Let's Talk Moorings: Tackle 101 from a Seasoned Cruiser

Post by - Published on 01/22/24 18:08 PM

Many cruisers rely on guest moorings rather than their trusty-anchor, especially on the bold coast of Maine. Whether that is because of the inconsistent rocky bottom, or the formidable 10' + tides, mooring use is simply inevitable, which prompts the question: How exactly do you put trust in a mooring?

Dockwa boater and guest writer Mike Topchik, sheds light on the importance of reliable guest tackle, and shares his personal insight into mooring maintenance from years of experience along the Maine Coast. 


Over the years, I've visited countless guest moorings while cruising. However, it wasn't until I relocated to an island home with waterfront access that I realized the importance of what lies beneath the waterline. 

Before deep-diving into personal mooring maintenance, as a cruiser who has sailed 4,500 nautical miles in Maine alone, I would be reluctant not to touch on my experiences with guest moorings at marinas. 

Full time cruising: How I learned to trust guest moorings

When I am cruising, I am always thinking towards a safe mooring or anchorage. While I have unwavering confidence in my own anchor, there's an undeniable allure in steering towards a charming Maine town like Camden or Boothbay Harbor for some onshore comforts when weather takes a turn for the worse. In our cruising adventures, guest moorings inevitably play a role, sparking the fundamental question: How can we put our trust in a mooring we've never laid eyes on before?

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Maybe you've never given it much thought. I certainly hadn't until I took on the responsibility of maintaining my own moorings three years ago. Here’s how I navigate guest mooring usage: 

Upon arriving at a marina, I meticulously scan the condition of the pendant, shackle, and any visible surface top-chain. The size of the poly-ball/float can be important too, as for example, a 36” float will support a bigger and heavier tackle than a 24” float. A thicker pendant is indicative of a heavier purposed mooring. If the tackle is clean and relatively free of growth, that suggests recent service, reliability and more. Extra points if a mooring has a bridle set up and pick-up stick. 

In this dance of coastal navigation, my tackle scans have evolved into local knowledge, and now I have established my own list of reliable storm stops up and down the coast. Conversations with marina operators have proven invaluable, supplementing my own scans in creating a network of trusted spots.

All this to say, next time you pick up a guest mooring in stormy weather, you might want to inquire about what lies beneath the waterline. 

I digress. Let’s get our hands dirty and talk mooring maintenance:

Learning to trust guest tackle is a vital skill for cruisers, but the ultimate lesson lies in maintaining and studying your own moorings. When I'm not cruising, I'm moored at my home on Bailey Island, where I oversee the upkeep of 17 private moorings along the windward west shore.

Note: As we dive below the waterline into the intricacies of mooring maintenance, it is important to note that mooring tackle specifications are not one-size-fits-all. They are intimately tied to the characteristics of the vessels they secure, the nature of the seabed they anchor in, and the environmental conditions they weather. 

In the spirit of example and shared knowledge, let's embark on a detailed breakdown of the moorings I maintain, in order from largest to smallest: 

Granite blocks: 

These 3,000-4,000 lb granite moorings rest on the seabed of our ledge, called the Black Rocks, which protrudes into Merriconeag Sound. The tackle leads with 2”+ shackles connected to the staples anchored through the granite. The shackles then attach to heavy-duty Coast Guard ground-chain (AKA junk-chain) and then connect with 1 ½” shackles to ¾” top-chain. At the surface, we use a Homan “Titan” buoy, which hoists the ¾” bridal-style pendant out of the water when not in use. 

We moor my 40’, 22,000 lb Beneteau on this rig. We also moor my daughter’s, 14,000 lb sailboat on a similar system.

Note: Although Homan buoys are slightly pricier than traditional polly balls, they've proven superior by preventing damage to pendants and keeping surface tackle clean, safe, and serviceable. The Homan is even designed with a “holster” for the pickup stick to make pickup a breeze.  Homan-style is the way to go in my opinion! 


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Cast iron mushrooms

In our exposed mooring field, mushroom moorings, ranging from 150-300 lbs, serve to hold skiffs, powerboats and smaller sailboats. In each case, heavy Coast Guard/junk-chain lays over the mushroom to help it lodge in a ledge. The ground chain connects to ⅜ ”, ½ ” or ⅝ ” top-chain. 

Note: The rule of thumb I’ve learned from local fishermen is that ¾” tackle will last 5 years, 5/8” tackle will last 4 years, ½” tackle will last 3 years and 3/8” tackle less than 3 years.  

This timeframe is variable, especially if you can drop tackle into mud for an anaerobic winter to prevent oxidation and wear. The majority of my tackle is located in a super oxygenated sound, with currents approaching 3 knots at their height with solid ledge below, so I know I’m not going to get extended life out of my gear. The wear points go way faster than the rest so I frequently change our shackles to new links of chain.  After all, the system is only as strong as the weakest link!


Out-hauls / Run-lines

I also use 125 lb mushroom moorings for two out-hauls, which allow us to hand-pull smaller dinghies in and out from the dock or shore. With 8-12’ tides, an outhaul is a great way to access the waterfront on the Maine coast!

On the outhauls, I have ¾” chain on the bottom to lay the mushroom over, and then approach the surface with a ¾” braided nylon line to a Taylor Made winter stick.  

We had a 5’ float/stick that sprung a leak so we replaced it with the 3’ version they still manufacture (word on the street is that they will resume manufacture of the longer 5’ version in 2024). 

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These TaylorMade winter sticks are great for this purpose and far superior to the spruce cross that Grandpa Putnam built more than 50 years ago. The line either runs from the mooring to my dock float, or from a mooring to the cliffs of my neighbors property. The line pulls smooth like butter through the roto-molded end, which tips just out of the water (and has never twisted once in 3 years!). 

Pyramid moorings:

I love these 125 lb moorings that are used to “wedge the ledge”, primarily for the dock's float, but also for small craft like a skiff or a laser etc. Because we have no mud here on the Black Rocks, the pyramids, rigged with heavy bottom chain, wedges in the rocky ledges similar to the mushrooms.  I can discern no difference between the 125 lb mushrooms and the pyramids and I have taken a full strain with a barge against all when they are set/reset. They do not move! 

The one thing all these moorings have in common? They all have to be maintained. 

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Since my move to Bailey Island three years ago, I've actively shadowed local lobstermen, absorbing valuable knowledge about mooring maintenance along the robust Maine coast. With their guidance, I now feel well-equipped to confidently inspect and maintain my moorings.

Here are lessons I have learned maintaining my moorings:

  1. An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure!  

    Diving is key to inspect below-surface conditions. Is the chain laid out as expected or hung up on a rock?  How are the shackles and chain links holding up as they wear? 

  2. Haul tackle out every other year

    Haul out your tackle every other year, even if it seems robust during a dive inspection. This routine allows for a closer examination of each chain link and the functionality of every connecting shackle. The importance of this practice became evident last fall when I pulled up my outhaul/runline tackle. Despite a thorough underwater inspection, the shackle literally disintegrated in my hands.

    This incident underscored a crucial lesson: underwater inspections can be compromised by marine growth and chaotic sea states, making it challenging to ensure a thorough examination. 

  3. Change shackles every 2-3 years, pick them carefully

    While galvanized steel shackles are expensive ranging from $20-$100+, replacing them proactively is cheap insurance. If you notice wear, it may be time to replace or plan a replacement. 

    Although stainless shackles are becoming an option,  remember that a stainless shackle against galvanized chain is not necessarily an advantage, as the metals do not play well together. Further, the wear of the moving shackle does more to degrade those points than general oxidation, so stainless may not be such a relief. I plan on putting this to the test on some ground tackle, so stay tuned!

    Note: There are cheaper shackles available, that ship from overseas for 50-75% the cost. Local sources tell me definitively to avoid these as the catastrophic failure of the inferior steel has proven evident in their practices. 

  4. Scope, scope, and more scope

    If you have room, lay down a lot of junk chain and more scope than you believe you need. Scope not only increases the lifespan of your tackle, due to less pressure being applied to chain links and shackles throughout the year, but is good for your boat!

    Our location is exposed to the prevailing winds and seas, so when 10’ rollers come through, the elasticity of that bottom tackle saves the boat’s bow cleats and holds vessels the way a willow bends in the wind. 

  5. Local knowledge is key 

    It takes a village. It is always wise to get locals involved as they know their trade, know the waters and rhythms, and know how to avoid mistakes and common errors, some of which may be highly specific. 

    Additionally, mooring servicing professionals have equipment to support their work that most individuals do not have. I currently rely on several local lobstermen who hail from Bailey Island, Orrs Island and Cundys Harbor. They are all experts that have taught me a lot. Leaning into the community has been the biggest asset as I continue to learn the ropes about mooring maintenance. The working waterfront are the eyes and ears of the community. 

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At the end of the day, I still have more to learn. My biggest advice as a recreational cruiser who found himself maintaining 17 private moorings? Check your tackle. Take preventative measures. Educate yourself on what’s really below the waterline of your mooring. This translates when cruising anywhere.

After all, the safety of your vessel relies on it. 

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