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

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


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.

Darrell Nicholson
Practical Sailor has been independently testing and reporting on sailboats and sailing gear for more than 50 years. Its independent tests are carried out by experienced sailors and marine industry professionals dedicated to providing objective evaluation and reporting about boats, gear, and the skills required to cross oceans. Practical Sailor is edited by Darrell Nicholson, a long-time liveaboard sailor and trans-Pacific cruiser who has been director of Belvoir Media Group's marine division since 2005. He holds a U.S. Coast Guard 100-ton Master license, has logged tens of thousands of miles in three oceans, and has skippered everything from pilot boats to day charter cats. His weekly blog Inside Practical Sailor offers an inside look at current research and gear tests at Practical Sailor, while his award-winning column,"Rhumb Lines," tracks boating trends and reflects upon the sailing life. He sails a Sparkman & Stephens-designed Yankee 30 out of St. Petersburg, Florida. You can reach him at


  1. Power to the Pointy End: I’ve installed a small Lithium battery designed as an engine starter in the bow. It recharges slowly (think 4h) over small wires, puts out plenty of amps when needed (rated 10x required by windlass), and I could get rid of the long (by now somewhat corroded) thick wires to the bow. It’s served me well for the last 4 years. There’s enough juice for at least 4 lifts to the anchor, so re-anchoring when holding isn’t what I’d like it fine (and I have a second one to hook up if necessary). Happy with the setup.

  2. Very true! But . . . one must not overlook the security of the mount. I learned this the hard way. Situation: anchored off a reef mid Pacific at Palmerston Island. Wind shift at night and resultant lee shore. Swell became three to four feet. Anchor stuck in coral or rock. Trying to raise anchor, swell caused attendant violent jerking on the chain pulling gypsy through fiber glass mount. All chain went overboard but still secured to bow. Help from islanders; retrieved chain and anchor and we headed for US Samoa. There we obtained a plate of aluminum stair material and reinstalled gypsy with the metal as a full width backing plate. Re-fibre glassed the area which was virtually destroyed. Vessel: Beneteau 440.

  3. I totally agree with everything stated in this article. For 7 years sailing around the world in our FREYA 39, our Maxwell 3500 with reversing solenoid was incredible and once, in Tonga, brought up
    A huge rock when anchored in 90 feet! That windlass has never failed! It is now well over 30 years old and still running perfectly. I don’t know how well made brand new ones are, but that fantastic oversized( for a 39 foot sloop) windlass has always been a major safety for our world cruising and also in the shallow Bahamian waters!! And we never anchored downwind of a boat that had what we called ‘a hockey puck’ windlass!!!! Great article and so true. Thank you.

  4. Eight years ago I installed a bronze ABI double action manual windlass on my Cape Dory 36 Far Reach. I found the windlass used for $400. Simple to disassemble and reassemble. It has had a real work out in some deep Caribbean anchorages but never failed to do its job. I can’t imagine ever replacing it with an electric windlass.

  5. This article drips with the many, many years of experience of Ralph Naranjo, Safety at Sea moderator for numerous CCA Bermuda race training seminars. Toward the end, it appears to have been rewritten at bit. Having had an Ideal for almost 40 years aboard a 15 ton Mason 43, we had first hand experience with Cliffe when he did an excellent rebuild for us ten years ago. Not sure of the status of the venerable machine shop in East Greenwich:

    Schaefer Marine acquires Ideal Windlass company
    Schaefer expands product offerings and enters powered products market.

    By Cruising World Staff
    December 20, 2016

    Garry Schneider

    • Similar, SL400, on my boat for 47 years, 24V, 60lb CQR, 10mm chain. I have stripped it, replaced bearings, had the body repainted. Still going great. I now own a Knox 18kg anchor, better and lighter.

  6. I would amend this article to say that MOST recreational windlasses were not designed to withstand the forces of backing down and breaking out an anchor. It is true that Ideal makes some very beefy, very heavily constructed units that could stand up better–and some manual units are probably more robust–but this is a trade off of what you are willing to carry on your bow to avoid the technique of using a chain stopper or snubber to break out and back down. My view is that I value the balance and sailing characteristics of my boat and am quite willing to make a trip forward to sent the stopper or snubber for breakout and backdown–and that is a safer, better option. Frankly, there are limits to the bearings of all mechanical units and the forces of breakout and backdown can be extreme. I recognize that Practical Sailor makes its living by making comments on products, not nautical skill, but my experience (I am a USCG Master with at least the experience of the author) is that most of the time, it is a matter of competent seamanship to use a snubber or chain stopper rather than to test the limits of your gear. Sometimes it is much safer and more important to have and use competent nautical skills than to think that if you carry an anchor a size or two larger than is required, or some product labelled “next generation” or “heavy duty”that it will deliver you magically from a poor choice of anchoring spots or save you from making the tough decision to go to sea or move before the conditions make the outcome questionable and put your gear beyond its capability. There are many instances where novice cruisers have blamed the limitations for their gear when it is their own lack of action and anticipation that brought them to grief. Recently, in a Central American roadstead, a number of yachts were blown ashore; several of them waited too long to leave because they thought their larger “next generation” anchors would hold. In a sense, they were right. When surf conditions became untenable they could not get their anchors up in the pitching seas and had no option but to wait until some part of the gear failed. Gear cannot compensate for poor seamanship. And thinking some gear could do this is very very dangerous if you are really going cruising. Fortunately, most of this is about bragging rights at the dock as few boats are really going out there. But if you are really going cruising, think about it.

  7. Pete the Cat has said it right. In cruising for 15+ years in Central America, I have seen boats on the beach from not anticipating conditions, or over-relying on gear. One quite new vessel’s “gear” held up ok, but the entire foredeck had ripped loose at not being able to hold against the sea conditions; boat was sitting on the sand. A full width 1/16th to 1/8″ ss plate, and large washers, under plywood reinforced deck would not be overkill, and is usually not difficult to retrofit.
    One easy guideline is never anchor in depth that can permit you to be in the break. Barring a hurricane or tsunami, 30ft plus is usually OK (Boat , not the anchor, meaning your swing must be outside 30). Of course there are many other considerations, but that is an easy one, and remember winds and currents change, sometimes quickly, so your position must consider 360d at full extent of swing.

  8. I will second the dislike for the ever increasing trend of planned obsolescence and misplaced priority for amenities and speed over simple and reliable.

    My only disagreement with the above is for the article’s preference for “free fall” rather than “power down” of the anchor. My long-held understanding is that throwing the anchor off the bow, which you are doing by “free falling” it, can result in a fouled anchor and chain most likely requiring a second attempt. With my boat’s rather fast Maxwell HWC 1500 windlass the “power down” technique never results in fouled anchor.

    • Thats not what happens when gravity is used as the energy source to lower the anchor. So called free fall is a controlled lowering operation, using the clutch to adjust speed and control pay out as the vessel drifts back. Sure, if the clutch is fully released a d the chain allowed to free fall, then the pile up will happen. Only an ignominious or lazy person would do that.

  9. Just finished installing a Lewmar V1, replacing a 23 year old Simpson Lawrence Spirit 1000. Though not a perfect swap, given it’s genealogy, it was a pretty good bet it would be a good replacement fit.

    The Lewmar certainly checks off many of tge boxes as far as being built ruggedly b it has a cast stainless housing and a much improved under-deck motor.

    I was somewhat disappointed tgat the one size fits all deck gasket didn’t really gasket much of the underside, leaving gaps at the thru-deck hawse hole. Also, the casting had significant planned dead air space under tge housing. I prefer a solid deck-to-gasket-to-windlass installation so I filled the underside of the blank space in the housing with epoxy, thereby increasing the surface contact area at least five-fold.

    Finally,I was surprised the standard windlass did not come with a manual recovery. It was a $300 upgrade but in my opinion, required. I will always be reminded of learning the hard way thither the former SL windlass throwing out my back hauling up the 45 pound CQR and all chain in the Canadian Gulf Islands last summer when the windlass gave up the ghost. Sure I knew I was risking it by not addressing the matter of manual recovery before I needed but thought I had one more season to find the obsolete gypsy on e-bay. It is a matter of safety!

    I suppose my thoughts are the manual recovery option was probably a $10 add on charge to the manufacturer but a $300 charge to me. Same with the gasket properly designed for this specific windlass and the epoxy back-filling.

    I learned the hard way that everything needs to be done correctly and in working order to fully rely on the windlass when one needs to.

  10. This article spoke to me on several levels. We sail a Hans Christian, an older boat but so heavily built that we seldom worry about our numerous heavily constructed custom bronze fittings failing. Our Ideal windlass is now 25 years old and has easily handled our 70lb Paul Luke Fisherman Storm anchor in gale force conditions in Scotland. Thank you for the article.

  11. Manual anchor winches.
    I read with great interest the article on modern electric anchor winches, and the transition from heavy reliable hand operated to lightweight electric short life winches.
    One alternative is to use a simple deck mounted hand operated windlass and drive it with a new product on the market from Australia Powerwincher “.
    It is designed to operate any winch drum on your vessel that a standard winch is required.
    This works a treat on an anchor winch as well.
    Check it out

  12. Manufacturers of recreational boats have learned that few boats are used more than a few hours per month. Therefore, they deduce, the duty cycle that the boats experience is extremely light and does not warrant a build that can withstand heavy loads as it is highly unlikely that it will ever be experienced by the boat/owner. Their logic makes sense until the ‘doo-doo’ hits the fan.

  13. The article should be essential reading for anyone considering blue water sailing and or commissioning a new yacht.

    We sail a 38′ x 7t (extended cruising weight) catamaran and sail to Tasmania (in the Roaring Forties). We spend 3 months sailing down to, spending time on the SW coast then returning. We carried 8mm chain but opted to 6mm high tensile which then demanded a new gypsy. The 6mm chain took weight out of the bow and allowed more chain (75m instead of 50m). New gypsies are extortionate and rather than simply buy a new windlass we retired the original, the 20 year old windlass and replaced it with Maxwell RC6-8 with 1000 watt motor. Its effectively a windlass designed for a yacht that would normally carry 8mm chain (so the 8mm grunt) – but with a 6mm gypsy.

    We have not regretted any of the changes we made. The 6mm chain is a joy to work with (we also use 15m of 6mm on our spare rode), the Maxwell windlass has been superb (they are the only company in the marine industry we know who offer a 365/24 hour customer service (at least in Australia0.

    We do use extended Snubbers, a pair making a bridle.

    We firmly believe that the ground tackle needs to be considered as a matched choice, windlass, power source, wiring, chain specification, shackles, anchors – too often each decision is made independent of the rest of the kit – it all needs to be chosen for fit and be of the same strength.

    Not much use in buying G40 chain with toy shackles, underpowered windlass and no snubber.


  14. THE DEATH OF MY LAST WINDLASS (see comments above)

    A well trusted and very respected local boat yard manager once explained to me that he believed that most windlass motors are overstressed based on how they are installed and how they are used. He said that based on the services his yard performs on windlasses and the need for unplanned replacements, the electrical system will last MUCH LONGER if one doesn’t over stress it. Then he went on to show me exactly how recommends use of the windlass in both the power up and power down modes. He said the secret is to let it repeatedly cool down during set and recovery given the high amperage and resultant potential for heat-the enemy of an electrical system. His basic rule of thumb is to depress the power button and count to 5, then let off the button and count to 5 again, repeating until enough is payed out or until it is recovered and stowed. “Give it 10 second use-rest-use intervals and it will last even longer.” He asked “What’s the rush? Are we really in that much of a hurry to burn up our windlass? You wouldn’t run your car starter for two minutes straight if the engine wouldn’t start, would you? If not, why do the same to your windlass?”

    Turns out he was right and we learned the hard way. Though we had been using the technique for years without an issue, one night in a crowded, windy anchorage, at dusk, my wife thought she say a charter trawler upwind from us dragging. Before we knew it, it had slammed into the bow of our friend’s Passport 42 (causing significant damage) and bounced off in our direction. In the ensuing argument, my wife said, “pull the anchor FAST, he is now headed towards us!” As she started the engine, and laid on the horn, I rushed forward in the dark and hauled the anchor as fast as possible, never once letting it rest. With the other guy still oblivious that he was in fact dragging and headed right for us, we got the anchor up but the ordeal apparently destroyed our windlass in the process. Our only option was to head in shallow (in the rocks) and as he passed he yelled at us about dragging “up” on him. Given our boat and our friends were both downwind in a 25 knot breeze in a closed in bay (no current) “dragging up” was an impossibility. The upshot is he took off without claiming responsibility but his charter company had AIS on him and not only did we have photos, we had dozens of witnesses.

    We reset and lifted it the next day only for it to stall out as the anchor came over the roller. We crossed our fingers, reset it the next night and again, it stalled coming over the roller and that was the end of it, one more set and it was dead on the bottom.

    In the necropsy of the dead windlass, I found that the last three feet of wiring was Romex 12 gauge and the deck gasket had been compromised, allowing drips directly in and around the protective rubber boot of the windlass. My own repeated ignorance of my own set-up not withstanding, I have no doubt that the full power-up of all chain and a 45 pound CQR without a rest was the death knell of our 23 year old windlass. In our case, a well serviced engine, an aware crew and a windlass that was ready to die to get us and our boat out of harm’s way was well worth the trouble of having to replace the windlass. The upshot is that the friend on the Passport has the same Spirit 1000 and took the dead one off our hands to part out into his own spare parts store.

  15. I find it interesting that no-one complains when their dyneema halyard cover wears out or their chartplotter/GPS becomes so dated that the owner feels the need to replace – and then complains that their windlass fails. Windlass last for a couple of decades (or – with some care – I bit longer). They are very simple devices but the majority of owners, maybe not those that read PS, consider their windlass as a consumable. Wander round a marina, ask most owners when the they last serviced their windlass…… “windlass, servicing??”. Windlass manufacturers recommend an annual service, check the gear box oil, clean and grease the shaft – is it really that difficult? If you do service annually then the corrosion problem between aluminium and steel is easily over come as though the windlass when installed and commissioned by the ‘boatyard’ ignored the issue – you will have used something to protect the 2 metals – grease, Duralac.

    There are other problems, was the windlass installed such that the chain did not impinge on the motor. Was the mild steel casing of the motor protected from the salt water environment, most anchor/chain lockers are simply the space left over when the accommodation was squeezed in – hardly the place to expect simple unprotected electrical wiring to thrive.

    Treat the windlass as you would your partner – it will offer dependable service in return. If the locker holding your windlass is not conducive to corrosion – you will also be protecting your chain…… A damp or even wet locker will corrode anything,

    I do agree – windlass are chosen at the minimalist end of the performance graph – upsizing is very sensible and costs little, extra, in the grand scheme of things. Protecting the components are simple, if time consuming; servicing is a task to be completed, annually, one afternoon – when the sun has lost its intensity