Windlass Maintenance - Boat DIY PDF Print E-mail

Surveyor and frequent guest blogger, Frank Lanier, has offered some tips on what to do keep your windlass ready when you need it.

Frank, now retired from the USCG, is a marine surveyor and writer for Practical Sailor, Southern Boating and numerous other marine magazines.  In the course of his daily survey work, he has some funny or frightening finds - a virtual Sea Chest of Horrors from the marine world.  I got one idea as to what I’ll be doing in the yard already – thru-hull inspection, check.

Nothing promotes a good night’s sleep at anchor like heavy ground tackle – except maybe the knowledge that there’s a functional anchor windlass at the ready to save our backs by hauling it all onboard in the morning. Anchor windlasses perform reliably under the harshest conditions with little complaint, however even these silent deck hands require regular maintenance to ensure proper operation.

Anchor windlasses come in a variety of styles - vertical or horizontal (in reference to drum orientation), manual, electric, or hydraulic powered.  Each has their own set of pros and cons with regards to maintenance and upkeep.  Manual units are almost bulletproof, but require conscientious greasing and cleaning.  Hydraulic units can develop leaks, while electrical units have numerous components (batteries, switches, solenoids, etc) that require due diligence due to being located in exposed, often wet locations.

While you should always follow the maintenance items provided by the manufacturer for your particular model, here are some good basic tips that can help extend the life of any windlass.

• Rinse the windlass thoroughly with fresh water after each outing to wash off salt, sand, and mud. Rinsing an all chain rode before it enters the anchor locker is also a good idea, particularly if winch components are located in locker and can be spattered with muck and debris.

• Check the gear case lube oil level weekly (most worm gear driven windlasses will have a sight glass for this). Milky oil indicates the presence of water (typically from a failed seal) and must be corrected immediately. 

• Check windlass mounting hardware regularly for looseness, movement, corrosion, and leaks.  Leaks are often caused by a broken bedding seal, typically the result of a windlass being overstressed.

• Inspect all electrical connections monthly for problems such as corrosion or charring (as a result of arcing). Dissemble and clean corroded connections (after turning off all power) with a wire brush and electrical cleaner (vinegar works well in a pinch).  Terminal and post connections should be clean and tight – coating them with di-electric grease and installing insulating rubber boots will protect against corrosion and accidental shorting.

• For units with the motor and gearbox located below decks, check the casing regularly for rust – most are constructed of painted steel and will readily corrode in the damp environment of the anchor locker should the finish be damaged. Address corrosion immediately (clean, prime, and paint) to prevent it from worsening. 

• Inspect foredeck footswitches for damage and proper operation. Ensure the hinged covers are in place (to prevent accidental operation) and that the covers themselves operate easily and have a good seal when closed. Check the rubber diaphragms for cracks, tears, or deterioration – spraying them regularly with a UV shield (such as 303 Aerospace Protectant) will noticeably extend their service life.

Tips on making your windlass last:

• Motor forward when raising the anchor to reduce the strain on the windlass – never use the windlass to pull your boat to the anchor.

• A windlass isn’t designed to weigh an anchor and rode under strain. If the anchor has to be broken out, belay the rode and use the engine to break it free.

• Never allow the full weight of your boat to ride on the windlass while at anchor; always remove the strain from the windlass by cleating off rope rodes or using a snubber for an all chain rode.

• Always run the boat engine while raising or lowering the anchor. This allows you to minimize drain on the batteries (with using an electric windlass) and maintain control of the vessel when the anchor breaks free.

• Keep the windlass covered when not in use to protect it from, salt, corrosion, and UV exposure.

• Use the windlass regularly to keep all internal gears lubricated. Grease and lube oil tend to settle at the bottom of the gear box, resulting in dry section of gears that could be prone to rust. If at the dock or hauled, crank the windlass over a few turns every couple of weeks.