Tecktalk - The Ancient Art of Kedging

Telltale Article - by George de Witte.

In my recent articles in the Telltale on NSC Marine Safety I mentioned the expression “kedging” a few times assuming that everyone knows what it involves and when to use it. However from personal observations it seems this is not necessarily the case. So I have taken the liberty to delve into the subject a little deeper. Hopefully old salts are not insulted by this writing. A further warning: kedging only applies to sailboats, so powerboat owners may also skip this article.

Kedging in the Golden Era

The Manual of Seamanship for Boys and Seamen of the Royal Navy, 1904 (a recent fathers day gift) defines kedging as follows: “Laying the kedge anchor out in a boat and warping ahead to it”.  In more practical English it meant that sailing ships in the days before steam power was invented, used kedging as the only way to enter harbours at the heads of river estuaries or tight anchorages, if sailing was not feasible.

How was it done? Well, a long boat with a bunch of strapping young sailors was sent out with a light kedging anchor and rowed ahead as much anchor line as the ship had, dropped the anchor and then a crew on the ship used the capstan to pull the ship ahead. The same book mentions that HM shipyards made anchor hawsers to a maximum length of 113 fathoms (678 ft), so one gets the impression that it was a laborious exercise to bring a ship to its final destination.

Kedging principles for recreational sailboats

The secret weapon on all sailboats is the strong genoa winch. For instance the Lewmar ST30 2 speed winch has a power ratio of 29.2 in 2nd gear. That means that with a force of 50 pound applied to a standard 10 inch winch handle, a force of 1460 pound is exerted on the line wrapped around the winch.  To play a little more with numbers :  a 12 pound hi-tensile Danforth has a holding power of 1800 lbs, a 22 pound delta is good for 3800 lbs and  the Lewmar 35 pound CQR is advertised at 3400 lbs. Proof coil  5/16 inch chain has a working load of 1900 lbs. Most healthy sailors male or female can exercise a force well in excess of 50 pound so it clear that with the all powerful winch and some decent ground tackle one can easily kedge oneself out of a run-aground situation without calling for 3rd party help.

Does it work? I am honest enough to admit that during our trip south we ran aground on numerous occasions. Sometimes due to daydreaming, but quite often due to factors beyond our control. The most significant event was when we were unceremoniously dumped on a 2 ft deep mudflat in the ICW by a 60 knot squall, which the US Coastguard warned us about by the time we saw it coming. After it was all over, a couple of good Samaritans tried to help us with up  to 100 HP outboard powered zodiacs, but Whiskeydream was not going anywhere. So when the Samaritans finally gave up, I convinced one of them  to take my Danforth anchor out a 100 ft or so and before the Samaritans were back in their powerboats, Whiskeydream was floating again in her normal happy fashion. I am also happy to report that there was no damage to keel, rudder or hull apart from some missing bottom paint.

Some kedging tips

After you have revved your engine full rpm forward and reverse and realize you are really stuck in the mud, what do you do? Take your sails down , swing your boom out and have someone heavy hang at the tip of the boom to heel the boat and rev engine again. If that does not work as well, it is time for some fancy display of old-fashioned kedging The idea is to set your favourite anchor out with a scope of at least 1:10 in a direction where you think the water is deeper,  generally the direction you came from. Wrap you the standing end of your anchor rode around the winch and slowly but surely winch yourself afloat again. Et voila, you are on your way to the NSC bar again.

The biggest challenge in kedging off is actually getting the anchor out far enough. If you have a dinghy you are laughing. Just row the anchor out as far as the anchor rode will let you and carefully lower the anchor so that it will set with a minimum amount of drag or have the rode wrapped around the shank. 

If you don’t have a dinghy, life is a little more challenging. First see if you can get the attention of someone with a low draft powerboat or runabout. If that does not pan out, you need to get more creative. This time of the year it is no great hardship to go for a swim and take your anchor out as follows. First remove the chain if you have any in your ground tackle. It serves no purpose when kedging as you are going to put so much strain on the anchor that scope determines the holding power of your anchor, not the weight of any chain. Turn the rode around if the nylon rode is eye-spliced to the chain. Put your Ring Buoy in the water and see if it has enough flotation power to keep the anchor afloat. The standard 24 inch buoy has a flotation spec of at least 16.7 lbs, so it holds a 12 lb Danforth. If it sinks, you need to add some more flotation stuff like PFD’s or bleach bottles. Don yourself a PFD and go for a leisurely swim to drop the anchor as far as possible from your grounded vessel. Go aboard and winch yourself off. With a bit of luck nobody at the bar will have noticed that you were on the wrong side of the green Brittannia Shoal buoy (again).

However if it is early in the season and the water is too cold for a swim, this may not be a good idea. Sorry I have run out of ideas. You will have to call the boys at the bar, request some kedging assistance with a club boat and admit to the old salts that you were daydreaming again.