Revised by BoatUS editors in April 2012
Image courtesy of West Marine
Manually hauling in an anchor can be a chore. Rope burn and back strain are potential concerns, unless you have a windlass. Also, if you drag anchor in a storm, it isn’t unusual to have to make several attempts to reset it. This means that you have to retrieve it after each unsuccessful attempt. While the anchor is dragging along the bottom, your boat is essentially out of control, possibly drifting down onto another boat, the beach or a reef. A windlass allows you to retrieve the anchor much more quickly, without becoming exhausted, or sick, in the process. Whether manual or motor driven, windlasses make anchor retrieval much easier. Boat size and use are the primary factors in determining which type of windlass you will need. However, there is a windlass for every anchor and rode type.
Manual windlasses supplement your muscle power with mechanical advantage. They are available as either lever-type (back and forth motion) or vertical axis (a circular winch-grinding motion). Lever-type windlasses are generally single speed, and vertical models, like sheet winches, usually have two speeds: a fast, low-power gear for light loads, and a slower speed with higher power for when the going gets tougher.
Electric windlasses haul ground tackle aboard with a touch of a button or a step on a button. They are even available with remote or roving controls for operation from the helm or wherever else you'd prefer to be (although it’s usually best to be at the bow when deploying and retrieving an anchor). A helpful option on either model is a self-tailing feature for nylon line which takes in the slack as the line is hauled in and feeds it into the locker below deck. Most chain windlasses have, as a part of the unit, a chain stripper which pulls the chain from the chain wheel and lets it fall, pulled by its weight, through the hole into the chain locker.
(Before going further, let’s clarify that we won’t be using the term “gypsy” or “wildcat” in this article. There has been much confusion in certain contexts as to which refers to the drum around which a rope is wrapped and the cogged wheel which pulls in the chain. Some use the terms interchangeably. To avoid confusion we’ll use the terms “rope drum” or “drum” and “chain wheel.”)
Some manufacturers advise that the pulling power of your windlass be three times the unloaded weight of your anchor and chain. However, the more pulling power, the better, within reason. You may be trying to retrieve your anchor in strong current or wind or other adverse conditions, or there may be a snag or other piece of debris on the hook of which you’re unaware until it breaks surface. It’s important not to over-stress a windlass or use it for loads beyond its capacity, but the stronger the windlass the happier you’ll be.
Horizontal or Vertical
Although personal taste and your boating style are factors in choosing either a horizontal or vertical style windlass, much of the decision may have been made when you bought your boat. The size and configuration of the foredeck, chain locker and forepeak dictate some of the criteria. First, let's look at the differences between the two.
Horizontal windlasses are usually housed in a sealed unit mounted on the deck. The windlass is fitted directly over the hawse pipe and positioned in line with the bow roller to ensure a fair lead. The rode is retrieved by the windlass and deposited directly into the chain or rope locker below. Since the rode does not have to make many directional changes, it generally disappears down the hawse pipe neatly without kinking or jamming. Because the motor and gearbox are located on deck, they are easily accessible and easily maintained, although more exposed to the elements. There isn’t the necessity of cutting the rather large hole in the deck to accommodate the shaft of the windlass. The price for on-deck convenience and simplicity is paid for in deck space. The horizontal windlass takes up substantially more room than its vertical counterpart. Depending on the model, it can actually stand taller as well, making it an awkward foredeck obstruction, particularly if your foredeck is small.
A horizontal windlass should have a clutch to allow the anchor and rode to essentially free fall. This can be a very useful feature, however this should be used very carefully as it can lead to jamming and other damage and injury.
Vertical windlasses are installed with the motor and gearbox mounted below deck. This leaves the foredeck relatively uncluttered, unless you choose the capstan rope drum option mounted above a chain wheel . Vertical windlasses are versatile, as the rode can be led from any direction. The chain rode wraps around the chain wheel, is stripped off the wheel over the hawse hole and falls down into the chain locker. The rope rode wraps around the drum and leads to the hawse pipe and down into the rope locker, often with a mechanical assist. Again, the configuration of your boat dictates the feasibility of this system. Since the guts of the windlass are below, the motor may interfere with living space or physical limits of the chain locker. Usually the motor and gear box are in the chain locker, out of sight and out of mind, and hard to access and maintain. This is even more of an issue than usual because these components are living in a corrosive salty moist environment in the locker.
To have the rode pay out properly, manufacturers recommend at least 12" clearance from the top of the stowed rode to the top of the locker. The more the clearance the better. Also, the chain locker, with either type windlass, should be relatively narrow and tall to avoid tangles. With either rode it’s wise to pull it all out occasionally and run it neatly back in to avoid tangles. Anytime you’re in rough seas, there is greater likelihood of rode shifting below and becoming entangled on itself. Before purchasing any windlass, measure your forepeak to see if everything fits and is serviceable. The windlass manufacturer can provide a plan detailing all the dimensions.
What Type of Rode?
All-rope rodes, most frequently used on smaller boats, require windlasses with drums designed for rope. . These are similar in appearance and operation to a sheet winch on a sailboat, the drum hauls in the line wound around the drum. Self-tailing is a feature designed to prevent your line from becoming a massive pile of "spaghetti" on your deck, making it particularly useful with all-rope rodes. A self tailing feature also frees up your hands because you don’t have to stand there tailing the line.
All-chain rodes, often favored by larger cruising boats, are handled by all-chain wheels. A self-tailing feature on a chain wheel would be superfluous as the weight of the chain peeling off the wheel will cause the rode to stow itself and the chain, if properly sized for the chain wheel, will be pulled along by the cogs in that wheel. However, a well working chain stripper is critical.
Combination rope/chain rodesrodes are very popular, because length of chain (the more the better) lends a lot of holding power to the anchor and the rope keeps the overall weight of the ground tackle down. Windlasses that handle rope/chain rodes use either a rope drum mounted with a chain wheel , or single unit with both capabilities. A chain wheel handles chain through the use of pockets or cogs which the chain links seat into. Obviously, the chain and the pockets must match, or the chain will hang up or slip out. Combination models also use both a rope drum and a chain wheel, or feature an internal groove in the chain wheel that also handles the rope. Unlike the separate configuration, which requires that you set the chain stopper after retrieving the rope and change to the chain wheel to haul in the chain, the combination model allows easier "hands-off" operation although there’s still plenty of opportunity for fouling. Most combination models require that the chain be joined to the rope by a splice, as the unit cannot accommodate a shackle. A proper rope-to-chain splice is reported to retain 95% of the strength of the line while distributing the load evenly along its length. However, it’s critical to closely watch the rope to chain splice for wear and abrasion which often occurs. Another advantage to the splice is its ability to accommodate the nylon rode's stretch; a lot of line tension could cause the thimble to pop out in traditional thimble/shackle arrangements.
To simplify the choice between the myriad combinations of rope and chain sizes, many windlass manufacturers offer a few rope/chain models which handle the most commonly used specifications of each. Before you buy chain you should take a few links of it to the boat, or your chain wheel to the store, and see if it properly fits your windlass.
Horizontal windlasses are simple to install. As most models are completely self-contained, the only drilling necessary is that for holes for the hawse pipe and bolting the unit down, as well as wiring. Because vertical windlasses are fitted through the deck, some additional expertise/confidence/bravery is called for. Think through the positioning of the system before touching that saw or drill. As mentioned before, you will probably need at least 12" vertical clearance (more is better) from the underside of the deck to the top of the rode in the locker to ensure that it pays out properly. Next, position the windlass template supplied by the manufacturer in the location specified by the manufacturer. If your windlass does not self-tail, position the foot control, if you have one, so that you can comfortably tail the rode. Windlasses weigh a lot and handle high loads; you will probably need to reinforce your deck and spread the load with an aluminum or stainless plate. If you're adding much thickness, advise the manufacturer so they can provide you with longer bolts and possibly a longer shaft for a vertical windlass. Also reinforce the backing for the chain stopper, which holds a huge load at times. If it goes, it may take the windlass with it. Of course, you'll need to apply a silicone or other good marine sealant around the windlass and foot control and switch to prevent leaks. Follow all instructions of the manufacturer, which should normally supersede anything inconsistent said here.
To wire the electric windlass, run appropriate sized cables, which should be tinned and made to ABYC standards, from the unit to a breaker on the breaker panel. There should be a breaker at or near the windlass as well. The size of the cables is determined by the amp draw, the voltage of the windlass and the cable run. Follow manufacturer’s instructions carefully. Don’t scrimp on wiring.
Since windlasses can use between 35-200 amps or more under load, the running engine may or may not adequately charge the batteries sufficiently as you use the windlass. Many have dedicated windlass batteries in the bow, with a dedicated charging source. A long wire run from the engine space forward will result in what may be an unacceptable amount of voltage drop and can be a potential fire source unless properly protected by breakers, size, insulation and chafing gear. This is a critical subject which should be carefully studied, as it pertains to your boat and equipment, before installation.
Some windlasses are driven hydraulically. These are usually much more powerful and require different powering techniques and equipment.
Using the Windlass
Windlasses haul in the rode and lift the anchor off the bottom-they aren't meant to haul the seabed up to the surface. Although your windlass may be rated at three times the weight of your anchor and chain, take into account strong wind, current, and recalcitrant anchors firmly dug in. Always use your engine, not the windlass, to power up to the anchor and break it loose. If the anchor is firmly set, belay the rode or set the chain stopper, and work it out carefully under power. Don’t use the windlass as the stress point for the rode. The shaft will normally not be built to take that. Secure the rode with a cleat (if rope), chain hook or some other method designed to take the load. The well installed chain stopper may take this stress, as well as a strong nylon rope secured to a strong cleat and attached to the chain with chain hook.