Are New Generation Anchors Any Good?

They sure have promise, judging from the many comments I read on the forums. But, I have to caution that I believe there is a strong tendency to want something to be really good once you've spent a fair bit of money on it. It must be worth what you spent, right?

And there are a few questions still out there. As I noted in my last post I have not yet seen enough testing to come to any definite conclusion, especially in comparison to anchors like the Danforth, the Fortress, the CQR, and the Bruce that have not only been through numerous tests over several decades but have also been in continuous use throughout the cruising world by many experienced boaters. Evans and Beth Starzinger did some unusual testing down in Chile where they found that their anchor favorite, the Bruce type, still performed better than the new generation anchors in the rocky shale found in those waters. There have also been some soupy mud tests done by other manufacturers indicating that there might be some doubts about new gen. anchors in those bottoms. Plus, I have witnessed a big boat having trouble with his Spade in a hard-mud-weedy bottom where my Bulwagga bites in fast every time.

Other boats have problems dealing with the roll bar not working properly in their anchor roller set up. Another interesting thing is that the new gen. anchor folks are all quite conservative on their recommended anchor weights. In the past, anchor manufacturers all seemed to compete to claim the crown of lightweight champion, but today everyone seems to be conceding that point to Fortress, which is basically a Danforth design from 1939. I now see anchor weight tables suggesting I add ten pounds or so to what the leading anchor companies suggested 10 years or so ago.

Am I interested in new gen. anchors? You bet! Am I sold yet--No.

New Generation Anchors?

Anchor talk in the boating forums is usually heated and opinionated, and lots of fun too! There is lots of discussion right now about what some are calling the "New Generation" anchors, and how they compare to what I guess we must now call the "old generation" anchors. Putting myself into that old generation, some of us feel a bit defensive about the term--they're not old, just well tested! And that is what sets the old generation from the new. Yes, there have been a few well-publicised anchor tests in recent years that were apparently won by the new generation anchors, but if you take a close look at these tests they have some critical flaws.

The test that got these anchor wars rolling in the U.S.A. was the one conducted by West Marine and SAIL magazine, and published back in the fall of 2006. Results also appeared in Yachting Monthly in Europe, and in other publications, with varying degrees of quality in the reporting. The results have been argued about endlessly on the forums, but the general conclusion was that the new generation anchors, including the Rocna, the Spade, and the Manson Supreme, did significantly better than the old generation, except for the aluminum Fortress anchors, which I include in the old generation because they are closely based on the Danforth design.

However, I would argue that this major test was fatally flawed from the get-go, despite the best intentions of the testers and the organizations involved. For some reason unknown to me they chose a location with a firm, hard sand bottom, that was obviously highly variable based on the results. Now, there is nothing wrong with anchoring over sand, which many have to do while cruising in the tropics and other locations, and sand generally produces the highest holding power of any bottom material.

The problem lies in the difficulty in getting a proper anchor set in sand, particularly the hard kind like the type the test was conducted in. Those of us who have dove on anchors in sandy bottoms in places like the Bahamas, Florida, and the Caribbean know that it can be both the most welcoming bottom and the most problematic. Texture can vary from deep, soft, and accepting, to more like the compacted surface of a sandy airport runway, and practically everything in between. The former will produce outstanding holding with almost any anchor while the latter may not allow even the sharpest anchor to penetrate. Holding becomes more a matter of what you can get one point or another of the anchor hooked into.

I can vividly recall numerous anchor sets in the Bahamas, where the water can be crystal clear, where we could apply full reverse on the anchor, yet when I observed it underwater there was nothing hooked in but the tip of the point. To me that is not good holding, and anchor test results generally come to how sharp the anchor's flukes are compared to the competition, possibly how much weight is on the point, and also how lucky you are with where the anchor ends up on the bottom.

Back on that Bahamas bottom where the anchor was barely hooked in I could snorkel around and find a nice dip that might be filled with soft sand providing an ideal nesting place for the hook, once I dragged it over there. I might then sit out a tremendous blow in total confidence knowing the anchor is in a good spot with good holding, but if the boat next to me dragged I also knew it probably had very little to do with the holding power of the anchor and everything to do with the quality of the bottom and the luck of the drop.

This fatal flaw means that the West/SAIL test is near worthless in telling us anything other than the new generation might have some promise. I will take a look at more of these tests in further installments.

Can You Afford to Go?

During the winter, with my boat laid up ashore in Massachusetts, I tend to read the various sailing blogs and forums where I research gear ideas and try to be helpful to others with my suggestions. Constant refrains include all the questions from newbies and wannabees about various pieces of equipment. I participate in some of these threads, but what often strikes me is how people with very little experience weigh in on the merits or demerits of one piece of gear or another. Anchor selection is always a hot topic, often generating as much heat as light. The "in" anchors are currently the Rocna and the Manson Supreme, and by all accounts they seem to perform very well and have lots of avid followers. But, from what you read you would think that people are risking their boats and maybe their lives if they are using a CQR, a Bruce, or a Delta.

What people have to remember is that others before them, like the Hiscocks, the Pardeys, the Dashews, and the Roths all went around the world and to many places most of us will never visit, and they did not have the option of using a "new generation anchor" because they did not exist. The same can be said for many items that appear to be considered standard equipment by many new cruisers: SSB, GPS, AIS, radar, electronic charting, and even comfort item like refrigeration and DVDs.

I am not saying that this new gear is bad or wrong to have onboard, but that you may be focusing on the wrong questions before you go. For example, anchoring success is not guaranteed if you simply purchase the latest anchor design, electric windlass, and new type of anchor rode. Easily 95% of anchoring success is due to skill, with 5% due to equipment and dumb luck. Someone like Eric Hiscock could safely sail around the world numerous times with a CQR anchor on the bow because he knew how to use it safely, not because it was a CQR. And yet that particular anchor is condemned by many as worthless. Are we no saying that you can't safely sail with a CQR because it has been supplanted by superior anchors? Of course that statement is ridiculous, but you might not get that impression reading some of the forums.

So, do as I say and not as I do, and please read the blogs with a critical eye, and don't believe that just because everyone is doing something that it is the only way of doing it.