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The Great Windlass Debate

This article (first published on SailNet in May 2000), came about after Sue and Larry took a manual windlass off their boat Serengeti and replaced it with an electric model. Tom Wood later removed an electric unit from Sojourner's deck to install a manual one. Here, both parties defend their respective outlooks and debate the merits of their choices, and John Kettlewell weighs in with some anecdotal advice on windlass safety.

Going Electric (by Sue & Larry)

Not every anchorage is this idyllic, which often means you'll require assistance to get the anchor up, and that's when a windlass can come in handy.
For the cruising sailor, anchoring out is a way of life. For the weekend sailor, it's a wonderful way to relax and truly get away from the rat race. Memories of a lifetime are often made when tucked away safely in a secluded anchorage.

If your past anchoring experiences have left you feeling somewhat like the hunchback of Notre-Dame, maybe you're not set up with a system that takes most of the work out of it. The electric windlass might just be the answer to your dreams. It certainly has been so for us.

It only took one nasty storm sweeping through the anchorage at midnight, with boats dragging everywhere, to fully appreciate the true value of our electric windlass. We were able to get out of harm's way quickly, then safely re-anchor within a few short minutes. We then sat back and watched for another hour while many other boats struggled with the very same task we had just performed with minimal effort. Some unfortunate souls wrestled their anchor and chain with only their bare hands, while others cranked, seemingly forever, on their manual windlasses, stopping occasionally to fend off nearby dragging boats.

Anchoring shouldn't be stressful or exerting, but for too many sailors, this is very often the case. The reality is that sometimes it's necessary to go through the act of setting the anchor more than once, even without a storm situation in the middle of the night. Maybe you're too close to a neighboring boat, or perhaps the anchor didn't set the first time. Whatever the reason, the fact remains that you have to retrieve that heavy anchor and chain and repeat the whole process again in order to get the anchor set securely.

Even the largest size chain can be handled by an electric windlass.

In our refit of Serengeti, the old manual windlass was one of the first pieces of equipment we replaced with a new electric one. Our experiences have taught us that our windlass is an important piece of safety gear. Knowing how easy it is to retrieve the anchor with an electric windlass not only allows us to move quickly, but also promotes the correct amount of scope. It makes the decision to set an anchor more than once a lot easier to make. It's a conscientious, safe sailor who amends a potential by bad anchoring situation immediately. Without an electric windlass, it is often a tired sailor who decides to "wait and see" if the anchor is OK.

To the cruising sailor, anchoring is serious business. The boat is your home, and your ground tackle can often be your best insurance. Cruisers value stout ground tackle. This means you're dealing with big, heavy anchors and lots of chain, sometimes several hundred feet of chain. We've got 300 ft. of 3/8-inch chain on our primary anchor, a 60 lb. CQR. To deploy and retrieve this type of ground tackle, one must have a windlass, and an electric one will pay for itself over and over again in functionality and ease of use.

Our main goal when choosing an anchoring system for the boat was to be able to deploy the anchor in a controlled manner, and more importantly, retrieve it quickly, neatly, and safely. It was also very important that we were both able to accomplish this feat. A manual windlass certainly beats having no windlass at all, but still requires a certain amount of physical effort and is by no means as fast as an electric one for getting out of tight situations quickly. The electric windlass takes away the strength advantage men have over women and allows both sexes to deal easily with the anchor. An added safety bonus is that the electric windlass performs just as well if you are exhausted, injured, or otherwise incapacitated. In addition, the power down feature allows you to deploy your anchor at a controlled rate. No more wild, free-falling of the anchor and chain, while you try to jump out of its path.

"Like any winch, the electric windlass must be respected and used properly to avoid injury."

Dead batteries? The prudent skipper chooses an electric windlass with a manual retrieval feature. This allows you to crank the anchor up manually in event of an electrical malfunction or dead batteries. For Serengeti, we selected the Lofrans Tigres, a well-built windlass with a good reputation.

Like any winch, power or non-power, the electric windlass must be respected and used properly to avoid injury. The area around the windlass should be kept clear of items on deck that could jam it, like loose clothing, and of course, fingers and toes.

In order to get the longest life and continued good performance out of your electric windlass there are certain rules of thumb to follow. The anchor should always be retrieved by taking up the slack on the anchor line/chain using the boat's motor to move forward. Pulling the anchor out using only the windlass is just asking for trouble. The weight of the boat at anchor should never ride directly on the windlass, manual or electric, but rather be snubbed off to a cleat. Also, an electric windlass does require proper wiring to operate correctly and achieve its full power potential. This means either running large cable from your existing battery bank to the bow, or adding an additional battery forward to handle the high amperage draw required of most electric windlasses. And finally, like any piece of motorized equipment exposed to the elements, regular maintenance will be necessary to have continued positive results.

Sue & Larry's ideal solution is an electric windlass with a manual backup like this one.
There's no question in our minds that our electric windlass adds to our boating safety. It gives us confidence and ability to deal with all anchoring situations quickly and responsibly. But, we have to admit there's also just the pure fun of owning one. Picture this. I'm peering out our porthole and see our friend Russell, working away at raising his anchor and chain with his manual windlass—back and forth, back and forth, back and forth. As he takes his second break, I casually stroll up on deck with a coffee cup in hand and Endicott, the cat, following at my heels. Now at the bow, I release the snubber and press the "up" button. Sue's at the wheel with the boat in gear, following my hand signals to ease the strain from the anchor and chain. Within seconds, our anchor has been completely retrieved, and I haven't spilled a single drop of coffee. "Nice morning!" I call over to Russell as we motor by. He's on break again, wiping the sweat from his brow. And his anchor? Still not retrieved.

Going Manual (by Tom Wood)

Simple installation, enhanced reliability, and straightforward safety are the advantages of a manual windlass.
A windlass is not really an option on a cruising boat over 35 feet. As the crew becomes grayer at the temples, putting the anchors and chain in the mud and then getting them back aboard again seems to require more effort than it did in previous years. If the boat is anchored frequently, maintaining adequate mechanical advantage and control is not a luxury—it is mandatory.

The choice is not whether to have a windlass, but rather what kind of windlass to have. We started with a manual windlass on our first cruising boat nearly 25 years ago, and we just installed our fifth one on Sojourner, our latest adventure in the cruising lifestyle. In fact, with over a half-dozen cruising boats and thousands of anchorages behind us, we're more committed to the manual windlass than we were in the beginning. Here's why:

Cost    There is not much difference in price between manual and electric windlasses of similar pulling power, and this is probably due to the lower volume of sales in manual windlasses these days. Installation costs, however, are a different story. A manual windlass requires four bolts and a stout backing plate. An electric windlass, on the other hand, must have lots of heavy wire, switches, solenoids, circuit breakers, and perhaps even an extra battery and battery box. Unless you install the 12-volt beast yourself, labor must be piled on top of the cost of the parts. These installation "extras" can add up to almost the cost of the windlass.

Reliability    In 25 years of ownership, we have performed about five hours of maintenance on our windlasses. We had one failure when a key shattered, requiring an hour and about $5.00 to repair. Yet everywhere we have sailed, we have met cruisers with shiny capstans on the foredeck still hauling chain up by hand. The problems they encounter are almost always with a burned-out motor or an electrical system that drowned in the vulnerable location in the bow of the boat. Waiting for a specialty part to arrive in a remote anchorage is the height of frustration—not to mention the cost of those parts, communications with the supplier, price of air transport, and often taxes and duty. In addition, you must train yourself to make complex mechanical and electrical repairs as there are few windlass mechanics in most anchorages. Manual windlasses almost never have these problems and continue to function even underwater.

"The failure of a delicate piece of electrical gear located in a wet location isn't really an emergency."
Ironically, if an electric windlass owner had the foresight to order the "emergency" manual override and handle option, when his windlass does fail, he or she now has a manual windlass—and not a very efficient one at that as the gear train of an electric windlass was designed for high-speed input. We have never considered the failure of a delicate piece of electrical gear located in a wet location as an "emergency."

Feel    A manual windlass gives you immediate connection to the state of the boat's anchoring gear. You can feel in your arm, shoulder and back how much power is being used to lift the ground tackle. We have seen electric windlass owners grind their bows down nearly to the water, straining every piece of gear in the system, before they realized that they had hooked a hurricane chain or other underwater hazard. While the value of this "feel" is difficult to quantify, it has been enough to give an early alert to an existing problem before something was broken by inadvertently applying too much power.

Speed    Electric windlasses are often quoted as being able to pull in an amazing 75 feet of chain per minute. Anchored in 15 feet of water with a 5:1 scope, this means the anchor is on its roller in one minute. This calculation, however, is based on a no-load speed. Pulling the boat up to the anchor, breaking the anchor out, and retrieving the dead weight slows the speed dramatically, and the actual time required in our example might now be up to two minutes.

On a good day, about the best speed to be achieved with a manual windlass is 25 feet per minute, which for our example would require three minutes of continuous work. Unlike the electric motor, the human arm has the ability to increase the amount of force as the load increases, thus maintaining a relatively constant speed. So a heavy load doesn't necessarily decrease retrieval speed, but it may burn a few more calories. Actually, it is amazing just how fast an adrenaline-soaked foredeck person can crank up an anchor in a tight situation.

Safety is a primary consideration no matter what anchoring system you use, and Tom urges those with electric windlasses to be particularly careful.
    We have now collected three cruising friends with permanently bent or broken fingers that were sewn together in exotic places after encounters with electric windlasses. In one case, the woman had been cruising full-time aboard the same boat with the same windlass for nearly 10 years before she tried to "help the chain along just a little." This is easy when standing on a switch and having idle hands. When actively operating a manual windlass, with hands on the handle, the only way to put them near the chain is to stop cranking. This automatically makes the probability of personal damage remote.

Exercise    Many people who have not cruised before find it hard to believe, but it is easy to not get enough exercise on a boat. Personally, I have suffered from a bad back for years and find the gentle motion of rocking the small resistance of a manual windlass to be entirely therapeutic. In fact, the only time I do not suffer from lower back problems is when I've been anchoring frequently. There must be a message here—perhaps I am supposed to go cruising more often.

A Response from the Industry

Dear SailNet:

A major problem with all-chain rodes was illustrated by a friend of ours who lost most of his fingers on one hand when his all-chain rode broke the bowsprit during a hurricane in the Bahamas. As he struggled to get the chain rode under control before it sawed his bow off, his hand was pinned between the chain and the deck edge as the boat surged.

I've also seen a boat that had its bowsprit ripped off when the chain jammed and the boat snatched up hard on the chain. And then there's Alain Colas, who nearly lost his foot as a loop of the anchor chain lassooed him.

Chain, windlasses (especially power ones) and anchoring gear are not OSHA approved! Approach these items with the same mental alertness one would a coiled rattlesnake.

By the way, it is good to see original and quality content being published on the web.

John J. Kettlewell
Senior Editor
Boating Industry International magazine

Suggested Reading:

Choosing and Installing an Electric Windlass by Sue & Larry

Choosing Anchors, Rodes, and Windlasses by Liza Copeland

The Perfect Anchor Rode by Tom Wood

Buying Guide: Anchor Windlasses

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