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A Brief History of Anchors

February 27, 2018

 I remember a “yachtsman” who shared a slip where I was docked in the 80s. He had just purchased a boat to spend family time. On his first outing he was rescued by the Coast Guard having broken down and swept out Jones Inlet. I asked why he didn’t deploy his anchor and he replied: “Didn’t have one!”! What? “They give you a Coast Guard package and anchor when you buy the boat.’ I exclaimed. “They forgot and I never checked” he replied. Fortunately, he sold the boat at the end of his first and last season.
 The anchor is the most important tool on any vessel. From a jet ski or small Zodiac to the largest container ship, without a functioning anchor to secure the boat position is to endanger both vessel and crew. This became obvious very quickly to prehistoric man when he climbed into his first stretched deerskin boat and found himself floating uncontrollably out to sea.  After swimming back, he grunted, “Next time I make large vine, tie on heavy boulder and call it anchor”!  (Well, maybe it didn’t exactly happen that way but you get the idea).
The first evidence we have of anchors is that they were made of stone. Heavy rocks were placed in simple stick baskets attached to woven ropes made of natural or animal fibers. These basic anchors sufficed for the shallower river, lake, and shallow coastal areas fished and explored by your Neolithic ancestors in their animal skin, bark covered or dugout canoes. As civilizations’ maritime interest grew, humanity became more sophisticated, vessels became larger and anchor stones were chiseled into shapes with large holes on which to tie these heaver circular rocks that could be rolled off decks rather than lifted. According to the vessels size and sea conditions, more than one would be deployed to hold the vessel in position.  Similar anchor stones have been found all over the seas of the ancient world in many forms from the Mediterranean to the China seas. Ancient Empires like the Phoenicians, Athens, Carthage, Mykonos, Egypt, and Crete, in their earliest times, used similar rudimentary anchoring methods.
Slowly metal ores such as iron and bronze began being used to make anchors in Greece and Rome. Before this metal was too valuable to risk losing overboard. During this time the standard shape evolved to a long metal shaft, with a top ring hole, a heavy oak or iron cross piece with two pointed extensions at the bottom of the shaft. Flukes would eventually be added. The shape was slightly different than later centuries.  Various links and rings were attached making the anchor swing more freely grabbing the seabed more effectively. Hemp became the anchor line with long strands being woven together and treated with natural oil or tar to render them resistant to rot.  In this same time period, the windlass was invented allowing crews to haul large heavy anchors with more ease.
 Anchors made Rome the indisputable world power at the battle of Actium between Marc Anthony and Cleopatra and the future Emperor Octavian in the Ionian Sea. Octavian anchored his fleet outside the Port of Actium bottling Anthony and Cleopatra’s fleet in a disadvantageous position for battle. Boxed in, they lost maneuverability which is everything in sea warfare. By doing so Octavian decimated his enemy’s fleet as they tried to exit. He was victorious and made himself  Emperor of the entire Western civilized world united under the rule of Imperial Rome.
 After the Fall of the western Roman Empire, the eastern Empire of Byzantium continued and relying on sea power to sustain and protect it. Much of Western Europe was pillaged by marauding fleets of Norseman in their long ships that threatened towns, castles and monasteries. Recently a Viking anchor was pulled from the Thames River in London. The difference from modern anchors was that the rode ring was placed between the flukes in the center, which is quite strange. Then again, so were the Vikings.
With the Islamic conquering of Byzantium in 1453, the west began exploring new sea routes to access the treasure of the east by circumnavigating the new Ottoman Empire. This began the great age of Spanish, Portuguese, Venetian and English sea exploration.  During this period the design of the anchor was tweaked. They became larger. Heavy chains were added between anchor ring and rode aiding anchors from pulling out.
Spain eventually became the dominant sea power in the age of exploration. Her fleets brought Conquistadors to Mexico, Chile, Columbia, Peru and from the New World civilizations of the Aztecs and Incas they stole their wealth of gold, silver and emeralds valued in the billions in today’s money. Many heavily laden ships returning to Spain with a treasure like the Santa Margarita and Atochia, were sunk off Florida when their anchors failed in near shore waters during hurricanes.
 Inability to anchor also caused the destruction of the Spanish fleet attacking England in 1588.  Spain had gathered the most powerful navy of its era to invade Queen Elizabeth’s England. They were over laden with canons, soldiers and horses. As the fleet arrived in the English Channel, a fierce storm arose and the fleet was hampered in anchoring by the speed and veracity at which the storm descended upon them.  The anchors deployed could not hold the overladen vessels to ride out the storm.  Instead, most of the fleet was sunk, driven ashore or dispersed. England then built their own powerful navy and Spain faded.
Leading up to the late 19th century anchor design remained somewhat static but the quality of anchor line and terminal gear attaching the rode and chain were improved.  Ships grew in size during this period and heavier, stronger anchor lines were deployed to avoid the chance of rope fibers wearing through and parting under stress. Iron rings, and shackles, (swivels) were also improved to lessen anchor rode twisting and chafing.  Wood crosspieces of anchors (stocks) were eventually replaced with all iron, which was more reliable.
Mid 19th century saw the increasing use of stockless anchors invented in England in 1821. This solved the problem of anchor lines fouling on the stocks and pulling free. While slightly less reliable, they had to be heavier than anchors with stocks but made up for it with their ability to be stowed more easily by laying flatter against the side of the ship. In the 20th century, stockless anchors became the norm on bigger commercial vessels of all types. Today’s anchors are hyper-engineered stockless types which are the norm. Some smaller commercial vessels have been slower to adopt the stockless type continuing to use many of the older styles including the Kedge, (very popular with yachtsmen) Grapnel, and Herreshoff.
On pleasure boats and sm


aller craft, the Plough, invented by an English mathematician in 1933, and Danforth, invented for military landing craft in the 1940s, are the most popular. Engineering better anchors is a continuing experiment with new configurations being experimented with.
 This primer in the History of Anchors would not be complete without touching upon the anchor as a symbol throughout history. Anchor images can be found in ancient frescos of Greek and Roman ruins and often on their coinage.
It has always been connected with the sense of security and hope. In the times after Christ’s death, the anchor symbol became a stand-in for his cross and salvation. They are found decorating catacombs of ancient cities.
  Anchor symbols have adorned the arms of many a sailor in the form of tattoos.  To them, it was considered a harbinger of “Good Luck”. Tattoos were introduced to western sailors as they sailed uncharted waters and found cultures in the Americas and the Pacific Islands who used tattoos in symbolic “Coming of Age” rituals. These mariners elevated it to the art form it is today - But that’s another story!
Article and all illustrations are
c.2017 by Mark C. Nuccio all rights reserved.
Contact - mark@ designedge.net

Mark Nuccio is a poet, artist, and historian with an
interest in all things Maritime. He resides in Bellmore
and Oak Island adjacent to Long Island, NY.


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