PS Advisor 01/01/98
Chain Locker Design
Nick Nicholson’s “Offshore Log” is another enhancement to your great publication. Here are a few questions regarding his November 1, 1997 article on ground tackle systems:
1. What are the pros and cons of a hand controller for the windlass vs. foot switches?
2. Nick states that one of the advantages of chain is that it is self-stowing in a “properly designed chain locker.” What are the characteristics of a properly designed chain locker and how many of Nick’s 400' of chain are self-stowing?
3. Can the 175' of chain stowed in the middle of the boat be deployed automatically? If not, how? Does it just sit in the bilge?
4. How do you secure the bitter end of the chain?
A note: I gave up on painting depth marks on my chain links long ago. Plastic cable ties secured to one side of a link seem to work much better. You can use multiple ties on different colors to indicate depth.They go through the windlass fine.
Mercer Island, Washington
The primary advantage of a hand controller for the electric windlass is that it gives you more freedom to move about the deck and to look over the side to see what’s happening with the rode and anchor as it goes up or comes down. With foot switches, you can’t move any farther from them than your leg can stretch. This isn’t a problem on our narrow-bow Tartan 44, but on Nick’s Saga 40, with much more beam forward, it is an issue. Nick also points out that foot switches eventually leak; on the other hand, the electrical connector plug for the hand controller is subject to corrosion.
Nick stows his 400' of chain in three lockers: about 125' in the forward most, about 100' in a second locker just aft of the first, and the remaining 175' in the bilge. It’s all one piece of chain as he doesn’t trust connecting links. Emphasizing that his arrangement is not ideal, the three compartments are connected by PVC pipe. Chain from the first two lockers will automatically deploy; if the last 175' is needed from the bilge, it must be manually pulled through the PVC pipe into the second compartment. And, when bringing chain in, any chain stowed aft of the first compartment must be manually pulled aft through the PVC pipe—a feature we especially don't like. The 175' of chain in the bilge sits between two floor timbers. The hull is protected by foot square plastic Dri-Dek panels.
Steve Dashew, in his Offshore Cruising Encyclopedia, recommends that the bitter end be lashed with 3/8" nylon rope to an eye-bolt or through-bolted padeye; the rope will hold if the chain comes up short, but also can be cut quickly in an emergency.
The problem with stowing chain, as you note, is that as it comes aboard it piles up, then falls over on itself, sometimes fouling so that when it next comes time to deploy, an upper section is buried and jams. One solution is to build a tall, relatively narrow plywood/fiberglass box so that the chain can’t fall over. Dashew says it should have “enough vertical space for the chain to stack itself about two-and-a-half times its final height. In other words, if after being smoothed out the chain is in a pile 18 inches tall in the locker, there should be about 45 inches of clearance from the bottom of the locker to where the chain exits through the deck or the end of the hawsepipe.” The disadvantage of this setup, as Dashew notes, is the high center of gravity of the chain pile. And, on many smaller boats, there simply may not be enough space to pile it so vertically. An alternative is to do as Nick did, and start moving some of the chain aft into another compartment.
That said, we cruised for several years with more than 200' of chain in the forepeak of a Pearson Vanguard and only once had the chain jam. Because it’s a grimy, nuisance job to have a crew below flaking chain as it comes aboard, what worked for us thereafter was to break the castle by spreading the chain athwartship after it all had been brought aboard. Fortunately, our castle never seemed to fall of its own accord, but only at sea with the boat heeled. By knocking down the castle before heading out, we greatly reduced the chance of a jam.
Two additional points: When making long passages, move as much of the chain aft as possible to locate its weight nearer to the boat’s center of gravity. Secure the anchor with lashings and do not rely on the windlass gypsy to hold it. And, because hawsepipes are almost impossible to make watertight on deck, Nick installed short lengths of PVC pipes underdeck which he could cap off. Obviously, this necessitates bringing all of the chain below (tag the end so you can find it easily!). The most water he can take on would be a few inches in the pipe, which can be caught in a pan when unscrewing the PVC pipe cap at your destination.