Ensure that heavy usage and harsh conditions don’t wear out this valuable workhorse over time
No one thinks about the anchor windlass unless it’s not working, and then there’s a heavy price to pay: someone has to manually deploy or haul up the anchor. While an anchor windlass is designed to require minimal maintenance, this laborsaving machine functions best with regular TLC. The anchor windlass design is simple, and manual-, electric and hydraulic-power models are available. The electrically powered windlass is most common for Southern Boating readers. Vertical windlass designs have the electric motor and rope/chain gypsy (the chain wheel that the chain and rope roll up on) installed in a compartment just below deck on the bow, while horizontal designs have the entire lifting assembly mounted on the bow and covered for protection. An electrical windlass allows the anchor line to pay out at a controlled speed when you are ready to deploy your anchor. When you’re ready to haul the anchor up, you hit the switch and the electric motor hauls in your chain and anchor.
Common sense dictates that you keep the rope and chain free of debris every time you haul up the anchor. That means you may have to raise and lower the anchor several times at a short distance to loosen debris, or spray it down as the rope and chain come up. Use fresh water if possible to spray down the rope and chain. If you are on a muddy bottom you don’t want a lot of sand and mud running over the roller and into the anchor locker.
Problems can arise over time due to corrosion within the electric motor and gearbox. “A lot of problems that people have with their windlasses could be avoided if they did basic maintenance,” says Will Vrooman, sales manager for Maxwell America, a leading windlass manufacturer. “However, if you do a 15-minute clean and greasing of your clutch cones twice a year on your windlass, no matter where you are in the world, you will be fine.”
For semi-annual vertical windlass maintenance, disassemble and wipe down the windlass components on the top deck and inspect for damage. Take the gypsy off the windlass, wipe grease on it and put it back together. Down below, perform a visual inspection of the gearbox and the motor for corrosion and make sure the connections are sound, and then spray everything with a corrosion inhibitor. Electric windlasses are designed to work without power. If you lose power and need to set the anchor, you should be able to release the clutch and free fall the ground tackle down and anchor the boat. “However, if you don’t grease the clutch cones regularly, the chain wheel may not spin, because it is stuck with debris that has accumulated,” Vrooman explains. “That is why you want to service this twice a year. The first time you perform this service will take a little longer—it’s a learning curve. After that it won’t take long and you’ll use about 50 cents worth of grease. Your owner’s manual will show you how to do this, and if you don’t have an owner’s manual, contact the manufacturer and get one.”
If you don’t use your windlass often, it’s still important to run the windlass up and down once a month to circulate the grease in the casing. Over periods of non-use, grease will settle and that could cause the gears to dry out. It’s especially important to test the windlass if the boat has been idle for a long period and you are about to go on a trip. You want to be sure that the windlass will work when you need it. Horizontal windlasses require less maintenance, however, boat owners should inspect the gearbox and spray down the components with a corrosion inhibitor once per year.
How boat owners use their windlass can also affect its performance and longevity. The windlass is designed to raise and lower the anchor, and the key factors to installing the proper size windlass are the type of ground tackle (either a combination of rope and chain, or all chain), anchor weight and the size of the boat. However, in emergency situations the windlass may be used to move the boat out of danger. If the engine is running, it’s prudent to use engine power to break lose an anchor rather than the electric windlass.
When all power is lost, the anchor can be deployed manually by releasing the clutch and allowing the anchor to free fall. In most cases you will manually deploy the anchor, figure out the power problem and then electrically power the anchor back up. However, well-designed windlasses come with a handle crank that you can fit into the gypsy so you can manually raise the anchor if that situation arises.
“A well-maintained windlass should provide 20 years of service,” Vrooman claims. “I have customers with 20-year-old windlasses that work well because they have taken care of them. But at some point it may be better for some boat owners to just change out the windlass rather than add a part.”
Lewmar and Maxwell are the two top windlass manufacturers for boats in North America. Quick Nautical Equipment, an Italian manufacturer, also offers high-quality windlasses. Costs range from $500 to $5,000 depending on the size and type.
By Doug Thompson, Southern Boating September 2013