Blue View – New Anchor Chain

I was eyeing our anchor a few days ago, trying to ignore how rusty the end of the chain was beginning to look. It wasn't working. The last time we used it was five months ago, and sitting unused , exposed to the elements all that time had taken its toll. As much as I would like to put off spending money on something as unexciting and mundane as anchor chain, doing something about those rusty links couldn't be postponed much longer.

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The Blue View - Windlass Controllers

windlass foot switch As I write this, we are in Suriname, moored near the tiny town of Domburg. A couple of nights ago, an American catamaran sailed in after a passage from Brazil. When they tried to anchor, their windlass jammed with the anchor partially deployed. They had just enough rode out to snag on the bottom, but not enough to hold the boat in place. As they tried to fix the problem, they ended up hitting another boat, then getting thoroughly entangled with it. After a bit of spirited language and a few hours of work, they were finally able to get clear of the other boat and anchor. There were a few rookie mistakes involved, but I shan't pass any judgments – Lordy, we've certainly made our share of mistakes along the way.

It did, however, remind me of the love-hate relationship we have with our windlass, that big, fat hunk of metal that raises and lowers the anchor. With the size of our anchor and the amount of chain we use, it is a very important piece of gear, and something we depend on. When it is working, we love it, but it's a royal pain when it isn't.

In a calm, flat anchorage, I might still be able to haul in a couple hundred pounds of dead weight by hand (I see Marcie smirking about this claim), but it would be a struggle. An alternative would be to use a line attached to a cockpit winch, and winch the chain onto the deck, 25 feet at a time. It would be slow and messy, but the winch would get the job done. When conditions change, however, and we need to leave in a hurry, a working windlass on Nine of Cups becomes essential. We both remember trying to leave a deep anchorage at Tristan de Cunha when the wind shifted and the anchorage became untenable. We were taking waves over the bow and when our venerable old windlass crapped out, Marcie struggled to keep us off the rocks while I hauled in all 250 feet (75m) of chain and our 110 lb. (50kg) anchor. It took hours. Not something I'd want to do on a routine basis.

I've devoted a couple of blogs to windlasses and how we replaced ours. Just as important is the windlass controller. The windlass isn't much good if the switches that operate it aren't reliable. We've tried several different methods, some of which worked well and some of which didn't.

windlass control option 1

When we bought Nine of Cups, she had a heavy-duty Maxwell windlass that was operated by two deck mounted foot switches. The system was simple and straightforward – when you stepped on one of the foot switches, the contacts of the switch connected the 12 VDC to the windlass motor. This approach, while simple, had two problems.

The first problem was the 150 amps of current that passed through the switch contacts. In the salty environment in which the switches live, conducting that much current through the switch contacts caused a lot of arcing, which in turn, caused the contacts to pit and deteriorate. I think I replaced those switches once a year for the first three years we owned Cups before I got wise to the problem.

windlass control option 2

In the next iteration, I used a windlass motor control module. In this option, only a relatively small 3-5 amps of current passes through the foot switches, and the solid state relays of the motor controller handle the 150 amps required by the windlass. The foot switches now last many years instead of just one.

The second problem was damage to the deck core from water ingress. Whoever originally installed the deck switches did nothing to protect the core except caulk under the foot switches. Eventually, water made its way into the core, causing the core to deteriorate and the bond between the core and deck to weaken. When we were in New Zealand a few years ago, I removed the top of the foredeck, replaced the wet, damaged core, epoxied it and the deck back together, then fared and repainted the whole area. The job turned out well, and is probably stronger than when new, but it was a lot of work. It would have been a lot easier to prevent the damage to begin with.

windlass control fastener

Any time I drill a hole in the deck, I do what I can to protect the core from water damage. If I am using self tapping screws, I first drill a hole in the proper location. The hole should be the proper size for the screw and slightly longer than the screw length. Then I increase the hole size by .25” (6mm), about 75% of the depth that the screw will penetrate the core. I will want to remove the screw and fitting later, so I coat both with wax or silicone grease. Then I use a Q-tip to paint the inside of the hole with epoxy. As it is kicking, I mix a batch of thickened epoxy, about the consistency of ketchup, and pour it into the hole. Then I position the fitting and screw the fastener in place. I use just enough pressure to hold the fitting in place. Once the epoxy has cured, I remove the parts, caulk underneath the fitting, and screw it back in place, tightening the screws enough to make a good seal, but not enough to squeeze all the caulk out from under the fitting.

switchfoot epoxy

Any hole that penetrates the bottom layer of the deck, like the hole for the foot switch for example, should be temporarily sealed from the bottom to prevent the epoxy from dripping down into the interior. If it is a small hole, I make a plug from modeling clay. If it is a large hole, I attach a piece of scrap plywood to the underside of the deck using a glue gun. I use only enough to tack the wood in place, so it's not too difficult to remove later. Then I seal any gaps between the plywood and the lower surface of the deck with modeling clay. Next, I paint the core with epoxy to wet it out, and give it a coat of thickened epoxy. In this case, the epoxy should be thicker – maybe the consistency of peanut butter, to keep it from sagging too much.

All this sounds like a lot of work, but the hour you spend now will save a few weeks work repairing a spongy deck core down the road.

Stay tuned – in the next blog I'll talk about making a handheld windlass controller, and, if you aren't too “windlass controller-ed” out by then, I'll show you my nifty digital chain counter.

Marcie's comment: “Geek sailors of the world unite!”

The Blue View - Whinging About the Windlass

When we arrived here in Geraldton, we anchored behind a small breakwater just off the town's foreshore. As we were dropping the anchor, Marcie observed that the windlass was making a new and unusual noise – never a good thing. Since we will be depending on the windlass in half a dozen anchorages during our crossing of the Indian Ocean, it seemed like a good idea to find the cause. Parts aren't always easy to get in a small town in Western Australia, but it is a lot easier to get them here than it will be at an island in the middle of the IO. Once we were settled in and convinced that the anchor was holding, I removed the capstan and gypsy. The shaft had quite a bit of movement in it – enough so that when a load was applied, the gypsy was binding against the base plate. This was the cause of the new grinding noise, and in fact, it had already started wearing a groove in the top of the base plate. Apparently, one or more of the internal bearings were beginning to wear. This was a repair that would be much easier to make if we were in a marina, and we arranged to move into the Batavia Coast Marina the next day. Then, I began my internet search to see how soon I could get the repair parts.


windlass symptom


The only Australian distributor for our Lofrans windlass is in the Brisbane area – on the other side of the continent. The good news, however, was that Michael Date at McIntyre Marine was someone we had worked with before when our Katadyn watermaker had problems, and our experience with him was quite good. He had the repair parts we would need and would air freight them to us – we should have them in 2-3 business days.


parts blow up view


The next day, we moved into the marina and I set about removing the windlass. This is a bit of an ordeal. To access the bolts holding the windlass, I have to climb down into the sail locker then crawl headfirst over the chain locker and into the forepeak. It takes several minutes to slither into place, over and around various obstacles. It is a very tight fit and quite uncomfortable once there. This is one of those times when I wish I was 5 feet tall and weighed 75 pounds. There is no place to set the tools I needed or the parts as they are removed, so Marcie patiently passed items back and forth to me – no easy feat in itself, since this required that she climb in and out of the sail locker each time I needed something.

After an hour or so of whinging and swearing, the windlass was almost ready to remove. Only several turns of one nut was holding it in place. Most of the weight, 50 lbs or so, is attached to the underside of the deck, and must be lowered down and removed from below. Since I was directly under it, I was hoping we could manage this in a controlled manner. I had a recurring image of the windlass falling on top of me, pinning me in the forepeak, and watching the local firemen use a chainsaw or the Jaws of Life to cut a hole in the deck large enough to extract me. I slid partially out from under the windlass, positioned a plank under it, and between Marcie holding the shaft above and me lifting from below, the last nut came off and we were able to ease the windlass down onto the plank. Then, as I crawled back out of the forepeak, I slid the windlass along the plank with me – no chainsawing required.


motor corrosion


Now that it was in the light, I could see that there was a lot of corrosion on the motor housing. It would take considerable work to grind, prep, prime and repaint it if it was going to last for any length of time.


gearbox corrosion



broken screw


A worse problem, however, was discovered as I began disassembling the gearbox. Apparently the deck seal above it had been leaking for awhile, and saltwater had made its way to the top of the unit, causing the alloy around the upper seal of the gearbox to corrode. The corrosion had gotten so bad that water had begun to make its way around the seal and into the gearbox. The gear grease was milky and the internal bearings were shot. On top of that, I broke three screws off in the housing while trying to get them out. I could replace the bearings, I could replace the seals, I could replace the gear oil, and I could find a machinist to extract the screws – but I couldn't repair the corrosion around the seal.

All told, it would cost about $500 for the parts, supplies, machinist's time and tools I would need, and I could maybe fix it well enough to last until South Africa, where I would most likely need to replace it. Or I could replace the whole windlass here.

Time to call Michael back...