Building a New Front End

A liveaboard cruiser transforms his anchor handling system

An electric windlass should be near the top of any cruiser’s upgrade listEver since turning 50 I’ve wanted to improve the anchoring system on Gypsy Wind, my Dufour 34. As a liveaboard cruiser, I anchor a lot, and hauling up an anchor and chain by hand lost its appeal long ago. What’s more, I’ve never liked my bow roller—it was clearly never up to the demands of hardcore cruising. The decision to install a new windlass gave me the perfect excuse to rethink my entire anchoring system.

Ever since turning 50 I’ve wanted to improve the anchoring system on Gypsy Wind, my Dufour 34. As a liveaboard cruiser, I anchor a lot, and hauling up an anchor and chain by hand lost its appeal long ago. What’s more, I’ve never liked my bow roller—it was clearly never up to the demands of hardcore cruising. The decision to install a new windlass gave me the perfect excuse to rethink my entire anchoring system.



The first challenge was making basic decisions. What type of windlass did I want? Horizontal, vertical, electric, manual? Where should it be installed? Should it handle rope, chain or both? What brand and how powerful should it be? The list seemed endless. 

I usually sail singlehanded, so a windlass that could be operated from the helm made a lot of sense. This in turn dictated my choice between a manual or electric windlass, since the former can only be operated from the bow. I also decided to go with a horizontal windlass, because it would be easier to install and involved less deck surgery. I eventually chose Quick Nautical Equipment’s Genius model, which has an automatic “freefall” option. The combined weight of my rode and anchor is 145lb, and the windlass has an 800W motor with a working load of 265lb. Maximum WL is 770lb, so there’s plenty of power there.

Once you’ve chosen a windlass, next determine where everything will go—the circuit breaker, the reversing contact, the foot switches, the cockpit switch or remote and chain counter if you choose to install these options—making sure everything fits properly, is easy to access for maintenance, and doesn’t interfere with other equipment.  

Measure out the wire runs. Then measure again, leaving extra wire for detours around bulkheads and any errors you might have made. You don’t want to be left with 27 feet of expensive #4 AWG tinned wire when you really need 29 feet.

While you’re at it, assemble all the requisite terminals. Figure out what you need and pick up everything in one trip. You can save money buying online. I used welding cable from a welding supply shop instead of battery cable and saved over $3 per foot, or about $200. Purists will tell you it’s better to use more expensive tinned cable, and they’re right, it is. However, the “fiscal marine reality ratio” (disposable income vs. spousal tolerance) makes the cheaper alternative the choice for many of us. Do it right, and the wiring should last 20 years. 

My electrical tools were sized for lighter gauge wires, and cutting wire and crimping terminals took longer than anticipated. Unless you’ve got a buddy with the right tools, it’s better to install the components before you buy the wire. Carefully measure each wire run and get each cut to the right length at the store. This is far easier than doing the job on board, something I wish I’d thought of beforehand.

Ready, set, go! Careful measuring and preparation is vital

Ready, set, go! Careful measuring and preparation is vital


If you’ve ever installed an engine, you know alignment is critical. It’s the same with a windlass. If the gypsy isn’t exactly in line with the chain, it will never work well. To make sure I did things right, I ran a messenger line from the center of my bow roller to line up my new windlass. Once I was satisfied with the location, I taped the paper template down and drilled the mounting holes in the deck.

I got a nasty surprise when I drilled into Gypsy Wind’s foredeck and discovered the core was wet. I immediately put a heater in the anchor well to start the drying process and decided to complete the wiring while the deck dried out.

As a first step, I took the welding cable, folded it in half and, starting at the bow, ran it back to the batteries. This way I didn’t have to run the wires twice. 

I drilled two small holes in the deck for the foot-switch wires and ran those back to the reversing contact unit. Lastly, I ran the cockpit-switch wires.  

Since I wasn’t using tinned wire, it was important to carefully seal all connections. I brushed on lots of liquid dielectric, applied heatshrink to the terminals, and then wrapped them with electrical tape to protect against chafe. I also left enough wire for drip loops, so moisture wouldn’t collect near the connections, and made sure the cables in the forepeak were firmly attached and safely tucked away with cable ties so the anchor rode couldn’t catch them. 

 installing the electrics is easier than it looks

With the wiring complete, I hooked up the reversing contact and circuit breaker, following the manufacturer’s schematic carefully. In my installation there were seven connections to the reversing contact—lots of room for confusion. It’s important you don’t power up until you’ve carefully double-checked your connections. I checked and found I’d mixed up two wires, which I quickly corrected.

I won’t go into the foredeck repair details. Suffice it to say the bolt holes and hawse hole were sealed with epoxy resin, then redrilled and bedded to prevent further moisture incursion. Now I could seat the windlass and run the wires through the deck. Again I checked the alignment. Bingo! A perfect fit. After that, I went below to install the half-inch backing plate I’d fabricated from a sheet of Starboard. I’d considered using a heavy gauge aluminum plate, but the thicker Starboard ended up being a good choice.

With the windlass hooked up, it was time for a careful last check of everything—wiring, bolts and alignment. After ensuring the circuit breaker was off, I connected the wires to the battery, switched the breaker on and went to the bow. Now came the moment of truth—I leaned forward, opened the footswitch cover and gingerly stepped on the button.

Whiiiirrrrrrrrrr. Success! It worked, both up and down. I was a genius! No, the windlass was a Genius. The heck with it, open a beer and celebrate.

All that remained was to replace my ancient chain/rope rode with 75 feet of 5/16 G4 chain and 250 feet of 5/8in nylon rope. I had West Marine’s rigging department splice the two together and ran it over the windlass into the chain locker.


The original bow rollerWith my new windlass control switch at the helm, I wanted a “self-launching” bow roller so I could both launch and retrieve my anchor without going forward. This would be a big help in crowded or windy anchorages.

On some boats, like mine, the forestay chainplate is incorporated into the bow roller. In addition to handling the anchor, it must be strong enough to carry rig loads. On Gypsy Wind, the original double bow roller was an E-shaped piece of stainless steel, with the “arms” of the “E” pointing up. The forestay attached to the center arm.

Unfortunately, my new roller was U-shaped, with no attachment point for the forestay. Thus, I had to either modify the roller or install it slightly offset. Offsetting the roller would have been easiest, but I hadn’t foreseen this problem when I installed my windlass. The roller’s position was now determined by the windlass. Had I installed the roller first, I could have offset the windlass accordingly and, after drilling a hole for it, simply attached the forestay to the side of the roller. Offsetting the forestay an inch and a half was another option, but no one could tell me if this was a bad idea. In the absence of any opinion, I decided not to experiment.

Because it also acted as the forestay chainplate, the existing bow roller was through-bolted both to the deck and to the stem, with substantial backing plates. It would be far easier to mount the new unit using the same bolt holes, which meant it needed two modifications: one to create an attachment point for the forestay, another to secure the roller to the stem using the same holes securing the original. 

The installed heavy-duty bow roller

First, we cut off the section of the old roller that acted as a chainplate. This was then carefully welded to the new bow roller at the same angle as the original. The roller itself was drilled to match the existing bolt holes on deck. The important thing was to weld the chainplate carefully to the new roller so all the holes in the stem and on deck lined up. Otherwise, the roller wouldn’t be in line with the chain and windlass.

Then I drilled a 9/16in hole in the roller to take a stainless steel bolt for the forestay attachment, and made a spacer from a piece of Starboard to keep the forestay attachment from shifting. After a little fiddling with the forestay turnbuckle to attach it to the new roller, it was simply a matter of running my ground tackle through, and I was ready to drop and retrieve the hook from the comfort of my cockpit. Ultimately, the toughest part of the installation was finding someone small  and limber enough to fit inside the forepeak to remove and reinstall the bolts. 








Contributing Editor Wally Moran
lives aboard Gypsy Wind, his 34ft Dufour,
cruising between Canada and the Caribbean

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