How to choose a windlass for your boat

Boating 101: How to Choose an Anchor Windlass

A hassle-free anchoring experience is about more than just the type of anchor you’re using. Selecting the right anchor windlass is integral to the process, as it directly impacts your onboard safety and convenience. Finding the right one can be overwhelming. The sheer variety of options ranging from different types to sizing, power ratings and additional features can be daunting for even experienced boaters. Plus, understanding your boat’s specific needs and the compatibility of the windlass with the type of anchoring you plan to do only adds to the confusion. In our comprehensive guide to anchor windlass selection, we will walk you through the process of choosing the perfect windlass. From understanding what exactly one is to deciphering technical specifications and exploring the latest innovations, we’ll make it all make sense. 

What is an Anchor Windlass?

What is a windlass?What is a windlass?

By definition, an anchor windlass is a mechanical or electric device commonly found on boats and ships. Its primary function is to assist in the handling of an anchor and anchor rode with the following:

  • Anchor Deployment: When you're ready to anchor your boat, the windlass allows you to lower the anchor smoothly into the water by winding out the anchor rode.
  • Anchor Retrieval: After anchoring, the windlass assists in raising the anchor from the seabed by winding in the anchor rode. This is especially helpful when dealing with heavy anchors and large lengths of rode.
  • Tension Control: A windlass also helps in maintaining tension on the anchor rode, which is essential for securing the anchor in place and preventing it from dragging on the seabed.
  • Convenience and Safety: Windlasses make the process of anchoring and retrieving the anchor easier, safer and less physically demanding for the crew, especially in adverse weather conditions or when anchoring in deep water.
  • Storage: When not in use, the windlass typically stores the anchor and rode neatly on the boat, preventing clutter on the deck and ensuring that the gear is readily accessible for future use.

Common Windlass Terminology 

Understanding common windlass terminology is essential when dealing with this critical piece of boating equipment. Here are some key terms you should be familiar with:

Anchor Rode: The combination of anchor chain and anchor line (rope) that connects the boat to the anchor.

Gypsy or Drum: The rotating part of the windlass that engages with the anchor rode. A gypsy is used for chain, while a drum is used for rope.

Capstan: Some windlasses have a capstan in addition to the gypsy or drum. It's a vertical drum used for handling rope or line and can be used for docking.

Chain Locker: The compartment or storage area where the anchor chain is stored when not in use.

Anchor Winch: Another term for a windlass, especially in the context of larger vessels.

Rode Guide: A device or component that helps guide the anchor rode (rope and chain) smoothly onto the windlass and into the chain locker.

Clutch: The mechanism that engages or disengages the windlass, allowing you to control the anchor's deployment and retrieval.

Free-Fall: Some windlasses have a free-fall feature, which allows the anchor to drop rapidly without using the windlass motor.

How Does a Windlass Work?

Diagram of how a windlass worksDiagram of how a windlass works

Windlasses are highly engineered marine components that employ precise mechanical systems to efficiently deploy and retrieve a vessel’s anchor. They operate by engaging a rotating gyspy or drum, matched to the anchor rode type, to deploy and retrieve the anchor. The operator activates the windlass using controls, allowing the anchor to drop or be raised as needed. Tension control is maintained during retrieval, preventing anchor dragging, and once fully retrieved, the anchor is secured. 

Step 1: Choose Horizontal or Vertical Windlass Configuration

How to choose the right windlass for my boat. Horizontal windlassHow to choose the right windlass for my boat. Horizontal windlass

Horizontal Windlass

How to choose the right windlass for my boat. Vertical windlass configurationHow to choose the right windlass for my boat. Vertical windlass configuration

Vertical Windlass

The first step for anyone shopping for an anchor windlass is to determine which configuration is right for their boat. Horizontal windlasses have a side-by-side motor and gypsy configuration, while vertical windlasses have a stacked motor and gypsy configuration. Each type has its own advantages and disadvantages, and the choice between them depends largely on your anchor locker size.

How windlass configuration matters to locker sizeHow windlass configuration matters to locker size

Horizontal Windlass Configuration

Requires 12 in. (30.48cm) of space above the rode pile. 

Vertical Windlass Configuration

Requires 18 in. (45.72cm) of space above the rode pile. 

Other important considerations when choosing a windlass configuration are mounting location and ground tackle arrangement.  

  Horizontal Windlass Vertical Windlass

Mounting Location

Requires precise mounting to align with the bow roller and rode direction  Offers a wider range of feed, accommodating multiple bow roller setups 

Deck Space

Requires more deck space, potentially leading to clutter and tripping hazards  Below deck mounting minimizes clutter and potential for hazards 

Rode Angles

Limited to aligning the rode directly with the gypsy, may require off-center mounting.  Accepts various rode angles, suitable for multiple bow roller setups. 

Step 2: Determine Your Windlass Power Option

Choosing your windlass power option depends on several factors, including boat size, anchor weight and your available budget. While electric windlasses are the most popular choice for recreational boats, larger vessels or commercial ships may require a hydraulic windlass as they have a higher working load capacity. Let’s take a further look at what the different power options entail.

Manual Windlass

Manual windlasses require the operator to turn a hand crank, exerting physical effort to lower and raise the anchor and anchor rode. These windlasses are known for their simplicity, reliability and affordability, making them suitable for smaller boats with manageable anchor gear. 

Pro: affordable, requires less maintenance
Con: physically demanding, not suitable for mid- to large-size boats

Electric Windlass

Electric windlasses are powered by an electric motor, drawing energy from the boat's electrical system. They are operated with the push of a button or remote control, offering convenience and efficiency during anchor deployment and retrieval. Electric windlasses are versatile and suitable for a wide range of boat sizes and anchoring needs. 

Pro: convenient, fast, suitable for a wide range of boat sizes
Con: limited functionality in the event of a power failure

Hydraulic Windlass

Hydraulic windlasses are powered by hydraulic fluid pressure, often supplied by a hydraulic pump connected to the boat's engine or a separate hydraulic power unit. These windlasses offer high lifting capacities and are known for their speed and power. 

Pro: high power, working load capacity suitable for commercial ships and mega-yachts
Con: complex installation, costly maintenance

Step 3: Specify Your Gypsy

anchor windlass line drawinganchor windlass line drawing

Another crucial step in determining which windlass is right for your boat is gypsy selection. The gypsy is designed to grip and handle the anchor chain, and its size and configuration must match the chain type and size used on the boat. To make the correct choice, it's essential to determine the diameter and type of anchor chain you’re using. Consulting the windlass manufacturer's specifications and recommendations is best practice, as they provide guidelines for selecting the appropriate gypsy to match the anchor chain's characteristics including the chain link type and size. Additionally, understanding the boat's anchoring requirements, including factors such as boat size, anchoring conditions and anchoring frequency, helps in choosing a gypsy that guarantees secure and reliable anchor handling.

Step 4: Know Your Working Load Capacity

Now that you have determined your windlass configuration and power option, you need to calculate your gear’s working load. This is a critical step in choosing the right anchor windlass for your boat because it helps ensure the windlass can safely handle the weight and forces associated with your anchor and anchor rode. Here are the top five reasons why knowing the working load is essential.


1. Anchor and Rode Weight: The working load should match or exceed the total weight of the anchor, anchor chain and anchor line. This ensures that the windlass can lift and lower the anchor without being overloaded.

2. Tension on the Rode: When the boat is anchored, there can be a lot of tension on the anchor rode due to wind, waves and currents. The windlass must be able to handle this tension to prevent damage or failure during deployment and retrieval.

3. Safety and Durability: Operating a windlass beyond its capacity can lead to mechanical stress, wear and potential breakdowns, posing safety risks to the crew and the vessel.

4. Anchoring Conditions: The windlass's working load capacity should also account for different anchoring conditions, including adverse weather and rough seas. Having a margin of safety ensures reliable performance in challenging situations.

5. Regulatory Requirements: In some regions or for specific vessel classifications, there may be regulatory requirements specifying minimum working load capacities for anchor windlasses. Compliance with these regulations is essential for safety and legal reasons.

To calculate your working load needs, use the following formula:

(Anchor Weight + Rode Weight) x 1.5 Safety Factor = Working Load 

After calculating your equipment’s working load, it’s important to find a windlass that fits your requirements. Here is a great video explaining how to determine a Lewmar windlass’s working load capacity.

Windlass Construction Considerations  

By now, you should have a good understanding of what style of windlass you’re looking for. However, not all windlasses are created equal. You’re about to shell out a considerable amount of money, and there are several key factors to consider to ensure that your investment is durable, reliable and suitable for your boat. Here’s what to look for in the construction of a windlass:

Material Quality: The windlass should be constructed from high-quality materials such as marine-grade stainless steel or corrosion-resistant aluminum. These materials are durable and resistant to the harsh marine environment. 

Sealing and Corrosion Protection: Look for a windlass with an IP67rating to ensure the internal components are protected from saltwater corrosion. Corrosion-resistant finishes like anodizing or powder coating are also beneficial.

Powerful Motor or Drive System: For electric or hydraulic windlasses, assess the power and quality of the motor gear box or hydraulic drive. A robust, efficient power source is vital for consistent performance.

Overload Protection: Look for built-in safety features like overload protection, which prevents damage to the windlass in case of excessive strain during anchoring operations.

Manufacturer Reputation: Choose a windlass from a reputable manufacturer known for producing high-quality marine equipment. Read reviews and seek recommendations from fellow boaters.

Warranty: Check the manufacturer's warranty terms and conditions. A longer warranty period often reflects the manufacturer's confidence in the product's durability.

Frequently Asked Questions

What is the difference between a winch and a windlass? 

The key difference between a winch and a windlass lies in their line-handling mechanisms. In a winch, the line wraps repeatedly around the cylindrical drum or spool. This design is ideal for horizontal pulling or lifting applications. In a windlass, the line enters through the front end, typically passing around a gypsy that securely manages anchor chains or ropes and exits from the rear or bottom of the windlass housing. This configuration has mechanical advantages tailored for vertical movement, facilitating the raising and lowering of the boat’s anchor. 

Can rope be used on a windlass? 

Rope can be used on a vertical windlass that has a drum to wrap the rope around. However, horizontal windlasses are better suited for chain only.

Do I need a Windlass? 

While anchoring without a windlass is certainly doable to some extent, having a windlass makes anchor deployment and retrieval much easier and faster. Smaller boats and simple anchoring needs may not require a windlass, while larger vessels and more complex anchoring situations can greatly benefit from one. Assess your boat's size, anchor gear, anchoring habits and crew capabilities to determine if investing in a windlass is the right choice for you.