Anchor windlass refit

Replacing an anchor windlass involves choosing the right model for the size of your boat and your ground tackle and then ensuring that the unit is supplied with sufficient power to do its job. I recently had to replace the windlass on Bonne Etoile, my 46-foot Irwin ketch. The Galley Maid vertical-shaft, warping-drum windlass fitted on the boat had served me well for the more than 18 years since the boat was built, but it had succumbed to the ravages of age, use, and numerous baths in salt water.

Powered windlasses for boats less than about 65 feet in length are usually driven by DC electric motors. Windlasses on larger vessels are typically hydraulically powered. While most electric-powered units operated from a 12-volt DC supply, the larger units may require 24-volt DC power. Most windlass motors are reversible, enabling both power-operated pay-out and retrieval of the anchor rode. Using power to deploy a chain rode is very desirable. Manual deployment of a chain rode, using the clutch on the windlass, is potentially dangerous if control of drag on the gypsy is not done with care. In other words, keep your fingers and feet well clear of the chain at all times.

Motors will be of two types: permanent-magnet or series-wound types, with the latter predominating in the larger 12-volt and virtually all of the 24-volt units. The superior stall and low-speed torque of the series-wound motor is advantageous in a windlass. Permanent-magnet motors usually have only two electrical terminals while series-wound motors will have one negative terminal and two positive terminals, one for each direction of rotation. The speed at which a windlass can retrieve a rode under load varies with the amount of power available from the driving motor and the gear ratio chosen by the designer. Most windlasses will haul in between 40 and 60 feet of rode per minute and deploy chain at similar rates.

Regardless of the type of motor used, the motor or the electrical supply system can, of course, fail. Because of this, any powered windlass must have a means for manual operation. The manual system need not be fast, but it must be foolproof.

Windlasses are usually classified according to the force they can exert on the rode. Power sufficient to lift three times the combined weight of the rode and anchor will likely be sufficient and will provide the safety margin needed when you violate the rule against using the windlass to move the boat or to trip a well-set anchor.

The rotating, line-handling portion of the windlass is called the gypsy. It may be designed to handle three-strand line, a combination of line and chain, or only chain. Regardless of which type of rode is used, for proper operation, the gypsy must precisely match the rode.

Choosing a rode/windlass combo

Choosing the type of rode to use is a necessary first decision in selecting a windlass. Combination chain/rope rode anchoring systems have become quite popular. They offer a number of advantages when compared to either all-rope (except for a short chain leader) or all-chain systems. A nylon rope rode is light in weight and low in cost, and it offers superior shock absorption. It is easy on the hands if it must be hauled on board by hand. However, ropes’ susceptibility to abrasion, especially when anchoring in areas of coral, can be a cause for concern. A combination rope/chain rode can be handled by a specially designed gypsy, making automatic retrieval and stowage of a rope rode practical. The combination rode can use a substantial length of chain, reducing the chance of the rode being damaged by anything on the bottom, while retaining the advantages of rope for the remainder of the system. As always, there are trade-offs. The combination rope/chain system brings with it possible disadvantages in durability and operating reliability. The rope must be spliced directly into the chain. Although splicing techniques have been developed that retain most of the strength of the rope, with time, the flexing of the chain may degrade the strength of the system. Sailors have a strong tendency to believe in the visible brute strength of an all-chain rode and may be put off by the rope/chain splice. The possibility of the rope portion of the rode slipping in the gypsy due to rope wear or because of contamination by oil or other material absorbed from the water may also cause concern.

Electrically powered windlasses are available in either vertical or horizontal styles. Either type may have a chain gypsy or both a chain gypsy and a separate drum, similar to that found on a sheet winch. The drum is used with rope, either an anchor rode or as a warping drum when used with a dock line. As noted, some gypsies can handle both chain and rope. Vertical shaft windlasses are compact, taking up little space on the often-congested foredeck. Much of their bulk, the motor and gearbox, is belowdeck, where on most boats it occupies space in the chain locker. Horizontal shaft windlasses, on the other hand, are entirely abovedeck. They occupy more deck space but cause no loss of chain locker space. The electric motors of either type can be well protected from damaging water intrusion. The flow of chain from the gypsy into the chain locker may be a bit smoother with a horizontal windlass since the chain need not change direction as it drops from the gypsy.

A practical example

The choice of windlass for the Bonne Etoile was based on an anchoring system composed of 260 feet of 5/16-inch high-tensile chain weighing 286 pounds and a 45-pound CQR anchor, for a total weight of 331 pounds. A windlass capable of pulling at least 1,000 pounds would meet the 3:1 safety factor. Chain locker considerations were paramount, particularly a sufficient drop distance and space sufficient to ensure that the chain will stow neatly, were paramount.

With adequate deck space at the bow and with reliable chain stowage a priority, I selected a Lofrans Tigress, a horizontal, on-deck windlass. Equipped with a series-wound, 1,000-watt (1.34 hp) reversible motor, it is rated for a maximum load of 1,385 pounds and will pull 54 feet of rode per minute at a working load of 220 pounds (equal to the 45-pound anchor plus 160 feet of chain). This windlass has its chain gypsy on the starboard side, with a warping drum to port. A long, heavy, manual operating lever can be inserted into a receptacle on the port side should manual operation be necessary. The windlass was ordered with a gypsy suitable for 5/16-inch high-tensile chain. The choice of 5/16-inch, grade 40, high-tensile galvanized chain was based on its balance of strength (3,900 pound working load), weight (110 pounds per 100 feet), and cost (not cheap!).

A 260-foot length of chain was ordered on the basis that a scope of 5:1 would be available for water depths up to 50 feet. The previous anchor rode, 350 feet of 3/4-inch nylon braid, was retained and could be fastened to the end of the chain should anchoring in deeper water be necessary.

Weight in the ends is always a consideration in a boat. The net increase in weight of the new windlass and chain compared with the old machine and nylon rode would be about 160 pounds. Given the buoyancy of the bow section of the boat, this weight increase will not be noticeable, although there will be some increase in pitching moment.

The first order of business was to remove the old windlass. One of the most valuable tools for this purpose was a can of Kroil, a super solvent for separating frozen parts. With liberal applications of Kroil, a bit of prying, and blows from a mallet, the drum of the Galley Maid came free, followed by the massive deck plate. Getting the large motor/gear box out of the chain locker was challenging and required a donation of the usual amount of blood. It appeared that the windlass was likely installed on the deck before the deck was fastened to the hull.

With the deck clear, the holes left from the old windlass were filled with a mixture of fiberglass roving and polyester resin. Fortunately, the mounting holes for the new windlass would pass through a previously undisturbed area of the deck. The deck structure was carefully examined and it was determined that it needed no reinforcement to withstand the loads that would be imposed by the new windlass. A substantial aluminum backing plate was made to match the bolt-hole pattern of the new windlass.

Preparation of the chain locker included cleaning out the accumulated debris and washing the interior, with special attention to the limber holes through which water drains into the bilge. Enough water was run through to ensure that nothing would work loose and block the water flow aft. Regardless of how carefully the chain is attended to on retrieval, anchoring with chain always increases the chance of bringing mud into the chain locker. It is worthwhile to assume that an occasional freshwater deluge into the chain locker will become a part of normal boatkeeping.

Mounting the new windlass

The new windlass must be aligned with the bow roller to make sure that the rode will run true to the gypsy. The elevation of the windlass must be checked to make sure that the rode will not drag on any part of the bow structure. The windlass is secured to the deck with stainless steel bolts, secured with flat and lock washers and hex nuts on the underside. Using large-diameter backing washers or a single backing plate encompassing the entire base area of the windlass is recommended. The bolts need to be tightened sufficiently to make certain that there will be no movement when a maximum load is imposed on the deck from the windlass. The windlass-to-deck joint should be sealed, preferably using a marine grade of silicone rubber. Don’t use a bonding adhesive such as 3M 5200. At some future time you may want to remove the windlass, and breaking a 5200 adhesive bond can be difficult. Be sure that the deck area where the windlass is mounted is either solid laminate or, if cored, that the core material is mechanically sound marine plywood. If the area is cored with any type of plastic foam it will have to be routed out and a solid filler installed. Holes in other than solid laminate should be sealed with resin to limit the chance of water penetration.

Provision must be made to secure the anchor in its stowed position. A taut chain to the gypsy is not a satisfactory means for holding the anchor in place when at sea. Depending on the design of the bow of the boat it may be possible to lash the anchor in place, or one of the anchor locking devices listed in supply catalogs can be used. Regardless of how it is done, consider that the bow may well become buried in a wave and that substantial forces will be exerted on the anchor. A loose anchor on the bow is not a happy prospect under any conditions, and is less so in a storm.

Power to the windlass

To operate properly, an electric windlass must be supplied with a fully adequate source of energyin this case, 12 volts at up to 100 amperes. Power for the factory-installed windlass was supplied from the main electrical panel, over a distance of more then 40 feet, with 1/0 cables. At full load, the new windlass could draw as much as 100 amps, resulting in a voltage drop in excess of 0.8 volts, about 6% of normal supply voltage. Following my usual desire for bullet-proof systems, I decided to install an additional 12-volt, group size 27, deep-cycle battery, close to the windlass in the forward cabin. The appeal of this approach compared with running new or additional battery cables back to the main panel was twofold. The additional battery would be close enough to the windlass to ensure minimal voltage drop even at full current drain, and when desired the extra battery would be a useful addition to the house battery bank. There was sufficient space for a battery box beneath a settee in the forward cabin. The new battery was connected via a disconnect switch so that it can be isolated from the house bank when desired. The difficulty in running additional battery cables through much of the length of the boat to the main panel also argued in favor of the extra battery choice. (From my viewpoint, boats should be required to have six-inch-by-eight-inch wiring raceways running from bow to stern with branches to port and starboard every four feet!) The windlass motor will be a happy camper with its source of energy so close by.

There are times, especially when singlehanding, when being able to control the boat and the anchor simultaneously can change a fire drill into a graceful example of superior boat handling. The use of an all-chain rode makes remote control of deployment and retrieval of the anchor simple. Two-foot switches installed on the foredeck provide local control. A control switch in the cockpit will allow the exercise to be done without leaving the helm. The flow of high current to the windlass motor is through a power-control unit, which, in the case of a bi-directional windlass, contains two high-current relays. The power relay controls require very little current, allowing the use of small-diameter electrical wire (no. 18 AWG) and small control switches. The cockpit remote control was fabricated using a plastic enclosure and two switches.

Unintended operation of any powered windlass is always undesirable. Accordingly, the deck-mounted foot-operated control switches have covers that must be opened to gain access to the switch element. The cockpit control was built with a single center-off, momentary toggle switch that is moved toward the bow to deploy the anchor and toward the stern for retrieval. An additional, push-button safety switch, normally off, must be held in a depressed position to enable operation of the cockpit control switch.

Being able to control the windlass from the cockpit is a pleasure; however, it is always desirable to know how much chain has been veered when anchoring. The marking of anchor chain has always been a bit of a pain. Paint wears off. Plastic wire ties get chewed up on the gypsy. Bits of yarn fall off. Beside which, none of these markers could be seen from the cockpit. A cockpit-mounted chain-run display would solve the problem.

It was obvious that counting gypsy revolutions would provide the desired “chain deployed” information. The amount of chain deployed with 10 revolutions of the gypsy was carefully measured. Each revolution delivered 1.09 feet of chain to the bow roller. A remote reading revolution sensor was needed. The sensor would have to withstand whatever came over the bow of the boat, including the occasional saltwater deluge. The environment, coupled with the close fit between the chain gypsy and the body of the windlass ruled out mechanical and optical sensors. A magnetic sensor, using a hall-effect device, might work if it could be protected from the environment and made to fit within the 3/16-inch clearance between the inner face of the gypsy and the windlass casting.

Fortunately, quite powerful rare-earth magnets are available in sizes as small as 1/8 inch diameter and 1/16 inch thick. One of these magnets was epoxied into a hole drilled into the inner face of the gypsy, near the perimeter. The hall-effect sensor, 1/16 inch thick, 1/8 inch long and 3/16 inch wide was encapsulated in filled epoxy resin, with three no. 24 AWG stranded insulated wires protected within a length of shrink tubing. After some experimentation, the encapsulated hall-effect sensor was bonded with adhesive to the exterior of the windlass housing within the gap between the housing and the inner face of the gypsy.

A small plastic junction box, housing an integrated circuit voltage regulator that provides five volts for operation of the sensor, was mounted belowdeck. Two three-conductor cables were run aft to the steering pedestal, on which the windlass control/chain run display was mounted.

Preventing accidental use

It is important to ensure that the windlass would operate only when turned on. The foot switches on the foredeck bulwark have covers to prevent accidental operation of the windlass. Two switches must be operated simultaneously at the cockpit control station to power the windlass. A two-position, center-off, momentary toggle switch is moved forward to deploy chain and aft to recover chain. Power for this directional control switch flows through a normally open push-button switch adjacent to the directional control switch. Two separate actions are required to actuate the windlass, reducing the likelihood of accidental operation.

The cockpit-located chain-run display consists of a commercial five-digit LCD counter module. Two of the five digits will never change from zero since even 999 feet of chain (last three digits’ worth) would weigh almost 1,100 pounds, a bit too much to stow in the chain locker. This amount of chain would seriously affect the fore and aft trim of the boat if it were on board and, at a hauling rate of about 50 feet per minute, would require about 20 minutes to recover the anchor.

The use of the five-digit counter was justified by its low cost, less than $16.00. The counter is powered by a single AA alkaline cell, which, given the microampere current drain of the counter, will have to be replaced about every two years. A momentary push-button switch located adjacent to the windlass control switches is used to reset the counter. The remote control/display package is housed in a plastic box, mounted on the side of the steering pedestal. The three switches were placed on the bottom of the box to minimize the chance of damage from saltwater spray. The steel screws supplied with the box were replaced with stainless fasteners, and the edges of the cover were coated with a thin film of RTV sealant before it was closed.

Anchoring with the all-chain rode does impose a requirement absent when using rope. Depending on the nature of the bottom, the chain will come on board complete with all types of stuff, much of which you really don’t want on deck and especially do not want deposited in the chain locker. The most effective way to clean the chain when it surfaces with an unappetizing coating is a combination of a brush and a strong flow of water. A commercial gadget, the Gunk Buster, can be slipped over the chain beyond the bow roller. Its two sets of plastic bristle brushes will help remove stuff from the chain as it is retrieved. The cleaning device can be hung from a line so that it is just above the water. A lead weight tied to its bottom end will keep it in place so that it can do its cleaning job. A deck wash-down pump can be used to advantage, either with a hand-held nozzle or by fastening the end of the hose to the chain cleaner. Regardless of how it is done, get the chain clean before it disappears down the little hole under the gypsy. The ultimate in chain cleaning was standard operating procedure on a friend’s 88-foot boat. The chain was brushed, washed with a stream of salt water from an engine-driven high-pressure pump, and then rinsed off with fresh water from the vessel’s reverse-osmosis watermaker supply. All of this cleaning was particularly appreciated, since the chain had to be hand-stacked in the chain locker.

Contributing editor Chuck Husick is a sailor, pilot, and Ocean Navigator staff instructor.

By Ocean Navigator