The undervalued tool: anchors for sea kayaks

Kayaks at anchor

This image shows kayaks adrift alongside a rock bluff but held in place by an anchor where other methods of securing the kayak simply don't exist. The level rock platform to load and unload is adjacent. The kayaks can drift harmlessly like this after exiting the kayaks, making unloading significantly more stress-free than without an anchor. Photo by Holly Lear.

Anchors are generally essential for marine travel -- unless you're in a paddlecraft. Perhaps you're a kayak angler who drops an anchor during a fishing trips. Otherwise it's not a common tool at all in a kayak.

That should probably change. Here's why.

Anchors are used for boats for obvious reasons, the main one being there is no other safe method to secure a boat unless there's a dock nearby. Large boats for the most part can't use a beach, so an anchor also becomes a safety device. When all else fails, drop the anchor to secure your position.

Anchors for sea kayaks can serve a different purpose, though, and one well illustrated on a recent trip through the Discovery Islands, where good beaches are hard to come by, as are good campsites. What you will find, though, are beautiful rock bluffs perfect for a tent or two that are generally inaccessible unless you learn to love launches and landings at rock ledges (or boulders). The idea is to find a suitable rock ledge (preferably level and near the waterline), use a side exit by bracing your paddle on the rock, unload your kayak, then haul the kayak up onto an above-tide rock ledge to store for the night.

The alternative is traditional landings at beaches, which limits you only the few congested sites in the Discovery Islands. Which of course is fine if you don't mind crowds and possibly overflow situations during the peak season. However, if you are of the frame of mind that being amidst a crowd in a sprawling wilderness setting makes no sense, then rock ledge camping may be for you.

Rock ledge camping life

In the kitchen of a rock ledge campsite. The tents are above on a level mossy bluff. The stove is on a level surface positioned so it is out of the wind. Gear is kept with the kayaks to minimize uphill hauls. 

Rock ledge campsite

The same location as above pictured from the water. No beach, therefore not a kayaking campsite. And yet, look at the beautiful bluff. If only you could land here...

There are risks, of course. One is finding a beautiful rock ledge, setting up camp, and in the morning finding a completely different tide level with a completely different beach and rock structure that makes launching far more difficult than your arrival. 

Additionally, water conditions are a factor. Unless you're sure you will have relatively calm conditions, you run the risk that wind waves and turbulence will complicate your landing and launch.

In locations such as the Discovery Islands, however, enough calm channels and passages exist that sea conditions are rarely a worry. And if you think you'd simply prefer a beach landing and avoid this topic, think again -- established locations such as South Rendezvous Island Provincial Park on the north tip of the island do have a beach, but it is large rocks/boulders at higher tides and far from an ideal landing. Using a rock ledge will actually simplify a launch and landing in many instances. And that's just one example.

Here's where the anchor comes into play. It isn't used to secure the kayak to the ocean floor so the kayak can float in a harbour. Far from it. The anchor is used on shore to secure the boat during that critical period of loading and unloading. 

Here's how it works. 

The anchor used in this instance is a grappling hook variety where the flukes can be folded for easy storage. The style makes it easy to find rock crevasses and locations where the fluke can be set so no amount of stress will pull it free. The length of line adds to the adaptability, as it can also be wrapped around trees and logs as an alternative.

Essentially the anchor is kept in the cockpit behind the seat for easy access. Once out on the rock ledge, the kayaker clips the anchor's carabiner to the deck lines on the bow (or stern, depending on the situation), then sets the anchor so the kayak is held in place. 

By strategically positioning the anchor and the length of the line, the current and wind can be used to help the kayak settle into position alongside the rock ledge for easy unloading or loading.

If that doesn't work, the worst case is the kayak drifts to the extent of the line you allow, and you use the line to draw it back into position.

If you have a group of kayakers, the anchor will come in extra handy. The last thing you want to do is have one person unload their boat and store it on shore while others sit and wait in the water. But it would be difficult to have a handful of kayaks all floating in the water off a bluff just using individual ropes. 

With an anchor with a carabiner on the end of the line, the first kayak can be secured and set adrift, then the second paddler can exit using the rock ledge. The second kayak can then be secured to the same anchor by unhooking the carabiner from the first kayak, rounding the carabiner and the line below the deck rigging on the bow of the kayak, then securing the carabiner to the deck line on the bow of the second kayak.

Essentially, you're daisy-chaining them with the one anchor line. Both kayaks can then float offshore while the third kayaker unloads. The kayaks can all then be unloaded one by one at your leisure while the others float harmlessly.

The same could be achieved, of course, by using rope. The difference is ropes alone require something to which they can be fastened to be effective. Imagine a rock ledge at low tide where the nearest tree is 30 metres away -- not an uncommon situation. So either you carry more than 30 metres of rope (not particularly desirable) or you hope wrapping it around rocks will be sufficient. The latter is problematic, as ropes can slip on rock, so the experience won't be carefree -- you'll have to be vigilant, or your kayak could drift away.

The main advantage of the anchor is how carefree the experience becomes. You can even use it on beaches knowing your kayak is far less likely to drift away when only the nose is pulled out of the water. Changes in tide levels can be quick, so even a quick bathroom break is a risk when your kayak is simply left sitting on the beach partially submerged. 

Conversely, when a kayak at anchor is washed adrift by tide, the dropped anchor will claw into the sand. The harder the pull, the deeper the draw.

That's the ideal situation, and requires the flukes to be extended. In most cases in relatively calm water, the weight of the anchor will be sufficient to hold the kayak in place, if the anchor is simply dropped with the flukes closed. Drop it over the far end of a rock, and suddenly the anchor takes on another level of security as the pull on the kayak would have to be enough to raise the anchor up and over the rock. This isn't likely to happen. 

Don't believe me? Never under-estimate the power of an anchor. Check the differential between the size and weight of a boat anchor and the vessel it holds in place. This is because the pressure on a boat on water is significantly lower than its weight on land. Therefore a 30-kilo anchor can hold a 30-metre boat. Pretty amazing when you think about it.

In the trip illustrated here, two of the three kayaks were kevlar. This brings up another advantage of anchors, as kevlar can easily crack when loaded on an uneven surface. The last thing you want to do is risk your hull by hauling your kayak onto and over rocks, or loading it on rocks to push it into water. Any sharp location where the weight of the kayak is centred can lead to a horrible crunching sound -- the sound of your hull cracking. 

This makes the clunk-clunk-clunk of an anchored kayak washing up against rocks a relatively minor concern in comparison.

There are additional hazards, particularly on a falling tide. A kayak can become hung up. It can be difficult to load or unload due to the rocks or the condition of the rocks (seaweed, barnacles, sharp points and slopes are all factors). Therefore selecting the right rock ledge is the key. Best is a gently sloping ridge which will make the same ridge accessible at any tide level. All else that is need is a few flat points on the bluffs above for your tents. Or better yet, bring a hammock so all you need to do is scope out suitable trees from the water.

Fantastically, flat spots on bluffs are not all that tough to find in places like the Discovery Islands, in  comparison to the number of accessible beaches. This makes much more of the coast wonderfully accessible, in many desirable locations -- those spectacular viewpoint bluffs. 

When viewed from that perspective, it means a whole new world can open up to you -- thanks to a rarely used tool, the sea kayak anchor.*

Kayaks coupled using one sea anchor

In this image, the first kayak has been loaded and the second kayak dropped into the water empty to be loaded alongside the first, which is now simply adrift. Both are secured to the same anchor by using the deck lines through which to thread and secure the anchor line. A second rope is set out to bring the kayak around, if needed. In this calm water that's unlikely. 

* Footnote: Please beware of several caveats when selecting rock bluffs. The ecology can be extremely sensitive, particularly in the case of the Gulf Islands. Use bare rock or resilient locations only, and beware of sensitive wildflowers and thin soil on rocks that can be easily denuded. Hammocks are a recommended way to avoid disturbing soil and vegetation. Lastly, the bluffs may be private property, so be aware of your region and this likelihood. Beneficially, though, these rock bluffs are significantly less likely to be sensitive First Nations cultural or archaeological sites -- a definite logistical advantage. Enjoy your hunt for the perfect bluff!

 Three kayaks at anchor

Three kayaks in the water, ready to go. The area of flat rocks in the foreground was too small to load the kayaks onshore, and the ring of rocks behind it made moving the loaded kayaks too risky. This method eliminated all stress on all three kayaks, as well as the stress on the crew loading them. 

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