Mooring Buoys 101 - What You Need to Know
For boaters who love to explore, what could be better than gliding into strange new waters and dropping anchor for a while? That is if the water is not too deep. Or the bottom isn't rock disguising itself as a seabed, the seabed is pretty much nothing but thick grass...or any other reason that would make tossing out an anchor anything from a bad idea to attempting the impossible.
Mooring Buoys to the Rescue
With scenarios such as these, mooring buoys can really save the day. But difficulties with anchoring aren't the only reason a particular area might be dotted with mooring buoys. One obvious reason may simply be a case of a marina providing extra moorage for those times when their docks are full, and to accommodate those who prefer not to tie up at the dock at all.
Other reasons a government entity or private enterprise provides mooring buoys is if the area is part of a park (National, State, or otherwise) or protected habitat. Mooring buoys are used in areas popular with tourists for their underwater attractions as well, such as coral reefs, shipwrecks, and the like, as no one wants a forest of anchors within miles of those places. Coastal areas and navigable waterways see their share of mooring buoys too, as coastal waters can be quite deep and the navigable waters of large rivers and lakes (and some bays) need places for commercial vessels to wait their turn at the docks.
Ball Buoys and Bell Buoys
No, we're not talking about golf at a seaside luxury hotel on an exquisite island somewhere, although it's tempting. Mooring buoys are often called mooring balls, and indeed a great many of them are extremely tough, floating balls that usually range anywhere from 12 to 30 inches in diameter. While you won't find these ball buoys on the golf course, due to their shape you will find them in the calmer waters like harbors and marinas.
The bell buoys on the other hand are a figment of an overactive imagination. Well, not completely. There is another type of mooring buoy that really is bell-shaped, but no one ever calls it such. Instead, this one is properly referred to as a tapered mooring buoy--and it is tapered--and folks say it's cone-shaped (look at this Taylor Made mooring buoy and judge for yourself).
These "bell buoys" are quite large, however, at 18 to 30 inches, although there are smaller tapered mooring buoys that look nothing like a bell, but exactly like what they're called. Tapered. But whatever the shape looks like in the eye of the beholder, the tapered mooring buoy is a better one to use in rough water due to its wider base and gradual narrowing toward the top. This shape makes the buoy able to withstand sly, shifting currents and choppy wave action better than the ball.
Mooring Buoy Installation
Mooring buoys are installed into the briny deep in a variety of ways, depending on the bottom, the area above (coastal, harbor, lake, river, etc.), tidal, current, and weather patterns, and even to some degree, where in the world the buoys live. This last part is often determined by local finances; as many who have sailed to far-away countries can attest, there are mooring buoys out there that are "secured" to the seabed via enormous engine blocks wrapped in chains.
It's also rather common to have a mooring buoy secured with large concrete blocks. Better though (and hopefully, much more common) types of mooring buoy installation is the use of a hefty anchor like the mushroom, helix, or pyramid type. If the bottom is soft, the mushroom anchor penetrates and the cap of the mushroom is filled with the seabed material, creating one heck of a suction.
Helix anchors look like extremely long, giant screws with plates on the end, and are driven into the seabed like--well, screws. Pyramid anchors are sharply angled and are good for penetrating rocky seabeds and sand. And steel rods being drilled and cemented into the seabed are not unheard of, either.
Mooring Buoy Setup
A mooring buoy setup isn't too complicated. Starting with the tackle at the bottom, where the anchor or the (hopefully not) engine block is firmly ensconced, is a length of very heavy chain attached with a shackle. At the end of the heavy chain will be another length of lighter chain attached to the heavy chain by means of two shackles with a swivel between them. The other end of the light chain is attached to a ring at the bottom of the buoy with yet another shackle.
This brings us to the pendant line, which many old salts will tell you is properly called the pennant line, but is so often used interchangeably that it may not matter to most folks anymore. Pennant or pendant, this should be a minimum 1/2" 3-strand nylon line with an eye at the bitter end that attaches to the bow cleat on your boat. You'll need a thimble and shackle at the other end which you'll attach to the light chain that is fastened to the bottom of the mooring ball--more on that later.
This chain is connected to the eye under the mooring ball and unless you're picking up one of the larger balls threaded with chain, you should attach your pendant line shackle to the chain under the ball. There is a handy-looking eye at the top of the ball, and while some folks attach their pendant lines to them this is not recommended because the smaller balls could be pulled underwater by a strong current and/or wind. Folks on a boat coming by may not see it, run over it, and destroy their running gear.
This might be a good time to mention that there is no universal agreement on mooring buoy setup and specifically, how long the mooring pennant should be. Enough in-person and online arguments abound to make your head spin. Official Harbormaster rules and/or local laws in many places dictate a minimum of twice the distance (not nearly enough) between the bow cleat or chocks and the water, others say 2.5 times the distance (better).
But we all have times in our lives when we wish we would have done things differently, and experienced boaters are no different. Many of these salts with years of mooring experience will tell you that it's far better to have more than 2.5 times the distance--anywhere from 3 to 4 times. Speaking of differences of opinion between boaters, not everyone is a fan of using the eye splice on the bow cleat, either; some prefer to tie the pendant line to the bow cleat using a cleat knot. Vive la personal preference!
If you'll be leaving your boat unattended for a long time or suspect a storm may be on the way, you'll need a second pennant. The second pennant line should not be the same length, however, because if it is they will wear the same, and thus, if one breaks, both will likely break at the same time. But of course, there's nothing wrong with using two pennants simply as a routine safety measure.
An ingenious mooring system is available that is built specifically for storms, called the Taylor Made Storm Surge Anchor System. Its clever design allows for not one, but three anchors on a swivel and up to three lines back to the boat. The boat can then toss, turn, and swivel on the anchors without the mess of anchor chains and lines twisting around each other.
The system is designed for 25-60 foot boats and has a breaking strength of 32,000 pounds. Please note that Taylor Made calls this an anchoring system, so we're not sure why their diagram shows blocks instead of anchors; perhaps it's so customers can see the chain and shackles attached at the bottom. Regardless, the correct anchors for the type of seabed, currents, tides, and weather would be far better than blocks.
The 'Ole Ball and Chain
Many of the larger mooring balls have a chain (3/8" is common) threaded through the center and a large shackle attached to the chain on top of the ball. If using the 1/2" 3-strand nylon rope for your pennant line, have a galvanized or stainless steel thimble added to a spliced eye at the end, and a 1/2" shackle to attach the pendant line to the chain at the top of the ball. The thimble protects the spliced eye from chafing where the shackle connects the pendant line to the mooring ball shackle.
Some mooring balls have the hardware built into them, with a rod running through the ball instead of a chain, and an eye on the top and the bottom. A lot of boaters with their own moorages prefer this type, and they seem to work particularly well on balls of 24" or less.
When it comes time to unhook and sail off into the sunset, some boaters connect mooring pickup buoys, better known as pickup sticks, to their mooring line so that they can grab hold of the mooring line. This works well for most people although some complain of fiberglass splinters once their sticks have seen a few years. Others have a less expensive yet just as efficient way of doing the same thing, DIY style--with no splinters.
They thread three to four styrofoam gillnet floats onto the pennant line, and tie a figure-eight knot at the end so the floats don't escape and swim away. The floats keep the pendant line from sinking and wrapping around the mooring chain. They also make the line easier to see and easy for someone on the bow to grab with a boathook.
Don't Get Rubbed the Wrong Way
Chafing is the mortal enemy of every rope, link of chain, or piece of fabric, leather, or skin that you own. Even the roughest, toughest metals can be affected by chafing eventually. Protect your expensive lines and your time invested in getting everything all rigged up--not to mention the astronomical investment and labor of love that represents your boat!
Some resourceful DIYers say the number one way to prevent chafe on your lines is with fire hose. Not an entire fire hose, mind you, but pieces of old hose gleaned from local fire stations. Cut the hose into the size pieces you'll be needing and simply tie them to the cleats where they're needed. This keeps them in place and keeps them from stretching even when the line stretches.
Not everyone is keen on soliciting their local fire station for old hose though, so if you'd rather skip this step we've got you covered. For the somewhat DIYer (who is too shy to canvass fire stations), we have a leather mooring line chafe kit that has everything you need to easily sew together chafe guards yourself. We also have Line Chafe Guards from Taylor Made, Chafe Guard Secure by Davis Instruments, and more.
Browse our selection from chafe gear to chains and other mooring tackle and hardware to the mooring balls(or bells!) themselves, and you'll find plenty of choices when it comes time to set up your own mooring or simply maintain the one that you have.