Heavy Metal


Things to consider when purchasing a windlass  (published September 2013)

Marinas and moorings are convenient, but sooner or later you may wish to venture further afield, which means you will need to anchor. And when it comes time to set your hook, the process is going to be made a whole lot more pleasant with a trusty machine to pull up your anchor and rode—a windlass.

If you have ever retrieved a well-set anchor and chain by hand you will immediately agree, if not, have a go on a boat larger than 30 feet and see how that works. Also, consider doing it at night and in bad weather when most anchoring related dilemmas occur—not really the best time to leisurely hoist the main and coax up the hook by hand. So, if you have a boat or are in the market and want to replace your windlass or add a new one, here a few tips to help get you started.

Windlasses come in numerous varieties so the first thing to consider is the power you will use to operate it. The various types of windlasses on the market today are electric—DC and AC—and hydraulic. If your boat is large enough to require a hydraulic or AC electric windlass, you should probably be reading Superyacht Magazine. That being the case, you are going to be spending your money on a DC powered windlass that is either 12 or 24 volts. If you want to be the only source of power for the windlass, manual units are available but are generally restricted to smaller boats. Gone are the days when manufacturers produced significant manual models, although there could be some antiques around for sale that are still operable.


A vertical axis windlass on a Tartan 5300
A vertical axis windlass on a Tartan 5300; the cover photo is of a horizontal axis windlass on an Island Packet 465.

Your next choice is to decide on a vertical or horizontal machine; this refers to the orientation of the chain wheel or gypsy. Imagine a wheel on a car as a horizontal and a wheel lying on its side as a vertical. Each has desirable characteristics but ultimately the decision will depend on your vessel and the chain locker configuration.

Vertical units have a better grip on the chain than horizontals, as they tend to discharge the chain forward, perhaps an extra couple of links in the gypsy at any time. Horizontals drop the chain vertically. Some boats, often catamarans, have a deep locker with plenty of room and good access that may allow a horizontal unit to be installed inside. Others will have an integral locker with poor or limited access.

A unique chain locker with fold-away bow roller on a Moody 44
A unique chain locker with fold-away bow roller on a Moody 44

In this case, the chain will be fed into the cavity via a hawse pipe, which is a salty term for a hole in the deck that allows chain to be dropped in by the windlass. The benefit of horizontal units in this instance is that they can be entirely mounted above deck and positioned to feed directly into the hawse pipe. The vertical machine will require a large part of it to be below deck and may prove a more difficult or intrusive installation. If your locker is shallow then a hawse pipe model will be frustrating; chain will build up underneath the hole and jams will occur.

If this is an issue on your boat, a vertical unit without an integral hawse pipe will allow you greater flexibility as you flake the chain into the locker by hand. Consider your technique very carefully though, as chain plus winch can ruin your future as a concert pianist if you get it wrong. Sometimes the hawse pipe pileup can be alleviated by installing a timber or plastic edge directly beneath the hole that divides the locker into two parts; as the chain falls it slips off the edge to one side or the other and this may be enough to stop or reduce the jamming.

Most new windlasses are combination chain and rope units, which are recommended for smaller boats, occasional users or for those who are weight conscious. These generally vertical units have a gypsy that will accept both rope and chain when neatly spliced together. The biggest problem with these is getting the lightweight rode to feed into the locker properly.

Chain has the significant benefit of responding well to gravity and is unlikely to get tangled in the process. Braided rode tends to be better than stranded for these applications because it is more flexible, takes up less space and requires less effort to get in the locker. One application I see with this type of setup would be the ability to carry more rode for deep anchorages. Having 200 feet of chain with another 100 feet of rope spliced to it will cut down on some weight and act as a shock absorber when paid out far enough.


The compact chain locker and windlass on an Antares 44i catamaran
The compact chain locker and windlass on an Antares 44i catamaran

A good way to figure out what size windlass is right for your boat, anchor and chain size is with this formula; the windlass should have an operating ability of at least three times the weight of the maximum deployed gear. So, if you have 200 feet of 5/16 chain and a 45-pound anchor with swivels and shackles, the total weight will be just shy of 300 pounds, which means your windlass needs to be able to handle 900 pounds.

It is easy to understand now why you will want a powered winch. Bigger, longer chain and heavier anchors means larger, more expensive machines are required, but I have never heard anyone complain about a windlass being too powerful or reliable. Most windlasses are rated by maximum pulling power and 1,200 pounds is a common model. In the example above this would be acceptable and give a bit of reserve.

When deciding on chain, it is important to understand that there are numerous varieties and standards and that if the chain is not an exact fit for your gypsy, it will not work or will be unreliably.

Types of chain include short link, high test, BBB, DIN and cheap chain that claims to be of a certain standard but is so poorly made it doesn’t match. It is important to understand that the various types of chain have tiny size differentials that may render your expensive new windlass and many hours of labor worthless. If you already have chain, be sure you know what type and size it is before deciding on a windlass.

If you want or need new chain and have a windlass, check the fit carefully before buying something that will jump off the gypsy or immediately jam up. If you already bought chain and it doesn’t fit your windlass, your only option may be to send a piece of the new chain to the windlass manufacturer or supplier and have them return you the correct size gypsy. Gypsies are expensive and mailing chain isn’t cheap, so make sure you know what you have before buying chain or a windlass.

Note the divided chain locker on the Jeanneau 509
Note the divided chain locker on the Jeanneau 509

One disadvantage of chain is stretch. It doesn’t have any, which means shock loads from waves and wind may directly transfer to the windlass. This is extremely bad for the machine and in turn, bad for the person who paid for it. All windlass manufacturers clearly state that the machine should be disconnected from any anchor load and will therefore not allow warranty claims if there is evidence that the boat was hanging off the windlass by a loaded chain.

Taking the load off your windlass and chain is achieved in a number of ways, with the most common being a snubber line or a chain stopper. For more on the snubber see page 52 in this issue. Chain stoppers are metal fittings permanently installed on the vessel; normally between the windlass and the bow roller to lock the chain and isolate the windlass. I know many people have used these successfully for years, but keep in mind that there is still no stretch. In general, it is not prudent to believe that a chain stopper is up to the task of holding a loaded chain and could rip out of the deck. So the moral is as the manufacturers say, never anchor off the windlass and I reckon never leave the chain on the windlass also.

Anchoring is one of the most enjoyable aspects of cruising and having a reliable windlass is essential to making sure you can do it without too much effort. But, buying a windlass can be an intimidating process as it is a piece of equipment that you want to make sure is perfect for your boat and ground tackle. If you are unsure and have questions, consult a rigging professional or someone who regularly installs windlasses.

Author: John Champion