Installing an Anchor Windlass

windlass anchor installationHave you ever noticed that when you need your trusty anchor the most, it seems to have a mind of its own and absolutely refuse to sink its teeth into the bottom. Somehow this usually coincides with howling winds, rain coming down in chaotic horizontal sheets and lightning streaking across the sky. Okay so I should have had the anchor set before the storm blew in but nobody’s perfect.

So here I am soaking wet, hugging the foredeck and pulling furiously on the rode to retrieve the anchor so I can attempt to set it for the third time. Then it hits me, I need a windlass! Well actually a windlass, some dry clothes and a cup of coffee but at this point I will settle for the windlass. Sound familiar?

Installing a windlass may seem like a job that should be left for the pros but for those with a bit of bravery and some basic mechanical skills the task can be a pleasant experience. The complexity of the installation will primarily depend on the layout and design of the your boat. In this article I will take you through a windlass installation on a typical 30 foot cruiser. Many of the ideas presented here can easily be adapted to most boats and hopefully you will get an idea of the task that lies ahead.


Planning, Planning, Planning

I cannot emphasize enough the importance of thoroughly thinking through each step of the process before purchasing any equipment. This is the time to really become familiar with your boat. Study the layout of your boat carefully and as you explore take notes because there are some key questions you will need to answer.

Here are the items to consider in a logical order:

Anchor Locker

Does your boat already have an anchor locker, if so how large is it and most importantly how deep is it? A deep narrow anchor locker is preferable over a shallow wide one. Windlasses don’t stow the rode in the anchor locker, gravity does! So how does this affect windlass selection?

anchor lockerWith all of the anchor rode in the locker the distance from the windlass spool to the top of the pile of rode is important. This is known as the “fall distance”. A larger fall distance means there is more weight to assist in stowing the rode (18 inches of rode weighs more the 8 inches). This extra weight also helps keep the area immediately under the windlass clear of rode, helps prevent the rode from tangling and provides more tension on the backside of the windlass spool.

On a horizontal windlass the spool normally sits above the deck a fewinches and therefore the anchor locker can be shallower (Lewmar recommends a minimum of 12 inches of fall distance). Horizontal windlasses are more foregiving with the chain to rope splices found on mixed rodes. However, there are several drawbacks to using a horizontal windlass. They take up more space above decks and can become a hazard on a pitching rolling deck. It is also reported that they don’t handle rope rodes as well since the rode is only in contact with the windlass through a 90 degree turn and some slippage may occur.

The spool on a vertical windlass sits relatively flush with the deck and provides a180 degree turn of the rode thus preventing some of the slippage problems with rope rodes. Most people prefer them for the aesthetics, they look sleeker and are less of an obstruction on the deck. However they too have their drawbacks. They are less friendly to chain to rope splices on combination rodes and require a deeper anchor locker (Lewmar recommends a minimum of 18 inches of fall distance).

The boating world is flush with stories of those that ignored the fall distance recommendations from the various windlass manufacturers. Those are the people that you hear complaining about having to consistently reach into their anchor lockers and un-jam the windlass.

Windlass Size

Most people have the misconception that a windlass is supposed to drag the boat up to the anchor and then winch the anchor off the bottom after it has managed to dig in under 4 feet of mud. Wrong idea! Most common cruising windlasses are only designed to handle retrieving the rode as you motor up to the anchor, then the rode should be tied off to a cleat or samson post while the anchor is broken out. Once the anchor is broken out then the windlass may be used to bring the remaining rode and anchor to the surface.

Some windlass manufacturers provide recommended sizes based upon the length of your boat, but that should only be a starting point. To accurately determine the size you need, the weight of the anchor and rode should be taken into account. Most of the better windlass manufacturers provide you with information to make this task easier. Check out the Lewmar windlass selection guide by clicking here.

You will see that they start out with the size of the boat and the windlass models that are compatible. Then they consider the anchor and rode to assist in finalizing the choice. Then they politely attempt to educate you on proper windlass use “Your windlass is a retrieval device; the windlass retrieves the anchor and rode. The windlass is not a high-load-bearing device.”

Some other considerations should be taken into account when selecting a windlass. What type of boater are you? Someone that just goes out for the day when conditions are good may opt for the lower end of the recommended windlasses. But if you frequently spend the night on the water, often encounter rough conditions and love cruising then you will want to invest in a higher end windlass.


The next item to consider is wiring. If you are replacing an existing windlass is the wiring still in good condition and of sufficient size? If this is a new installation, is the boat pre-wired? If the answer is no to either of these two questions then the job becomes a bit more complicated because now you are most likely going to have to disassemble large portions of the boat to gain access to key areas.

windlass wiringYou will need to determine where you will route the wiring from the batteries to the windlass. This path you choose will need to be relatively protected, allow you to secure the wires properly (every 18 inches) and be as short as possible. A windlass uses lots of amperage so the wires (hereafter referred to as cables) need to be quite large to reduce the resistance.

Most manufacturers recommend a maximum of 10% voltage drop and provide convenient tables to help you determine the proper cable size. It is important to remember that the length of cable is from the battery to the windlass and back to the battery following the anticipated route.

At this point it is a good idea to draw a rough sketch of what you want. Do you want a foot switch, a helm switch or both.

If you are satisfied with a single point of control for the windlass the installation is a bit less expensive and easier. The wiring will originate at the battery positive, pass through a circuit breaker/isolator, pass through a bi-directional toggle switch to the windlass before returning to the battery negative.

If you want a more elaborate setup then the windlass wiring schematic should consist of two circuits, the windlass power circuit which begins at the battery positive, passes through a circuit breaker/isolator connects to the windlass contactor then returns to the negative side of the battery. This circuit is the primary power for the windlass and will have the large cables.

The next circuit is what I refer to as the control circuit. This will begin at the contactor pass through the foot switches and rocker switch, then through a fuse and return to the contactor. The contactor serves as both a solenoid and reversing switch. It allows you to send a small current through a helm switch or foot switch that when activated will close the solenoid and power the windlass. The contactor also allows this current to flow in reverse to power the windlass the opposite direction. (note when ordering your windlass if you want a dual station type of installation the rocker switch, foot switches and contactor are not normally included in package deals and may have to be ordered separately.)


stern anchorIt may seem obvious that you want the windlass located on the bow of the boat, however there are circumstances where they may be located on the stern and other areas as necessary. The principles discussed in this article may be adapted to a windlass installed in any location. This article will assume you are installing the windlass on the bow of the boat. Even so the choice for the actual location on the bow may not be so simple.

The windlass will need a very strong location in order to support the loads placed on it. On some boats the deck may be uneven near the bow, such is typical on some models of house boats. This may require installing the windlass and pulpit at an angle or fabricating a mounting platform for the windlass as shown in this picture.

There may be other considerations affecting the installation such as samson post locations, the thickness of the deck, rails or a chain pipe that may be in the way. In this example if the windlass in mounted centered the samson post will be in the way. The existing chain pipe will need to be removed and may be a good location to mount the windlass.

The area below deck should be inspected as part of this process. You don’t want to mark the area and begin cutting until you are assured no obstructions exist and the area is suitable. In the picture below the v-berth and head panel have been removed to expose the anchor locker. you can see the chainpipe extending down into the anchor locker.

What is not so obvious are the support beams that run forward to the bow pulpit. These supports are part of a fiberglass box that forms the bow pulpit of the boat. It is extremely strong and has a layer of steel sandwiched in between wood and layers of glass. It is a separate piece that is bolted onto the hull and top deck of the boat, while most newer cruisers are all one piece. This restricts the windlass location to a very narrow location horizontally.

As you can see a little exploration and planning can help avoiding nasty surprises and will make the installation easier.

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