The Anchor Windlass: An Introduction

An Introduction To The Anchor Windlass And How It Works
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All About The Anchor Windlass

Because they are so important, I figured that a comprehensive introduction to anchor windlasses was in order.

Diagram of the Vertical Anchor Windlass Components Working Together

This article is meant for those who are newer to sailing and are interested in learning more about their boat’s components. If you are learning about liveaboard life, then this will hopefully be of help.

In particular we are talking about electric anchor windlasses here rather than the manual type.

Without an anchor you cannot moor a boat properly in a mooring field or remain static in open water, and without an electrical windlass you will spend a lot of time and energy raising and lowering your anchor.

An anchor is of course, extremely important if you want to live aboard your boat.

So why do this job manually when you can get a machine to do it for you?

An anchor windlass is such an important component because it is used to move boat anchors up and down. It lets out and heaves up anchors or fishing trawls.

This critical machine restrains, secures and pulls up anchor chains onto a boat. Fundamentally, it allows the anchor to be raised and lowered using a chain cable.

Technically there are two types of windlasses, horizontal and vertical. A horizontal windlass has the motor above deck, while a vertical windlass motor is below deck in the chain locker.

Windlasses also differ in terms of their power source. Electric, manual, hydraulic and steam models are available for different circumstances.

Components of the windlass include links, gypsy and the chain locker. Choosing the right windlass requires consideration of basic things like boat size, weather conditions and power source available.

There are several well-known and quality brands like Maxwell, Lewmar, and Lofrans. In this article, we provide some insight into anchor windlass operation, parts, types, common problems and things to consider when buying one as a replacement for a faulty windlass.

Anchor Windlass Operation

Lewmar Diagram of Horizontal Windlass Mounted on a Boat

Anchor Deployment

One of the key windlass operations is anchor deployment. This means setting the anchor on the bottom of the water to keep the boat stationary.

Two options for anchor deployment are the free-fall and the power-down.

A windlass must have either or both of these functions.

Windlasses are operated in free-fall mode by loosening the clutch manually which allows the gypsy to spin freely.

Electric models come with a switch at the helm station. This allows you to drop the anchor single handed in your desired location.

Free-fall operation is best done in shallow waters due to the lack of control of the anchor when in free-fall.

During anchor deployment, the chain stopper is used to isolate the load from the windlass. This puts less strain on the windlass motor when the physical force is at it’s highest.

A chain snubber or anchor kellett is often used to act against the forces caused by wind and wave loads.

The effect of their use is to increase the holding power of the anchor. Kellett's are known by several names including 'Anchor Angel', 'Sentinel' or 'Anchor Buddy'.

Anchor Kellett Is Used To Increase the Holding Power Of The Anchor 

Anchor Retrieval

  • The first step in retrieving the anchor is to power the boat forward until it is over the anchor and the anchor rode is vertical to the boat
  • As the boat move past the vertical, cleat the line which relieves the load from the chain making it easier to pull the slack
  • Then motor up the anchor.

The boat motor should be in neutral once the boat is over the anchor. The anchor is then pulled vertically to overturn and free it.

How to Properly and Safely Operate an Anchor Windlass [Video]

Anchor Windlass Parts

A windlass is made of a cable lifter, a warp end, and a mooring drum. These are rotating components which work together to facilitate the anchoring process.

  • The cable lifter is made of cable-shaped snugs used to grip the anchor cable on the drum
  • The cable moves around the mooring drum which acts as a guide by loosening the mooring wires
  • A warp end holds the cable in the desired position and moves about the mooring drum for more efficiency
  • These units can be controlled individually as well as being used together. A dog clutch is used to engage and disengage each of these units separately
  • A spur gear assembly is used to connect all rotating parts to the motor.
  • This connection helps to transmit motor drive to the shaft from which different dog clutches allow power take-off
  • There are separate band brakes used to lock in cable lifters and mooring drums to prevent accidental movements when the motor is turned off

How To Use A Windlass [Video]

Electric Anchor Windlasses

These are the most common windlasses in the market because they are easy to use. They are also available in different configurations.

Electric anchor windlasses have vertical and horizontal drums, enclosed deck mounts or bottom deck motor mount. Enough power from the boat is needed to charge batteries which run the windlass.

Some models provide powered control when dropping the anchor by an electric brake.

Most electric windlasses are designed with a manual option which is used to raise the anchor as a backup for motor failure or power interruption.

Manual Anchor Windlasses

Most manual anchor windlasses have a drum on one side and a gypsy on the other side of the housing. Most of them are operated using a handle and are geared allowing easy opertion of the handle.

The handle is cranked for the gear to pull the chain upwards. However, this can be tiring since it requires you to winch the anchor manually and take all the weight yourself.

Manual windlasses are less expensive and easier to install than electric models. They only need to be bolted on the deck. They provide a good alternative in case of limited battery power.

Common Problems with Anchor Windlasses

  • One of the most common problems is the tendency of chrome to start flaking off the upper friction surface of the gypsy. The gypsy starts slipping the rope or chain and the anchor cannot be deployed or raisedWindlass gypsy is an important component of an anchor windlass
  • There are a few cases where hydraulic windlasses have suffered catastrophic failures. The cable wires run to the end following a motor failure as the vessel attempts to weigh down the anchor
  • The operator can suffer injuries due to flying debris. Closely monitor the weather and sea conditions while ensuring the anchor is retracted at the right time before conditions become dangerous
  • After windlass replacement, the chain may start jamming in the new gypsy after being hauled. This is usually caused by the cumulation of twisted links in the chain rode.

Choosing An Anchor Windlass

The the first things to consider when selecting an anchor windlass are the size of the boat, sea bottom structure, sea and weather conditions. There are two main types of anchor windlasses based on the type of mechanism.

With a vertical windlass, the chain gypsy is placed on a vertical drive shaft above the motor and the gear box which are housed below the deck.

Diagram showing the Anchor Chain Rode and Snubber on A Boat

With a horizontal windlass, the chain gypsy is mounted on either side of the deck housing which usually contains the gearbox and motor.

Both types should include an optional rope use to handle mooring lines.

Windlasses come with different types of chain and rope sizes. The rode should match to selected unit. The power source is also important where manual models are more applicable in limited power situations.

Anchor Windlass Brands

The most popular windlass brands are Maxwell, Lewmar, Powerwinch, Muir, Lofrans, Good and Anchor Lift.

The Lewmar V700 model is one of the most popular with its ability to accept half inch rope and a quarter inch chain. It is affordable and rated up to 35 feet boat size. It looks sleek and provides a maximum pool of 700 pounds. Up and down speeds are 50 and 82 feet per minute respectively.

The Anchorlift Barracuda is a popular vertical windlass which is good for boats up to 35 feet with a maximum pull of 1450 pounds. Up and down speeds are 85 and 126 feet per minute.

The most popular Maxwell windlass is the RC-6 which is the cheapest in their range. It’s good for boats up to 27 feet with 69 feet per minute up and down speeds.

The most popular Good model is the F850 which is good for boats up to 36 feet with a maximum pull of 600 pounds.

The most popular Powerwinch model is the Class 36. This vertical windlass is good with boats up to 36 feet with a 775 pounds pull.

3 Most Misunderstood Aspects Of A Windlass System [Video]

When To Consider Replacing An Anchor Windlass

Replacements are necessary when the windlass starts to make an unusual noise or when the gypsy simply doesn’t grip the chain any more or begins to jump off the gypsy’s tracks while in motion.

Because of the corrosive effect of seawater or simply rust caused by water and air, windlasses need to be replaced reasonably frequently.

A windlasses motor will eventually wear out due to extended or overloaded use. It operates under harsh conditions which most electrical equipment cannot survive.

Water is electrical and mechanical equipment’s worst enemy! Even so, windlass manufacturers still manage to create high quality products that do last for some time. This explains the high cost of a replacement windlass.

These are not products that you can skimp on. It’s not recommended to buy a used windlass as you will have no idea under which conditions it has been used.

Remember that windlasses to a difficult and important job so it’s good to replace them as soon as you suspect a problem. Waiting until it’s too late will leave you unable to deploy or raise anchor!

So whether you are looking to retire on a boat or just take one our for fun at the weekends, now you know everything there is to know about your anchor windlass.

How to Properly Use an Anchor Windlass [Video]

How to Properly Use an Anchor Windlass