Ah, anchors. They seem like straight forward tools. In fact, they originally were. The early Sea People (our old pirate friends) and even the technically advanced Ancient Egyptians originally used heavy rocks as anchors. Anything big you can wrap a rope (and later, a chain) around can technically be used to hold a boat relatively still.
Be that as it may, all one has to do is read an O’Brian novel and the terms for that simple anchor lose their simplicity all together. How, in fact, does one tell a kedge from the best bower? Or, for that matter the best from the small bower? Actually, what seems maddening on the face of it is deceptively simple. An anchor really is an anchor, after all.
Anchors are first referred to in writing in Ancient Greece. The poets referred to the anchors as dentes; teeth. No one is really sure where the reference came from but it may have to do with the fact that Greek anchors had only one fluke. The fluke is the curved piece at the bottom of the anchor that appears to have a flipper at the end. Greek anchors more closely resembled modern fluke or Danforth anchors that look like a plow and set nicely into the seabed. All Greek mono and bireme ships, and later Roman triremes, had several anchors for use in various seabeds and weathers. Each ship carried one very large anchor that was reserved for storms and nasty lee shores and was known as the sacra. From this, the Catholic Church brought forth sacram anchram solvere – the anchor of last refuge.
Anchors similar to the type we are most familiar with, as shown at the header, developed in the Iron Age and changed very little until 1801. In that year a clerk in the Royal Navy, Richard Pering, began playing around with the general design and came up with what became known as a Rodger’s anchor. Introduced for use in 1813, the eventual Rodger’s anchor had curved rather than straight flukes and arms at the top that pivoted on a bolt. These innovations made retrieval immensely easier than it had been previously saving navies a sizeable amount of money in lost iron. Rodger’s anchors, named after Royal Navy Lieutenant Rodger who added the pivot to Pering’s design, were in almost universal use by 1870.
As with Greek and Roman ships, the ships of the Great Age of sail carried a number of anchors. The larger the ship the more anchors in fact, particularly because a certain number of anchors lost was considered a cost of doing business. The most common anchors carried, from pirate schooner to 900 man ship of the line were as follows:
Bower-Anchors: There were two bower-anchors, the best and the small. The names have nothing to do with use or size but are simply indigenous to the lingua of sailing. The best bower rested (or, in seaman’s terms, was “catted”) on the outward starboard bow while the small was catted on the larboard (now port) bow.
Kedge: A small anchor used primarily to steady a ship and keep her clear of her bower-anchors in port or to warp a ship from one part of a harbor, bay or inlet to another without the need to set sail. Kedges could be partially dismantled or folded, making them easy to stow aboard.
Sheet and Spare: Reserved for large ships, these anchors were catted outward behind the foremast. These were assistance anchors that allowed more security and less strain on the bows when using the best and small bowers, particularly in high seas.
Smaller ships such as pirogues or periaugers and boats might use kedges or grapnels, depending on the size of the ship and the anchor.
This is, of necessity, a very general overview. How anchors work, their various modern types, and the many amazing things that can be done with a ship at anchor (warping is just the beginning) are subjects for another time. Until then remember Brethren: anchors aweigh is the signal to weigh, or pull up, the anchor. Drop anchor is the opposite. I told you it was simple.