See our video report on the windlass test published in Yachting Monthly November 2012 – and read about the types of windlass available, what their ratings mean, what loads they can cope with, and tips on installation and maintenance...
Windlasses are divided into two types, vertical and horizontal. The distinction can be
somewhat confusing, as it is based on the orientation of the drive shaft, not
the profile of the winch. Thus a vertical model has in fact got a horizontal
gypsy, lying in the plane of the deck, with its motor under the deck, and the
shaft running vertically through the deck. A horizontal model has its gypsy
placed at 90 degrees to the deck, with its motor housed above deck and the
shaft driving it horizontally.
Both will have a gypsy, with shaped sockets or recesses round its circumference to
take the links of a chain. Most gypsies will also have a tapering groove at the
bottom of the sockets to take rope, allowing the use of combined rope/chain
anchor rodes, though they do require the rope to be three-strand. Most
windlasses will also have models with the option of a warping drum, on the same
shaft as the gypsy, which allows you to pull in on a mooring line, or warp your
boat across a harbour, using any configuration of rope.
Windlasses are rated either by their motor power in watts, or their pulling power in kg,
but the two are not always directly related. The motor power is the current it
draws multiplied by the battery voltage, measured in watts. The figure quoted
by manufacturer is normally a nominal one, at light load.
However the pulling power depends on the ratio of the gearbox that connects the motor
to the gypsy, and the diameter of the gypsy. The higher the gearbox ratio, the
more pull you will get from a given motor. Similarly the smaller the gypsy
diameter, the greater the pull. However the downside of getting extra pull this
way is that the speed of the gypsy, and hence the speed of chain recovery is
reduced. Some manufacturers offer different gearbox ratios and gypsy diameters
with the same motor, giving a greater pull, and hence heavier weight of anchor
and ground tackle that the windlass will lift.
There is further variation between the makes in how they define the different ratings
of the models under different loads. Some describe them as Working Load,
Maximum Working Load and Maximum Pull, and it can get confusing when you try to
compare like for like. The key factor is how long they can sustain the
different loads. Working Load and Maximum Working Load should be capable of
running for at least two minutes. The Maximum Pull is usually the maximum pull
the winch will exert before it stalls. But there is still a wide variation
between these claimed figures, and some makes do not even quote them, so be
cautious about placing too much dependence on them.
A circuit-breaker is essential in the power supply to the windlass. It will
protect against short-circuits, and overloading of the motors. A
circuit-breaker is used instead of a fuse, as it can be re-set if it trips.
Most of the breakers are of the thermal type. These sense not just the current
flowing, but the time for which it has flowed. Thus it will not necessarily
trip if there is an instantaneous two or three times over-current, which would
prove to be exasperating every time the chain hit a small snag. However if the
over-current lasts for a prolonged time, the breaker heats up and trips. The
higher the current, the shorter the time before it trips. Typically a thermal
breaker will take 1.5 times its rated current for 20-30 seconds, or two times
for 10 seconds.
However the breakers supplied with most of the units in our test were between 80-100A.
We were testing some of the motors at between 120-140A which is within their stated working
currents, but this resulted in their breakers tripping after 10-15 metres, or a
minute or so of pull. We have noted these premature trip distances in the
table. Once the breakers were left for 30 seconds or so, they cooled down, and
could be re-set, and the pull continue. However we would recommend some makers
look at supplying higher rated breakers to overcome this situation. It may not
happen often, but when it does it would be unnerving to have the winch trip
What load should it pull?
The basic minimum load that the windlass should handle will be the weight of chain
and anchor, with the boat directly above the anchor. At this point it is
lifting the amount of chain equal to the depth of the water plus freeboard,
plus the anchor. 8mm chain weighs 1.4kg/m, so if you are in 10m of water, with
a 25kg anchor, even if you have 30m of chain out, the weight the windlass will
have to lift is only approximately 40kg, as the rest of the chain is lying on
However this is the ideal situation, and assumes you have been able to start the boat’s
engine, and motor up to the anchor. The worst case scenario is you have 50m of
chain out, with an engine that won’t start, and have to pull the boat forward
to the anchor using the windlass. At this point the chain weight is going to be
75kg, to which you have to add the drag of wind or tide on the boat, and you
could be looking at a load of closer to 140kg. In fact many windlasses we
tested claim this as their working load, so therefore this is what we tested.
Finally you will have to pull the anchor out of the ground, which could require a pull
of two or three times the working load. This will only be instantaneous, so you
need to know that the maximum load, just before the motor stalls or the
circuit-breaker trips, is equal to this.
Having said all this, in practice, whenever possible you should use the engine to
motor up to the anchor, and provide some extra boost to the batteries. Frequent
use of the windlass alone for this purpose will rapidly shorten its life.
Similarly if the anchor is really snagged, whenever possible you should use
gentle engine power to break it free, with the chain taken round a strong point
to take the load off the windlass.
Installation and cable sizes
All of the motors we tested are capable of DIY installation, but it must be
emphasised that this is a heavily-loaded, highly-stressed piece of equipment,
which can apply huge loads to the boat’s structure, so you should be completely
confident in your ability to tackle this job, and that the position you have
chosen on the boat is strong enough. If in doubt you should leave fitting to a
Also you must use adequate diameter cable to connect the windlass to your batteries.
Most people use the ship’s main battery pack for the supply, which can give a
cable length of up to 10m by the time you have run it through the boat. Double
this for the supply and return, and you have 20m of cable. Unless you use large
enough diameter wire, the voltage drop down this length will be considerable,
reducing the effectiveness of the motor. The manufacturer’s guidance on cable
sizes should be adhered to, or exceeded, but as a rough guide, for a motor
drawing 140A at its working load, and a total cable length up to 20m, you
should use cable with at least 35mm2 diameter. For a motor drawing
80A you should use at least 25mm2.
Ease of installation
Whilst you will only be fitting your windlass once, the easier this is the better, and
our test revealed a wide variation in how straightforward the procedure can be.
The main problem is getting underneath to tighten the fastenings, and attach
the motor and gearbox. We were doing it in the comparative luxury of being able
to crawl under our mounting board, but you will be doing it often blind in a
confined locker, and some of them are real pigs.
All except the South Pacific have right-angle gearboxes, which reduce the depth the
motor takes up under the deck. The motors can be orientated in different
directions, to account for different locker shapes, with some having four
positions, but others being infinitely variable.
The hardest ones to fit use the motor as part of the through-deck fixing process,
requiring you hold a heavy gearbox/motor up under the deck, while juggling four
bolts through several holes, and then attaching the nuts. Two people are really
required to achieve this.
The easiest ones secure the windlass to the deck first, making it easy to line up
bolts and nuts, then you slide the gearbox up the drive shaft. Even here the
securing system varied in simplicity, with the easiest ones having just a large
P-clip that pushes in a locating groove.
The South Pacific has its vertical motor permanently attached to the winch, and so
just drops down through a hole in the deck.
The wiring arrangements also vary, with most having large stud terminals on the
motor, some of which are in waterproof housings. All the motors need a
reversing contactor, to send the current one way or the other, but some of
these are separate units, that you have to find a safe, dry location for, close
to the motor, while others are part of the motor housing, or in a watertight
A variety of controls are available with most of the makes. These include rubber
foot-switches next to the windlass, wired-in up-down switches in the cockpit,
and remote wandering controls, which can either be wired or wireless. Most also
offer the option of chain counters, which allow you top measure how much chain
you have let out – particularly useful for blue-water sailors often anchoring
in deep water. Our prices include the reversing solenoid, circuit-breaker,
simple up/down cockpit switch, and two foot switches.
Dropping the anchor
There are two options when it comes to dropping the anchor. Pressing the
toggle-switch down reverses the motor, and pays out the chain at a controlled
but comparatively slow rate. For a faster deployment, you can release the
clutch between motor and gypsy with a handle, and the chain runs out. To stop
it you tighten the clutch. We measured the speed the motor pays out the chain.
Your windlass will be mounted in probably the most exposed part of the boat,
regularly doused in salt water, used only rarely, and hence forgotten about
most of the time. But YM readers’ reports warn that neglecting routine
maintenance will quickly cause problems to build up, and may invalidate any
Surprisingly the makes vary widely in how much they recommend you should do, but as a
minimum you should wash down the exposed parts with fresh water after every
trip to sea. Every year, or every three months for some, you should remove the
gypsy, wash out any salt deposits, and grease the moving parts. Under the deck
you should spray the electrical contacts with a proprietary inhibitor. Some
then recommend an annual professional service.
It is essential that you use what is termed calibrated chain with an electric
windlass. This is more accurately manufactured than standard chain, with the
link sizes and shapes precisely controlled. Otherwise the links could jump or
jam in the gypsy under load. If you have existing chain on your boat, it
probably is not calibrated, so you will have to allow for the extra cost, with
40m of 8mm calibrated chain setting you back £240 or so. Also be very careful
that you do not mix metric and Imperial chain and gypsy. 8mm may seem close to
5/16in, but is not close enough, and will jam or jump.