On the Job

How to Color Code Your Anchor Chain

10 April 2021By Holly Overton

Written by

Holly Overton

Holly grew up sailing dinghies on the south coast of England and discovered the world of big boats after landing a job as a digital writer for our sister website boatinternational.com.

If you’re working on deck, the colors of the anchor chain will be as fixed in your mind as the colors of the rainbow. But for those who rarely find themself leaning out over the bow, here’s the lowdown on reading a color-coded chain.

Colors on an anchor chain are a basic convention used by yachts as a way to determine how much chain has been paid out. “This goes back a long way and the British Admiralty was probably the first to establish a set system of marking the lengths of anchor line,” says Captain Mike French. Back then, they used various different markers attached to the chain, which has gradually evolved into today’s color-coded system.

In most cases on yachts larger than 30 meters, there will be a marker at each shackle, usually set at intervals of 90 feet, and painted in red, yellow, blue, white, or green. The standard (and slightly risqué) mnemonic to help seafarers remember the order of the colors goes like this:

Rub  — Red

Your — Yellow

Balls — Blue

With — White

Grease — Green

But, be warned, there is no single system in place. “Many yachts seem to make up their own markings these days, especially if they routinely anchor in the same area, like in deep water around the Mediterranean or in the shallow waters of the Bahamas,” says French. For yachts with a permanent home in the Caribbean, or for smaller boats in general, a captain might be more inclined to set the markings every 25 or 50 feet instead.

Other Chain Marking Systems

Commercial ships and larger yachts sometimes opt for a two-color system using just red and white markings. In this method, the first shackle is painted red and the first link on either side of that shackle is painted white. The second shackle is also painted red, but this time with two white-painted links on either side, and the pattern continues. Let’s say the markings are set 90 feet apart. If I was to look at the waterline and see a red shackle with four white links painted on either side, I will know that I have 360 feet of anchor chain beneath me (90ft x 4 shackles = 360 feet).

Anchor chains with single color markings at set intervals might appear as the simplest method, and certainly cheapest if you’re painting the chain yourself, but if you lose count you’ll have to hoist the anchor back to the waterline and start again. An ideal marking system will allow you to see exactly how much chain is out just by glancing at the surface of the water, with no counting needed, which is why the five-color “Rub Your Balls With Grease” system is a common choice on luxury yachts.

Of course, in the age of technology, some vessels are fitted with anchor chain counters that measure the chain as it goes out and comes in. “This is quite normal but seems like a waste of money for a yacht that generally anchors in shallower water,” says Capt. French.

Marking Your Own Chain

While painted sections are the most common method of marking up an anchor chain, the problem is that paint can fade over time and will require topping up. “Paint is prone to flaking and failing in the harsh environment of an anchor locker or the sea bed,” explains Capt. French. As an alternative, or in addition to the painted surfaces, some might use colored zip ties or plastic chain counters as they’re less likely to degrade over time and are easier to replace. However, Capt. French warns that plastic can be “just as prone to failure” and could get caught in the windlass when lowering or lifting the anchor. He believes the best approach is to have a “properly painted chain” that is refreshed regularly. 

If you’re painting your own anchor chain, first use sulfuric acid to remove any form of oxidation, rust, or dirt, and make sure the surface is etched so the paint may bond better with the links. Paint applied to a galvanized surface will hold better.

How do you remember your anchor chain color code?

More from Dockwalk