Anchor Drama

Anchor Drama
Young guys with jonboat and minimal anchor without chain.

Today’s boats tend to be bigger and more dependably powered, which is a good thing, but they may also provide a false sense of security. Take anchors for example; I sometimes wonder how many boats even carry them these days, relying instead on modern engines, multiple engines or in the bays, hydraulic anchor poles.

Bad things can happen to a boat or crew without a proper anchor, chain and rope. From my earliest years of boating, I have a few cautionary tales and thought I’d relate them here. It might save others from similar experiences.

In the ninth grade, I was running our 12-foot jonboat from Pleasure Island Marina up Sabine Lake, to Rainbow Bridge Marina. A blue sky norther was blowing, but the shoreline was calm enough for our boat. It was cold, so we pulled ashore and made a crackling campfire with boat gas and ample driftwood. Finally warmed up, we jumped back in the boat and took off, forgetting the boat’s smallish 3-gallon gas tank back on the beach. Whoops! The motor quit about 80 yards from land and we had no anchor. The wind was 20+ knots, blowing us farther out into Sabine Lake. The nearest landfall downwind was Louisiana’s cruel and empty marsh over the horizon, no doubt with a whitecap shoreline. My buddy lay flat in the boat while I paddled with considerable enthusiasm from the bow, straight into that wind, and we soon retrieved that gas tank. Lesson #1: A decent anchor will keep you from sailing off to an unknown fate.

A few years came and went and by now I had a stick-steering bass boat, used to chase trout under the birds on Sabine Lake. One July evening I stopped for one more cast at a school of trout, and then the motor wouldn’t start. Drifting along in a southeast wind, I realized the anchor was gone, recently lost at the jetties. I still had a paddle, and roughly downwind from us was a single telephone pole a half mile off Blue Buck Point.

We had one chance to grab that big pole and tie off. If we missed it, a mile downwind was whitewater marking several miles of solid rocks of the South Levy. Safely tied to the pole, we contemplated swimming down-tide in the dark to the causeway bridge, but thought better of it. It was a long night sleeping fitfully on that fiberglass deck with life jackets for pillows. At dawn we were towed back by a crab trapper. Lesson #2: Replace a lost anchor ASAP.

Two years later (January again), again with no anchor, we used a 30-pound rock in glassy-calm surf a few miles west of Sabine’s jetties, before wading ashore and duck hunting a nearby pond, where there was brisk action. What could go wrong? We found out when a south wind picked up, along with the surf, and our “anchor” disappeared. The boat was carried halfway onto the beach, bow first, with the stern flooded by waves bashing over the motor. Without a bucket, we had no hope of bailing it out and pushing a heavy fiberglass boat into deeper water so we could start the motor. So, we carried everything loose up on the beach, decoys too, and hiked three miles northwest, a stretch of marsh we knew well, guided by a patch of oak trees on Highway 87. The first mile in deep marsh, in rain and drizzle as it grew dark. There was fortunately no fog, because we didn’t carry a compass.

After recuperating the next day, we returned with a friend’s boat for towing service, only to find my boat gone and decoys too...The following summer, we ran into a high school chum who was a park ranger at Sea Rim Park, a few miles west. After telling him our sad story, he cheered us up by recollecting that the owner of a nearby farmhouse had found a bass boat on the beach the previous winter.

We drove straight to the farmhouse, nobody home, and peered into the backyard barn, where sat my shiny bass boat. The sheriff soon had a chat with the gentleman to inform him that the boat was registered in my name. It seems the local offshore helicopter service had spotted my boat and landed, kept the decoys, and advised a friend to salvage the boat. Which he did, even cleaning the motor.

Two months later in August, we were on our way to Key West with that boat, where we had many adventures during the 1970s, back when the town was cheap and no cruise ships.

However, we had motor and anchor trouble that same summer in Key West. The motor ran fine each morning but needed several hours rest, before moving to the next spot. Which didn’t stop us from heading out each day, along with a shiny new anchor and rope. Then one evening, with a full moon rising, close to Boca Grande Island 15 miles west of Key West, the anchor came untied. An incoming tide had us drifting northwest towards Louisiana—about 500 miles away. I grabbed a mask and dove overboard in ten feet of water, but in that underwater twilight couldn’t find the anchor and soon had to pursue my boat, where first mate Jay sat helpless. (If I’d found the anchor, not sure what I would have done with it.)

Fortunately, there was one other boat in sight and only a hundred yards away; a houseboat with four Cubans cooking oxtail soup. It was glassy calm and we yelled until they took notice, and one guy came over in a tiny skiff and towed us to the houseboat, where we spent the night on their roof. In our cooler was a trophy 12-pound mutton snapper, caught with a gold spoon nearby in shallow water, the best fish I ever caught out there. It was cleaned and served up for supper. It was a good trade-off; we were saved from drifting away and enjoyed a baked snapper feast. I avoided the oxtail soup but Jay did not. The next day he was miserable and confined to our motel room.

All of these misadventures happened because we 1) we didn’t have a decent anchor and/or 2) we didn’t have a chain and shackle tied with a proper knot.  

For 10 years after, I overcompensated by collecting anchors. We’d wait until summer’s green water washed the Galveston jetties. Ease in there with a jonboat close to the rocks on the north side, and snorkel around. If underwater visibility was even four feet, that was good enough. There were lots of anchors, mostly sharp-pointed Danforths, some old and others still with a price tag. It’s hard to imagine how many anchors have been lost there in the past century, hidden away in murky water most of each year. I’d keep about eight anchors and leave the rest on a rock for anyone who wanted them.

Later when we lived in Port O’Connor, in late summer 1994, seriously blue water arrived inside the Matagorda jetties and it was amazing to see 60 or more feet of bottom out there. There was a scattering of anchors off the end of the north jetty, it’s shallow out there with scattered rocks and sand, and that is where I found a new Fortress anchor made of aluminum. We kept a dozen anchors that day and then watched a school of slot-sized redfish that must have stretched for 30 yards. They were leaving the surf, rounding the jetty and headed for the bay.

That Fortress became my lucky anchor, lasting through years of jetty guiding. It was strong but so light I could jangle it out of the rocks every time. It was easy on the lower back, too. Yet, it could anchor a 25-foot Mako in strong current. It lasted a dozen years and was sold along with that boat.  

My point is that all boats should carry an anchor, chain and rope that will grab bottom and hang on; you don’t want an anchor that, because of wind and current, will drag right through a hot bite of fish. Drifting out to sea isn’t fun, either. Twice, I’ve fished with guys from up north who were used to lake fishing, who assumed a mushroom anchor would be fine on the Gulf coast. I told them, “You want to visit Mexico? Keep using that mushroom anchor.”

Carry a spare anchor, even a second-hand Danforth bought on Craig’s List. It might save a trip, if you snag and lose your primary anchor.  

Hydraulic stern poles have grown quite popular since the first model came out more than 20 years ago, with more than 1,500 dealers now selling the leading brand. But it may also mean that there are a lot of bay boats out there without old-fashioned anchors. Hydraulic poles work strictly a boat’s stern, a sketchy position in my view, if a sudden storm comes up on the bay or the surf turns rough. Especially if the device jams and won’t raise, which I experienced firsthand in a storm in 2008. They work down to depths of 10 feet, which doesn’t help in some areas. They’re great for run-and-gun tournament fishing the marsh, or guiding, or working acres of shallow flats. I even see guys using them at the dock, so they won’t have to tie up.

With wade fishing, I would certainly set an anchor and chain before wading off from the boat. Especially on the windy Texas coast, where a heavy, high-profile boat catches the wind and really pulls hard on whatever is holding it there.

I may have been a slow learner with anchors and had more than enough adventures, where I now don’t leave the boat ramp without a proper setup. I now carry a Stockless anchor with three feet of rust-proof chain for my 16-foot skiff, along with a smaller, grapple anchor that folds up for storage and can be deployed to keep the boat broadside to the fish (anchored bow and stern in protected water) even in a moderate wind. It can also be slung onto a grassy shoreline, or used to slow or even stop the boat while drift fishing in light wind.