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What is a Windlass?

By B. Turner
Updated May 23, 2024
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A windlass is a mechanical device used to assist boaters with raising or lowering a heavy anchor. Many vessels utilize a large steel anchor that can weigh hundreds of pounds or more. Because of their substantial weight and size, these anchors are difficult or impossible for a single boater to raise or lower without assistance. A properly-sized windlass allows boaters to operate the anchor with ease, and can be used by a single operator in many cases.

Boats may feature either a horizontal or vertical windlass depending on design and function. Most larger boats include a horizontal unit, which may be referred to as a windlass or winch. In this type of application, the anchor rope or chains are wound around a cylinder that sits parallel to the deck. The motor and related equipment sit within a sealed container, which helps keep them protected from moisture damage.

A vertical windlass, or capstan, features a cylinder positioned perpendicular to the deck. Most of the related gear for the device sits below the deck, which helps give the boat a low center of gravity. The vertical capstan offers more flexibility in terms of anchor placement and operation than the vertical winch in most applications. This vertical design is commonly found only on smaller vessels.

During windlass operation, the anchor chain or rope winds itself around the cylinder to draw the anchor up, and unwinds to lower the anchor. Each unit may feature manual operation, such as a manual handle at one side of the cylinder, or electronic operation. Electronic windlasses make it easier to raise the anchor, and also allow boaters to stay sheltered while lifting or lowering the anchor instead of venturing out into a storm. Very large boats feature hydraulic windlasses, which are capable of lifting very heavy loads with a high level of efficiency.

Each windlass must be chosen carefully to match the needs of a particular vessel. It must be large enough to accommodate all rope and chain used to operate the anchor, and should be easy for the boater to operate. The size of each windlass is determined by the total weight of all ropes and chains, as well as the anchor itself. Most boaters choose a larger windlass to account for force created by wind or rough seas. A more powerful windlass can accommodate these types of conditions with ease to avoid problems lifting and lowering the anchor.

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Discussion Comments

By bluespirit — On Sep 27, 2011

I love all the terms that go along with boating, as they are not boring. Bimini, mast, starboard, port and now I know about windlass. I spent some summers working on the coast so I learned a few of these terms, and still spend some time on boats so I still try to keep up with the fun terms.

I have since learned another thing that seems to happen with these terms is that due to the range of different boats, although there may be one definition of bimini, the choices of biminis are endless. For example: biminis can be be square tube bimini tops, buggy style, tower biminis, Carver biminis...

I wouldn't be surprised if it was the same for windlasses.

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