In my last post I wrote about us having to anchor twice and weigh anchor once in gale and strong-gale force winds with higher gusts. In this post I’m going to write about the capabilities you need to have in a windlass when the anchoring gets tough.
And these features are not just for those voyaging to the high latitudes. Just about anywhere 50-knot winds can come at you out of a summer thunderstorm or an unexpected wind shift can leave you anchored on a lee shore, to cite just two examples, and being able to set or weigh anchor effectively may save your boat.
While weighing anchor in storm force gusting, the boat is going to get slammed back and forth, no matter what the helmsperson does, putting tremendous loads on the rode as the boat comes up short, and the windlass needs to have a strong enough main shaft and gear train to take this abuse without bending or stripping.
Even our massive Ideal Windlass can’t pull the boat up to the anchor when the wind gets over 30-knots, but it can up to that force and there are almost always lulls that allow us to get a few feet of chain in. Yes, I know, most windlass manufacturers tell you to motor up to the anchor, not to pull the boat to the anchor with the windlass. And we do try and do that when it is blowing. But on a practical basis it is almost impossible, even for a skilled helmsperson, to unload the rode completely and continuously when it is blowing gale force or above because the bow gets blown off one way or the other or the amount of engine revs required to maintain steerage way cause the boat to overrun the anchor.
So you need the most powerful windlass you can get. One that is at least capable of pulling the boat up to the anchor in 20-knots of wind and of easily lifting your biggest anchor and all of your chain.
You Gotta Have a Clutch
In recent years some windlass manufacturers have added the “feature” of dropping the anchor by pushing a switch, often in the cockpit, that reverses the windlass motor and pays out the rode. Sounds great in theory and it might even be useful on a calm day in shallow water when single-handed, particularly if you have a bow thruster (we don’t) to keep the bow in position as you back down very slowly paying out the rode.
The problem is that some manufacturers have used the addition of the above “feature” as an excuse to save money by removing the clutch that allows you to dump the anchor with the rode flying out at a run. This is a really bad idea. (I’m talking all-chain rodes, our preferred configuration, here. )
In the recent blows we weathered we had to anchor in the first in 65-feet (20-meters) of water and in the second in 100-feet (30-meters). In each case we used our whole rode of 325-feet (100-meters) and were able to run the lot in less than half a minute by releasing the clutch.
On the other hand, without a clutch it would take a windlass 5-10 minutes to veer that much chain. I could not possibly have held Morgan’s Cloud in position as 50-60 knot gusts screamed though the anchorage and stopped her bow falling off, snatching the anchor out of its tenuous set, for that long. Also, in both cases we needed to set the anchor very precisely in one position to be safe—difficult or impossible without a clutch.
In fact, in my opinion, a clutch and the use of it for dropping the anchor makes sense in pretty much all situations. I can’t tell you the number of times we have watched boats blow across a crowded anchorage as the windlass slowly veers chain. By the time the scope needed to get the anchor to set is finally out the anchoring boat is not anywhere close to where the skipper intended it to be, or worse still it has fouled something on the bottom, another boat or its rode.
And You Gotta Have a Brake
Obviously, if you are going to run chain like this, you need a way to slow and stop it without using the clutch and transferring the load to the windlass mechanism. The answer is a good band brake with a big wheel and long shaft to control it without getting your fingers too close to the flying chain.
Sadly, I would guess that less than 10% of production cruising boats have a windlass that can meet the above criteria. And I know, by bitter experience, that a windlass replacement is both expensive and a huge installation hassle. But if you are thinking about a new fancy plotter or some other gadget, wouldn’t a really good windlass keep you safer? To me it comes right after a really good big anchor on the priority list. I have owned both the vertical capstan type and horizontal windlasses and I really don’t think it matters which you fit, as long as the above listed features are included.
What do you think? Please leave a comment.