Like any other aspect of cruising, preparation can make a big difference to your anchoring, mooring, and docking success. Here are some tips to consider before you leave that will help make your overnights more secure.
Securing your boat to the bottom of a harbor depends on a variety of factors including the size of the anchorage, bottom condition, wind, current, and depth, and the equipment provided. Anchoring in 15 feet of water on a sandy bottom that you can see is one thing. Anchoring fore and aft in a deep anchorage with murky water full of tree trunks is another. Your pre-charter briefing will usually provide information on good anchorages, and warn you about any that should be avoided. Pay close attention, ask lots of questions, and heed this important local knowledge.
Here are some universal tips for anchoring.
1. Test your approach
Try anchoring the first time in a wide open anchorage with plenty of room for error. Also, test the windlass before you leave the dock to make sure the anchor launches freely.
2. Keep track of the anchor rode
Few charter boats will have all-chain rode, which you may be used to on your own boat. The boat will need more scope and swing differently on line, so keep that in mind especially when anchoring near cruising boats that are likely to have all chain. Charter rode is usually not marked, which makes it hard to figure out if you have let out enough scope for the depth. Also, a rope/chain splice can get caught as it passes through an electric windlass, so go slowly when dropping and raising the anchor.
3. Dive on the anchor
If you’re in warm, shallow water, dive down to visually inspect the anchor and make sure it's dug in.
Anchoring can be intimidating the first time, but it will get easier as the trip goes on. And no matter where you charter, it will almost always be your cheapest overnight option.
Moorings are often placed in harbors where it is either difficult to anchor (due to depth, bottom condition or obstructions) or is prohibited in order to protect surrounding reefs and bottom structure. Moorings usually provide a stress-free night’s sleep, but they do come in many varieties and are rigged according to local custom. You may need to pick up the float with a boathook and string your own line through an eye. Other moorings, like those off Catalina Island in California, will have a pick up buoy that protrudes high out of the water, making it possible to pick up the line without a boat hook.
Here are some general mooring tips.
1. Make sure you pick up a public mooring.
Some will be private, and you may have to leave in the middle of the night if the owner comes back. The local charter company can explain what to look for in mooring location, structure, restrictions, and pricing.
2. Many areas charge fees to cover mooring maintenance.
In some charter destinations like the Grenadines, “boat boys” will assist you with a mooring hookup. These men and women make their living from tips by assisting boaters, which can include bringing out ice, baked goods or other necessities to make a stay more enjoyable. Tip well, and you won’t be sorry.
3. In bad weather, weigh the benefits.
In some cases, trusting an unknown mooring may be less safe than anchoring with the provided ground tackle.
The most stressful part of a charter can be docking, especially if it is a different type or size of boat from what you’re used to at home. Many charter companies will drive the boat out of its marina berth for you or will direct you to a mooring just outside of the homeport marina when your return, where you wait for them to come out and bring it into the dock themselves. Don’t be offended; it’s their boat and your credit card, and they are simply trying to minimize the risks.
Some companies will insist you refuel the boat before returning it, making it mandatory to tied up to a dock at least once. That can be easy in places Anacortes in the Pacific Northwest, where there is a wide-open dock and lots of assistance. Or it can be hair-raising at a place like the crazy fuel dock in the Blue Lagoon at the bottom tip of St Vincent in the Caribbean. There’s no way of knowing what kind of dock you'll have to deal with, so ask the locals lots of questions, try to scope it out beforehand via dinghy, and then proceed with caution.
Fees will vary based on your boat’s size, and in some places like the British Virgin Islands, the price can be a hefty sum. In areas with high docking fees you may want to anchor or find a mooring instead. Be sure to include your crew in that decision, so you don’t have a mutiny by anyone wanting to run up the dock for a long hot shower.
Here are some three docking tips.
1. Approach any hard surface only as fast as you are willing to hit it.
Many small docks in remote areas, like at Bloody Mary’s on Bora Bora Island in Tahiti, experience a wild surge, shallow surrounding reefs, and a strong wind that will keep you pinned to the dock even as you try to leave.
2. Put out lots of lines and fenders.
Keep calm, and impress on your crew that damage to the boat is bad but damage to body parts is worse. No one should try to be hero in a docking situation.
3. Learn to med-moor
Med-mooring (anchoring or mooring off a dock and then backing into the dock stern first) is quite popular in the Caribbean, South Pacific and Europe. Good crew coordination is necessary. Consider practicing at an empty dock with your own boat before departing for your vacation.
Whether you’re anchored, moored or docked, you may want to raft or side-tie with friends on another boat. Rafting works well, but make sure there are people on both boats who know how to handle the lines, and use plenty of fenders. On sailboats, remember to keep your spreaders offset fore and aft, so they won’t tangle if the boats start to roll into one another.
With a little careful planning, some thought, a bit of time to reconnoiter, and maybe a bit of practice at home, overnight accommodations will be easy to come by in any new charter destination. Buy a cruising guide that covers your specific charter area and read it before your trip. Review a planned itinerary with the charter company staff. If they recommend changing it, listen closely; they’ll know the area best. And then all you’ll need to do once you start your adventure is relax and enjoy.