Take the Load Off

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For several years we sailed our 34ft sloop without feeling the need for a windlass. The weight of the ground tackle—a 22-pound Delta anchor, 70 feet of 5/16in hi-test chain and 200 feet of nylon rode—was seldom an issue in the shallow anchorages we tend to frequent. But I’ve been involved in enough anchoring dramas to know that for more ambitious cruising, an electric windlass would be not just a convenience, but an important safety feature. Acquiring a 35-pound Spade anchor was our first anchoring upgrade; the next would be installing a windlass.

Taking Stock

The first step in taking on such a project is to make sure you have enough space for a windlass and its ancillary bits and pieces. Like many older cruiser-racers, our Norlin 34 has a fine bow and a comparatively narrow foredeck. This immediately halved my options—a horizontal windlass (see sidebar) would have an unacceptably large footprint. Apart from being an eyesore on our boat, it would interfere with the retracting spinnaker sprit on which we set our cruising chute. For the same reason, I ignored the temptation of a windlass with a rope drum, useful though these can be.

1. The foredeck as it was; I planned to strip it clean, including the bow cleats, and fill in the large hold from the deck pipe. 2. I tied a shackle to a piece of line and hung it over the bow roller to make sure my rode would clear the bow pulpit and lead fairly over the roller. Then I oriented the template to suit and marked the locations for the holes. This is not something you want to hurry; it's hard to move a hole once you've drilled it.

I quickly ascertained that our anchor locker was wide enough to accommodate the motor of a vertical windlass. It was also more than deep enough to keep our rode pile at least 8 inches beneath the motor, as is recommended. Because the bow roller—an aftermarket add-on—is set at an angle to the boat’s centerline so that the rode clears the bow-pulpit legs, the windlass wildcat would have to be mounted slightly off-center so the chain could lead fairly to the bow roller.

Sizing a windlass

Most manufacturers will tell you to buy a windlass with a maximum pull capability (the point at which the motor stalls) of at least three times the working load—the weight of your ground tackle. This rule of thumb allows for a good fudge factor. The loads on a windlass rise rapidly when you are trying to break out a deeply buried anchor, or if the hook snags a sunken tree trunk or—as once happened to a friend—a large motorcycle, and you don’t want the motor overheating and stalling.

Adding together the weight of our 35lb Spade anchor, the 70 feet of 5/16in G4 chain (just under 1lb/foot), and 200 feet of 5/8in nylon rode (30lb), we arrived at a working load of 135 pounds. We needed a windlass with a maximum pull of 405 pounds, with a wildcat that could handle both the 5/16in chain and 5/8in nylon rode.

When it comes to cruising boat gear, I believe in erring on the side of overkill. Among the windlasses on my shortlist were the Maxwell RC8/8, Lewmar Sport V2, the Lofrans Progress 1000 and the Quick Aleph 1000, all of which have 700 or 1,000-watt motors and maximum pulls of between 800 and 1,320 pounds—comfortably exceeding the 3x working load rule. For a 34-foot boat, there was no point in going any larger, and while smaller windlasses with 500-watt motors could theoretically cope easily enough with our 135 pounds of ground tackle, their wildcats were mostly sized for smaller rodes.

Line Speeds

Another factor to consider is the speed at which a windlass pays out and reels in rode. Generally speaking, the more powerful the windlass the faster it will get your anchor back on board. Chain/line speeds differ markedly between different makes of windlass, and if you’ve ever had to get an anchor up in a hurry you’ll know that faster is better. Be aware that quoted speeds are sometimes calculated with no load on the windlass; look for the working-load speed.

3. I immediately coated the edges of the holes with epoxy resin to keep water out. I drilled the holes for the mounting studs oversize and filled them with thickened epoxy. Later I drilled fresh holes through these epoxy plugs. 4. Because the deck is slightly cambered, the windlass did not sit flush. I made a shim out of 3/16in fiberglass sheet and bedded it on thickened epoxy. To the right is the backing plate, which I made from a piece of half-inch fiberglass sheet. After roughing up the underside of the deck with an angle grinder and sanding disk, I slathered the backing plate with thickened epoxy and clamped it into place until the epoxy cured. This made the deck well over an inch thick under and around the windlass.

The Maxwell RC8/8’s quoted working-load speed of 105ft/minute for chain retrieval and 92ft/minute for rope was one of the highest. I haven’t verified the accuracy of this claim, but that, combined with the comparatively light weight of 36lb, was enough to swing the balance towards the New Zealand-made windlass.

Keeping Control

Some windlasses are retrieve-only, meaning you must manually disengage a clutch to let chain freefall when you drop anchor. I suppose this simplifies the switching, but as long as the windlass you choose has a freefall option as well as a powered release, you can still enjoy the best of both worlds. Some day your safety may depend on getting the hook on the bottom as quickly as possible.

5. Then it was just a matter of running the cables under and behind the furniture. I made sure there were no hard corners that could chafe the covers and secured them with cable ties every 12 inches or so. This was by far the most time-consuming part of the project. 6. The solenoid should be in a dry location as close to the motor as possible. I placed mind in a locker in the head, about 8ft from the windlass. I then connected the 12V supply cable and the two power cables to the windlass, and the wiring to the handheld remote switch.

Most windlasses can be manually operated in extremis, although cranking in chain with a winch handle will be slow and tedious work. Our ground tackle is not too heavy for me to retrieve hand-over-hand (though I’d really rather not), and given enough adrenaline I can get it up on deck in no time at all.

The real question was whether to go for foot-operated switches or a handheld remote control. I didn’t want any more holes in the deck, and there’s something about foot switches I instinctively distrust. We went for a handheld that I would install in the V-berth and access through the hatch. A remote cockpit switch was also included, and although I was tempted to install it, I’ve held off for the time being.

Modus Operandi

A windlass motor is either a permanent-magnet or series-wound type. Most smaller units are of the former variety, because at low loading a permanent-magnet motor consumes less power. It will also generate more heat, and as it heats up it will draw more current, even as its power drops. A series-wound motor’s power draw is initially higher, but remains constant as the load varies. Both types have equal power to begin with, but a series-wound motor generates more torque, is less likely to overheat, and is generally more robust.

7. The foredeck has been painted and the cleats and collar for our removable sprit have been re-installed. Now we're ready to install the windlass. I used the gasket supplied with the windlass, with a smear of caulk on either side. 8. A view from underneath shoes the windlass in place and bolted securely to the backing plate. 9. I've bolted the power cables and the negative cable to the clearly marked terminals on the motor. The small black wire is the negative from the remote handheld switch.

A permanent-magnet motor has two cable connections; to reverse the motor the polarity of the terminals is reversed. A series-wound motor has three connections, two positive and one negative. The motor’s direction depends on which positive cable is engaged. Either type of motor is usually controlled via a switch that activates a solenoid, which either changes polarity (permanent-magnet) or directs current to one or other of the positive cables running to the motor (series-wound).

There are various other permutations, some of which involve high current passing through the switching gear rather than a solenoid. Some windlasses are one-way—that is, they only haul in ground tackle. To me, a windlass controlled by a low-current switch and a two-way solenoid that handles the high current—up to several hundred amps—makes more sense. Push a button to lower your anchor, another to raise it; what could be simpler?

Download these instructions as a printable PDF

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