A Guide To The Sailing Windlass
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A Guide to the Sailing Windlass

The summer boating season is nearly upon us. In preparation like many others, I’ve been looking at essential equipment for my 2016 efforts and whatever else is set to be indispensable to novice sailors like myself, as well as more seasoned sea dogs. My main focus at the moment is a new Windlass; however, my efforts to expand my knowledge on the subject have been severely hindered by a lack of robust and trustworthy articles on the subject.

Emergency situations like this call for immediate action, so I present my all-encompassing Guide to the Windlass. It’s suitable for all sailing experience levels and will explore the different types of Windlass currently on the market, as well as which one is right different sailing vessels.

What is a Windlass?

A Windlass is an apparatus used to lift and move heavy objects. In the context of ships, it is utilised to control the anchor chain so that the anchor may be raised or lowered, or can even control a fishing trawl. As with every Windlass, it takes advantage of a winch-like function to operate, which can be rotated with use of a crank or belt to pull a cable or rope.

The water based Windlass dates back as far as 1313, where it is depicted in a book of agricultural significance from Ancient China. It is believed the concept was created by Wang Zhen of the Yuan Dynasty.

Types

In the modern context, the Windlass is divided into two main groups; vertical and horizontal. Technically speaking, we only refer to the horizontal design as a Windlass, whilst the vertical design is a Capstan. Regardless, we will continue by referring to both as a Windlass to match common usage, as well as the fact that both use a drive shaft to operate.

A Windlass will usually be divided into one of these two categories based on how the drive shaft functions. A vertical model works with a horizontal gypsy or rhode (internal rope or chain) with a vertical axis on the winch, whilst a horizontal model uses a more vertical gypsy (usually around 90 degrees) and a horizontal shaft drive for the winch.

A modern Windlass also typically has a motor, which helps propel heavier objects such as full fishing trawls. Whilst a vertical model usually has the motor under the deck, and horizontal model has its motor housed well above deck. This explains why the gypsy on each is positioned in such a way.

Choosing Correctly

Knowing the essential parameters and properties of your sailing vessel is crucial to choosing the correct Windlass. It is also helpful to have a general idea of the basic minimum load you expect to be subjecting the Windlass to, which will likely be the weight of the chain and anchor plus any extra water resistance. It is recommended that the fitting of a new Windlass be left to a professional, unless you’re fully confident you can tackle the difficult job yourself.

The biggest deciding factor on which type of Windlass you’ll be installing is the height, length and displacement of your boat. For example, installing a vertical model is much easier on a longer vessel, whilst a taller ship would be better suited to a horizontal model where plenty of space above deck is guaranteed.

Typically, the power of a Windlass is also influenced by the power of your ships’ engine, which can be calculated via wattage, as well as its maximum pulling capacity if you intend on hauling heavy objects around. The higher the maximum pull, the higher the working load will be. This is especially important for anchor recovery, and it’s always better to be safer with a higher maximum load if you intend on conducting regular trips out to sea.

Anchor Control

How much control you have over the anchor is based on many factors, including weight of the anchor, depth of the drop, and how much power is available to the winch. Typically, the anchor can be controlled in a variety of ways, such as foot switches, cockpit controls, or even wireless remote or computer control access if your Windlass is advanced enough.

Despite the progress made in anchor control technology, dropping the anchor has remained almost identical for centuries and a typical Windlass doesn’t allow for much manoeuvrability in this area. Either press the toggle and let the chain slowly do its business, or release the clutch between the motor and gypsy for rapid deployment.

Maintenance

Maintaining your Windlass is also important, as it’s constantly exposed to the elements and can quickly falter if not part of a regular routine. This will keep your kit in commission for much longer. As a standard rule, wash the Windlass with fresh water after every trip, and take it apart every six months to clear out the salt deposits and ensure all the moving parts are adequately greased.


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