Anchorages are not like car parks – there is no way of buying more time. If the wind shifts, or another boat invades your space, picking up and moving elsewhere should be a straightforward, effortless process (see: How to trip the anchor). But for anyone with a boat over 25ft without a windlass, the effort (and back pain) required to haul in all the tackle is enough to put you off moving, reducing your enjoyment and possibly endangering your boat. So if you find yourself in that position, you should consider installing some mechanical assistance on the bow (or getting a smaller boat). The question is, where to begin? How do you choose the right windlass to ensure that you are easing your pain and not creating even more of the same.
Vertical or horizontal type?
One of the first and most important choices you’ll need to make will be whether to select a vertical or horizontal style of windlass. Knowing the basic qualities of each type will help in making your decision.
The horizontal mount, for example, will keep most of the windlass hardware on deck and is generally considered the best choice for boats with small anchor lockers. A minimum of 30cm (12in) fall is required to allow for proper stacking of the anchor rode in the chain locker.
Vertical mount windlasses hide more of the windlass machinery below the deck, but therefore, take up more space below and will typically need a much larger anchor locker to allow for a minimum fall of 46cm (18in) to provide enough gravity for the anchor rode to drop into place within the locker. It’s reasonable to say that the vertical windlass will generally be the choice for larger boats with more space in the forepeak area.
What size windlass do I need?
The simplest answer here is to follow the manufacturer's recommendations to the letter. The weight of your anchor and rode, as well as the size of your boat, will be the deciding factors here. Don’t try to save a buck by undersizing this gear. You’ll regret it later for sure!
Bow anchor rollers, positioning, design load
Anchor roller hardware needs to be sized in accordance with the anchor type and size you select. A mismatch here is going to cause things to get jammed up or even fail under load. Make sure all mounting hardware is through-bolted and has proper backing plates in place. Also, be sure to seal any holes drilled into your deck to prevent water leaks into your boat’s deck laminate or deck coring.
In the USA the American Boating and Yachting Council recommends that boats over six metres (20ft) in length should be capable of deploying two anchor rodes over the bow. The Recreational Craft Directive that affects the EU (and currently the UK) is a little less prescriptive, stating: "
All watercraft, taking into account their design category and their characteristics, shall be fitted with one or more strong points or other means capable of safely accepting anchoring, mooring and towing loads."
The ABYC also publishes a helpful table to prevent you buying under-sized gear for your boat.
Matching your windlass to your anchor rode
The type of windlass you choose will need to match your anchor rode. Most small-boat owners use a combination of rope and chain, and manufacturers make windlasses to handle the most common combinations. You will need a rope-to-chain splice to work with these modern self-tailing windlasses. If you're going to be using an all-chain rode, you'll also need to choose a windlass designed to handle chain of your specific link size.
Windlasses are considered to be very high electrical current-draw items, with typical amperage needs measured in the hundreds of amps. Because of this, heavy gauge cable and proper circuit protection are of paramount importance to ensure a safe and reliable installation.
Voltage drop between the source of battery power and the windlass motor will also be a typical concern. Remember that the longer the power cable run, the greater the potential voltage drop to the motor. Too much voltage drop will mean a significant loss of pulling power for the windlass. So, depending on the layout of your boat, you may be looking at an auxiliary battery mounted up in the forepeak of your boat to reduce the cable run length. This means adding a complete battery installation and may also mean the addition of a second battery charger on board just to keep this new installation up to full power.
The type of motor the windlass uses will also help to determine some of the wiring requirements. Permanent magnet motors will have two wires connected to the motor. A controller will change the direction of the motor by reverse-polarising these two leads. Permanent magnet motors are typically much smaller and lighter in weight than their series-wound counterparts, also used in windlass applications.
With the series-wound motor, the controller will typically have two positive and one negative conductor, and the motor’s directional capability is controlled by selecting one or the other positive conductors to supply power to. These are typically heavier motors that require a bit more wiring and heavier gauge conductors.
You'll also have to decide whether you want "up-only" operation with a manual release for dropping anchor, or both up and down electrical operation. Most people today want electric capability in both the up and down directions.
You’ll also need to make some decisions about whether you want foot-switch operation on the foredeck, a handheld remote, or tethered switching configurations. On many modern powerboats for example, getting to the bow to deal with an anchor windlass can be not only a bit of a chore, but also unsafe. In that case full remote operation of the windlass from the cockpit is going to be the best solution. Understand that your choice here will dictate the exact type of switch gear and the amount of wiring you’ll need to deal with.
Adding such a big electrical device to your boat isn't a project to be taken lightly. But if you do your homework in choosing the right windlass for your boat and take things one step at a time you'll end up with a trusted mechanical hand on the foredeck, and your back will thank you for it.
For more anchoring guidance, see: Choosing the right anchor and Anchors: a new Generation – Bugel, Manson, Supreme, Rocna, Spade.