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Old 09-06-2002
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Choosing and Installing an Electric Windlass

This article was originally published on SailNet in July 2001.


If you've got a working windlass on your bow, you're ready to take on any anchoring chore.
Nothing takes the work out of the anchoring process like an electric windlass. Once you’ve tried one, you’ll never look back. This was certainly the case for Sue and me. At first glance, many sailors dismiss the electric windlass as a luxury item, but it’s not long before they learn to appreciate the many safety benefits that having one on board can offer.

An electric windlass makes retrieval of your anchor quick and effortless, regardless of your age, gender, or strength. This ability makes the everyday anchoring experience more pleasurable. But more importantly, it also makes those situations when you must be able to move quickly to avoid harm to your boat a breeze to handle. It also makes you far more likely to set your own anchor exactly as you would like it, rather than playing the wait-and-see game because you don’t want to go through the tiring manual retrieval process again.

If you’ve decided to add an electric windlass to your boat, you may want to consider installing it yourself. We’ve been through the drill, so here are the steps necessary for choosing and installing your own electric windlass.


Do-it-yourself wiring on a windlass is actually pretty straightforward. Here the authors are in the process of installing a vertically oriented electrical windlass on their boat.
Size and Slant    The first step in choosing an electric windlass is to decide upon the design, its orientation, and size you need. Anchor windlasses are designed in either a horizontal or vertical orientation, and are rated according to their pulling power.

With the motor mounted below deck in the anchor locker, a vertically oriented windlass provides the sleekest appearance on the foredeck. A horizontal windlass, on the other hand, incorporates a sealed motor housing and gearbox that easily mounts entirely above deck. If correctly selected, carefully aligned and properly installed, the performance from both a horizontal and a vertical windlass should be similar. When choosing between these two types of windlasses, a couple of factors need to be taken into account apart from mere aesthetics.

First, the depth of your anchor locker is an important consideration. If your locker is shallow, you’ll not want the motor from a vertical windlass protruding down into your already precious space. The problem arises when the anchor chain is being retrieved. In lockers with insufficient depth, the chain can pile up under the windlass and interfere with its operation. A second factor to consider is the vertical angle and distance from the bow roller to the windlass. On our boat, Serengeti, the five-foot distance from the roller aft to the windlass, combined with the considerable downward angle, dictated that only a horizontal windlass would provide the chain a clean lead onto the windlass gypsy. An analysis of the angle of the lead from your own bow roller is necessary to determine exactly which style and model will work best on your particular boat.


This horizontal windlass, with a chain gypsy to starboard and line capstan to port, has been fitted so that it's carefully aligned with the bow rollers.
If you’ve decided that a horizontal windlass is best for your boat, you’re presented with further considerations. Since certain models sport a chain gypsy on one side and a rope capstan on the other, the distance between the two may determine how well both will line up with your bow roller. Some gypsies and capstans are closely spaced, while others are spaced more generously. Consider this in your bow roller lead analysis. Certain manufacturers produce gypsies that are capable of handling a combination of both rope and chain. With these gypsies, a rope to chain splice can be employed to smoothly transition from rope to chain during retrieval. We had one of these on our last cruising boat and it worked quite well. Keep this feature in mind when shopping for a particular model, especially if you have a combination of chain and line on your rode.

Determining what size windlass you need is a simple task. Most companies rate their windlasses in pulling power, then provide an approximate boat size or displacement for which their windlass will perform satisfactorily. If you’re on the borderline between two sizes, definitely choose the one with the higher pulling capacity if you plan to anchor frequently.

Match Making    Identifying the type and specification of your existing chain can often be a challenging task, but is essential information for adding a windlass. We’ve come across countless sailors who’ve had trouble matching their existing anchor chain to their new windlass gypsy. They think they have a chain that matches, and it works on their gypsy most of the time, but then they find it slips every once in awhile. This is a definite symptom of the wrong chain-to-gypsy match.

"We’ve come across countless sailors who’ve had trouble matching their existing anchor chain to their new windlass gypsy."

Unfortunately, there’s little standardization with regards to chain. There’s Proof Coil, BBB, High Test, and all sorts of special "stretched" chain available. Your chain could be any imperial size, or even metric. Thankfully, there are several methods that will help you identify your own chain. If you bought it new yourself, check your records and see exactly what kind it was. Barring having that lucky piece of information on hand, next look at the chain itself and try to find any identifying marks stamped on it. If this doesn’t tell you anything conclusive, lay the chain out straight and get ready to take a number of different measurements.

Using a tape measure, count the number of links per foot of chain. Another determinant is the maximum length in inches of 100 links of chain. With a pair of calipers, measure the nominal inside width of each link, the pitch (being the length inside each link), and the wire size (thickness of the metal). See the table in the sidebar below to help identify the chain you've got.

If after this process, you still can’t properly identify your existing chain, you can either take a two-foot sample with you while windlass shopping, send a sample to the windlass manufacturer to ensure a proper fit with their gypsy, or order new chain. In our opinion, you’re likely to be best served in the long run by selling your existing chain (or keep it as back-up), and buy new chain to fit your new windlass.


With the vertical variety of anchor windlass, it's still important to ensure a fair lead from the roller to the windlass.
Mounting the Windlass    For smooth performance from your windlass, it’s important to carefully align the capstan or gypsy with the bow roller. This is easier to confirm with an above-deck horizontal windlass than with a vertical model, but with care and attention, you should be able to get either right. A long straight edge or short piece of chain or rope that extends beyond the bow roller and aft to the windlass really helps to ensure a clean lead.

At this point, you may find that you have an existing hawse pipe in your foredeck that is in the wrong position and doesn’t work with your new windlass. If the hawse is far enough from the windlass as to not interfere with its operation, you may wish to leave it as a secondary hawse for manually retrieved rodes, or for that old chain that you’re unable to identify. The other option is to completely fill the old hole with a replacement core material and fiberglass it over with cloth and epoxy. This may sound difficult, but it’s really a simple process to fill holes like this. We had to do this ourselves on Serengeti when changing windlasses. See our article entitled Drilling and Filling Holes in Your Boat for further information.

Once your windlass is properly aligned, mark its footprint on the deck. Most manufacturers provide a template showing the outline of the windlass base and indicating where the holes go. Place this template inside your already marked footprint, and mark where each hole needs to be drilled. You’ll be marking for the mounting bolts and more than likely, a new hawse. If you’re mounting a horizontal windlass, you’ll need to provide marks for the holes where the large battery cables will pass through the deck as well.

Once everything’s marked, you’re ready to drill your mounting holes. Dry-fit your windlass into these new holes and confirm the lead from the bow roller. At this time, you’ll want to cut any holes through the deck for foot switches or a hand-held remote controller. Make sure you locate these in a spot that allows you to view the anchor rode as it's retrieved while keeping a safe distance away from the windlass so that clothing or feet will not become entangled during operation. To make holes for your foot switches it’s best to use a hole saw bit on a power drill. If you’re not experienced using a hole saw bit, practice first on scrap lumber before cutting through your deck. Light, even pressure, and a firm grip on the drill is necessary keep it under control.


Aboard the authors' own boat, the windlass can be driven by foot buttons that are hidden under protective covers (at right).
After all your holes are drilled, it’s time to permanently mount your windlass and switches to the foredeck. Seal the inside edges of all holes with epoxy first, then bed all components with a high quality marine sealant like Sikaflex 291, or 3M 101. Don’t forget to include a strong backing plate under the windlass. Aboard Serengeti, we used a piece of three-quarter-inch, pressure treated plywood secured with fender washers to distribute the load from the windlass.

Powering Up    In our opinion, the best power source for your electric windlass is your existing house battery bank. Beginning at the positive bus, run the appropriately sized battery cable (positive) to a high-amp circuit breaker. From the breaker, the positive lead along with the ground coming from your negative bus will be run under the floorboards or through lockers until finally reaching the bow area under the windlass. Use a drill with a hole saw or paddle bit to cut holes large enough for your cables to pass through. The specific cable size and circuit breaker specification will be listed in the installation material from the manufacturer. Breaker size is determined by the power draw of the windlass, while the cable size is a function of both power draw and distance from the battery bank to the windlass. Make sure you place the breaker in a convenient location to make it easy to turn on and off each time you anchor.

Once your cables have been run to the bow, the simplest wiring arrangement calls for the use of hi-amp foot switches. These switches are capable of passing the full current through to the windlass, thus eliminating the need for any sort of solenoid. If you choose to install a hand-held or cockpit remote, your wiring will be slightly more difficult as you’ll need to install a solenoid at the bow. A solenoid allows you to control the high current draw of a windlass with relatively small switches. A cockpit remote will necessitate the running of small wires from the solenoid back to the switch in the cockpit. A simple wiring diagram should be provided by the windlass company.

"We fail to see the logic behind a dedicated battery for the windlass. After several unsuccessful anchoring attempts, that battery would become discharged."

Some sailors prefer the option of placing a dedicated battery for the windlass in the bow to avoid running large battery cables forward. We fail to see the logic behind this set-up because after enduring several unsuccessful anchoring attempts, that battery would be quite discharged. A severely discharged battery signals the alternator through a voltage sensing lead and tells the alternator to output its full current to recharge the battery. In this example, the high current output from an alternator would necessitate the installation of large battery cables to provide for the proper charging of the dedicated battery in the bow. Because of that, you’re back to running large cables all the way forward anyway.

With the wiring completed and all components securely attached, it’s time to remount your anchor on the bow roller and fill that anchor locker back up with rode. You’ll want to test out your new system before you leave the dock, and make sure everything is running smoothly.

Once all systems check out, get ready to enjoy the fruits of your efforts for many years to come. You’ll find you have much more energy for exploring the many wonderful destinations that only boats at anchor can experience. And hopefully, you’ll never again find yourself like the two guys I’ve been watching for the last 30 minutes 100 yards over in the anchorage who are now both on the bow, and still struggling with their heavy anchor.

Sizing it All Up

Here's a handy chart for helping you mate your chain with the proper windlass for your boat.

Type of Chain

Size in Inches

Wire size in Inches

Pitch

Inside width in Inches

Links

PerFoot

Proof Coil

5/16

11/32

1.10

0.50

11

 

3/8

13/32

1.23

0.62

9 ¾

 

½

17/32

1.54

0.79

7 ¾

High Test

5/16

11/32

.98

.45

11 ½

 

3/8

13/32

1.22

.57

10

 

½

17/32

1.72

.75

7.55

BBB

5/16

11/32

1.00

0.50

11 3/3

 

3/8

13/32

1.09

0.62

10 ½

 

½

17/32

1.34

0.75

8 ¾


Suggested Reading:

Port and Starboard Windlass Debate by Sue & Larry/Tom Wood

Choosing Anchors, Rodes, and Windlasses by Liza Copeland

Mounting Deck Hardware by Tom Wood

 

SailNet Store Section: Anchor Windlasses

 

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