a rope that was tangled. No success. Howard Kay, our third crewman, and I finally found ourselves taking turns pounding and leveraging the chain with heavy pry bars and metal hammers, but still with little progress. Lynn started making calls to marinas to see if we could navigate to a safe harbor before we dropped from exhaustion. After 3 hours of floating and maneuvering during this episode, we pulled into a temporary tie up to a fuel dock and crashed into our beds.
We rose late the next day, and after checking in with Immigration and moving the boat to a slip, we spent another several hours trying to get our anchor chain untangled. After experiencing the same result, Lynn chased down a marina in Marathon that said they were familiar with the problem and could get it untangled for us. After spending several days in Key West, taking in the Margaritaville experience, we moved up to the Marathon Marina, in Marathon, Florida, and gave our problem over to the maintenance crew. They used the same technique that Howard and I were trying, but with with larger, stronger men with obviously more experience. Still, they spent 8 hours one day, and 3 hours the next, getting it untangled.
They explained to us that they had seen this before, and that when boaters experience many times at anchor, it creates a twist in the chain caused by the boat 'swinging' on anchor and imparting this twist into the chain each time the boat swings 360 degrees. Although the tangle we had was probably caused over a long period of time, probably many more times at anchor than we had experienced since we started this voyage. Their theory was that the previous owner also anchored a lot, with the same accumulation of twisting passed on to us. This twisting then accumulates into a section of chain and sits there, waiting to contribute to a tangled mess just when you need to anchor the most. Extended rough passages such as ours across the Gulf are then prime situations where this will cause a tangled ball of chain, often very difficult to get corrected.
One suggestion they gave us for avoiding this problem, which we have since implemented, was to add a 'swivel' to the chain rode at the anchor. These are expensive, and you must attach them correctly or the chain angle can impart excessive stress to the swivel. But it is very good insurance for those who anchor frequently. This swivel lessons greatly the twisting of the chain by allowing the chain to swivel at the anchor as the boat swings around, rather than impart a twist to the chain. However, We didn't have a swivel installed, and after untangling the chain, they informed us that we still had a problem as our chain still possessed twists in the chain, even though it was now untangled, and could again become tangled. They offered two suggestions for correcting this. One was to take all the chain off the boat, hook it up to a fork lift and drive around dragging it with the chain fully extended for a period of time until most of the twist came out of the chain. The second suggestion was to take the boat out into 300+ feet of water, our chain rode was 300 feet, and let out the anchor to its full length and wait 30 minutes for it to untwist. We opted for this suggestion and it worked beautifully.
We did experience one additional mishap while accomplishing the removal of the twist in our chain. We must share this with you and hope it will aid others in avoiding a problem. When we finally found 300 feet of water, Florida coastline is not that deep compared to the California coast we were familiar, we let out all our chain and waited the suggested 30 minutes. Watching it we could actually see the chain slowly unwinding. Then we began bringing up the chain, but it kept 'jumping' out of the gypsy (the sprocket where the chain links fit). We thought something went wrong with the windless or it was just having trouble with the weight of all the chain. I stood on the chain as Lynn slowly inched it up in order to help keep the chain in the gypsy. After a frustrating 30 minutes of this, I looked closer at the chain links in the gypsy, and it became apparent that the links did not fit the gypsy sprocket!? How could this be that we never noticed this before? We continued with standing on the chain, me getting bounced off when the chain 'jumped', for another 30 minutes. After getting in just 100 feet I actually saw the link come aboard where two different chain sizes had been joined! We probably had never had out more than 200 feet so we never knew we had this problem. The chain now began rolling in with no problem. We continued bringing in the chain slowly and if we saw some twist we halted for a few minutes until it straitened, then we continued. We will know next time when preparing a previously owned boat to check out the full length of chain before venturing on a long range voyage.
We hope our experiences are helpful, and "We wish all of you who cruise, fair weather, and may the wind always be at your back. But we know better, and that's just part of the adventure."©
Les and Lynn Cotton
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