Guidelines for Anchoring Responsibly

Published on October 20th, 2019

Drew Frye is technical editor for Practical Sailor and author of Rigging Modern Anchors. In this report for Practical Sailor, Frye provides the legal guidelines to manage anchorages.

We often get questions about anchoring rights. While it is commonly understood that the first boat arriving in an anchorage has privileges, many see this as a matter of etiquette, but it is also a legal issue. The below citations are from the case Juniata 124 F. 861 US Admiralty Court, E.D. Virginia, 1903. Other rulings we reviewed generally agree.]

1. The first boat to arrive has the right to anchor as she pleases. This includes considerable scope and multiple anchors. While some practices may be considered discourteous in a crowded harbor, there is nothing in the case law limiting this, and opinions about multiple anchors, scope, and seamanship vary according to the boat, geometry, holding ground, and expected weather.

2. Later arrivals are required to keep clear. They are not specifically required to stay outside of the swing circle, but court decisions for ships state that “ample space [must be given]; that is, taking into consideration all the exigencies likely to arise, either by reason of the character of the harbor, the conditions of the weather, and the season of the year, no danger of collision would arise….” The ruling goes on to explain that you should not cut it close and that safety factors are required.

3. Communication is encouraged; “Furthermore, the vessel that anchored first shall warn the one who anchored last that the berth chosen will foul the former’s berth.” While this is prudent for ships, it is often impractical for recreational boats. The first arrival may be ashore or asleep. It’s not pleasant to ask another boat to move after they have placed their anchor. No one enjoys a confrontation, and “ample space” is subject to interpretation. If all boats are anchored by a single hook at similar scope they should swing together, but the amount of scope and number anchors each boat has deployed may not be obvious.

4. If you begin to drag, you are no longer anchored and give up all rights. “A vessel shall be found at fault … if it fails to shift anchorage when dragging dangerously close to another anchored vessel.” Obvious enough. But often the first arrival starts to drag and then blames those around him for anchoring too closely. If he dragged only 10-30 feet, perhaps he has a point. In soft mud bottoms, anchors can move considerable distances during the process of setting more deeply or responding to a wind shift. Later arrivals are expected to take this into account as part of the safety factor (see item 2 above).

5. If you increase scope or lay a second anchor, you have changed your berth and may be considered to have re-anchored, giving up any prior rights if this adjustment changes the geometry of your berth and contributes to a collision.

6. If there has been a collision or is imminent risk of collision, all parties have the responsibility to act to reduce damage. This might include deploying fenders, increasing scope, kedging away, or even abandoning your ground tackle and getting underway. You should always have several practiced plans in mind.

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