2015 in Alastor - unfouling the anchor

In July I visited Tsehum Harbour near Sidney, BC. There's a number of mooring buoys just outside the inner harbour, but still protected. I anchored more-or-less where I had on a previous occasion, at the shoreward edge of this group of buoys. There's about a 10ft tidal range and I should have had about 6ft under the keel at low water.

In the morning, Alastor was tipped slightly forward though the depth sounder showed the expected 12ft or so - clearly the back of the keel had sat on something I hadn't seen on the pre-anchoring circling survey. After a bit she slid off, but I decided to move slightly forward and re-anchor, which took me a bit closer to one of the mooring buoys.

The next day when I tried to leave, I could not raise the anchor - the chain came vertical, with about 30ft still in the water, then no more. So I tried pulling harder, then with the windlass (which I don't normally use). It seemed to come a couple more feet, but no more.

Visibility around here is about 8ft or so - silt in runoff from the Fraser River I think. It's a bit better in winter I'm told (I'm generally a fair-weather sailor - at least, I avoid the cold-and-rainy season). Suffice it to say that in most circumstances, if I can see the anchor on the bottom I'm aground. So studying the problem from the surface was out. Thinking that perhaps the anchor chain was wrapped around something, I tried circling a bit in Alastor then raising it again. No dice.

On a previous occasion in Vancouver Harbour I'd cleared a fouled anchor by diving on it. At least, I'd gone down to investigate, traced the chain, failed to find anything, but then found the problem had disappeared by itself. This time, I didn't have any SCUBA gear to hand - my tank was overdue for hydrostatic testing, meaning no-one would fill it, and most of my gear was back home - a ferry trip for anyone to bring it to me.

I only had fins and a mask aboard, no wetsuit, so I put on a pair of jeans and a sweater (better than nothing) and dove down about 20ft to investigate. I was hoping I could just unloop the chain from whatever it was caught on, but it seemed to be firmly caught on some kind of large metal object. I'm still not sure exactly what it was - it might have been an old anchor associated with the nearby mooring. In fact, the chain seemed to be firmly caught not just around this, but in it - there was some kind of slot that the chain had got into. All that my efforts at removal succeeded in doing was cutting up my hands - I'd not got my wetsuit gloves, and hadn't anticipated having to fight barnacles bare-handed.

Since it was then about 6pm, I gave up for the night. I'd been down about 3 times, stirred up a fair bit of silt literally muddying the waters, and run out of ideas. Rigging a trip line seemed pointless - I hadn't even found the anchor, and it was the chain that was caught, anyway.

The next morning I found a store that would rent me some gear - Rockfish Divers in Victoria - and set off to get it. That meant getting my motorcycle ashore again - lowering it onto my little cat with a derrick, and taking it ashore at the dock. That didn't go entirely smoothly; usually I dock Alastor and use a ramp, or beach the cat. But I got it ashore with only an extra scrape on my hand to add to the collection, and a better idea of how to do that next time (dock stern-first with the bike facing sternwards so it can be driven straight off).

After getting all the gear aboard Alastor (leaving the bike ashore, since I'd be needing it again), it was time for lunch. Then I geared up and went down to take a look.

I didn't have quite enough weight, and was making quite a mess of silt so it was hard to see, but my attempts to free the chain were getting nowhere. It seemed to be almost like it was passing through a hole in a metal plate, like one of those metal puzzles you get for Christmas. I also found the anchor - firmly set into the silty bottom, obscured by silt and weed. So I returned to the surface with two ideas to try - find a pry bar, and unfasten the anchor from the chain and pull it through.

On a previous occasion I'd lost a piledriver on the bottom and wasted a good 10 minutes of air looking for it, so I figured this time I'd rig the prybar (the windlass lever) with a line. I got more weight and prepared to descend with a motley collection of ropes - a line from a marker buoy to fasten to the chain so I could find it easily instead of starting again from Alastor every time, a line to the pry bar, and a line to retrieve the anchor with.
Pretty soon I was fairly tangled in rope, and I hadn't even started yet (good thing too; I'd be wasting air, or risking getting caught up myself underwater and having to cut perfectly good rope to get free). It became clear that getting downstream of rope was a bad idea, and that one rope in particular was a disaster - it was slightly buoyant, and seemed to form tangles on the surface by itself. It wasn't so bad when I'd got it all free and actually dived. The other (in the picture) was not so badly-behaved.

Setting up the marker buoy was easy, but the pry-bar was unsuccessful - the crack in the obstruction was too small to insert the bar, and trying to open the crack up with one hand and insert the bar with the other did not go well. When I pushed, I spun around, and when I tried to brace myself against the bottom, I stirred up the silt so I could not see. So I turned my attention to the anchor. That did not go well either - the shackle was secured with a screw, too tightly for me to budge with the driver blade on my sailor's knife. In retrospect, I might have brought bolt-cutters and sacrificed one link of chain - they were aboard, but I didn't think of it at the time.

So I returned to the crack to try again - after all, if the chain had got in it in the first place, it ought to come out. Which it did, after a struggle - I was able to bend the plate enough to open the crack up and work the chain free. Then it was just a matter of retrieving all the ropes and tools, still with 1000psi left in the tank, moving Alastor away from the hazard, and returning all the gear to the store. Which had just closed, but fortunately I was able to take it to a marina where they had a berth.

(I wasn't actually taking photos or framing shots; the images are frames from a GoPro movie when the camera just happened to be pointing at something interesting)

Andrew Daviel, 2015

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