"Many can sail," said the old salt, "but few can anchor."
He was right, of course. Why else would they call him the old salt?
Ever since moving to Washington I've envied the lucky few who escaped the Fourth of July crush on the Mall, yet still got great seats for the fireworks by cruising up the Potomac in their skiffs and cabin cruisers and anchoring off the Monument grounds. This year I bought a boat and became one of them.
What a way to spend Independence Day, listening to the river lapping at the hull, watching the sun setting over the Rosslyn skyscrapers, munching sandwiches and sipping icy beers from the cooler, waiting for the fiery show to begin.
"What was that?" my wife demanded.
"Nothing, dear," I said. "Probably just a 400-pound carp at play, or a communications satellite splashing down."
"Well, what am I supposed to do now?"
"Relax, honey, I'll help you get the little fish out of your blouse, and I'm sure if we just spend a few minutes with the bailer we can get most of the water out of the boat."
It is a known marine fact that the most efficient bailing instrument is a bucket in the hands of a frightened person. Since she was the more frightened, we determined that she should bail while I checked to see if the beer had sustained any damage. She was down to the dregs when:
It happened again.
This time I saw it coming, having taken an interest in the pending arrival of the 60-foot motor vessel "Bludgeon." She was bearing down on our port beam at about 15 knots when her captain abruptly cut the engines, leaped from the flying bridge, raced around the cockpit to the foredeck, firmly grasped a 25-pound Danforth anchor and hurled it, with all his might, directly at our little ship.
I had barely enough time to seek refuge before the great steel thing came crashing down. Fortunately it fell short again, this time by about 15 feet, and the force of the resulting wall of water nearly knocked down the barrier behind which I crouched.
"Stand fast," I encouraged my wife.
This turned out to be typical for our night on the Potomac. We discovered that our river mates weren't out to get us -- they simply never had had a lesson in basic anchoring. They got their ideas about this ancient, misunderstood art form from deodorant ads on TV, where handsome sailor types fling anchors around like Frisbees and march off through misty streets with glamorous women on their arms, singing "Yo-ho-ho."
Having searched unsuccessfully all my life for a glamorous woman who could sing a convincing "Yo-ho-ho," I always knew these ads were a fake.
You never, never, never, never, never, never ever throw an anchor. It simply isn't done. You emplace an anchor, the way you might set out a delicate watercress plant in a fish tank. Just because it's big and steely doesn't mean it will respond to brute force.
Two things can happen when you throw an anchor, according to George Peterson of the Annapolis Sailing School: the anchor can become fouled in its own line, rendering useless the tines that normally would dig into the bottom, or the thrower's leg may get caught in the line, rendering useless his life as he tosses anchor, line, leg and person, all carefully intertwined, into the briny deep.
The average boater seems to think proper anchoring involves roaring up to exactly the spot where he wants to be, stopping the boat and then heaving the anchor ahead to where it ought to be.
Instead, he must learn to sniff purposefully at the breeze to determine wind direction, current and tide, then judge what his drift will be. Knowing that, he will ease up to the spot where the anchor should rest, allow the boat's forward motion to stop, lower the hook gently over the side and then drift back to his preselected site, cleating off the line at the appropriate moment.
A word about anchors: the correct anchor for most waters around the Chesapeake Bay is the Danforth-type, which looks like a two-tined fork and holds best in mud and sand. The bigger the boat, the bigger the Danforth, but the correct Danforth for a boat usually is a lot smaller than you might expect.
What happens if you use too big a Danforth? The boat doesn't have enough power to dig the tines in. What happens if you use too small a one? The boat has too much power and it digs the anchor 20 feet or more into the mud, like a corkscrew.
And that's when having a strong wife aboard really pays off.