Living With Chain

by George Day - Blue Water Sailing Magazine

In the age of performance cruisers, an all chain rode is no longer the default option

Conventional wisdom says, and has said for 50 years, that on voyaging boats the main anchor rode should be all chain and for boats going world cruising it should be at least 300 to 400 feet in length. We've all heard it before. BWS has printed it before. And we have equipped out boats religiously for extended voyaging according to the formula . . .or is it dogma?

Certainly, the arguments for all-chain rodes - as opposed to nylon with a chain leader - are compelling. Chain is much more resistant to chafe than is nylon; its weight aids the natural burying design of the anchor; it can be used with a four-to-one scope instead of the seven-to-one required by nylon; it rolls smoothly over the gypsy of a windlass and self-stows in the chain locker; it has a long life and can be rejuvenated with a trip to the galvanizing plant.

All good points. But there is a downside to carrying an all-chain primary rode. Chain is heavy; 300 feet of standard BBB galvanized chain, suitable for use on a 40- to 50-foot boat, weighs 510 pounds. Add that weight to the 40 to 60 pounds of anchor hanging on the bow, plus the requisite electric windlass, and the total becomes nearly 700 pounds. Multihull sailors are acutely aware of this weight. But, as cruising monohull design evolves toward better performing sailing shapes, and as more sailors set off voyaging in fin-keelers with moderate to light displacements, the weight of all-chain in the bow begins to become an issue. The weight can, in fact, change the sailing characteristics and seakeeping abilities of a boat, promoting pitching in a seaway, nose-diving in heavy running conditions, and a mushy feel on the helm.

Chain is dirtier than nylon. Anchor in a muddy bay or river, and next morning a chain rode will be clogged with ooze that needs to be hosed and brushed off to keep it from festering in the chain locker. Anchor for a long period in one place in the tropics, and the chain in the water will become an undersea marine garden, complete with its own blossoming ecosystem. It takes a wire brush to clean it. Use a length of chain for long periods in coral or rocky anchorages, and the links will begin to rust, leaving the anchor locker and everything that comes into contact with the rode stained the color of burnt ocre.

If chain is the conventional choice, then, it is so despite its drawbacks. After its resistance to chafe, the single most compelling reason to carry an all-chain rode on the primary anchor is the ability, with a robust electric windlass, for one person to get the anchor up easily and in a hurry. This means you don't have to think twice about reanchoring should the wind direction change, should a rusting fishing trawler anchor right on top of you, or should you begin dragging.

Characteristics of chain.

There are only two types of chain that voyagers generally consider up to the task of a life at sea - BBB and high test. Proof coil is the least expensive form of low-carbon steel chain on the market. While its rated breaking strengths are similar to BBB, proof coil has longer chain links and these do not fit into the gypsys of most modern windlasses. Moreover, under extreme loads, proof coils longer links have a higher tendency to collapse than either BBB or high test. Good for fixed moorings, proof coil is not the choice for a cruising boat. Stainless steel chain is available at a price but is considered by most offshore sailors to be impractical; moreover, stainless steel is only stainless when exposed to air, so submerging it for long periods will cause corrosive decay. Vinyl - coated chain - usually proof coil does not do the job on an offshore boat because it is rapidly chewed up by the windlass. Additionally, the vinyl traps moisture against the links, promoting oxidation and deterioration. Vinyl-coated chain works on a dinghy rode.

BBB is low-carbon, galvanized steel chain found on a lot of offshore boats. It is economical, it has very low stretch, and it fits most windlasses. BBB has been the standard for a generation. Its problem is its weight - 27.2 ounces per foot. Put 300 feet in the bow of your 38-footer and you will see the waterline slant forward.

High-test chain is fabricated from high-carbon steel with a higher breaking strength threshold than BBB. High-test is also lighter than BBB - by 50% - so you can either carry more of it or you can carry the minimum and save a lot of weight. Because high-test chain has grown in popularity, most windlass manufacturers sell their products with a standard high-test gypsy.

Solving problems

Chain comes with its own set of problems, as noted above.

On many modern boats, the weight of the chain in the forepeak will alter the way the boat handles. There are few ways to combat the problem: Use high test chain; move the anchor locker aft, right over the keel if possible; carry only the minimum length of chain in the forepeak with an extra length (and chain shackles) stored low in the middle of the boat to be used in unusually deep anchorages; when going to sea, move the anchor and chain to a cockpit locker. While none of these suggestions is as simple as leaving the chain in the forepeak, making the ends of your boat lighter will enhance its sailing performance in all conditions.

is going to create a certain amount of mess on deck and in the chain lockers as it brings mud, sand and marine life up with it from the bottom of the anchorage. Having lived without a high-pressure deck wash for many years, we have become converts. A deck-wash outlet near the bow should have a length of hose long enough to reach into the chain locker or over the bow and down to the waterline; there will be times when the anchor locker needs a cleaning, and times when you will need to sit in the dinghy to scrape barnacles off the chain as it comes aboard. If you have ample freshwater supplies, then plumb the deck wash with both salt and fresh water the first for heavy cleaning chores, and the second for rinsing salt off the boat after a wet sail.

When chain winds in over the windlass and then drops into the chain locker, it has a tendency to build mounds or chain castles that grow and then topple over on themselves in tangles. The simplest solution is have the youngest member of the crew positioned at the chain locker to flake the chain as it drops comes in. Not a popular job, particularly if the chain is rusty or still slimy with bottom ooze. If there is room in the chain locker, a simple chute, narrow at the top and wider at the bottom and lined with sheet metal, will help the chain to flake naturally as it falls from the chute into the locker.

Over time, a chain rode that is used all the time will develop a twist that will create tangles in the chain locker and impede the efficiency of the gypsy on the windlass. The twist comes from inevitable but slight misalignment between the gypsy and the bow roller. A chain swivel between the rode and the anchor will help. But the best solution is to use a notched roller in the bow roller that will align the chain with the gypsy as it comes over the bow.

Corrosion that ends up as rust will start to eat a chain rode that is used actively, especially in coral and eventually in rocks where the galvanizing is rubbed off. Wet chain lying in a damp anchor locker exacerbates the problem. There is no complete solution, but there are preventive measures that will lengthen the chain's useful life. Make sure that the anchor locker is clean and that it drains well; spray it out with fresh water from time to time and clean out limber holes that can be clogged with mud or rust flakes. It is a good idea to end-for-end the chain once a year, so the whole length wears evenly. Make sure the gypsy on the windlass does not wobble under strain or have sharp edges that will chew the galvanizing off the links. Finally, chain that is used aboard a voyaging boat will need to be regalvanized after three years of cruising, a process that can be found in just about any developed port city. How long will a chain rode last? Depending on use and deterioration, a chain rode should last voyagers five or more years. For those cruising part time, the chain will last a decade.

BWS conclusion

There's no doubt that an all-chain rode is the best compromise for most voyaging boats. BWS likes high-test chain for its high strength and low weight. We choose to carry 250 feet in the forepeak of our 44-footer and two 75-foot lengths in bags (110 pounds each) in the bottom of the sail locker, where we also keep our spare anchors.

But we also like to have a nylon rode at the ready so we have split our forepeak in half, making room for a 250-foot nylon rode and 20-feet of chain that can be used as either a primary or secondary rode as need be - for very little additional weight. The secondary anchor is stored on the cabin top. Three hundred feet of storm warp lives under the V-berth forward.

The deck wash has been rigged near the mainmast (over the head) so we can use the hose all over the entire length of the boat and keep mud and detritus to a minimum.

Finally, what makes the all-chain rode work so well is the big Lofrans Tigress windlass on the bow. We wouldn't sail far without it.