"Whoa!" Screamed the man at the bow, while still preparing his anchor and rode.
"OK," his wife responded gamely as she bumped up the throttle causing the boat to lurch forward through the crowded anchorage.
"No, I said Whoa!" He bellowed even louder this time, knowing they were nowhere near where he wanted to drop the anchor and clearly communicating his frustration.
"Honey, I can't hear you. I thought you said go. What do you want me to do?" The woman at the helm called back, looking hurt now that she was being yelled at, and also a little paranoid because everyone in the anchorage was now looking in their direction.
If you've anchored or moored among other boats before, you've likely witnessed, or maybe even played a part in a scene similar to the one above. I don't think any of us can claim to be above an anchoring snafu every once in awhile. Usually the catalyst of anchoring or mooring misadventures is just a pure and simple lack of communication between the person on the bow and the helmsperson.
To overcome that problem, some sailors try to yell even louder. Although often a source of entertainment to others in the anchorage, this is seldom a successful tactic. For some reason, voices spoken from the bow just don't seem to reach the cockpit very well. Wind will carry important instructions away while a thumping engine and enshrouding bimini and dodger distort and muffle what's left. So, what's a crew to do in order to carry out a smooth maneuver short of having a runner scamper back and forth with messages?
The information that the person on the bow needs to relay to the person at the wheel, and sometimes vice versa, is really just basic stuff. To work together successfully as a team, you need to be able to clearly indicate the following minimum directives: the speed of the boat, the direction of travel, and a few specifics about the state of your anchor and rode, or the mooring ball and pennant. Sometimes the hand signals are even more helpful during the process of anchor retrieval. Having your boat correctly positioned relative to your anchor and rode will help relieve much of the strain on your tackle during retrieval. If you don't have a windlass, it's even more important that you and your helmsman have a pre-determined set of hand signals and use them to coordinate your efforts. The person at the wheel or tiller can greatly help a bowman who's in the process of manually retrieving an anchor.
The following is a list of the hand signals that Larry and I use on Serengeti. Most of the directives are self explanatory, and for those of a more subtle nature we've included a brief description of when and why we use each. Let's start with those used by the person on the bow to inform the person on the helm:
Slow down Arm extended with palm down and hand motioning up and down.
Stop Arm extended with hand made into fist; no motion.
Back up Palm facing aft with repeated motion towards stern.
Back down on Anchor to Set Use both hands in back up signal.
Dropping anchor Thumb pointing down.
Anchor broken free, but not up OK symbol with hand (index finger and thumb making circle). This is a hand signal that we use in particularly crowded anchorages to indicate that the anchor has broken free from the bottom. This lets the helmsperson know that the boat will now be subject to currents and/or wind. After receiving this signal the use of minimal thrust from the engine may be needed to avoid drifting into other boats or obstacles while the anchor is being fully raised. Care must be taken at this time so as not to snag any debris with your anchor or foul your own prop with your rode.
Anchor up, boat free to maneuver Index finger pointing straight up and making a circle. This signal lets the helmsperson know that all ground tackle is free and clear and there is no longer any danger of fouling the prop.
Depth of water Indicate number of feet with fingers of one or both hands as needed. The bow person must have this information in order to put out the appropriate amount of scope when anchoring. (We use a minimum of 7 to 1 scope).
Drop anchor Thumb pointing down. Because we've found that the helmsperson usually has a better perspective relative to other boats in an anchorage than the bow person, we've begun letting that person make the call as to where and when to drop the anchor. Always remember to take into account the amount you will fall back after the anchor has set.
Anchor set and holding Two thumbs up. Again, we believe that the helmsperson has the best perspective to take a shoreline bearing and ensure that the anchor is set and holding while the engine is in reverse. A simple line up of a single point on your boat, like a shroud, with point on shore, like the chimney on the red house, indicates that your anchor is set if the points no longer move relative to one another.
Once you've mastered a set of easy hand signals, whether it's the one we use or a set of your own, we guarantee your own anchoring process or mooring ball pickups will become a smoother, easier, and quieter process. Practice a few times with your sailing partner and avoid any future raised voice mishaps that all too often tend to mar your otherwise quiet evening on the hook.
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