How to: The Right Electric Windlass for Your Boat

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There’s nothing like having a little mechanical advantage up on the bow to enhance the anchoring experience

There’s nothing like having a little mechanical advantage up on the bow to enhance the anchoring experience

Every sailor appreciates a little mechanical assistance up at the bow. At the same time, whether you’re upgrading the boat with a new windlass or speccing a new boat, it’s an expensive decision that you need to get right the first time.

The first and often most baffling question is whether to opt for a windlass that works on a horizontal or vertical axis—or as Jim Thomas, windlass specialist at marine hardware distributor Imtra, puts it, “Ferris wheel or carousel?” Luckily, this is much more straightforward than it appears. The vertical windlass has a number of key advantages over its bulkier, more traditional alternative. First and foremost, the motor and gearbox assembly is mounted out of sight and out of the way under the deck, freeing up valuable real estate at the bow. In addition, the motor can usually be offset to one side or the other to help fit the chain locker. The way the chain is fed round the gypsy and into the chain pipe means that this orientation of windlass also grips more links of the chain simultaneously, giving a more secure lift.

On the other hand, older or smaller boats with limited space in the anchor locker may benefit from installing a horizontal windlass. With the motor housed in the deck unit, there’s more room for stowing chain below, and being higher off the deck, a horizontal model may offer a cleaner run of chain or rode over a high toerail. This extra height also offers a greater fall of chain into the locker below. That’s important, because it is gravity that stows the chain, and that requires at least 15in of fall between the capstan and the top of the heaped chain. The extra height of the capstan of a horizontal windlass should win you anything from 6-12in extra.


That said, as the chain connects with only about 90 degrees of the gypsy in a horizontal installation, the angle at which it is fed onto the windlass becomes crucial. You can improve the performance of the unit if you can angle the chain slightly up from the bow roller. However, Thomas warns against deflecting the chain as it falls into the locker since, as he puts it, “Every redirect creates friction, which means amps spiking and breakers tripping out.”

Beyond that, it is easier to maintain and service a traditional horizontal windlass, because its key components are all above deck. Most windlasses of either type are offered with an optional rope capstan, a useful feature.

A major bonus with a vertical windlass is its low profile

A major bonus with a vertical windlass is its low profile

Pulling power

Having decided on the orientation of your windlass, you must decide how powerful you need it to be. Many manufacturers offer a quick guide that equates boat size with windlass power, but while this may work in many cases, it is not the full story.

Power should be determined by the maximum force you need the windlass to exert in order to retrieve the anchor. This so-called “pulling power” is measured in pounds and refers to the force that the windlass can bring to bear in its first few seconds of operation to break out the anchor. Its “working power,” or the amount of power it provides over a longer period of time, will typically be much lower.

As ever, different manufacturers have different guidelines. However, they all measure it as a multiple of the weight of the ground tackle. Smaller units, for example, should be able to pull some four times the weight of the chain and anchor combined, while larger units (above 2,000W) don’t need as much spare power, so a multiple of two is enough. If you have a 35lb anchor and 150ft of 5/16in chain, you can use the table below to work out that your ground tackle weighs in at around 190lb, so a windlass that can pull at least 760lb should be enough. You also need to make sure that the weight of the ground tackle doesn’t exceed the system’s working load. Both these figures should be readily available from your supplier or distributor, or on the manufacturer’s website.

Note that if your boat is heavy displacement or has relatively high topsides, it will take more power from the windlass to get it moving toward the anchor. You could use the engine to assist, but it is safer to opt for a slightly more powerful windlass to compensate. This is also true if you plan to cruise widely—frequent use of a windlass at or near its limits will accelerate wear and tear.

A capstan above the gypsy, as on this model from Ideal, is a useful accessory (left); On vertical windlasses such as this model from Quick, the motor can be oriented in different directions to simplify installation (middle); Lewmar has a wide range of windlasses, in both vertical and horizontal configurations (right).

A capstan above the gypsy, as on this model from Ideal, is a useful accessory (left); On vertical windlasses such as this model from Quick, the motor can be oriented in different directions to simplify installation (middle); Lewmar has a wide range of windlasses, in both vertical and horizontal configurations (right).


A small but very important part of choosing the right windlass is to ensure it will work with your anchor rode. The rotating part of the windlass is known as the gypsy and will be designed for an exact chain size. Many are capable of automatically handling a rope-chain rode. Lewmar has even introduced a composite gypsy to replace the traditional brass, which it claims wears better, is lighter and quieter.

There is usually a choice of gypsies available for any unit, and even a small mismatch—between, say, 3/8in diameter chain and a 10mm gypsy—can make the windlass unusable. “Mismatched chain will wear the shoulders of the gypsy, or it could just jam the whole thing and damage the shaft or the motor,” says Thomas. “I always tell customers to test a chain sample on the windlass first.”

Paul Brown of Quick USA, which distributes Italian-made Quick windlasses, goes further still. “Choose an appropriate windlass to match the boat and then find the correct anchor and rode for that windlass,” he says. “I often say that starting with the anchor first is kind of like choosing tires for a car and then shopping for a car to fit them.”

This especially makes sense if you’re worried about putting all that extra weight up at the bow of the boat, where it can amplify pitching. In this case, Craig Pretty of Maxwell says it might make sense to switch to a much lighter rope-chain rode, saving hundreds of pounds in the anchor locker. “It also acts as a big shock absorber when the boat is moving about at anchor.”

If you expect to be handling lots of lines at the bow, you could also consider buying a windlass with a capstan mounted above the gypsy. And remember that you can buy a right- or a left-handed windlass to suit your foredeck deck layout.


Building a system

Of course, the windlass is just one part of the system. You may also have to install a new battery dedicated to serving it, along with hefty power cables, a relay box, foot switches and/or a remote. And don’t forget the chain stopper—while some windlasses are more ruggedly built than others, none are designed to hold the weight of a boat swinging at anchor in anything more than perfect conditions. Letting a chain stopper or a snubber take the strain will make for a quieter night on the hook and dramatically extend the life of your windlass.

“One of the biggest mistakes I see is that people just don’t believe that the full cost of an installation can be twice the cost of the windlass itself,” Craig Pretty says, summing up the situation.

As a practical matter, the battery is the second bulkiest component of a windlass system. Although you can use a boat’s service batteries, some sailors install a dedicated one sited close to the windlass. A big motor can draw a peak current of more than 200A when it starts under load, calling for very heavy (and therefore expensive) copper cabling to avoid voltage drop. If your cables are too small, the windlass’s performance can not only be reduced, but there is a real possibility that the cables may overheat.

That said, systems expert (and regular SAIL contributor) Nigel Calder maintains such remote batteries aren’t a universal solution. “The draw of the windlass pulls down the voltage on the bow battery, at which point the alternator goes to full output, so you need sizeable cables between the aft battery bank and the bow battery. These cables will not be much smaller than if you power the windlass from the house bank in the first place, so there is little cost saving in the cables and you get the extra weight of the battery in the bow.”

The Muir Cheetah is a classic horizontal windlass; note the capstan drum opposite the chain gypsy

The Muir Cheetah is a classic horizontal windlass; note the capstan drum opposite the chain gypsy

Calder adds that the voltage drop over the long cables often results in a poor charging regime for the bow battery as well. One way to facilitate the use of smaller (and thus cheaper) cables while ensuring the bow battery remains optimally charged is to install a DC battery-to-battery charger such as those made by Sterling Power.

Once you’ve sorted out your power supply, the next step is to select a control system for the windlass. The sky is the limit here—from simple foot buttons to multiple control units incorporating chain counters and even automatic anchor recovery. For the simplest system, opt for a pair of high-amp foot buttons by the windlass that can be wired directly between the battery and the motor. This keeps the number of electrical components to a minimum while also freeing up the user’s hands to deal with chain.

Most people these days prefer a remote control plugged into a socket in the chain locker, which is a good system, but does have some drawbacks. Chiefly, it requires you to install a bulky relay box to make and break the windlass circuit as the remote commands. “The solenoid box is the number one thing to fail, as it’s very sensitive to low voltages,” says Thomas. “You’ve got a bunch of people onboard, drinking beers, listening to music and running the battery down. Then the low voltage won’t shut the relay properly, or you get an arc which welds it open.”

If your budget will stretch that far, the best solution is therefore to install both a remote and foot buttons. This gives you flexibility and builds redundancy into the system. Another option is to put a switch at the helm. “This will make it easier to operate the windlass as you motor up to the anchor, pulling the rode in,” explains Quick USA’s Brown.

The gypsy needs to be matched to the chain if it’s to grip correctly

The gypsy needs to be matched to the chain if it’s to grip correctly

Installation tips

Sailors often fear they will have to reinforce their deck to take the extra loads generated by the windlass. On the whole, though, boats built over the past 10-15 years shouldn’t need any strengthening, unless they have foam or balsa core decks. “On older boats, though, the deck can always use a backing plate,” says Thomas. “Though in some cases, the windlass flange can act as a backing plate.”

Thick decks, toerails, bulwarks and deck frames can all complicate an installation. Most standard windlass shafts are designed to accommodate decks from 1 1/2in to 11/2in thick, but if you need something longer, extended-shaft models are also available. Maxwell, in particular, seems to offer a wide range of shaft lengths.

No matter what the boat, be sure to carefully map out the entire installation before you buy the windlass. In doing so, you might find you need to set aside time and money to install or upgrade the boat’s stem fitting, especially on smaller, older craft. “One of the biggest challenges can be installing a new fitting through the toerail,” Thomas warns. You may also want to offset the windlass, leading the chain at an angle.

As ever, when you make holes in the deck, it is critical to ensure that they are well sealed. New windlasses come with a rubber gasket that will do the job perfectly well. But if you have a textured antiskid deck, you might need to build up a smooth plinth using a few layers of epoxy. It is also wise to drill the hole a little larger than necessary, then paint on some epoxy to protect the exposed GRP from water and chain damage.

Once installed correctly, a windlass should operate trouble free and largely maintenance free. A dab of grease is helpful from time to time on the clutch, and it’s wise to turn the motor over regularly when the boat is not in use. “Lack of use is the other big cause of windlass failure. Spinning the motor from time to time knocks off corrosion,” says Thomas.

Whichever kind of windlass you choose, you won’t regret it. Your back will be forever grateful. 



Ideal Windlass







Sam Fortescue has been sailing his entire life. He crossed the Atlantic on a Sadler 34, which he currently cruises with his family. He regularly edits and contributes articles on cruising, equipment and new boats

March 2018



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