"Choosing an anchor windlass"

By Frank Lanier
Chesapeake Bay Magazine (2005)
Latitudes and Attitudes (2005)

     It’s ironic that one of the biggest allures of boat ownership is the ability to get away from it all by anchoring in some pristine cove or lagoon, however the biggest detriment to doing just that is often the labor of anchoring itself. When it comes to vessels in the 30-foot range and larger, there are really only two types of owners – those that have an anchor windlass and those who need one. It only takes one trip to the foredeck in the rain, snow, or heat of the tropics to wrestle a heavy anchor and rode on deck to show the value of having an anchor windlass onboard. 

     Nothing increases boating enjoyment and safety more, particularly for those that drop the hook frequently. Having an anchor windlass not only encourages boaters to choose ground tackle based on what’s needed (rather than what can be raised by hand), they also make it easier for boaters to do the right thing during situations that call for re-anchoring (or shifting anchorages altogether) instead of taking a “wait and see” approach simply because they dread raising a heavy anchor by hand. 

     So now that we’ve extolled upon the virtues of having an anchor windlass and established that after using one you’ll never go back to raising your anchor by hand, how do you choose one that’s right for you? Here’s a look at windlass basics to point you in the right direction.
Anchor windlasses come in vertical or horizontal models (in reference to drum orientation) and will be manual, electric, or hydraulic powered. As hydraulic units are typically found only on ships, we’ll focus on the first two (with probably a little skewed prejudicial emphasis on electric models). 

Manual 
     
     Considering how brutal the marine environment can be on equipment, the dependability of a manual windlass is hard to beat. Utilizing “muscle power” they multiply your physical strength through mechanical advantage, allowing you to handle heavy rodes and anchors with relative ease. The chief advantages of a manual windlass are their lower costs, no need for electricity, and their relatively simple construction (which reduces both maintenance and chances of failure). The difference in cost between a manual windlass and an electric windlass of similar pulling power is not as much as it used to be, however, a trend most likely due to the lower volume of manual windlasses being sold nowadays (the less sold, the more they cost to build). 

     Installation cost, however, is a different story. An electric windlass requires the additional expense (and weight) of heavy electrical wiring, batteries, switches, solenoids, etc., all of which have to be protected against the typical problems associated with having electrical equipment located in an exposed, often wet location. A manual windlass is free from these concerns – they even operate while submerged.

Electric
     
     Electric windlasses allow you to retrieve ground tackle and (in the case of self-tailing units) store anchor rode with the push of a button. That button can be located on the foredeck or helm (if fitted with a secondary remote switch) or anywhere onboard if your windlass has a handheld wireless remote option. Electric windlasses can pull in rode at a rate of up to 100 feet or more per minute and can exert hundreds or even thousands of pounds of pull. Manual windlasses can also retrieve anchor rode at comparable rates – at least until the person manning the lever gets tired or has a chest-grabber. 

     Dual direction models allow push-button lowering of your anchor as well, however many electric windlasses utilize a clutch-release mechanism to allow rode to feed out when dropping the anchor, which requires someone on the foredeck to release the clutch (as is the case with manual models).

Orientation

     As mentioned earlier, anchor windlass drum orientation will be either horizontal or vertical, although technically speaking a vertical drum is called a capstan and a horizontal unit is a “plain windlass” until addition of a wildcat to handle chain, at which point both can be correctly called anchor windlasses. 

     Vertical electric windlass installations place the motor and gearbox below deck, which not only provides additional protection from the environment, but also lowers the unit’s center of gravity and frees up additional deck space. The downside to this is that the motor and associated guts of the windlass now intrude upon living space below decks or (depending on configuration) within the chain locker itself. The size and layout of your particular vessel’s chain locker plays a big role in determining if you can go with a vertical model, since most manufacturers recommend at least 12 inches of clearance between the top of the stowed rode and the top of the locker for proper operation. 

     Vertical units are also said to handle chain more efficiently, as the wildcat (the narrow drum notched to handle chain) engages more links at any given time than with horizontal units (180 degrees vice 90). They also have the ability to accept leads from different angles for anchoring, warping, or hoisting. 

     Horizontal windlasses consist of a sealed unit mounted completely above decks, a plus where a vessel’s chain locker is too shallow to accommodate the below deck motor of a vertical windlass. Being located above deck gives greater access to the windlass for maintenance or repair, however it also means the unit itself takes up more deck space and is exposed to the elements. 

     Deck alignment is more critical with horizontal windlasses, which cannot accept a rode leading in from an off-center angle. This can be a problem with some wider horizontal units, which may cosmetically need to be mounted at the center of the deck, but can’t be due to the poor rode lead it would provide both warping drum and wildcat. In such cases you’ll have to pick warping drum or wildcat as your primary drive and center accordingly, or possibly move the windlass farther back to reduce rode angle for both.

     Manual windlasses are available in both horizontal and vertical models. Horizontal models utilize a vertical lever, which allows the user to stand upright while employing a back and forth motion to retrieve the anchor. Vertical axis units use a circular winch-grinding motion similar to a sheet winch. The biggest disadvantages with vertical axis units (both manual and electric ones when using the emergency hand crank) are that they place the user closer to the deck while cranking (a position many find awkward) and develop less power during manual operation than horizontal units. 

     Manual windlasses ratchet in one direction (so the rode doesn’t run backwards) and come in both one and two-speed models. Most are also double-action, meaning the windlass pulls in chain on both the forward and backward strokes – there are some single action models still around, however they’re unnecessarily slow and should be avoided. Two-speed models are similar in operation to two-speed sheet winches, having both a fast, low-power speed for rapid retrieval and a slower, high-power speed for heavy pulling. 

Pulling Power

     Speaking of pulling power, a windlass is designed to weigh an anchor and rode that is not under strain, along with providing some additional tension to break out a firmly set anchor if required. They are not meant to pull your boat up to a heavily set anchor and then break it out. Once this is understood, figuring out how much pulling power you’ll need from you windlass is pretty straightforward. The strain on your windlass should be limited to the hanging weight of the anchor and rode, however as many boaters violate this on a regular basis most manufacturers recommend purchase of a windlass that can provide pulling power equal to three times the unloaded weight of your anchor and rode – four if you typically anchor in rocky areas or in exposed locations where adverse weather can be a factor. 

     Most boaters choose a windlass simply by selecting one that matches their existing ground tackle, which is great as long their anchor and rode are properly sized to begin with and in the case of chain rodes, can be matched with a wildcat. If you have doubts that your existing anchor or rode are too small, now’s the time to increase them to properly match your vessel. The same logic applies to windlass selection – if in doubt, go up to the next larger size.

Ideally…

     Regardless the type you choose (horizontal, vertical, manual or electric) the ideal windless installation should allow you to do two things – deploy the anchor in a controlled manner and reduce the time and physical effort it takes the operator to retrieve it, regardless of strength, age, or gender. It should also require minimal intervention to lower and raise the anchor – models requiring operators to transfer rodes under tension, say from capstan to a chain wildcat in the case of combination rope/chain rodes, are inherently unsafe. 

     The ideal system should also be self-tailing, one that passes your anchor rode into a below deck locker for storage during retrieval rather than piling it on deck for you deal with afterwards. Most capstan models are not self-tailing (meaning the rope must be “tailed”) and none automatically feed the rode below decks. 

     The success of any windlass installation depends on a correctly set up anchor locker, one deep enough that the incoming rode doesn’t “castle” or pile up under the windlass. In addition to a wildcat (if handling chain) the anchor windlass should also have a warping drum for use with rope rodes and general deck work.

Safety

     Like any piece of equipment with the potential to separate careless boaters from their digits, all anchor windlasses should be treated with respect. The chain gypsum is called a “wildcat” because it has the potential to act like one at times, so keep the area around the windlass clear of items that could get caught in it (loose clothing, lines, fingers, toes, etc.). Avoid physical contact with the anchor rode while the windless is in use or the rode itself is under tension and never use feet or hands to remove kinks or “help the chain along” if it jumps off the wildcat while retrieving the rode.

     All switches used to operate electrical windlasses should be of the make or break type so that the operator can’t walk away while the windlass is energized – these also ensure the windlass will stop if the operator is thrown off balance by a wake or wave when retrieving the anchor. 

     Regardless the type of windlass you choose, here are a few other tips to consider. Run the boat engine while raising or lowering the anchor, both as a safety precaution to allow you to maintain control of the vessel when the anchor breaks free and to minimize drain on the batteries when using electric models. You can also help prolong the life of your windlass by retrieving slack in the anchor rode by utilizing the boat’s motor to move the vessel forward, then breaking out the anchor using the boat and motor, wave action, etc, rather than the windlass itself. 

     Finally, never allow the full weight of the vessel to ride on the windlass while at anchor. Always use an appropriately sized chain stopper coupled with a nylon snubber of sufficient size and length when using all chain rodes and take the strain off the windlass by leading all rope rodes (and snubbers) to a suitably strong deck fitting, such as a hefty deck cleat or Sampson post.