A simple piece of cruising equipment with a big job (published September 2013)
It was around 3 a.m. and I awoke to a building breeze pushing us back on our anchor and chain. From the warmth of my bunk I could tell the wind had veered as it was predicted to do, which meant that more wind was on its way. This was a direct invitation to head out on deck to check our position and inspect our ground tackle. Once at the bow I eased out more snubber line and chain as the boat pulled and tugged, fighting the building waves. In the moment, this one humble line was doing more than any other on the boat.
When out cruising it is no surprise that a good amount of boats are carrying an all chain rode with a snubbing device. The setup simply works. And it needs to because, for the most part, cruising sailors aren’t out marina hopping while underway. Serious cruisers anchor a lot, which means that at some point they are going to encounter a big breeze while swinging on the hook.
Having an all chain rode and the necessary accessories such as a windlass, a snubber and a way to trip the anchor will give you piece of mind and an added layer of safety when anchoring. And while it may be more weight in the bow, the added strength and reliability is hard to beat. But having an all chain rode means you need to have something to absorb the shock loads on it when the wind kicks up, which is where a good snubber comes in handy.
A snubber is simply a length of line used to take up strain on the anchor chain and acts as a shock absorber. When the wind is strong and pushing a boat back against it’s chain, higher peak loads are created that can cause the anchor to pull free; can cause serious damage to the boat’s windlass and fasteners; and may even damage interior joinery that the windlass is attached to. Also, the jerking motion can be extremely uncomfortable and noisy for those onboard.
BUILDING A SNUBBER
An easy way to make a snubber is to buy a length of three-strand nylon line or double braid nylon dock line and tie a sturdy rolling hitch to the chain before letting it run out over the bow. One advantage of the rolling hitch as opposed to a metal hook is that it will not damage or cause wear to the chain and it will not rust.
Using nylon line is important because it will allow for the most stretch. An old sheet or halyard will work in a pinch but in general you want the snubber to have slightly more stretch than that will allow.
I’ve heard a variety of numbers for how long a snubber should be, but there is really no fixed length. Every boat is different in weight and windage and a vessel with an oversized chain might not pull back as much as a boat with an undersized chain. The basic rule for snubber length is that the more wind you have, the longer you want the snubber to be. In a light breeze having seven to 10 feet of snubber out is acceptable. But when the wind kicks up you’ll want more out so the line has a greater ability to stretch.
For cruisers looking for a quick method of attaching the snubber to the chain, there are many products on the market specifically designed for this purpose. The most basic is the “Eye Grab Hook” that cruisers have been using for years. While these tend to get the job done they can cause wear to a link and have been known to fall off the chain if not kept under constant tension. Because of this, numerous companies have attempted to improve upon this design with various amounts of success.
Wichard makes a stainless steel chain hook with a spring-loaded pin that keeps the hook from falling off the chain. I’ve used these before and they work well if the pin and spring are properly maintained. If not it can seize up. I have also seen the use of the Wichard Safety Snap Hook, which seemed to work well as it was easy to clip on and off a link.
One of my favorite products is the Mantus Chain Hook. Mantus’ hook is interesting because it has a keyhole pattern that allows you to quickly slide it over and then down onto a link. Once it is there it won’t fall off and is just as simple to remove. It is made of stainless steel so it won’t rust and there are no moving parts. The hook can also be purchased in conjunction with a bridal setup depending on what size chain and boat you have.
Using a simple stainless steel screw pin anchor shackle is yet another option and Kong’s Stainless Steel Chain Gripper is basically a take off of that idea. Their gripper looks very similar to a standard screw pin shackle but with a built-in slot that fits around a link of chain. The fact that it goes around a link and not through the middle is probably better than just fastening a screw pin shackle through a link.
There are also many shock-absorbing products on the market that are designed to take the place of a nylon line or to increase a line’s potential as a shock absorber. These are often used on dock line as well and a lot of cruisers use them when making a bridle type snubber. The basic premise behind adding a shock absorber to a piece of nylon line is that it will absorb a lot of the initial shock during quick tugs against the line.
Many boat owners are now opting to go with the bridle style snubber instead of a single line and several companies offer bridle setups with their chain grabbing devices. Catamarans have been using bridles for years as they are a natural fit between the hulls and help to keep the boat from “sailing” at anchor.
One common worry with single line snubbers is that if the line chafes through then you have nothing as a backup. For this reason, many cruisers opt for a bridle that will evenly take up the loads on the chain.
Another good time to think about using a bridle is if your boat has a bobstay at the bow. Using a long bridle will move the chain further away from the stay and you won’t have to worry about pressure against the stay caused by a single line snubber when the boat swings.
DEPLOYING A SNUBBER
No matter what type of snubber you choose to go with, deploying one is basically the same. Once you have anchored and feel comfortable that you are not dragging, attach the snubber to the chain and pay both out over the bow roller. With some chain grabbing devices you will need to keep tension on the line while doing this so the snubber does not fall off.
Next, attach the snubber line to a bow cleat and pay out more chain to let the line take all the pressure from the chain. Then, back down on the anchor to see how the chain and snubber react together. This is a good time to assess how much snubber line you need out and to take another range or transit to make sure you are still holding.
While there are many methods and devices out there to build a proper snubber, the keys are to ensure that the line has enough room to stretch, the snubber stays attached to the chain and that the line or bridle has a fair lead and will not chafe through. Though a snubber is a simple device, it is an important one and will keep you safely and comfortably swinging on your all chain rode.