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Looking out over the Sandbar

Key West Sandbar Anchoring — How To Anchor and Sandbar Etiquette for a Stress-Free Excursion

It’s easy to think that anchoring at the sandbar involves nothing more than getting out there and dropping a big hook. But there are actually a lot of things you need to consider, things like getting off the sandbar after the tide goes out, not running out of frosty beverages (like these five great sandbar cocktails), and not let the boat drift away, leaving you stranded for the rest of your days on a deserted tropical island trying to make a phone out of a coconut. Ok, maybe that’s a little dramatic, but a lot can happen out there. 

To keep you safe, here are five rules to keep in mind the next time you pull up to the Key West sandbar.

5 Rules for Sandbar Anchoring

Sun, sand, clear water, silence, and solitude. No? How about sun, sand, clear water, and a hundred of your closest friends? Introvert or extrovert, there’s a sandbar out there with your name on it. Read on for tips to find the right one, and have a great day at any sandbar in Key West.

Sandbar Anchoring Etiquette

Pick Your Spot Carefully (And With Courtesy)

So you roll up (float up?) to the sandbar. The first question to answer is, what’s the vibe like today? Is it packed with people and boats? Or is it all about quiet time and solitude in nature?

Based on that, pick your spot. If it’s crowded and you want the party, don’t get so close to other boats that there’s a risk of hitting them—or tangling with their anchor lines. Find a spot with room to maneuver in and out without any stress. Go for the end of the line rather than the middle of the pack. 

What if you pull up and there’s just one other boat on a huge sandbar? Be considerate. If it’s a friend and you’re meeting up, then sidle up and get the party started. If, on the other hand, the other boat is unknown to you, keep your distance. They might be out here for the peace and quiet, so the polite move is to give them plenty of space until you meet them. 

When approaching your spot, have someone on the bow looking out for people and pets in the water. Always approach very slowly and make sure your prop stays away from swimmers, dogs, iguanas, lines, rocks, and pretty much everything else. 

Anchoring on a sandbar

Decide How to Best Anchor

Your spot is picked. Now, how do you get the boat to stay where you put it? The beginner’s technique is to drive the boat into the sand until it stops. We’ve all done it—sometimes planned and sometimes unplanned. It’s really not a good way to accomplish the goal. If the tide goes out, the boat’s not moving until it comes back in. If the tide comes in, your boat will drift away and leave you stranded.


Your gelcoat will thank you if you use an anchor and make a careful, planned approach instead. There are two schools of thought: bow-in to the beach and put out a stern anchor, or stern-in the beach and put out a bow anchor. 


Looking at how other boats are parked at the sandbar will give you an idea of the conditions. Is the wind blowing them off the beach or onto it? What about the current—is it setting one way or another? Take all this into account as you make your approach. 


Some boats, like deck boats and pontoons, have bow ladders for easy beaching at the sandbar. If this is the case, it’s probably easiest to approach bow first to the beach. If your boat has a deep draft or a sterndrive, bow-in is probably the best way to beach it.


As you approach, you’ll drop an anchor off the stern about 50 feet off where you want the boat to stop. Let out the line as you slowly approach the beach, being careful not to let the line foul in the prop. When you get to the desired spot, either with the bow in the sand or slightly off, give the anchor line a good pull to set the hook. Then, make it fast to a stern cleat. Add a bow anchor, and you can adjust where the boat sits no matter the tide level. 


For center consoles and bigger boats, it’s often easiest to put the stern to the beach. It’s easier for everyone to get on and off, and it means the bow will be pointed into any incoming waves or boat wakes. Plus, it makes getting off super easy. The downside is that the stern is the deepest part of the boat, so you might wind up a little farther off the beach. 


Approach your spot and drop your bow anchor. Let out the line and carefully swing the boat until you’re slowly backing toward the beach. Start trimming your outboards up. Once the water gets too shallow for the motors, shut them down and tilt them up. Now, grab a small stern anchor, walk it onto the beach, and set it. You can then adjust each anchor line to put the boat exactly where you want it. 

Don't Break the Boat

If the Captain has one rule of sandbar anchoring, it’s to not break the boat. Even though it looks like soft sand, there are bigger rocks, chunks of coral, and shells that will take a nice chunk out of your gelcoat. Plus, engine lower units and propellers aren’t big fans of sand in general. Keep the sand out of the engine and the prop off the bottom. This will also help you keep the sand out of your water intake and your engine’s cooling system.


So, instead of powering up to and off the sandbar, use your anchor lines to move the boat each way. Use the motors only when there’s plenty of water, and only let the boat touch with the lightest of kisses. 

Plan Your Departure

Here’s where you earn your money as Captain—getting off. If you paid attention when you arrived, you put the boat in a position that should be easy to get out of. Most people want to leave the sandbar eventually, and usually on their own terms…not having to wait an extra six hours for the tide to come in!

The key to getting off, whether you come in bow-first or stern-to, is having an anchor set well off the beach. How much line you have out depends on the water depth, but 50 feet of line is a good starting point for sandbars, and more if your area has big tides. With that much line out, you should be able to simply pull the boat off the sand and into deeper water…assuming you didn’t space out and let the tide go out too much. It’s much easier to keep the boat floating by making little changes throughout the day rather than letting it dry out and being stranded!

Let the Captain Do the Dirty Work

key west day trip snorkeling

Do you know the best kind of boat to take to the sandbar? An ‘other person’s boat’ or OPB! If the OBP gets stuck in the sand because the tide went out, it’s not your problem! If the OPB doesn’t start when it’s time to go home, it’s not your problem! If the OPB’s anchor line gets tangled with the neighbors and a fistfight ensues, it’s not your problem! In fact, the OPB is the best kind of boat for most any situation.


How do you get ahold of an OPB? Simple! Call Captain Zak and ask if he’ll take you out on the Casual Monday. The answer is usually yes, and he knows the best sandbars in Key West—where they are, how to anchor, and how to get off again when you’re done.

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