How to Use a Windlass Anchor: Essential Techniques

Whether you've installed a new windlass or bought a new boat and are using one for the first time, here are some important tips on how to treat your windlass properly. When referring to “rode” below, we mean the chain and/or rope you have attached to your anchor. When referring to “scope,” we mean the amount of rode you intend to lay out between the anchor and your boat.

What Type of Rode?

All-rope rodes, most frequently used on smaller boats, require windlasses with drums designed for rope. These are similar in appearance and operation to a sheet winch on a sailboat; the drum hauls in the line wound around the drum. Self-tailing is a feature designed to prevent your line from becoming a massive pile of "spaghetti" on your deck, making it particularly useful with all-rope rodes. A self-tailing feature also frees up your hands because you don't have to stand there tailing the line.

All-chain rodes, often favored by larger cruising boats, are handled by all-chain wheels. A self-tailing feature on a chain wheel would be superfluous as the weight of the anchor chain peeling off the wheel will cause the rode to stow itself and the chain, if properly sized for the chain wheel, will be pulled along by the cogs in that wheel. However, a well-working chain stripper is critical.

Combination rope/chain rodes are very popular because the length of the anchor chain (the more, the better) lends a lot of holding power to the anchor, and the rope keeps the overall weight of the ground tackle down. Windlasses that handle rope/chain rodes use either a rope drum mounted with a chain wheel , or single unit with both capabilities. A chain wheel handles the chain through the use of pockets or cogs, which the chain links sit into. Obviously, the chain and the pockets must match, or the chain will jam or slip out. Combination models also use both a rope drum and a chain wheel, or feature an internal groove in the chain wheel that also handles the rope. Unlike the separate configuration, which requires that you set the chain stopper after retrieving the rope and change to the chain wheel to haul in the chain, the combination model allows easier "hands-off" operation although there's still plenty of opportunity for fouling. Most combination models require that the chain be joined to the rope by a splice, as the unit cannot accommodate a shackle. A proper rope-to-chain splice is reported to retain 95% of the strength of the line while distributing the load evenly along its length. However, it's critical to closely watch the rope to chain splice for wear and abrasion which often occurs. Another advantage to the splice is its ability to accommodate the nylon rode's stretch; a lot of line tension could cause the thimble to pop out in traditional thimble/shackle arrangements.

Can you use a winch to pull an anchor?

Yes, if your mechanical windlass fails, you can use a regular winch, if one is available, like on a sailboat.

If you follow these recommendations, we are sure your windlass will live a long and productive life – especially when you need it the most. For more information on this topic, see our Navigator on Selecting a Windlass, or feel free to contact our product experts at (800) 426-6930.