Anchoring in the Florida Keys...

THE ART OF ANCHORING by Captain Tommy Eckhardt

Many divers use the state of the art mooring buoy system in the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary, available to anyone who cares to use it. The Coral Reef Foundation, Reef Relief and other government and privately funded organizations have installed a series of mooring buoys at Coffin Patch and Sombero Light NMSPAs.

General etiquette applies to the use of the buoys. Do not "hog" the buoy. A nice day brings a lot of traffic to the reefs. The buoys are "first come, first served," but it is polite to use the buoy, do your dive and vacate it for someone else. If you are more interested in fishing than diving, keep in mind that the reason for the buoys location is good diving not good fishing. Most are located on shallow reefs ideal for diving but not for fishing.

Other advantages of using the buoys are site location. If you are unfamiliar with the area, it's a pretty safe bet that there's something nice to see around the buoy, ad you can always find that same spot again. Security is another advantage. The buoys are designed to hold boats considerably larger than the average diver is likely to use. A fifty footer shouldn't strain the rig in anything but the most severe conditions, and who is going to be diving then!

Anchoring a boat isn't considered an art form by many boaters, only the ones who have had regretful experiences from poor anchoring practices, or have seen the damage that a thoughtlessly dropped anchor can cause. The vast majority still give little further thought to the anchor after they say "bombs away"...Unless it drags!

This article is not designed to make everyone an anchoring artist, but to maybe increase boater awareness. The main objectives when anchoring in the Fabulous Florida Keys should be avoiding damage to the ecosystem, vessel security, and ground tackle retrieval.

Our concern in the Keys, is that people with less local knowledge come in and drop anchor. The relief of the reef can be vertical for an astonishing distance. Dropping a sand anchor in the center of a sand hole is an appropriate technique. But when the hole is twenty feet in diameter and the coral is five feet tall, the anchor line or chain can butcher years of nature's finest work in seconds. Not to mention the fact that dropping an anchor squarely in that sand hole, even after having been diving on it hundreds of times, can still be challenging. Many times it's not worth the risk. Consider an alternate dive site or do a drift dive.  Lets start with a basic description of the gear.

Anchors come in many forms. The "Danforth" or lightweight style is the most popular and also the ones provided on your rental boat. They do have the unattractive tendency to "trip out" or break loose when the wind and or current (i.e. the direction of the load) changes and the boat swings. This is more of a concern when anchoring overnight as opposed to one dive. They do hold in rock and coral but are sometimes difficult to retrieve intact. Of course dropping one in the ecologically challenged coral is out of the question--as well as against Federal law. You may not get caught damaging the coral but think....about the Keys with no coral, no fish, no diving, no fishing.....NO FUN! Damaging the coral is ruining something that belongs to all of us.

Rode - the length of line (we don't call it rope on a boat) and chain that attaches the anchor to the boat.

Scope - the angle of the rode is described in terms of water depth to rode length i.e. 3to1 means that the rode is three times as long as the depth of the water, a fairly steep angle. Seven to one would be "more" scope or a shallower angle, the more scope the closer the shank of the anchor is to the bottom, the better it holds.

Ground tackle-the whole anchoring system, anchor chain and line.

Powering - refers to a technique of freeing a stuck anchor. Take in any extra rode you can by motoring up on the anchor, then tie the line off on the cleat, have your mate stand back and motor the boat past the anchor. The boat can put considerable strain on the anchor, more than most hooks can take so be careful. The conscientious diver will check the anchor and reset it so that this is not necessary! If you have to power the hook up in the vicinity of coral you are probably hurting something pretty.

So now how do we use our ground tackle? Easier asked than answered! No matter what type of gear you've selected the first objective to consider is how to make the boat stay still without smashing anything pretty or ecologically sensitive. The corals and other sealife have enough trouble surviving with poor water quality, they shouldn't have to worry about us battering them with our ground tackle. The first thing to do is look for a sand patch, not always an easy thing to do In the shallower depths it's a matter of looking for the lighter colored areas, in the deeper spots the color difference is more subtle but nonetheless visible. Polarized sunglasses work wonders. Once you have identified sand you should cross it with your depth sounder on, you will find that the coral rises above the sand, this is a good way to identify sand when the visibility is less than perfect. In fact when you get accustomed to using sounders you can conceivably identify sand by sounder alone.

The next thing to do is try to determine which way the boat will point (or lay) once the anchor is set. If there are other boats anchored in the area the task will be easier, if not, the fist thing to consider is the wind. The next thing to think about is the current. Short of an educated guess the thing to do is look for a t rap buoy floating, or something similar. If there is a current it will leave a wake, this will identify the direction and give an idea of the velocity. If there is nothing to tell you and you have a GPS, take the boat out of gear, drift for a minute, and let the GPS give you a course and sped That done it's a guessing game from there.

So you've found a sand pocket and determined by the wind and currents speed and direction and some black magic which way the boat will be pointed, what's next? Go to the upwind current side of the pocket from the other side, stop the boat using a little bit of reverse and lower away. Lower being a key word, if you let the anchor free fall the the bottom there is the chance of the chain fouling up in the anchor, leaving you with your basic rock on a rope rig, not very effective in the sand. Once the hook touches the sand help the wind and current, back the boat with the engine. By going to the far side of the sand patch there is more sand for the rode to lay on, this not only saves the coral but keeps the line from getting chaffed or cut.

Once you've settled back on the hook take some references if you can, to see if you are dragging anchor. Unless there is a strong current the boat should be pointed pretty much upwind, that's where it rides the best. If the boat turns it's beam to the wind all of the sudden you're probably dragging anchor. Sometimes the best thing to do is to let out more scope and see if that helps. If however you are anchored in a sand pocket with high profile coral all around you need to retrieve your ground tackle immediately to avoid damage to the coral. Then you get to try again, remember practice make perfect, and boo boos can damage the very ecosystem that we are there to enjoy not destroy.

If you get the idea that there is more to anchoring than meets the eye you are correct. However a little effort on your part will go a long way to preserving the reefs of the fabulous Florida Keys, something in all of our best interests.