Thursday, June 19, 2014

What is a Windlass?

One of Jan's old coworkers (he knows who he is:-) ) was reading a book about a couple out cruising the world on a sailboat. He ran across a word that he didn't recognize. Since Jan is a boater he thought she might know what this thing is that they kept referencing in the book. So one day he popped the question: Jan, what is a wind lass? Jan said “what?”. After thinking about it and changing the pronunciation a bit she finally figured out he was talking about “a windlass”. So for the benefit of the non-boaters reading this – a windlass is a motor that retrieves and deploys the anchor on a boat.

There is a lot of equipment on a cruising boat. I have come to the conclusion that a great deal of this equipment is just there to give the skipper of the boat something to do – maintenance! Anyone who owns a boat knows that they require a great deal of maintenance, and the more equipment they have, the more maintenance they require. I would generally classify the equipment on a boat as required for operation, required for safety, and nice to have. Every cruiser has to determine how much and of what flavor of each of these combinations is right for them. That being said, I would guess that the vast majority of cruisers would consider a windlass a required piece of equipment, and I am no exception.

Boats are full of electronic equipment. Unfortunately, water and electronic equipment don't play well together. By definition the windlass is installed in the bow of the boat (the end that takes the most beating... and when the waves start breaking over the deck, the bow is where it starts). So our windlass is often subjected to a regular submersion in saltwater. Fortunately they are built to be water tight to help prevent corrosion.

Late last fall at the end of the season our windlass stopped unexpectedly. I reset the breaker and it started working again. I just figured I was pulling to hard and popped the breaker and didn't give it another thought. Then this spring I had it happen a couple of more times – same thing, reset the breaker and it starts working again. Each time we were pulling the anchor to head out for a busy day of sailing so I just made a mental note – better check on that sometime. Well the next time it happened I was deploying the anchor... and resetting the breaker didn't fix the problem this time. Rut roh!

Fortunately I had about 100' of chain out in about 15' of water with a known mud bottom so I felt relatively safe. I hooked up the snubber and manually released some chain to transfer the load. I was a bit concerned for 2 reasons – we were expecting 15 to 25 knots of wind that night and at some point we were going to want to leave. I knew we were properly anchored and not likely to have any problems, but with wind like that, I want to be able to retrieve my ground tackle if needed. So I got on to the investigation.

I figured I would start with the easiest and go to the hardest. The control for the windlass is a hand held unit that has an “up” and a “down” button. It is attached to a wire that terminates in a plug that plugs into the side of the chain locker. When I removed the plug I could see that some water had gotten into the plug and one of the pins was corroded – yeah!, that was easy. So I got a little WD40 and a toothbrush and went to work cleaning the pin. One or two small brushes and my problem got much bigger – the pin was corroded through and just fell over. Not good... Dejected I took the handle inside to ponder what I was going to do about it. The plug had 3 pins. I assumed one was hot and each of the other two was a switch leg for down and up. So I came up with a plan – cut the plug off, strip the 3 wires, remove the plug from the wall of the chain locker, cut and strip the wires, solder the wires directly to each other and cover the hole with a water tight gland – yeah, that will work! By this time it was getting late so I figured I would get right on it in the morning.

First thing in the morning I am on the project. First thing to verify – will my inverter drive my soldering iron – no problem, awesome! So I get the project all laid out and get to work. An hour or so later and the controller is soldered directly to the control wire. Feeling very puffed up and successful I hit the button – NOTHING! Rut roh. Oh wait – I have to have the engine battery on and the ignition on before the windlass will work. Whew, nothing to worry about. A few minutes later I am back at the button... rut roh – still not working. Now things are getting a bit more serious. I was so sure of myself (yeah, I won't let that happen again!). All I could think about is pulling in 100' of 3/8 chain with a 50 lb anchor on the end by hand. I am REALLY too old for this!

Fortunately I have spent my entire professional life troubleshooting. So I dug into the system. I completely disassembled the windlass checking everything. All contacts were tight and looked brand new. Everything turned freely. Next would be the below deck electrical bits. Unfortunately we use our forward cabin as our storage shed. The bunk is packed full of our “necessary stuff”. Oh well, better get to it (it was time to repack it anyway... wink, wink). So we pulled everything out, removed the mattress, and removed the boards. Everything here looked perfect as well. Furthermore, I had almost 14 volts at the solenoid. Even jumping the power wires directly across would not get the motor turning. Now I am really dejected! I have spent all day on this and nothing makes any sense. How can that motor not be turning? Jan saw me starting to implode and finally called “dinner is ready”.

We ate dinner and I spent the evening wondering what could possibly be wrong. The only thing I could figure is that something is wrong in the motor. So I picked up the phone and dialed my friend Rick at Signature Yachts (where we bought the boat). Of course Rick answered the phone, even though it was Friday night. I told him my problem and asked if he had any ideas. He said he would get me in touch with the manufacturer of the windlass first thing Monday morning (since they are on the east coast and obviously closed right now). Okay, that will have to do.

That night I laid in bed going over the entire system and what I could be missing. Finally after thinking about it for a couple of hours it dawned on me – I never tested the breaker itself. I never even thought it could be the breaker – they are either on or off and I was clearly getting plenty of power. I finally dozed off, but was up bright and early in the morning with a new idea. I had cut the controller wire off again thinking that I had not soldered it properly the first time so I had to solder that back on (good, I did a much better job this time anyway). Then it was time to test... “Jan, hit the button please”. What, the voltage drops to .78 volts when the button is pressed and then jumps back up when it is released. Okay, now we are getting somewhere. So then I jump the power wires over the breaker and ask Jan to give it another try. I knew that I had found the problem when Jan about jumped out of her skin when the motor came to life. Oh thank heaven, it is just a bad breaker!

So I got to work putting everything back together. What a happy day! It is fixed! This projected consumed about 2 days to finally resolve, but it is a happy ending.

After I got it going I thought I should give Rick a call to let him know so he wouldn't waste his time Monday morning making calls for me. Jan said “he won't answer his phone, it's Saturday”. I said “I bet he does”. It rang several times before Rick finally picked up. He said “can I call you back in a bit? I am half way up a customer's mast”. Sure, no problem.

I have said it before, and I am going to say it again – the people at Signature Yachts are THE BEST, bar none! I bought my boat from them because I loved the boat, but I will never buy a boat from anyone else, ever. The entire crew (right up to Robbie at the top) are all sailors first and brokers second.

This is really running on so I will end with a shot Jan took of an eagle. It was really too far away even for our telephoto lens, but hopefully you can get the idea. We watched him flying around the anchorage for a couple of hours hunting and tried to get a shot of him in a tree. He is a white spot in the middle of the frame.

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