England Ireland Find Havens
England Ireland Find Routes

Next Previous

Making it easier to deploy the right amount of anchor chain

Be the first
to comment

What is the issue?
When day anchoring in non-tidal waters it is broadly recommended that a vessel deploys at least two to three times chain length to the depth of water, five times for an overnight stay and seven times or more in stormy conditions. The problem is that, although the water beneath the hull may be easily measured by the boat's sounder, few if any vessels tend to have any means of measuring the chain.

The length of anchor rode is a critical measurement, as the deployed length is a fundamental and essential part of any anchor system, as it is the sole way of calculating the critical scope ratio that has been deployed.

Why address this?
There is a body of thought that says ‘the chain is doing you no good in the locker’ have it all out and use it if there is ample swing room.

Most of the time this is true, but ten times depth is considered the maximum effective scope. Anything more is not helping and sometimes more likely to cause problems of its own. In anchorages with lots of junk strewn along the bottom, or rocks or reef heads, it is not prudent to throw a load of unnecessary chain overboard as it makes it more likely that the chain will wrap itself around some unwanted object. In tight and shallow anchorages this is totally unworkable, particularly so when it is sharing with a lot of vessels swinging to the wind.

In these circumstances and many others, a measured chain strategy will pay dividends. Management thinker Peter Drucker is often quoted as saying that "you can't manage what you can't measure." If you have no way of knowing how much chain there is deployed you have no idea of the security of your holding.

How to address this?
Measure the chain by deploying an electronic chain counter or marking it with a series of alternating length colour markings. In the latter case, of coloured markings, it will necessitate a crewmember diligently standing in the weather, watching and counting the marks when anchoring. However, the manual marking system can be entirely relied upon, costs very little and is a trivial task to implement.


An electronic chain counter is a device specially designed to keep track of how much chain has been deployed and/or retrieved automatically. They tend to be found more on luxury boats where they are used to enable the anchor deployment and retrieval process to be conducted from the helm, or as often as not, the flybridge of a powerboat.

A wireless remote control for full windlass control and chain counting with the option of thruster operation
Photo: Courtesy of AutoAnchor
Chain counters require power, data wiring and for optimum results integration with the vessel's windlass controller and, if applicable, thruster operation. Almost all of the commercial models available use a reed-switch that is usually mounted adjacent to the gypsy. This has a fixed circumference and a neodymium magnet placed on the gypsy, made of bronze, which is used to close the switch and generate a pulse with each revolution. The counter is calibrated and programmed by keying in the chain pitch so the length of chain/revolution of the particular windlass and rode make-up can be calculated by counting the pulses from the reed switch.

In operation, chain counters will display how much chain you have let out and can automatically slow your windlass when the anchor gets within 1½ metres of the bow roller to prevent nasty bumps and scrapes. This also makes anchor retrieval at night much safer. A wide range of models are available worldwide, models branded Maxwell, Muir and Lewmar or Auto Anchor are all the same bar for the name on it - FAQs for Auto Anchor External link.


The key to making this successful is to mark the lengths in alternating colours of markers. Admittedly my first attempt was using paint and was a complete waste of time because I used a single colour which was white as it happens. Yes mea culpa but little harm was done save for an addition to my learning curve.

This all came about because I just happened to have a tin of white paint that I was going to throw away. Innately hating any form of waste I was wondering what I could do with it when I saw the anchor chain. The initial idea I had was that I could count the white marks on the chain as it spilt out, but it turned out to be a practically useless approach. Unfortunately, I always found myself deploying the anchor in very deep anchorages where I discovered the first chain lengths flew out of the chain locker so quickly that I was not able to keep tabs on the initial length markers. This left me entirely unsure as to exactly what was deployed. Fortunately, in the first half of my circumnavigation, these anchorages were not only deep but also open and largely empty so it mattered little. I always reasoned the chain may as well be out working for me than weighing down the bow so a cable tie marker near the end became my most important marker.

You can, of course, make just one colour of paint work by marking the rode with stripes. Stripes work well on a rope rode too. But after the experience during the first half of my circumnavigation, I carved up my 70-metre long chain into 10-metre lengths using the colours of the spectrum Red Orange Yellow Green Blue Indigo and Violet. This took a lot more paint but I knew exactly where I was each time with the aid of my easy-to-recall school days mnemonic ‘Richard of York gained battles in vain’.

My latest effort in the UK was to simply reduce the number of tins by going Green, White and Orange. I also use shorter 5-metre marks as England's south coast anchorages are much shallower and much more crowded requiring you to set the minimum chain that you can happily rely upon. The choice of colours incidentally is the Irish flag, which for me being Irish is easy to remember. The first set of markers were followed by a double Green, double White and double Orange, and then a treble that was finally finished by all three together - as above which gave me 50 metres. After this point, I did not care and was subscribing to the have it all out doing something philosophy. The colours and spacing are whatever works for you and how you can best remember them.

Marking is not a precise science of centimetres, so paint a good 30 cm or a foot of marker to make sure it is clearly visible and will last for some time. I would not get overly obsessed with the paint as it all wears off during the course of a season and you should buy large and hold on to your leftover paint to repaint it again down the road. Any spray paint will last for a season and I use car type spray canisters but others go for a more robust epoxy anti-rust paint for durability. This makes little difference andis more expensive as you’ll need one of each colour.
Please note

Just don't use up any bottom paint that may happen to be lying about. It is too soft and worse still it is toxic. This will transfer to your hands when handling the chain.

The best time to paint a chain is on a nice hot calm day. Heating the chain will get it nice and dry, help the paint to dry and bond to the chain and the calm will keep the spray from drifting onto the pontoon or neighbouring boats. To get started, remove the chain from its locker and make a pile. Then give it a good fresh water wash and drag it out straight along the dock or pontoon to dry and warm in the sun.

When it is ready, place the first section closest to the anchor to be painted in an enclosed cardboard box. Then give it a few spray-and-shakes to make sure all surfaces of the section of chain receive a coating. This done, and when touch-dry, remove the box length and lay the chain on paper to fully dry in the sun. Then move on to the next loop and the next colour and so on. Once you’ve run through the colour marks, depending on the length of your chain, the first section will most likely be dry enough to receive another coat so you can start over and repeat the sequence. Several coats should be enough to make a mark stick around so it may identify itself for a while.

My final 50 metre mark drying in the evening sun
Photo: Michael Harpur

The benefit of using paint to mark a chain anchor rode is that it won’t affect the links as they pass around the windlass. But this is not the only means of marking a chain. Many people prefer to use cable ties as chain markers. These are much easier to implement and can last longer if you don't fully tighten them. They should go through most windlass reasonably well but can get chewed up by some. If you have trouble with your gypsy an alternative approach is to try to fix them down tightly adjacent to the point where the links touch. This may also stop them interfering with the windlass.

A reasonable expectation is that the cable ties will last longer than paint but they are easily replaced as they fall off. You can put on multiples so that there will still be another one there for you to see, but that ignores the problem of all those bits of broken plastic in the water which is not good. Likewise, cable ties should be avoided by those who bring up the anchor by hand as they can cut numb wet hands.

Another approach is to make tag markers from heavy duty reinforced awning fabric in bright colours. This can be cut into strips about 15mm x 100mm, and attached to the chain link by cutting a slit in one end and threading the tag through itself. These should endure a couple of years or more of use and they do no damage to the chain or windlass gypsy.

Anchor chain inserts are available in a selection of colours
Photo: Courtesy of OSCULATI

Commercially available colour-coded chain inserts are also an option. These are coloured plastic shapes which snap into the interior of a chain link. These work well but tend to fall out over time and can be difficult to see in the dark.


Whichever approach you use, you will be in a much better position. As the English mathematician and biostatistician, Karl Pearson (185 - 1936), credited with establishing the discipline of mathematical statistics, noted: 'That which is measured improves. That which is measured and reported improves exponentially'. This maximum became known as Pearson’s Law that can be easily applied to handling ground tackle.

With thanks to:
Michael Harpur, Yacht Obsession.
A photograph is worth a thousand words. We are always looking for bright sunny photographs that illustrate this experience. If you have some images that we could use please upload them here. All we need to know is how you would like to be credited for your work and a brief description of the image if it is not readily apparent. If you would like us to add a hyperlink from the image that goes back to your site please include the desired link and we will be delighted to that for you.

Add your review or comment:

Please log in to leave a review of this tip.

eOceanic makes no guarantee of the validity of this information, you must read our legal page. However, we ask you to help us increase accuracy. If you spot an inaccuracy or an omission on this page please contact us and we will be delighted to rectify it. Don't forget to help us by sharing your own experience.