Choosing a Boat Anchor Windlass

Lewmar V700 Vertical WindlassAfter spending your vacation hauling up the anchor by hand in less than stellar conditions, you’ve decided it’s time to invest in a new windlass for your boat. But where do you start and what you need to know to make the right choice in the overwhelming array of options available? This Navigator will cover what you need to consider before purchasing your new anchor windlass.

What size windlass should I choose?

One of the most important factors in choosing a new windlass is to make sure it’s sized correctly for your boat. There are several factors to consider when picking a size. Windlasses are typically marketed as being suitable for a range of boat lengths, with the assumption that a boat in that range will have an appropriately sized anchor and a certain amount of chain and/or rope to support it. However, depending on the type of boating you do, it's possible to find yourself in situations where "typical" doesn't cut it and even while using "best practices" for minimizing loads (like motoring up to your anchor to break it free) you may still be asking your windlass to perform beyond its usual duties.

To cover as many situations as possible, below we list factors you should consider in the process of deciding which windlass to choose.

  • Anchor Size – How much does your anchor weigh? It takes a lot more power to pull up a 75 pound anchor than a 30 pound anchor.
  • Rode – How much chain or rope is connected to your anchor and how much does it weigh? The higher the answer, the more power you’ll need to retrieve it.
  • Vessel Displacement – Is your boat fiberglass, steel or maybe even ferro-cement? In rough conditions, the weight of your boat can easily be a factor in how much power you need when deploying or retrieving your anchor,
  • Vessel Windage – A boat with a high cabin, large dodger, or a tuna tower will have far more windage (surface area exposed to the wind) than a boat with a flush deck. When retrieving your anchor, especially on a windy day, high windage will significantly increase the load on your gear, so you should definitely consider the potential benefits of upsizing if you have a boat with a lot of windage.

In general, the best method to figure out how much “pulling power” you need is to add up how much your ground tackle weighs (anchor, chain and/or rope) when not under load and then choose a windlass rated with a “pulling power” of at least 3 times that weight. 

For example, let’s say that you have a 25kg galvanized Rocna anchor (55 pounds) with 150 feet of 3/8” HT chain (230 pounds) and another 200 feet of 5/8” 3-strand nylon rope (approximately 20 pounds).  That gives you a total weight of 305 pounds (55+230+20), so you will need at least 915 pounds of pulling power (ground tackle x 3).  If you have a heavy boat (such as steel or ferro-cement), or a boat with high windage – you should definitely consider upsizing your windlass.  When in doubt – consult with the manufacturer – but remember that in this case, stronger is always better. Your windlass will last longer if you’re not always pushing it to its limit!

Horizontal or Vertical?

Lewmar ProSeries Horizontal WindlassWhile the decision to go with a horizontal or vertical windlass may seem purely cosmetic – there are important factors to consider and you may not even have a choice based on your chain locker. Following, we take a look at different features and benefits of both types. When discussing “fall” below, we are referring to the distance between the top of the anchor locker and the top of the rode when everything is fully stowed – an important measurement!

Horizontal windlasses are typically entirely above deck and present a more "traditional" look. Since the windlass is right in front of you, it’s much easier to notice corrosion or damage and it’s often easier to work on – though you will lose a certain amount of deck space, making bow work slightly more awkward. Surface mounting usually makes for easier installation (no big hole in your deck) and means the motor does not take up valuable space if your boat has a small or shallow chain locker.

The anchor chain engages only about ¼ of the chain wheel (gypsy) circumference on horizontal windlasses, making a good match of the chain size to the gypsy particularly important. Minimum "fall" from the gypsy to the top of the piled up rode of at least 12" is recommended in order to have enough weight to pull the rode down into the locker. If a portion of your rode is rope, more fall is better. Horizontal windlasses can also be somewhat more forgiving than vertical models if the anchor/bow roller is located higher than the windlass chain wheel – such as out on a sailboat bowsprit. 

Vertical windlasses typically have their motor below deck often presenting a sleeker "low profile" appearance. While the motor and gearbox are protected from the elements below deck, they are potentially located in a relatively damp and salty environment – which can increase the chances of corrosion. Lofrans Project 500 Vertical WindlassThe location below deck can make it more challenging to perform annual maintenance or repairs (think boat yoga), leading to the “out of sight, out of mind” phenomena.

A minimum "fall" of at least 18" from the underside of the deck to the top of the piled up rode in the chain locker is recommended to have enough weight to pull the rode forward from the chain wheel down into the locker. The anchor chain engages approximately ½ of the circumference of the gypsy giving optimal chain control and minimizing jumping. While a vertical windlass is more suitable for boats with larger, deeper chain lockers, you may need to hire an expert to assist with the installation since they are fitted through the deck.

Both horizontal and vertical windlasses are typically available with or without a capstan drum for independent hauling of a second rode, halyard, tow rope, etc. As you can probably tell, both models have their pros and cons, so it more likely that your boat’s configuration and anchor locker will determine which one will work best.

Manual, Hydraulic or Electric?

The final thing to consider is whether you want a powered or manual windlass – and if you go powered, should it be electric (DC) or hydraulic?

  • Manual – if you have a smaller boat without a lot of battery power, but just want some help getting the anchor up in windy conditions, a manual windlass may be a good option. They use zero electrical power (being completely human powered), but give you a better mechanical advantage than retrieving the anchor by hand – which will save your back in the long run. They are available in two types – one uses a circular motion (similar to a winch) and one uses a back and forth motion (like a pump or lever). Similar to a winch, the circular model may come with the option for a second speed – which is extremely helpful when you need a little more power.
  • Electric – these are the most popular option for boaters because of the ease of installation and the ability to retrieve your anchor with the push of a button or flip of a switch. But the electric windlass is only as good as the battery that runs it, so make sure you have enough power to complete the job! This usually will entail installing a dedicated battery for the windlass since the distance between the bow and the battery bank is likely too long of a wire run to meet the power demands of the windlass.
  • Hydraulic – while this is the most complex option to install, it can offer constant power no matter how long you need it without worrying about running down your batteries – with the caveat that you need to run your main engine in order to power the windlass. That said, if you don’t already have hydraulics on your boat, we highly recommend you consult with a professional before making any decisions.

As you can see, there are many factors to consider when deciding which windlass to purchase and your boat’s configuration may end up being the biggest factor in determining what you buy. Anchored out with Mount RainierThe most important thing to remember is to make sure you have enough pulling power for the ground tackle you plan to use. If you are even close to maxing out the pulling power of the unit in consideration, move up to the next bigger size – the less strain you put on your windlass the longer it will last!

Fisheries Supply stocks a wide variety of windlasses from all the best manufacturers, including Lewmar, Lofrans, Maxwell, Muir, Powerwinch, Quick and Vetus Denouden. We hope this Navigator has helped you understand what you need to know when choosing a new windlass – but if you have additional questions, please don’t hesitate to contact our product experts at (800) 426-6930. For additional information on windlass operation, check out our Navigator on Using Your Windlass.

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