Windless & Windlass-less

September 20, 2019

In some ways, living aboard a sailboat full-time is a world apart from life ashore.  In other ways, the guy on the boat next you is no different than a dirt dweller’s next door neighbour.

Take, for instance, the idea of necessity versus luxury.  Oftentimes the only distinction between the two is whether I have it or you have it… if I have it, it’s out of necessity.  If you have it and I don’t, it must be superfluous.

We don’t have a bow thruster; therefore, we deal with it.  We certainly could use one every now and then, but we don’t consider one a necessity.  To the contrary, we actually find a great deal of satisfaction in successfully working through a situation without having to rely on a bow thruster.

On the other hand, we do have an electric windlass, and certainly consider it more than a luxury.

But tell someone who doesn’t have an electric windlass that yours is broken… the chances are nearly one hundred percent that you will elicit exactly zero sympathy from them.


After an uneventful six hours travelling from Guanaja to Roatan, we opted to anchor at Lime Cay Bight, which was completely undeveloped except for a few houses and Mango Resort, with its five colourful overwater bungalows.

Our Rocna anchor typically does much better in sand than grass, which has a tendency to get piled up in a big mound, preventing the anchor’s tip from digging in properly.  However, after leaving the Bahamas, we have found it much more challenging to find good patches of sand to anchor in.  More and more, we find ourselves searching bays covered in turtle grass.

Such was the case with Lime Cay Bight.

After unsuccessfully searching for the right combination of depth and bottom composition, we eventually had to settle for multiple attempts to set the anchor in turtle grass.

On occasion, the deck connection at the bow for our windlass remote control acts up.  You push the up button… nothing.  You push the down button… nothing.  Shit.

The seemingly arbitrary feisty behaviour is, no doubt, the result of mild corrosion which is inevitable given the location’s exposure to the elements.  Sometimes it requires nothing more than a wiggle; other times a more thorough cleaning is needed to get it working again.

To complicate the challenge of repeated attempts to set the anchor, the windlass connection decided to play up as well… not very nice of it.

Normally, wiggling the connection either works or you get nothing.  Worst case scenario, if necessary, we bail out on the remote control at the bow and operate the windlass from the cockpit, which can get tricksy.   Either it’s difficult to see what’s happening, or Kris operates the windlass from the cockpit while I am sorting things out at the bow – not something I like to do (there are many stories of nine fingered sailors who have had their hands too close to a windlass and chain being operated by someone else.  Not ideal.

However, something else was going on as well.

Intermittently, the click of the solenoid could be heard, which seemed to indicate that the connection was okay but the windlass was not engaging (much like the click you hear when you try to start your car and the battery is almost dead – ignition on… no starter).  Doble caca!

Finally, after multiple attempts and an ongoing dialogue of swear words with myself, we were able to get a good anchor set with our ailing windlass.

And though Manny, the owner of Mango Resort, was very friendly, the resort was officially closed for September.  Like so many other people, he reminded us that very few people come visiting at this time of year… ya, ya… we know.

This left a bit of dinghy exploration and snorkelling to be done as off-boat activities, but nothing more.  We hadn’t gotten a chance to fill our tanks since our last dive, so going for a dive was off the table.

We ended up waiting five days for enough wind so we could sail the ten miles to French Harbor instead of motoring.  During that time, I tried to do a bit of diagnostics on the windlass.  However, I was hesitant to dig in too deep, not wanting to chance having the windlass die completely while we had no nearby access to any services whatsoever.

In theory, our windlass can be operated manually if necessary, but I have never been able to get the damn thing sorted out for a multitude of reasons.  Which leaves hauling up everything by hand.

Now, I realise I’m no spring chicken, but I do consider myself in better-than-poor shape, and I have never been timid about breaking a sweat.  What I don’t understand is the physics that makes a half inch chain more than twice the weight of a three-eighths inch chain.  I’ve already had a science teacher tell me that’s impossible but, like electrical voodoo, I believe it to be true.

Regardless, hauling up the ground tackle by hand would be my fallback plan, not the primary strategy.

When the wind finally picked up, we managed to get the anchor up with our still debilitated windlass and make it to French Harbor, where we found more visiting sailboats than we had for the previous five months combined!  This included three people we met briefly while at anchor at Michael’s Rock on Guanaja – Josh and Sarah, aboard S/V Off The Grid, as well as Craig, back aboard his boat S/V Samba Pa Ti, who had just been joined by his daughter Zoe.

Now that we were back amongst the civilised world, with access to hardware stores, mechanics, and other resources including Internet, the windlass issues could be properly dug into, hopefully with a happy resolution.

Armed with a multimeter, Nigel Caulder’s Boat Mechanic’s Bible, and an Internet connection to get real-time advice as needed, Exit’s Chief Engineer (me) commenced with diagnosing corroded connections, burned connectors, and overheating wire.  After quite some time, I emerged from the fray with a sneaking suspicion.  As a final act of confirmation, a battery was hauled up on deck and jumped directly to the windlass motor… nothing.


After twenty seven years residing at the bow of a boat, the windlass motor itself appeared to have finally given up the ghost.

Tablespoons of black powder, the remnants of the carbon brushes, poured out of the inside when we opened the motor… not good.

If we couldn’t get the motor repaired, chances are we’d have to replace the windlass entirely… I’m guessing a $3000-4000 prospect for an electric windlass… Eek!

But, a windlass motor is not that different from a starter motor, and identical to the motors which raise and lower the lobster traps on the local fishing boats… so, it’s not like we’re trying to locate a brain surgeon… stay optimistic.

After asking a few people and posing a few questions to forums, we had a very general area that a mechanic could possibly be found in with an even more general description of how to find him.  After a while of walking, and looking… and asking, and walking… we stumbled upon an open door of an unmarked building.

The entire inside of the room was essentially a huge pile of used mechanical and electrical parts with a few poorly defined paths running through, surrounded by shelves and tables piled high with more parts.  The guy behind the counter looked to be in his  twenties.  Possibly, the guy who just writes up the work orders… possibly, the mechanic.

His English was non-existent.

Our Spanish is pretty limited.

Where is the bathroom…?  How much for the beer…?

Pretty graspable stuff.

¿Permisso los pollos en el autobus?  Are chickens allowed in the bus?

Can even pull that one off…

But… The up and down positive electrical connections on my boat’s windlass motor have a direct short across them… can you fix this?  How much will it cost?  How long will it take?… Hmmmm. 

We did our best to communicate back and forth.  In the end he told us to come back in three hours.

I tried to clarify… Maybe get an estimate in three hours?

He tried to clarify… Maybe fixed in three hours.

As we walked away, Kris was not even remotely convinced.  Just leaving our windlass motor with a random guy we can’t even communicate with, eh..? Ok…really..?

It seemed like less of a gamble to me.  Whether this kid went and got the old man in back… or he was the fourth generation mechanic who actually performed the miracles, this room full of broken parts was not a graveyard of repair failures… to me it looked like   the product of years of salvage and scavenging work… parts to be used in the future.  Any repairman, not worth his weight in gold, would not have been in business long enough to gain this calibre of an in-stock parts inventory.

The motor was where it needed to be.  The question was simply, could it be revived or would it, too, become part of the shop’s spare parts inventory pile?

Three hours later, we poked our heads back through the doorway.

Sitting in a vice, sporting a brand new coat of glossy black spray paint, was our motor.  The middle post already had the black clamp from a set of jumper cables attached to it.  Arial (????), who turned out to be not just the cashier but also the Dude, touched the red clamp to one of the other two posts and the motor whirred to life.  Then he touched the other and the motor reversed direction.


He had documented the procedure with photos of various damaged parts that had been discovered during the surgery.  Lots of problems… Still… it lived.

And… the big question…

?Cuantas cuesta?  How much is the cost?

He writes on a piece of paper… three… two… zero… zero.  Three thousand two hundred…

Processing… processing… processing…

Wait… thirty two hundred Lempiras.

That’s… a hundred twenty dollars.


Fortunately, the reassembly process proved easier than the disassembly process.  And, though Jay (one of my electrical voodoo witchdoctor/advisors) had run the math and recommended we up-size the cabling gauge running to the windlass, we could delay that until after we reached the Rio Dulce.

So… the moment of truth…

When the up button was pressed and the chain began grinding its way up… and the down button started letting the chain back out…

… a true Johnny Bravo… VICTORY!… erupted from my lips.  Back in business!


To those sailors who haul up their ground tackle by hand, I salute you, oh salty dogs… and I promise to never bring up the existence of Exit’s stern anchor electric windlass in any bar conversation!

Amazingly, we have whittled away all but only about two weeks of our ninety day Honduran visa.  We don’t have long before we will be forced to clear out and head for Guatemala.

Now if we could just get the wind-less bit sorted out.  A twenty four hour motor to Livingston is exactly what we want to avoid.

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