Windlass guide

Windlass guide

Any kind of anchor manoeuvre that is done without mechanical assistance requires great strength. If you can't get the anchor to set on the first attempt, and it has to be raised and lowered several times, doing so manually can quickly become a real workout for any crew. Having a mechanical windlass on board, with which you can hoist your anchor and chain either with a handle or at the push of a button is therefore a must on any boat over a certain size. It's important to know what type of windlassis right for you, as this depends on size, power and shape and should be appropriate to your type of boat and where you are taking it.

In our windlass guide, we hope you will find all the answers to the most important questions and plenty of helpful tips!

Mounting a windlass

Where is the best place to mount a windlass?

An anchor windlass is a type of winch that is located on the foredeck of the boat. It is used to raise or drop the anchor quickly, easily and reliably. It can either have a vertical or horizontal axis and can be operated with a small motor (electric windlass) or a crank/handle (manual windlass) bedient werden kann. Some windlasses are also operated hydraulically, although these are usually only found on larger vessels and are not common in recreational boating.


Manual and electric windlasses

What is the difference between a manual and electric windlass?

Manual windlasses are lighter and cheaper than electric windlasses. They are operated by turning a handle so that you can effortlessly raise your heavy anchor, albeit slightly slowly. Perfect if you have no battery or generator on board. A hand-powered windlass is also easier to install. However, if your boat has enough space and power to operate one, you can’t go wrong with an electric windlass - it makes it easier to perform anchor manoeuvres single-handedly, plus you can raise the anchor much faster. These are ideal if your boat is over ten metres and has more than 10 kilograms of anchor equipment (chain 8 millimetres).

However, some models do not have an emergency manual override function, which means that if electric operation fails, the chain has to be hoisted by hand.

Operation and function of a windlass

How does an anchor windlass work?

An anchor windlass consists of a chain wheel or mooring drum and gypsy, which are driven by a series of gears to increase the force many times over. In an electric windlass, a gearmotor is used instead of muscle power. When the gypsy rotates, the links of the chain interlock and the anchor is hoisted. The chain is slowly fed through the hawse and into the chain locker. The windlass has a strong brake whose holding force is always less than the chain breaking load. When dropping anchor, the brake can be used to stop quickly, provided there is enough chain length in the water. A chain stopper, pawl bar or 'Devil’s Claw' is used to hold the anchor rode in place.

Horizontal and vertical windlasses

What is a horizontal windlass and what is a vertical windlass?

There are typically two basic types of anchor windlass: vertical or horizontal. With a horizontal windlass, the main shaft goes horizontally across the windlass, in a vertical windlass, the shaft is mounted vertically. Both have advantages and disadvantages. With vertical windlasses, more of the unit is hidden below deck, and often only the small stainless-steel housing is visible on the foredeck. However, this requires sufficient space in the chain locker to house not only the rode, but also an electric motor and gearbox. If space is limited here, the drive unit could take up too much space below deck and impair cabin space and comfort. Horizontal windlasses, where the motor and gearbox are housed in an enclosure on deck, are a good solution if space is an issue.

Whether you choose a horizontal or vertical windlass mainly depends on the space you have on the deck and in the chain locker. If the chain locker is very shallow, horizontal windlasses are more suitable. The chain then runs vertically from the gypsy down into the chain locker, leaving a few important centimetres of headroom (drop height). When the chain locker is full, there should be at least 40 cm of drop height so that the hanging part of the chain is heavy enough to pull it down. Otherwise, the entire system can jam should a mountain of rode build up. Stainless steel chain is good if space is limited in your chain locker. As it is smoother, it tends to spread better in the locker. With a vertical windlass, the anchor rode makes a 180 degree wrap around the gypsy and is more secure should it unexpectedly slip. On the other hand, on a horizontal windlass, the rode enters the gypsy, makes a 90 degree turn and feeds into the anchor locker, using only half the bearing area. Many models feature an extra capstan, which can be used to wrap a line around and bring in, for example.

What is a capstan?

Some winches may have a capstan for hauling in ropes, which is either mounted on the side or on top, depending on the model and manufacturer.
It can be used to pull in your dock lines and facilitates mooring manoeuvres, especially in strong winds. Sometimes a capstan is also used to haul in an anchor line. However, a windlass without a capstan head is more compact and sometimes more suitable, at least for sailing boats, because it could get in the way of the foot of the foresail. On top of that, a capstan is potentially unnecessary as there are usually enough winches on deck.

Using a manual or electric windlass

How is a windlass operated?

While a manual windlass must always be operated by a person at the bow of the ship, an electric windlass can be controlled by a relay that is activated via a control unit that can, in principle, be located anywhere on board. There could be a simple switch located near the winch, or more sensibly, directly at the helm. This is a good way of operating the windlass single-handedly, but does depend on reliable function of the anchor and bow roller. Electric windlasses with a remote control are now also available and widely used. These are either wired and connected to a socket in the anchor locker or are wireless. The advantage of radio remote controlled windlasses is that they can be operated from anywhere on the boat. A further advantage compared to wired versions, is that cables and sockets tend to get damaged easily which can result in malfunction. Some modern windlasses also feature a chain counter, which is shown either on a display at the helm or on the hand-held remote control.

The remote control can also be used to release the brake on some models. In this case, we recommend electric anchor winches with a motor that can turn in both directions in a controlled manner. They may cost a little more, but an anchor manoeuvre can be carried out with much greater control. Moreover, quickly lowering the anchor chain and letting it fall freely puts enormous strain on the windlass and should be avoided. In general, experts recommend not to overload the expensive mechanics unnecessarily. The windlass itself should not be used to pull the boat towards the anchor when retrieving, always motor up to anchor. Use the engine to hold the boat while at anchor. When retrieving, keep the engine running to ensure a stable power supply. Windlasses are not designed to break out a heavy anchor that is firmly set. In this case, move the boat so that the anchor chain is at short haul and use a chain stopper to relieve the strain on the windlass. Short haul is when the boat is directly over the anchor, so that the chain is running almost vertically down. A chain stopper is a fitting used to secure the anchor chain when riding at anchor and prevent it from slipping. The anchor can then be broken free by moving the boat back and forth using the engine, or sometimes it is the motion of the boat on the waves with the chain taught that frees it. Once the anchor is released, the windlass bears only the weight of the anchor hanging freely on the rode.

anchor winches
Ankerwinde an Deck

Gypsy / Wildcat

What is a windlass gypsy and how do I know what size sprocket I need? (What are the norms?)

Anchor chains come in standard sizes that must match that of your gypsy. In Germany, chains are manufactured according to the industry standard DIN 766. Chains from other European countries often correspond to the ISO standard 4565. DIN sizes correspond to uniform dimensions that have been established according to the German Institute for Standardisation (DIN). The International Organisation for Standardisation, ISO for short (from Greek isos = equal), is a corresponding international standardisation organisation. Outside Europe, chains are commonly measured in inches. According to DIN and ISO, six and eight millimetre thick chains are identical. Differences in classification only exist from a size of ten millimetres of steel chain. For rode that is a combination of chain and rope, special combo-gypsies can haul in both chain and rope without needing to awkwardly transfer the rope-chain splice part of the rode to the other side of the windlass. However, a special splice is required for this.

Choosing and installing a windlass

How do I choose the right windlass and can I retrofit one on my boat? What power does my windlass need (watts), how powerful does my windlass have to be (pulling force)?

A windlass – whether manual or electric - can be retrofitted or replaced by the owner. When choosing a windlass you'll need to consider the overall length of your boat and its displacement. For a 10-metre sailing yacht, the power of the windlass should be about 700 to 1000 watts. Many manufacturers provide tables for calculating the necessary power. For the greatest possible safety, the traction capacity (pulling force) of the windlass must be at least three times the total weight of the anchor and anchor chain (or line and chain) and swivel/shackle. Some manufacturers even recommend this to be four times. If you want minimum wear and a long service life, we recommend an even higher working load. This will also provide additional safety and ensure that your windlass and equipment will perform well even in difficult situations. Furthermore, the stronger your windlass, the easier it will be to perform anchoring manoeuvres. If weight and space requirements and the size of your wallet are not an issue, don't try and save a few euros when choosing an anchor windlass, experts advise.

Many manufacturers specify the so-called "breakaway force" of their products. This refers to the force that a winch can briefly exert to release the anchor from the bottom. However, since it is not advisable to use the windlass to break an anchor free, you should really focus on pulling power when choosing a windlass. As previously mentioned, it's always better to haul the anchor short and use a chain stopper if the anchor doesn't come loose straight away. Once you have made the above calculations, you can choose your model. Experts advise making a template before buying or installing to check whether the windlass you want will fit at all. For vertical windlasses, the motor can always be rotated in some way. However, here you have to be careful that it doesn't block the anchor locker or prevent the chain from running freely through the hawse into the locker. When assembling and installing your windlass, make sure that the anchor chain can be pulled in safely by the windlass and that you can make adjustments if necessary. If you have any doubts, we highly recommend consulting an experienced marine technician or engineer.

Installing an electric windlass

How is an electric windlass installed?

An input power of 1000 watts or more is the norm for an electric windlass on medium-sized boats. This means a current of over 80 amps at 12 volts nominal voltage. If you want to use your consumer battery to supply this power, hefty cables with large cross-sections of 35 or even 50 square millimetres are required. It is therefore sometimes better to have a separate battery near the bow, charged by the alternator via an isolating relay. You can use a relatively inexpensive starter battery for this, as it won't be subject to high demands (shallow discharge, used for short periods). However, a sealed battery should be used on sailboats due to heeling. We advise an AGM battery as they are stronger, although more expensive. Experts recommend using the on-board 24 v power supply only on large boats with several electric winches and long cable runs. With double the voltage, the amperage is halved for the same power, which allows for a smaller conductor cross-section and also smaller fuses.

Manufacturers, material and specifications

What is the best construction material for an anchor windlass, what manufacturers are there and what's the difference?

There are many suppliers and manufacturers of powerful manual and electric windlasses on the market. Well-known manufacturers of quality winches are Lofrans, Lewmar, Quick, Andersen or Maxwell Marine to name but a few. They all have powerful windlasses in their range. While similar in design, they do differ in construction material. Many windlasses are made of seawater-resistant, anodised aluminium. Some housings are made of chrome-plated aluminium, which makes them impact-resistant and weatherproof. Gypsies can be made of chrome-plated bronze, stainless steel or extremely robust special plastic. Lofrans windlasses are amongst the highest quality, with powerful models that are very popular on recreational boats. Their housings are usually made of silver anodised aluminium alloy and the drive parts of stainless steel. Lofrans also has versions where the gypsy is made of titanium.
You can find more important hints and tips on „anchor lines and chains“ in our guide!