Short Anchorline Causes Boat to Float off into the Inky Dark of Night

By Chip Geisel

It was a warm day in August as my 16 foot inflatable pushed its way past the Stonington [Connecticut] breakwater light into Fishers Island Sound. The seas were calm and the night pitch black, except for the lights warning mariners of the dangerous reefs of Little Narragansette Bay and Block Island Sound. It was my first day of vacation and I had been looking forward to getting into the water and chasing the elusive New England lobster. The two men who accompanied me were avid divers as well. The upcoming dive seemed to offer little challenge as we checked our compass heading and posted a lookout for lobster pots.

The current was nearly at slack water as we illuminated the rocky approach to our dive site, several miles from landfall. I decided to anchor as close as possible to the lighthouse to minimize our return swim to the boat. I also anticipated the current might increase substantially during the first hour of ebb tide, swinging the boat into the rocky reaches of the lighthouse and turning the inflatable into a deflatable. My boating experience reminded me that, although a scope of anchorline of five to eight times the depth of water is prudent, a Danforth type of anchor is frequently set with a scope as short as two to three times the depth in a soft bottom. I decided to use a scope of only 50 feet for the 45 foot depth, thinking the anchor would quickly bite into the rock and sand bottom and I would secure it among several large rocks when we began our dive. We had suited up prior to leaving the dock. I extinguished the running light, positioned the dive flag and checked the 32 point, all around white anchor light prior to going over the side.

The water felt warm as I turned on my light and kicked down the anchorline to the bottom, where we wedged the anchor among several massive boulders. It was obvious the anchorline was too short but we had carried the anchor over the intersection of two lines connecting a series of lobster pots that ran both parallel and perpendicular to the shore. If for some reason the anchor were to break free, a lobster pot line was sure to snag it. Confident the boat was secure, we swam parallel to the shore, gliding up and down the sloping, boulder strewn bottom, checking the anchor each time we went past it. It was a perfect dive; great visibility, little current and cooperative crustaceans. We all had lobsters in our bags when our pressure gauges neared 700 psi. We swam to the lobster pot lines and stared in disbelief; the anchor was nowhere in sight.

As we began our ascent, many possibilities ran through my brain. Had the anchorline become disconnected from the anchor? If the anchor had broken free, why hadn't the lobster pot lines snagged it? Surely the boat could not have drifted far before snagging again on the bottom.

We pulled ourselves onto the slippery wall of boulders surrounding the lighthouse and slipped off our gear. 'Can you see it?' I begged. We squinted into the night, finally catching the dull intermittent glow of the boat light.

It was now almost 1:00 am. Steve and Paul were due into work at daybreak and someone would report us missing if they didn't show up. If one of us swam for the boat, which appeared to be less than one-quarter mile away, and was caught in the two knot outgoing current that would soon begin, he would be swept out into the open ocean. But, if we decided to swim for the boat, it would have to be now. Since this predicament was my doing, I swam off into the night.

I stopped every few minutes, shining my light so Paul and Steve could correct my course. No current. I hadn't prayed so much since parochial school. Steve and Paul soon lost sight of me and I speculated about the next day's headlines: Diver Lost at Sea Chasing Boat. This was not the way I wanted to be remembered. Fifty more kicks and I would be heading back. I looked up and, less than 100 yards away, there it was. Thanking God, the anchor light company and the Energizer Bunny, I kicked to the boat so fast I think I created a bow wake.

The trip back was spent analyzing what went wrong. The anchor had come loose, probably bobbing up and down and floating over the lobster pot lines. Obviously, the anchorline was much too short and should have been tied to a secure item on the bottom. In addition, a stern anchor should have been deployed. Third, a strobe should have been attached to the anchorline as a guide back. Ideally, someone should have remained on the boat.

Proper seamanship, knowledge of currents and anchoring techniques are as important as the safety of the dive itself. Take your time and do it right.