Features October 2008 Issue

Alarming Trend Shows Minimal-duty Windlasses Becoming More Common on Cruising Sailboats

The boatbuilding trend toward shiny, anemic anchor windlasses needs some careful watching.

Ideal Windlass
Photos by Ralph Naranjo

The carefully machined drive gear in an Ideal windlass increases the torque created by the electric motor and delivers it to a vertical or horizontal capstan or chain gypsy.

There was a time when "built to last" was the bold theme that drove marine manufacturing. Cast bronze cleats, stem fittings, and other simple pieces of hardware commonly outlasted boats and their owners.

Today, however, there is an alarming trend toward obsolescence and carefully engineered adequacy instead of excellence. Accelerated gear deterioration has crept in from the automotive arena into the marine industry. For sailors today, the state of affairs is a lot like the days of clipper ships, when some mercenary owners settled on a 15-year lifespan as the right formula for a grain-carrying ship.

Today, premature obsolescence in recreational sailboats hurts both the builder and the owner. Fashion trends and perceived value can be spun to close the initial sale, but real value is linked to how a boat and its hardware hold up over time. And when it comes to sailboats, there’s an assumption that down the road, there will be some lasting value left. Nothing demonstrates this better than high-quality marine equipment in used-gear chandleries or on deck, working like new.

A robust, rock-solid anchor windlass is the classic example of gear that must stand the test of time. It qualifies as safety gear and is part of the insurance policy for a serious long-distance voyager. Its structure and reliability are counted on in a rough, gale-swept anchorage when being able to handle an oversized anchor and a hefty all-chain rode is a high-stakes game. And when the chips are down, and the primary anchor has fouled itself on a discarded bucket or abandoned scrap of twisted steel, rapid anchor retrieval and fluke clearing can mean the difference between safety and dragging ashore. Indeed, skimping on the windlass aboard a serious cruiser makes little sense.


Conversely, the day sailor, marina hopper, or those who infrequently anchor overnight may need neither heavy-duty ground tackle nor a heavy-duty windlass and its all-chain rode. For these sailors, the shiny chrome mushroom-like foredeck protrusion that in optimum conditions can choke down both rope and chain, may be just fine. But if heavy-duty ground tackle, and day-to-day anchoring are at the heart of your cruising game, the growing trend toward the faux-windlasses is a serious step in the wrong direction. Over the past five years, Practical Sailor has noticed that these minimal duty windlasses have migrated from lunch hook uses on production powerboats to the foredeck of smaller sailboats, and finally to larger sailboats deemed "long-range cruisers."


In order to get a second opinion on ground tackle handling systems, Practical Sailor Technical Editor Ralph Naranjo took a road trip to visit Cliffe Raymond, the owner of Ideal Windlass, a three-generation family-run marine manufacturer based in East Greenwich, R.I.

In 1936, Ideal began making yacht ground tackle handling gear, and the company continues to follow the same basic design principals. Its gear has evolved, and market pressure has caused the company to add a line of "lightweight" alternatives, but what remains constant is an underlying premise that the structural safety margin of a windlass must be set up to accept the energy associated with the surging mass of a vessel, not just the weight of an anchor and chain.

One marine catalog states that "strain on the windlass should be limited to the weight of the anchor and rode." Yes, under perfect conditions, a sailboat’s auxiliary is used to break the anchor free, and the job of the windlass is simply to haul up the combined weight of the anchor and a length of chain equal to the depth of the water. Buoyancy even helps ease the windlass’ burden slightly, and a switch to a combination line-and-chain rode can make the "big lift" seem pretty lightweight indeed. However, this best-case scenario has caused many boatbuilders to downsize windlass power and structural ruggedness. Their assumption is: Why put all that extra weight and sheet-trapping bulk up on the foredeck where it will rob performance, increase cost, and clutter up the limited space?

The argument and trend toward light weight, less powerful ground-tackle handling gear sounds great right up until one realizes that windlass use isn’t confined to calm-weather days. In truth, the worse the weather, the more important a windlass becomes, for the pitching mass of a 10- or 15-ton cruising boat will put four-digit strains on an anchor rode.

All anchor windlasses function in a somewhat similar fashion. There’s a power source—whether it be electric, hydraulic, or human-arm strength—that creates energy used to rotate a drum-like structure capable of engaging rope, chain, or a combination thereof. The case or housing transfers the loads imparted by the ground tackle, and it must be attached to the boat via bolts that penetrate the deck and are backed to spread significant loads.

Many manufacturers use a cast-aluminum housing that is secured to the deck with stainless-steel machine bolts, and due to the dissimilar metals and abundance of seawater cascading over the stem, galvanic corrosion can damage these attachment points. Most alloy housings now incorporate sleeved bolt holes that utilize a dielectric plastic to eliminate metal-to-metal contact. Adding a sealant to the bolt also helps to lessen the chance of corrosion.

Windlass design, drive train construction quality, and reliability vary among products. Both vertical and horizontal capstan windlasses need a means of changing moderate torque and high RPM motor spin into high torque and low-speed rope capstan or chain gypsy rotation. The premier approach remains the use of a large gear driven by a small gear, with all rotating parts submerged in an oil bath lubricating the gears and heavy-duty bearings. The housing must be strong enough not to deflect under the full operational range of working loads. Smaller units utilize alloy-cased angle drives that also act as reduction gears. Their continuous load-carrying capability is much less than the rugged drive train shown in the Ideal BHW vertical capstan windlass.

The best drive systems utilize a shaft to engage a rope or chain drum by means of a clutch system. This approach allows the anchor and rode to be dropped quickly via a free-spinning drum rather than slowly deployed with a "power down/power up" drive that’s permanently engaged. The latter is cheaper to make because no clutch is necessary, but an emergency recovery and reset process, done in the middle of a stormy night, can be quite challenging for those with a clutchless windlass.

Electric-powered windlasses normally use 12- or 24-volt DC series wound or permanent magnet motors. The latter can work in forward or reverse by a simple change of polarity. These windlass motors, like starters on diesel engines, have grown smaller and smaller. They do produce more torque per given size than older technology, but the small motors also tend to produce more heat. In the early days of electric windlasses, automotive starter motors were given a longer armature shaft, a ball bearing race to carry thrust loads, and put into service as the prime power source. Their rugged, heavy case, stout commutator, and brush assembly made for a long-term reliable power source, and one that could be rebuilt in any automotive electrical shop around the world. More vulnerable to excess strain and overheating, today’s smaller, higher torque motors are more like fragile thoroughbreds compared to the plowhorse motors of the past.

Power to The Pointy End

Delivering sufficient current is also a big factor in windlass wisdom. Wire gauge is dependent upon the length of the run as well as the demand of the unit, and many electric windlasses will draw 100 amps or more. Breakers that can handle 150 amps make sense, as do such ratings for solenoids that handle the current.
This kind of current load may require 0/2 or 0/4 cable being ducted forward to the bow. Such an effort and expense is more palatable if the boat has a bow thruster and these heavy-capacity conductors can do double duty.

An alternative to such an extreme commitment to copper is going to a 24-volt system, which according to Ohm’s law, reduces the current demand by 50 percent and consequently allows for a reduction in wire gauge. It also adds charging complexity and other undesirable constraints. So many look to the third option, placing a battery close to the windlass and sending forward only wires capable of carrying the charging current that the battery will need. Once again, what is saved in copper expenditure is more than made up for in charging complexity and concern over another battery. Most pros continue to recommend that welding size cables are the right answer, and they remind installers to protect this cable with a fuse or circuit breaker that’s close to the battery terminal.

Manual Windlass

The world is not short of savvy old salts who continue to row dinghies and crank up anchors and chain by hand. They recognize that less complexity and more reliability makes sailing more enjoyable. They also see the merit of keeping sailing as a physical rather than button-pushing activity. Manual windlasses are a viable alternative, not just for smaller cruisers. Their longevity and ability to be rebuilt make them a product that can really stand up to the test of time.

Back in the late 1970s, Naranjo swapped an unopened box of B&G wind instruments he never found a pressing need to install for an all-chain anchor rode and a hand-crank Nilsson windlass. Since then, the windlass has been unbolted from his 41-foot Ericson’s foredeck a couple of times to be sanded and painted and its aluminum mounting feet replaced with a solid GRP base.

The oversized reduction gear and large double-clutch plates make chain handling a safe and easy process, and the horizontal pattern allows gravity alone to strip the chain from the gypsy. A simple rotary cranking motion with a 10-inch diameter handle provides enough force to manually retrieve a 45-pound CQR and 3/8-inch BBB chain. The boat’s engine and buoyancy are used to break the anchor free, and when surging loads are transferred to and from the windlass, its extra heavy-duty structure and design have paid off.

Robust solid bronze castings, a substantial main shaft, and large chain gypsy and rope drum diameters are all signs of a well-made and useful piece of gear, regardless of whether it’s manually, electrically, or hydraulically powered. For new boat buyers whose cruising plans include a good night’s sleep in strange new anchorages, it pays to confirm that your boat’s chosen windlass was selected for ruggedness and reliability, not for its pretty looks, sleek profile, and cost effectiveness.

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