Tech Transformations No. 2: The Power Windlass

Oh My Poor Back!

by Nigel Calder

When we were children, for the annual family holiday at Overstrand, in Norfolk, we’d take the (steam) train from Newbury to Paddington, and then from King’s Cross to Norwich and Cromer. My parents had a large trunk, which got manhandled in and out of taxis by various porters. On one occasion the porter taped on a conspicuous note which read: “Oh my poor back”! Having ruptured a couple of discs while working on oil rigs in the 1980’s, I know just how he felt.

I messed my back up while Terrie (my wife) and I were building our first sailboat – a 39-foot Colin Archer style double ender. This boat had a Simpson Lawrence SL 555 manual anchor windlass which, while an excellent piece of kit, for ever after gave me a severe back ache, so we got into the practice of Terrie operating the windlass while I drove the boat.

On one occasion, we were attempting to enter the uncharted Rio Lagartos on the north coast of Mexico’s Yucatan peninsula. We had heard there were tens of thousands of flamingoes further up the river. We ran aground. By poling around, we determined that the bar at the mouth of the river was only a few inches shallower than our draft, so decided to drag ourselves over with the windlass. Terrie had an extremely fit girlfriend, Susan, on board. Clyde, Susan’s boyfriend, and I relaxed in the cockpit and left them to it.

A boat load of macho Mexican fishermen came by. They were scandalized by this sight, and without asking jumped aboard, ordered the ladies aside, and started cranking with great vigor. Ten minutes or so later they were worn out. With sheepish grins, they climbed down into their boat and took off. Terrie and Susan finished the job and we got to see the flamingoes, and what a treat that was.

A year or so later, we put together the funds to replace the manual windlass with our first electric windlass, and reversed the anchoring roles, with Terrie on the helm and me on the buttons. We had bought the windlass to ease the physical work of anchoring, but found it also had another, tremendously beneficial, effect.

Whereas before the physical effort required to set the anchor and pull it back up would make us reluctant to do this more than once, and as a result we would accept an uncertain set and then spend a sleepless night worrying about the anchor dragging, with the electric winch we had no qualms about re-anchoring until we were confident the anchor was fully dug in. On one occasion in Nassau harbour, where the holding is poor, we set the anchor seven times before we felt comfortable.

This windlass came to a tragic end. We were exploring the uncharted waters of Roatan, in the Bay Islands of Honduras, for a ‘Cruising Guide to the Northwest Caribbean’ that I was writing. We were in a channel in an isolated part of the island where we had been told there was lots of water. We ran aground. By this time, we had the kedging routine down to a fine art. We could launch the dinghy, set the kedge anchor aft, and winch the bow around and off, without saying a word to each other (in the course of writing the guide, we ran aground over 40 times). The children, who were quite young at the time, had learned to go below and keep out of Mummy and Daddy’s way until we were done!

This grounding was rather harder than most. The first sign of trouble was the windlass seeming to lose power, and then it died altogether. It was about then that the first smoke began to make its way up through the fore hatch, with the characteristic odor of burned electrical windings (once smelled, never forgotten). We had completely fried the windlass. It could be manually operated, but only with considerable difficulty and effort.

We replaced this windlass with a rather expensive, more-or-less hand built, Lighthouse 1501 that the manufacturer claims cannot be burned up by any amount of abuse. Since then, we’ve had two more boats, and put one of these windlasses on each boat, and subjected all of them to considerable abuse, without cooking a motor. We’ll have one on the next boat.

The last boat also had electric genoa sheet winches. The next will extend this to include an electric halyard winch. These labor-saving devices have enabled me to keep sailing with my bad back, and will continue to empower me until I am too feeble to press the buttons. Although not particularly high tech, I would put them somewhere near the top of my list of exciting technological changes over the past 40 years.

Note: most windlass manufacturers state that their products should not be used for kedging, so please don’t take this article as an endorsement of the practice!

By Ocean Navigator