Monday, 6 March 2017


No, I’m not referring to the use of recreational pharmaceuticals that will be prevalent this summer in Ibiza, Europe’s hottest party island.  I’m talking about trip lines, a wildly popular and hotly debated topic on cruising forums.

Trip lines can help you recover your anchor if it gets blocked under a rock or some other obstruction.  After reading a few Med blogs and guides, we’ll need to be prepared for snags around the Balearic Islands.  I’d sure hate to lose my beloved Rocna.

We have a standard buoyed trip line on board Mareda that, I’m convinced, is entirely inappropriate for use in the Med.  This consists of a small floating buoy attached to the crown of the anchor with a floating line.  When you anchor, the buoy floating at the surface indicates where your anchor is and gives you a line to tug on vertically (or backwards) to disengage the nose of the anchor from the obstruction, rather than pulling on the shaft of the anchor with the chain, which just drives the anchor further under the obstruction.

buoyed trip line, illustration from PBO (link below)
In theory, this type of trip line has several advantages: 
  • It clearly indicates to other boaters where your anchor is to keep them from deploying their anchor on top of yours;
  • It forces other boats to maintain a respectful distance when anchoring;
  • It is an easy to rig / easy to use way of having a line connected to the rollbar of the anchor.
In reality, this type of trip line has several disadvantages:
  • Many credit-card captains think the buoy is a free mooring buoy and they will try to tie up to it, causing your anchor to drag and/or your trip line to part (and threats and warnings written on the ball only dissuade the most timid of idiots);
  • Your buoy will bang against others’ hulls.  Boats will anchor as close together as possible (or closer) and each boat will inevitably swing over the anchors of the others.  There’s no harm in this.  But if you’ve got a trip line buoy set, other boats will swing onto your buoy, which will bang against their hull (until they’ve had enough and pull it up). 
  • Your trip line may get snagged around propellers of passing dinghies or motor boats, or worse, around your own keel, rudder, or propeller.
There are so many horror stories about these little buoyed beasts that many sailing gurus say you simply shouldn’t use them unless you’re alone in an anchorage.  Ron Heikell in his Mediterranean Cruising Guide is against their use in the Med, where anchoring space is always tight.

But what choice do you have when you think there is a possibility of obstructions?

Look where you drop the anchor.  If visibility permits, you can avoid dropping anchor in dubious spots.

Free Dive.  This depends on your level of diving fitness and the water temperature, but if you’re anchoring in less than 5 meters of water, you can probably free-dive long enough to pass a line around the rollbar of the anchor.  If you have to leave at night, diving is ill-advised.

Dive with a tank.  This is another hot topic on the cruising forums.  Emergency diving kits for sailors include bottles with about 5 minutes of autonomy, but they are only safe to use above 10 meters.  If your anchor is stuck and 15 meters, this shouldn’t be used.  (I know one sailor who did use his emergency tank at depths greater than 10 meters but I wouldn’t want to take the risk.)  These tanks are useful for inspecting the hull or cutting away lines caught in your propeller (been there / done that) but that doesn’t help us with our anchor problem.  An additional kerfuffle is that it is illegal to have tanks on board if you do any spearfishing or underwater hunting.  I’m sure the risk of being caught is slim (and perhaps they make exceptions for emergency kits?), but I would hate to have to let those juicy crabs or lobsters go because I’ve got a tank on board.  Did I mention that those emergency dive kits cost 600 euros?

Use a modified trip-line with no buoy.  We will only use this in areas deeper than 5 meters, when we can’t see the bottom, and/or if the area is reputed to be rocky or have obstructions.  But admitting that this is the right way to go is only half the battle.  There are so many opinions out there about how to rig up trip lines that you’ll quickly get snarled in the melee. Without detailing all the options out there, here is my favorite, developed from several sources but best explained and illustrated by the excellent articles posted at Coastal Boating and Practical Boat Owner by Alex and Daria Blackwell, authors of “Happy Hooking – The Art of Anchoring”.   

Floating trip line, illustration from Coastal Boating (link above)

With an appropriate length (15-20 meters) of line (opinions differ on floating or non-floating…and I haven’t decided yet), tie one end to the anchor crown using a knot that won’t chafe.  As you deploy the anchor and chain, feed out the line at the same time; when you reach the last few meters of the line, tie it into one of the anchor chain links. Note: it is very important that the line be slack when the chain is under tension, so tie off the end of the line into the chain several meters before you reach the end of the line so that it lies loose along the chain.  You want the line to be as strong as possible and still pass through your chain link.  Continue deploying the length of chain needed and gently put the boat in reverse to dig in the anchor (although a friend with experience in the Balearics says you’ll never have space to tension the chain correctly).  When you are ready to leave the anchorage, slowly advance the boat with the motor in the direction of the chain to reduce tension and haul in the chain until you see the line tied into the link.  Untie it, fix it to a cleat, and continue hauling in the chain.  If your anchor is stuck, you have a trip line already fixed to the anchor and you can use it to pull up vertically or backwards from a dinghy when the nose of the boat is directly over the anchor.  This is relatively easy to install and uninstall, robust, simple, has no moving parts, and is dirt cheap.  I may add a slight modification by threading a small loop or kink of line into a chain link at 10 meters to keep the line lying close to the chain a bit closer.

I’ll let you know how it goes.  I hope we won’t need to use this often but several of the “calas” in the Balearic Islands that I’d like to visit are marked as rocky with possible / reported obstructions, so I’d like to be prepared.