10 Practical Tips for Using a Windlass

In this article, Karl Pentin, Director of equipment specialists, Safety Marine, looks at what you should bear in mind when choosing, installing, and using an anchor windlass. 

1. When should you Use a Windlass?
Hauling up your anchor can be heavy work. On a slippery or pitching bow or foredeck, it can also be quite dangerous. A windlass gives you a mechanical advantage and takes the strain off your back and hands, allowing you to recover your anchor safely.
2. Manual, Electric or Hydraulic?
  • With a manual windlass, you provide the power. Most manual windlass are operated with a handle and are geared to offer the user a mechanical advantage. You generally just rock the handle in a forwards and backwards motion, and the gears crank the anchor chain upwards.  However, this can become tiring and requires the operator to be perched on the foredeck. Manual windlass are typically less expensive and are easier to install than electric models as they simply need to be bolted onto the deck. They also make a good alternative for sailors who have limited battery power.
  • Electric windlasses are wired into the boat’s electrical system and are operated by deck-mounted foot switches, remote controls or panel-mounted toggle switches. The electric motors make anchor retrieval quick work with a minimum of effort. Modern electric windlass are very efficient, and use a minimum of electrical power. There are models suitable for even the smallest boats.
  • Hydraulic windlass are usually found on larger vessels that have a suitable integral hydraulic system. Hydraulic windlass are typically not cost-effective as stand-alone systems, but can be very effective when combined with other equipment such as bow and stern thrusters or rope winches in a boat-wide hydraulics package. They should really be installed by professional engineers.

3. Vertical or Horizontal Windlass?
There are two basic types of anchor windlass – vertical and horizontal.

  • Vertical windlass place the chain gypsy (and optional rope drum) on a vertical drive shaft above the gearbox and motor, which are mounted below the deck.
  • Horizontal models mount the chain gypsy (and optional rope drum) on either side of an on-deck housing, which usually contains both the motor and gearbox as well.

So which is best?

  • Both can feature an optional rope drum that can be independently used to handle mooring lines during docking procedures or secondary anchors with rope-based rodes.
  • Vertical windlass take up less deck space and allow for effective retrieval and automatic stowage of rope/chain combinations. They usually look very sleek and sculpted offering better aesthetics on modern yachts and motor cruisers.

Vertical Windlass

  • Horizontal windlass are much quicker and easier to install on top of the deck and do not intrude into the cabin space below.

4. Should you Use a Combination Rope/Chain or all Chain?
Rope/chain rodes reduce the overall weight of the rode and are less expensive than an equivalent all-chain rode. A rope/chain rode should be inspected on a regular basis for any signs of wear and the splice from rope to chain must be done by a professional so the join does not get jammed in the gypsy. You should really have a minimum of 10m of chain on a combination rope/chain rode, with 50% rope to chain being the best compromise between weight and cost.

All-chain anchor rodes are typically used by longer-distance cruisers and in deep water anchorages.  All-chain rodes allow for shorter scope, are more durable, and offer reassuring positive control in all anchoring situations.

5. Where should you Mount your Windlass?
With either type of windlass, it should normally be mounted on the vessel’s centre line with the chain in alignment from the chain gypsy through the bow roller to straight ahead in the water.

The chain (or rope) should NOT enter the gypsy at an angle from either side and NOT from a downward angle either, especially with vertical windlass. This is a common mistake which occurs if a windlass is poorly mounted in an anchor locker below deck. The chain passes over the bow roller and then has to angle downwards into the locker to the windlass. Here, the windlass should be mounted on a wedge-shaped plinth to allow the entry of the rope or chain to be as near horizontal with the plane of the gypsy as possible.

6. What About Anchor Lockers?
The location and depth of an anchor locker are important elements in a windlass installation.
When the rode is completely in the anchor locker, the top of the anchor rode pile should be a minimum of 30cm (12 inches) below the underside of the deck to allow smooth, uninterrupted deployment. This also helps to prevent blockages from piled up rope/chain during recovery.
The anchor windlass should also be positioned so that the chain and rope feed through the windlass deck plate or hawse pipe, and then fall vertically into the anchor locker with gravity.
7. What Type of Chain Do I Need?

The way to tell is to measure the pitch of the chain link – the pitch is the inside length of each link if it is lying on one of its longer sides.

  • Size:  There are a variety of different size chains available.  The most common sizes supplied across Europe are 6mm, 8mm, 10mm and 12mm. The size refers to the thickness (or diameter) of each link if it were sawn in half.
  • Calibration: It is also important to be aware of calibration. There are two main calibration standards supplied in Europe, DIN766 and ISO. The majority of chain gypsies fitted by European windlass manufacturers in the 6mm and 8mm sizes are supplied in the DIN766 calibration.  However, for 10mm, some manufacturers supply the gypsies in the ISO calibration which has a slightly different-sized link than DIN766.
The most common chain sizes and pitches supplied in Europe are as follows.
• 6mm diameter, pitch 19mm, DIN766 calibration
• 8mm diameter, pitch 24mm, DIN766 calibration
• 10mm diameter, pitch 28mm, DIN766 calibration
• 10mm diameter, pitch 30mm, ISO calibration
• 12mm diameter, pitch 36mm, ISO calibration
Be aware that many older chains would have been manufactured and calibrated in Imperial Measurements (1/4, 3/8, 1/2 inch etc), so if you are choosing a new windlass to replace an old one, then make sure that you know exactly what size and calibration of chain you have on board.
The most common problem when replacing a windlass, is the chain jamming in the new gypsy after it has hauled about a meter or so.  Even though an individual link from an old chain may sit perfectly well in the chain socket on the new gypsy, the cumulative error of 0.5mm over 50 links is usually enough the make the chain jam once load is applied and the links take up there normal extension.
This can be an expensive mistake, often requiring the chain to be cut away, and sometimes losing the complete chain and anchor and possibly damaging the new windlass.
8. Power Down or Free Fall Windlass?
All electric windlass offer power-up and power-down for the controlled hauling or dropping of the anchor.
However, many boat owners do not realise that most can also be operated in a free-fall mode by manually loosening the clutch on the top of the gypsy with the supplied handle.  This allows the gypsy to spin freely, and gravity should then let the anchor drop once it is released from the bow roller.
This free-fall method is often quicker than powering down and conserves precious power on smaller vessels. Once the anchor is deployed, the clutch can be tightened up ready for recovery.
9. How to Recover the Anchor and Secure the Chain or Rope
Anchor windlass are designed to do one thing – to haul up an anchor chain with an anchor on the end.

The Correct Steps to Take:
1. Always motor the vessel forwards very slowly to take the load off the anchor chain before beginning to haul with the windlass, and continue to motor the vessel forwards very slowly in the direction of the anchor as you recover the chain.
2. With the vessel over the anchor and the chain vertical, stop the vessel as the windlass hauls and breaks the anchor out of the bottom.
3. Once the anchor is set, prevent damage by taking the load off the windlass gypsy by securing the anchor chain with either a Chain Stopper Device or by using Chain Grab Hooks secured to alternative hard points on the deck.
10.  What not to do!
• Anchor windlass are NOT designed to haul the boat forwards over the anchor first.
• They are NOT designed to be mooring bollards for securing the anchor chain or rope over long periods.
• The gypsies and gear boxes on most anchor windlass are NOT designed to take the continual pounding and jerking movements that often occur when a vessel is lying at anchor.
To see the range windlass and anchoring products and accessories available for leisure and commercial vessels, click here or for further technical advice, contact the Safety Marine technical team on advice@safety-marine.co.uk or call +44 (0)2380 226300


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