Troubleshooting our Windlass

When we decided to buy a boat and become live aboard sailors, we had no idea what we were in for. We had done the charter thing, and we loved the idea of being able to float our way around the world, essentially for free if we chose to anchor. We were also warned many times about boat ownership; people telling us “B.O.A.T, it just stands for Bust Out Another Thousand” or “you know what they say about owning a boat? You just get the privilege of working on it in exotic places,” “Boats they are a money pit.” After our first full year as live aboard sailors, I don’t think there is one of these that we would argue. It seems like everywhere you turn there is something needing fixing or replacing. “Busting out another thousand”, is almost laughable after we’ve seen what living on a boat consists of. And thank goodness we got ourselves to nice, warm, sunny locations because sometimes we feel like all we do is work on the boat! Everyday is something new; a fuel leak, which leads to diesel in the bilge, a generator impeller, raw water impeller, and most recently our windlass remote. When will the madness stop?!?!

Windlass Troubles

Boat Ownership: Working on your boat in exotic places!

Boat Ownership: Working on your boat in exotic places!

We love our windlass, it really makes anchoring seem like a breeze, with one click of the button I can easily let the anchor and necessary chain out, and then hook the bridal, let Matt set it and we are usually good to go for the night. We got so accustomed to using the windlass, we didn’t even think about what would happen if it didn’t work. We were so used to just pushing the up/down buttons that we never even took the time to figure out how to use it without power. But we were forced to on our first anchoring attempt of our second sailing season. We had finally left our hurricane home, made a 100 mile overnight sail and arrived at a beautiful anchorage only to discover that the ‘up’ button on the windlass was fried; it no longer brought the chain up! Wah, what to do? We really weren’t sure, so we decided we would just have to set the anchor correctly the first time and then use our time that afternoon to try to trouble shoot the problem.

Another thing we have learned about boats, nothing ever goes as planned, so of course there was no setting the anchor on the first try! I mean seriously what were we thinking, we hadn’t set an anchor in over 8 months. So unfortuately Matt had to lift the chain and anchor by hand at which point he re dropped it and we re-set it. Thankfully it held through the night which gave us enough time to investigate the problem.


I mean we kind of knew the problem, the ‘up’ button was not working, so I took the remote apart only to find that the button that would control the up setting was all corroded from water entering the housing. We are still unsure of how this happened because the handle was supposed to be water proof, but that is beside the fact. We still had to figure out a way to get the anchor up, with hand pulling being the last option. So we fiddled with using the winch handle to manually operate the windlass, but again we could only get the chain to drop. This is where Matt got creative. We took apart the remote to find three wires, assuming one controlled the up and one the down and the other was the connecting factor. Very carefully Matt disconnected the wires from the handle and began creating connections between the wires until he found the two that would make the chain go up and the two that would make the chain go down. At this point we were pretty happy because if worst came to worst we could simply hold the wires together to get the anchor up this time. Luckily the boat came stocked with all sorts of random parts and I ended up finding an alternate windlass switch that we figured we could some how rig up.

There was a terminal where the three wires needed to be connected, we now just had to figure out which ones went where. To make this easier, Matt fitted each with a quick connect, so that we could slide them on and off to find the right combination. We finally did, and then had a fully functional windlass once again. I can’t say it is the prettiest thing in the world, actually it is far from it, but it did the job we needed it to do and it gives us a solution until we have the time, and access, to order a new windlass remote. As you can see we simply have the new switch rigged up through the anchor compartment and in through a front hatch, and then taped above our clock to make sure that no water is getting to the wires. 

Tips for Troubleshooting a Windlass

So what if this happens to you? Here are just a few tips to consider when you may be without your precious windlass:

1. Stay Calm: It’s ok, do you know how many boaters out there go without a windlass everyday? You have muscles, you just might need to use them now!

2. Look around and see what spare parts you may have laying around the boat. If we hadn’t have had the switch that came with our windlass, our next option was to rig it up using a spare light switch. There are usually helpful parts kicking around your boat somewhere. 

3. Check your manual (if you still have it) there may be instruction on how to manually operate the windlass. We tried this but weren’t familiar enough with it and its parts to determine how this actually worked. 

3.a. Spend some time getting to know your windlass, in case this does happen you will know how to manually operate it and won’t be stuck like we were.

4. Return to #1 - you can always pull your anchor up by hand. It may take a lot more work and may be slightly challenging if you are singlehanded, but it CAN be done!

Happy and peaceful anchoring to all!

Stacy Ribolini1 Comment