An electric anchor windlass is a standard piece of gear on a power voyaging yacht. One of its great advantages — other than pulling up the anchor for you — is that it requires practically no periodic maintenance other than an occasional fresh water rinse, and in the longer term, an oil change. But even though it is likely one of the more reliable machines on your power voyaging boat, you should still know how to perform basic winch maintenance. After all, when you need to reset your anchor at oh-dark thirty when the wind is howling, you certainly want it to work properly.
But before you tear into your windlass, do yourself a big favor and order a replacement seal kit for your particular windlass. The Internet will provide sources of parts, and also drawings or diagrams of your windlass. While this article is specific to the Lofrans Tigres windlass we own, it is of general use, as most electric windlasses follow the same general construction.
Lofrans recommends that the lubricating oil be changed every four years, and that’s where the fun begins. There’s no drain plug, only a filler hole and a sight glass for the oil level. To remove the old oil, the windlass must be unbolted from its mounting on the foredeck and physically inverted to pour out the oil through the fill hole. While going to that amount of effort, removing the electric motor to inspect the brushes and drive gear is relatively easy, and also a wise thing to do. Be sure to pour out the oil before unbolting the motor, lest the oil come out with the motor! Collect the old oil and inspect it carefully for metal particles or water. If the oil is cloudy, then you have a water problem.
Label the wires
Three bolts hold the motor to the windlass housing, and the three electric cables are easily removed from the motor. You will wisely label the wires before removing them. Inspect the brushes and commutator for excess wear, and clean out the carbon dust as best you can. Gently pull each brush lead to ensure that the brush moves easily in its holder. The spring tension should be uniform on all four brushes. Treat any corrosion noted. Check the motor shaft for excessive play indicating worn out bearings. Inspect the gear on the end of the shaft for excessive wear or chipped teeth.
Remove the chain gypsy and set it aside for a good cleaning. It’s probably held on with a circlip (snap ring) or two. If these are rusty or damaged, replace them with stainless steel circlips. Look for replacements at auto part stores or stores that specialize in bearings and seals — they probably can supply your seals and O-rings, also. Buy an extra set for spares.
The first time that I serviced our windlass, I found that the shaft key that fits in the chain gypsy drive cones had almost torn out of the keyway in the relatively soft stainless steel shaft. (I admit to overloading the anchor windlass when we fouled our anchor in coral in the Tuamotus in the South Pacific.) The local machine shop agreed to machine the shaft for the next largest key, and also to cut a second keyway in the shaft and gypsy drive cones on the opposite side of the shaft from the original keyway. This modification has proved to be trouble-free for 10 years, and is certainly worth considering for your windlass.
Ball bearing supports
The shaft is supported by two ball bearings that should last forever, unless salt water has reached them. Gently clean them with a solvent such as WD-40 or clean diesel fuel, and rotate them slowly while feeling and listening for rough spots. NEVER spin a ball bearing with compressed air! You may as well drop it in the sand — the long term effects are about the same.
• Replace the oil seals, even if they do not show signs of leaking. They are not expensive and should be replaced if at all possible.
• Inspect the shaft gear for signs of excessive wear, chipped teeth, etc.
• Remove the rope capstan and inspect it for wear as you did the chain gypsy.
• Inspect the windlass housing for signs of cracks, and for corrosion especially around the bolts on the chain stripper and on the pawl bolt. These two areas are problematic as the housing is aluminum, the bolts are stainless steel, and they are regularly saturated with saltwater. If the corrosion is not too severe, it can be repaired with J-B Weld or Marine-Tex or an equivalent two-part epoxy material. The original chain stripper on our windlass tends to bend, requiring occasional adjustment. I ordered a new one, with the idea to install it next to the original one to obtain double thickness and hopefully double strength. I was pleasantly surprised to find that the new chain stripper was almost twice as thick as the original. Our windlass had a white powder coating when purchased. Starting anew, a better choice would have been the clear anodized finish as it is much more durable and thus less prone to chipping and corrosion. We had our windlass housing treated for corrosion and repainted during this last service.
Lubricate the new O-rings
Reassemble the windlass in the reverse order of disassembly, carefully replacing the various O-rings and oil seals. Lubricate the new O-rings and oil seals with oil prior to assembly. Place the ball bearings in a plastic bag in your freezer for a half hour to shrink them a bit and thus make them easier to install.
Clean the threads of all of the bolts before reassembling the windlass. Replace any rusted or damaged fasteners. Use an anti-corrosive treatment such as Duralac on all mating surfaces of dissimilar metals. The mounting bolts for the windlass should be isolated from the windlass with insulating bushings.
When we replaced our previous windlass, we found the right rear mounting bolt on the new windlass was directly over the chain pipe — definitely a big problem. An elegant solution to this serious installation problem was to fabricate a mounting plate of 10mm thick aluminum. The mounting bolt was inserted from below the plate and a dab of epoxy kept it from turning, as it was then beyond the reach of a wrench. The other three mounting bolts were installed from above and terminated in backing plates under the foredeck. This idea, or some variation of it, may serve you well on your next windlass installation.
After reconnecting the power cables, coat the terminals with silicone grease to prevent corrosion. Seal the power cable opening in the windlass housing with RTV silicone sealant. Pay particular attention to the bolts that hold the motor housing in place, as they are prone to leak. Self-amalgamating electrical tape wrapped around the bolts at the point of contact with the interior of the housing, followed by a dab of RTV silicone sealant over the nuts and washers on the outside should prove to be watertight.
Check the windlass control box and remote control for signs of corrosion before returning the windlass to service. Oh, and don’t forget to fill the windlass with lubricating oil. Most windlasses use heavy gear oil, SAE 80 or SAE 90. Mark your calendar to do all of this again in four years.
Harry Hungate and his wife Jane Lothrop are long-time liveaboards having voyaged since 1997. They are currently cruising in the Mediterranean.