Anchoring With Hand Signals - SailNet Community

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Old 07-14-2002
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Anchoring With Hand Signals


Getting a good sized boat properly anchored can be enough of a chore without miscommunication throwing a wrench into the works.

"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?


From the foredeck, Larry gives the signal for Sue to power Serengeti ahead about 30 degrees to  port. 
For Larry and me, the answer has been hand signals. We found that with a few simple pre-determined hand signals it's a cinch to pick up a mooring ball on our first attempt, or drop the hook precisely in our chosen location. Implementing hand signals has virtually eliminated miscommunication from the bow to the helm, has substantially quieted the anchoring process, and has proved to be a healthy addition to our onboard relationship. So, if your own anchoring and mooring approaches more often resemble a Laurel and Hardy skit than a Marcel Marceau performance, maybe you could benefit by employing a set of anchoring hand signals yourself.

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:


With his arm angled backward, this bow person is signalling for the person on the helm to back off on the throttle.
Direction and thrust    Arm and hand extended fully pointing in desired direction. When hand is vertical with thumb up, forward thrust is desired. When hand is flat with palm down, continue direction, but put engine in neutral, giving no additional thrust. In other words, continue coasting in the direction indicated by the extended arm.

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.


From the foredeck, this crew says 'hold it steady.'
Of course situations occur where the helmsperson will need to convey information to the person on the bow. For those instances, we've devised the following signals: 

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.



Suggested Reading:

Choosing Anchors, Rodes, and Windlasses by Liza Copeland

Using Two Anchors by Tom Wood

The Perfect Anchor Rode by Tom Wood

SailNet Store Section: Anchors

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