Over the course of the last three decades, I’ve probably spent at least five years at anchor. Whether it was living aboard or cruising, getting an anchor—or two—deployed and firmly set was essential to getting a good night’s rest.

But setting the anchor is only part of the game.

This huge anchorage on the north shore of Long Island is popular because of the good protection it offers.

This huge anchorage on the north shore of Long Island is popular because of the good protection it offers. Photo: Gary Reich

A big part of your anchoring success and enjoyment will also depend on where and when you actually decide to toss the hook overboard. The basics are easy enough to cover here, so first, let’s consider charts.

What makes a good anchoring spot?

If you’re cruising to an area you don’t know and you plan on anchoring out for the night, the first thing you should do is look at a chart of the area, whether it’s on your chartplotter, smartphone, tablet, laptop, or in paper form, such as a chart book or cruising guide. I like to pick at least two good spots (three is even better), knowing that one may be filled with other boats or turn out to be unsuitable in some other way.

So that begs the question, “What’s a good spot?” From a chart perspective, look for an area that has 10- to 20-foot depths, a mud or sand bottom, protection from forecasted or prevailing winds, and is as out of the way as possible from busy traffic areas. Keep clear of submerged cable areas, wrecks, and pilings, and never anchor in a channel.

By the way, those aforementioned 10- to 20-foot depths mean that you’ll need an anchor rode that is at least 100 feet in total length, including the chain, but 150 to 200 feet is better.

This chart shows some good places to drop the hook, and some not-so-good places. Knowing the difference between potential good and bad spots, just by looking at a short, is an important anchoring skill.

This chart shows some good places to drop the hook, and some not-so-good ones. Knowing the difference between potentially good and bad spots is an important anchoring skill. Image courtesy of NOAA

Once you’ve picked some anchorage candidates, ask yourself some questions: Is the anchorage close to the facilities I will need to access? Is the anchorage subject to extreme tidal currents or busy traffic? Is it next to a restaurant or bar that could be noisy late into the night? Is the anchorage charted as “Restricted?” Are there mooring balls there? Is there enough room for my boat to swing on its anchor? The more questions the better, but experience is the best teacher. Once you’ve picked a couple bad spots, picking the good ones gets easier.

That said, there’s no way to know everything about a certain area just by looking at a chart. That’s where a cruising guide comes in. These books include information on anchorages that can sometimes make the difference between a pleasant night on the hook and an unpleasant one. Also check online for cruiser’s forums, where folks share intel on particular anchoring spots.

Lastly, the weather forecast is essential in choosing a good anchoring spot. For example, if a cold front is forecast to come through during the night with a wind change to the northwest, the spot you chose earlier in the day that has no protection (trees, buildings, a bridge, etc.) from that direction isn’t such a good pick. A better spot would provide a windbreak from the northwest as well.

Boats sit quietly at both morning balls, and on their own anchors in Annapolis Harbor, MD.

Boats sit quietly on both mooring balls and their own anchors in Annapolis Harbor, MD. Photo: Gary Reich

Having a dinghy with an outboard will obviously expand your anchoring choices. Instead of relying on an anchorage that has water taxi service or is close enough to shore to row to, you can anchor away from the hustle and bustle in relative peace and quiet. When you need to go ashore, you simply fire up the dinghy.

Of course it’s impossible to always do a ton of research before you drop the hook each night. But the more you do, the more it will all come naturally. In fact, at some point, a chart, the weather forecast, and your eyes may be all you need to ensure a safe, sound night on the hook.