Sailboat Windlass Woes

Sailboat WindlassAs usual our plans to leave on a set date to sail off into the sunset didn’t work out. This time, we experienced sailboat windlass woes. Allow me to tell you what happened, how it happened and what we did to remedy the situation.

Our intention was to leave Florida on the 28th of December so to leave after Christmas but before New Year. During the lead up to our departure a small issue with our windlass turned into a giant problem involving three days worth of labor and the assistance of several people.

Four three years our windlass, the winch that lets out and pulls up the chain for our anchor, has worked fine. We’ve always used a snubber, or bridle, to ensure the mechanism never had too much pressure on it. We treated her with love and respect – never making her work too hard.

Snubber: A snubber takes the load of the ground tackle, wind and current off the windless mechanism (thing that pulls the chain in and out) and places it onto the hull of the boat. In other words, when the wind blows it’s not the tiny windlass taking the brunt of the pull…it’s the whole boat.

Before leaving Charleston, in early December, our windless ‘down’ button died on us.

We discovered the problem previous to anchoring up a river during Hurricane Irma. That was the start of our windlass drama. Prior to leaving Charleston, for the season in the Bahamas and Caribbean, our volunteer crew member, Andrew, installed a new ‘down’ switch.

Once Andrew was finished, both the ‘up’ and ‘down’ switches worked well.

Fast-forward to our first anchoring debacle.

After leaving Charleston, we started sailing down the east coast of America to Florida. We went to Amelia Island, St Augustine, Cape Canaveral, West Palm Beach and the next stop was somewhere closer to Fort Lauderdale. Until this point we had either picked up a mooring ball or berthed in a marina.

Heading down the Intracoastal Waterway.

Simon, Sienna, Andrew and I spent a full day traveling down America’s Intracoastal Waterway (ICW) from West Palm Beach to Fort Lauderdale (outskirts). The plan was to raft up overnight at a restaurant called the Two George’s (if space was available) or carry on a bit further to a small anchoring area.

The Two George’s had one long powerboat tied right in the middle of the dock!

We had to keep going. Eventually we got to the anchoring spot and it just didn’t look large enough for us. A couple smaller boats were circling around to determine if they might be able to anchor. Simon headed for the northern part of the anchorage very slowly and BAM, we hit ground. We were going very slow so it wasn’t a big deal but it was annoying. The charts said 13 feet and our keel is almost 8 feet. It wasn’t even low tide.

With nowhere to raft up or anchor we decided to carry on knowing that darkness would set in soon.

My biggest question was, ‘do the bridges open all through the night?!” Luckily, the answer was yes. We wouldn’t be stranded between two bridges having to ‘hang tight’.

We had a sailing companion with us – Michael, from sailing vessel Entitled. His keel only drew 6 feet so we stayed behind him as both boats made their way through the waterway. Michael would radio us if he noticed a shallow patch within the channel.

By nightfall we had gone through around 13 bridges, most of them opening within 10 to 15 minutes from arrival. Most of the bridges on the ICW open at set intervals so if you motor seven knots consistently you’ll be able to make each bridge on time.

In the pitch black we eventually came up to another anchorage that had the depth we needed.

We all held our breath as we ventured out of the ICW channel and into a tiny pond to the side. Michael did a depth finding mission for us before we entered so we had a tiny bit of intel. The issue with anchoring is that you don’t know how the boat will swing and where it’s going to swing exactly.

Feeling anxious, Andrew and I made our way to the bow to let the anchor down. Being the first time for Andrew to see how we anchored, I took my time explaining how the system works.

When I went to let the anchor down, I depressed the down button and nothing happened. Nothing.

Simon dropped down into the cockpit to ensure the windlass breaker was on. It was.

We then tried to drop the anchor manually but the winch seemed to be totally jammed. That was probably a blessing in disguise. I’m not sure we’re strong enough to lift the weight of the chain and anchor if the windless didn’t work manually.

A decision was made to raft onto Michael who had successfully anchored. Rafting means that we tied our boat onto his along the side of his boat. As long as Michael’s anchor didn’t have too much pressure for too long we’d be okay. With very light winds and a slow running tide we thought an hour attached to Michael would be low risk and give us time to think.

My first reaction was to find the windlass fuse.

Andrew and I located it and after pulling the 100 Amp fuse out we noted that it had blown. Interestedly, it’s one of those fuses that ‘isn’t suppose to blow’.

I then searched my mind for the location of our spares. After pulling apart Sienna’s room, and 1/2 hour later, I found a spare 100 Amp fuse under the bunkbeds.

The fuse was replaced, windless power turned on and we went back to the bow to test the down switch. It worked!

We untied from Michael, dropped anchor and ended up around 1/4 of the way into the ICW channel. The wind was blowing a constant breeze that kept us in the channel the whole night. Thankfully not too many boats went by but when they did, I’d hear myself think, ‘Please see us, please see us!’

Simon put our spreader and boom lights on so we were well lit up.

The next morning I went to pull up the anchor. The chain was pulled by the winch but the sound and speed wasn’t quite right. I could instantly tell that it was going much slower than usual. Something was wrong.

Just as the top of the anchor shaft came out of the water I stopped the winch so to throw a bucket of water over the anchor. The anchor was full of mud. The winch then failed once again. Andrew and Simon manually pulled it up and we fixed it in place with some rope.

All that we could come up with was that perhaps the batteries were so low that it just couldn’t power the winch. One of our jobs in Fort Lauderdale was to replace our full battery bank – domestic and engines.

After getting to our mooring on the New River in Fort Lauderdale, and having the new battery bank installed, we tested our windlass. We needed to let out all the chain on the river bank so to spray paint our depth markers (as seen in the picture and the video below).

Sailboat Windlass

On an anchor chain you need something to tell you how much has been let out so to determine your scope.

The general rule of thumb is that, in very light conditions, you put out 3x – 5x the amount of chain as there is depth. So if you’re anchoring in 10’ of water you’d put out 30’ of chain. To determine how much chain is out you need something visible on the chain to help you keep track.

Simon and Andrew got the chain out but when they went to put it back in the windless died again. After a few hours it then worked. It seemed like something was heating up and causing the system to fail.

It was time to call in a professional.

Fortunately, we had the name of a reliable contact. Our dear friends Ron and Mercedes on s/v Samana (in Charleston) told us to contact Vern. Over the festive period Vern came to our boat to check things out.

As Simon, Sienna and I were driving a rental car to see my father and step-mother (3 hours away from the boat) we got a call from Andrew (who stayed on the boat) and Vern. Apparently, the windless winch, gearing and motor was forced into preexisting holes that didn’t correctly fit. It was a bodge job. All the gearing was working lopsided and we were told it’s amazing that it’s lasted as long as it did.

It took Andrew three full days to get the windless off and took quite a bit of brute force, a crowbar and saw.

Simon and I didn’t spend too much time feeling frustration over the original installer. We had the job done in Greece and as we’ve later come to find out finding a good marine technician/mechanic/service person in the Med is like finding a needle in a haystack.

At least we now knew what the problem was and could do something about it.

Sailboat Windlass

As the issue became larger and larger our quickly approaching date for departure started to look questionable.

Once the windlass was removed from the boat we found cracks throughout the whole unit. One guy told us that we were about four months from the winch element falling off and flying through the air.

The first solution was to see if we could salvage anything and get parts. Eventually it was determined that we needed a whole new unit. West Marine had one for $5,900 (trade price!) and we sourced one locally at $4,000 but it wouldn’t take chain – only rope. In the end we found one from Defender for $2,900 (trade price) and could get to us overnight.

We missed the December 28th departure date and aimed for the 30th.

The 30th came and went and we still had issues. The new windlass was installed but there was a power problem.

As with all sailing passages it wasn’t just our equipment that was controlling our departure date. We also had to contend with the weather. With a storm brewing in the Atlantic Ocean if we didn’t leave on the 31st we’d have to wait a few more days – perhaps a week.

Every day we stayed at the current location we paid an extra, unexpected, $100/night. Alternatives were more expensive. So far, we paid $300 extra and of course, the cost of the windlass. We wanted to get out of Florida and head out to anchor in the Bahama’s.

On the 31st, New Years Eve (and Simon and my 19th wedding anniversary), we woke up hoping that we could finish the windless project.

From all other fronts, we were set to leave. The engines were serviced, all the jobs/servicing were done.The freezer was jam packed. The boat was in the best shape she’s been in for years.

Vern came to our boat in the morning and the three guys went to work. All day things were being tested, trips to the marine store were made and work was being done. I took the opportunity to upload a video to YouTube not knowing when I’d find my next Internet connection or how good it was going to be.

During the day Simon called all the fuel docks in the area trying to find one that wasn’t closing early for New Years Eve. Eventually he found one that was staying open until 7:30pm.

Around 5pm we did several tests and the windlass was working perfectly.

We packed up our electrical connection, put away the water hose and detached from land. All of us looked at each other thinking, ‘Are we really going to get out of here tonight?!’

Watch the video to find out if we did, indeed, make it out of Florida before the New Year arrived.

Windlass Issues & More – Episode #26

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Sailboat Windlass



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