Spring Cleaning for Your Ground Tackle

A claw anchor is a popular no-frills design for all sizes of offshore vessels.
A claw anchor is a popular no-frills design for all sizes of offshore vessels.
A claw anchor is a popular no-frills design for all sizes of offshore

This article is intended to be your annual checklist. If this is the first time you have inspected your ground tackle, then it will very likely require much more than an inspection.  Ground tackle includes your anchor, rode (chain/rope) and windlass with its accessories. Before relaunching or setting out for your first cruise of the new year, invest some time in inspecting your ground tackle and performing any maintenance and repairs that will ensure you will less likely suffer any failures and will sleep well at night.

Your primary anchor: if it is a one-piece design, simply look carefully for corrosion or metal fatigue cracks, which reveal themselves as thin lines of rust in the galvanized coating. If you find any items of concern, you will wisely condemn the anchor and purchase a replacement. If the anchor is rusty overall, it may be cost effective to have it re-galvanized. If your anchor has two or more parts, make sure no parts are loose, missing or damaged. Any fastenings with nyloc nuts? DO NOT reuse a nyloc nut as a locking nut since it will not lock securely on reuse. If you remove it, make sure to replace it with a new, unused nut. It would be wise to keep a spare nyloc nut or two aboard for replacements. Any bolts with cotter pins or safety wires must be carefully examined to ensure the cotter pins or safety wires are there and correctly installed. On the bow of your boat, have a look at your anchor rollers. Do the rollers revolve freely? If not, remove the axle bolts and clean any dirt or corrosion. An application of SuperLube on the axle bolts will get them rolling smoothly again. Are the axle bolts securely fastened? Remember not to reuse nyloc nuts.

Moving on to the rode—chain, rope or a combination of both. Attaching the rode to the anchor will be via a shackle, a swivel or a combination of both. Inspect for damage, corrosion and missing parts. The strongest galvanized shackles are the ones with the pins painted red. The shackle pin must be safety-wired to the shackle. Get a roll of stainless steel or Monel safety wire and keep it in your tool kit if you do not already have one aboard. Handy tip: form a very tight eye on each end of the safety wire when you cut it from the roll. A freshly cut wire end can inflict a nasty puncture wound.

Inspect the chain or rope by laying it out on the dock. Look carefully for worn links and degraded galvanizing in general.  Reversing (swapping end-for-end) the chain can add additional years of use. Chains usually can be re-galvanized at least once before losing strength. Repair links are available to join lengths of chain, but I am not comfortable with such devices because they are likely to be a weak link. If you have a rope/chain combination rode, inspect the rope/chain splice very carefully. They are strong if done properly. Rope rodes should not have any signs of chafe or torn strands. Renew/replace markers on your rode. We use colored nylon wire ties on our anchor chain, and they can easily be inserted into nylon rode. Some boaters mark their rode with paint, which is much harder to maintain than simple wire ties. The chain gypsy on the windlass chews the wire ties off occasionally, so we keep a bag of colored wire ties handy for instant replacement. This also causes us to inspect the chain more frequently than once a year.  Inspect any thimbles on your rope rode and replace them if necessary.

Chain rode should have a rope tail attached to the vessel in case you ever have to “cut and run.”  Make sure that the rope tail is long enough to reach your bow roller, as you do not want the hazard of a stressed chain flying across your bow. If you have time, you can tie a fender to the tail so you can retrieve that expensive anchor and chain.

Don’t forget to inspect your secondary anchor (and your dinghy anchor). We carry a Fortress anchor deployable either bow or stern and an eight-strand braided rope rode with 20 feet of chain. It’s light enough to load it all in the dinghy and carry it out to kedge us off (don’t ask how I know!) Eight-strand braided nylon rode is much easier to store and deploy as it does not kink or hackle as does three-strand nylon rode.

Rinse the chain or rope rode in fresh water and restow it when dry. It is a good idea to clean out your chain locker at this time. Be sure that the anchor locker drains properly. Remember to check on the condition of the eye bolt or whatever your rode tail is fastened to in the chain locker.

This CQR anchor has a swivel, which allows a wide radius of rotation without dislodging the anchor.
This CQR anchor has a swivel, which allows a wide radius of rotation without dislodging the anchor.

Next up is the anchor windlass: electric, hydraulic or manual, none are carefree, and they do require periodic maintenance. Download the owner’s manual and parts list from the internet.  Order a set of seals and O-rings as you will likely need them. Scrub with soap and fresh water and rinse thoroughly. Inspect carefully for corrosion, paying particular attention to the mounting bolts and the bolt that holds down the chain stripper. Stainless steel bolts and aluminum housings are a sure source of corrosion. Corrosion can be repaired with JBWeld if not too severe. (See photo).

We have had Lofrans Tigres electric windlasses on both of our boats. If you are purchasing new, then go for the plain aluminum anodized finish, as it is more durable than the white powder-coated finish. Lofrans recommends the lubricating oil be replaced every four years, and that is good advice for any make of windlass.

It will probably entail removing the windlass and pouring out the oil as there may be no drain plug. See the December 22, 2010, issue of Ocean Navigator for my article on servicing the Lofrans Tigres windlass. The information therein is generally applicable to all windlasses. You may have to remove the electric motor to change the oil, but first carefully label the wires. A photo or two is also a good idea. You will not want to work on the deck, as parts and tools are likely to end up overboard. Alternatively, you can surround the windlass with a cardboard box to limit the range of travel of fast-moving parts and tools!

Pour out the old oil into a container and inspect the oil for metal particles indicating wear or milky or cloudy oil indicating water intrusion. If any of the above is noted, then flush the windlass with fresh diesel or windlass oil, and refill with the recommended windlass oil, usually SAE 80 or 90 gear oil per your manufacturer’s recommendations.

Remove the chain gypsy and inspect the shaft. It is not unusual to find a distorted keyway in the soft, stainless steel shaft. This repair is a job for a machine shop. A larger keyway can be cut into the shaft and gypsy. The best practice (as I learned later) is to cut a second keyway at 90 degrees to the existing keyway. Or a new shaft can be purchased most likely at great cost and long delivery. Rotate the shaft and listen and feel for any roughness in the bearings. Clean the bearings in diesel fuel. Replace the bearings if they do not rotate smoothly. Never spin ball bearings with compressed air to clean them as this will damage their highly polished surfaces. If you remove the shaft, be sure to replace the oil seals.

The chain gypsy or rope drum on the windlass will have a ratchet and pawls, which will need cleaning and lubricating with grease. Superlube or white lithium grease will do the job.  Make sure that the pawls swivel freely and the tiny pawl springs are in place. 

Inspect the brushes in the electric motor. Pull on the leads and make sure the brushes move freely in their holders. The spring tension should be equal on all brushes. Brushes should be replaced when worn down to half the original length. (Call the windlass manufacturer’s support line and ask for the length of a new brush). Check the fastening screws for tightness.  Rotate the motor shaft and listen and feel for rough bearings. Replace if necessary. If this is beyond your skill set, an electric motor repair shop can do the job.

Remove any accumulated brush dust—compressed air makes this easy. Inspect the commutator for wear. Severe wear is evidenced by no remaining undercutting between the commutator bars. An electric motor repair shop can recondition your commutator. (Just don’t tell them it’s for a boat!)

When reassembling and installing the windlass, coat the cable terminals with silicone electronic grease. Pay particular attention to sealing the case over the electric motor. If there is a gasket, replace it with a new one or seal the cover to the case with silicone rubber gasket sealer.  If there are nylon bushings on the mounting bolts to the deck, replace these if they are worn or damaged. Seal the bolts with self-amalgamating electrical tape and apply a dab of silicone rubber (RTV) sealant, as the mounting bolts are prone to leakage.

I have no experience with hydraulic windlasses, but the same advice is applicable to these devices, with the exception of the hydraulic motor. An automatic transmission shop can probably remedy any problems with your hydraulic motor or pump. Inspect for signs of leaking hydraulic oil and chafed oil lines and hoses.

Manual windlasses require cleaning and lubrication. Inspect for corrosion and worn bearings. Inspect the chain gypsy for wear and replace if worn. A slipping chain is a real safety issue for you and for your boat. The small snap rings that keep the gypsy on the shaft tend to rust, so try to obtain stainless steel snap rings (circlips) if possible. Also, touch up the paint on your windlass if needed. Anything that will slow corrosion is always a good idea.

Inspect both foot switches for the windlass: are the covers serviceable? Are the rubber boots intact? Are the cables corrosion-free and securely attached to the switches? If you have a hand-held wireless or wired controller, give it a thorough inspection. The insulation on the coiled wire on the wired remotes tend to degrade over time, so inspect and replace as necessary. Also inspect the deck plug and socket for corrosion or damage. Replace the batteries in the wireless controller at this time.  

The heavy-duty relay that controls the windlass is the weakest link in the system, based on our experience. The relay contacts oxidize and wear over time. If your windlass begins to require more than one press of the switch, then it’s probably time to replace the relay box.  Inspect the windlass switches at your helm station and replace if necessary. Follow the cables from the relay box to the circuit breaker. Check the cable nuts for corrosion and proper tightening. Continue to the batteries, checking for security and corrosion. Service your batteries and replace them if necessary.

One final bit of advice: never fasten your anchor snubber to your windlass, even if it has a cleat on it. The aluminum housing is not strong enough to withstand the strain imposed by a proper blow. Install a chain lock between the windlass and bow roller. Always tie off your anchor snubber to a fixed cleat or Sampson post. Use three-part nylon line for your snubber, as it will stretch under strain unlike double braid line, which will shock-load your anchor and likely dislodge it. n