The first ships, which emerged in the Bronze Age, had little need for anchors. They evolved from trading boats that operated on great rivers like the Nile and the Euphrates, where the crew could head for the bank when the crew needed to secure the craft. In the largely tide-free Mediterranean, Red Sea or Persian Gulf, the first sea-going vessels were small enough to be hauled onto a beach at the end of a voyage, or if a storm threatened. It was only as ships grew to a size where this was no longer practical that the need for an alternative means of securing a ship was needed, and the anchor was born.

The very first anchors were probably developed by fisherman looking to hold their boat in a promising location. They consisted of a simple weight, often a large stone or a bag of rocks, attached to a line. The first ship’s anchors were simply scaled up versions of these. In India ancient anchor stones have been discovered that were carved into a ring-shape, and this design was also used by pre-European Maoris. These simple weights would have worked well for small craft, or in benign conditions, but as ships grew in size a more sophisticated solution was required.

The next phase in anchors was slightly more sophisticated versions of stone anchors that used different materials. In the second millennia BC, the Chinese are known to have used lengths of iron chain as anchors - iron being about eight times the mass of stone. In Europe there is evidence of Greek and Phoenician ships using hollow tree trunks filled with lead in a similar way. But the ever increasing size of ships soon reached a point where anchors that relied on weight alone to hold a ship were becoming too large to be comfortably handled onboard. From about 600BC anchors designed to catch in the seabed started to be used by the Ancient Greeks, and it is from them that we get the word “anchor”, from ancura (meaning a hook).

Various designs rival designs of anchor existed at first, including some with three or four arms, but soon one form quickly came to dominate. This had two curved arms, each tipped with a broad metal barb (called a fluke). They were mounted opposite each other at one end of a shaft, with a bar (called a stock) mounted at right angles at the top of the shaft. Add a ring at the top to attach a cable, and you have the classic anchor shape we recognise today. This design was almost perfect for its purpose. The stock prevents the anchor lying flat on the sea bed, so that however it strikes, one or other arm will catch. Once the anchor is in place, it will strongly resist a lateral pull, as from a ship being driven by a storm on the surface, but will yield to a vertical one – such as from a crew hauling it up. The design was so good that it remained largely unchanged for centuries, right up until the start of the 19th century.

The classic anchor design may be elegant but it does have two flaws. The first is that whichever arm has not caught in the seabed always sticks up. If the ship then turns around its anchor with a change in tide or wind, its cable may well foul on this hook, pulling the anchor free. The second problem was that as ships continued to grow, so did their anchors. Because the stock is set at right angles to the rest, this produced a very cumbersome shaped object to stow on board. The solution to these problems was the stockless anchor, which is the basic design of all modern ship anchors today. There are numerous variations of the original anchor patented in Britain in 1821, but they all work in much the same way. A stockless anchor has a pair of heavy flukes connected by a pivoting joint to the shaft. It lies flat on the seabed, but when dragged the flukes twist down and dig in. Because it has no stock, when not in use it can lie flat against the hull of the ship.

The classic anchor may have disappeared from everyday use, but it lives on as the universal symbol chosen to represent seafaring. You will find it on military or civilian naval uniforms, in every corner of the world. It winks from every button and sits on every cap badge. It peppers charts, is in the crest of every marine organisation and appears on the mugs and tea towels in any gift shop within sight of the sea. It may be out of favour now, but it is not forgotten.

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