What can a windlass do for you?
As boats become larger, the size of their anchors increases to a point where they cannot be raised or “weighed” by hand. For most boaters, the solution is not to downsize their boat or use inadequate ground tackle, but to install a windlass. Windlasses reduce the effort required to raise or lower your anchor and rode through electrical power, or by adding mechanical advantage to your muscle power.
Windlasses are powered by one of three methods: manually (muscle power), electrically or hydraulically. This discussion concentrates on electric and manual windlasses, as hydraulic windlasses are generally used on very large boats.
Where are windlasses installed?
Windlasses are generally mounted in the center of a boat’s foredeck, aligned with an anchor roller of some sort. Most boats have an anchor roller/mount that stores the windlass when not in use. Some boats store the anchor in chocks or a locker on deck. All boats using a windlass need a roller to pass the anchor rode smoothly over the rail of the boat.
Should I choose a vertical or horizontal windlass?
Windlasses are categorized as horizontal or vertical. In order to decide which one you need, measure the depth of the anchor locker to determine the amount of “fall” available (the distance between the top of the anchor locker and the top of the anchor rode when it is completely stored inside). This is the most important measurement you’ll need to help decide which style to select.
The capstan of a vertical windlass rotates on a vertical axis. Vertical windlasses generally require a larger hole for the motor, which hangs below the deck. Suitable for boats with larger chain lockers; they require a larger fall for the chain. The rode makes a full 180° wrap around the gypsy, providing added security, and feeds through a deck pipe to the anchor locker, making a 90° turn.
Most of a self-contained horizontal windlass is located on deck. You only need to drill holes in the deck for the chain pipe, electrical wire and thru-bolts. Installation is easier than with vertical windlasses. Horizontal windlasses are good for boats with small or unusually-shaped chain lockers, usually needing a minimum fall of just 12". The anchor rode enters the gypsy and makes a 90° turn as it feeds down into the locker. Very large yacht windlasses and most manual windlasses are horizontal. Side-to-side alignment with the bow roller is critical, since horizontal windlasses cannot accept rodes leading from off-center angles.
It is important to match the windlass not only to the boat type, but to the rode as well. This applies to both the size and type of chain, so a windlass gypsy designed for 5/16" High Test Chain will not work with 5/16" BBB, which has shorter, more compact links. Many windlasses have a selection of gypsies, which can be Special Ordered to fit the existing rode on your boat.
What is “pulling power?”
Pulling power is the rated load a windlass will handle before its breaker will trip. Windlasses are not intended to pull a boat upwind against a 25-knot wind and 2' chop with the engine in neutral. They are also not designed to break a heavy anchor out of 3' of hard sand. Instead, they are designed to weigh an anchor and rode that is not under strain and to provide enough tension to help break out a firmly set anchor. But as any text on the subject will tell you, it is the engine’s power that should be used to move the boat upwind and it is the motion of the boat that should break out the anchor—not the windlass.
For more help on how to select an anchor windlass, see our West Advisor article Selecting an Anchor Windlass. For help with selecting an anchor rode, see Selecting an Anchor Rode. For help with windlass installation, see Installing an Anchor Windlass.