Windlasses and capstans take the labor out of hoisting anchor. Both capstans and windlasses offer improved safety compared to hand-over-hand raising of heavy anchors. What is the difference between capstans and windlasses? Originally, a capstan was a free spinning timber that was stepped vertically through a ship. Long handspikes inserted at the timber head created levers for several crew to haul away against a line or cable. The line was wrapped several turns clockwise around the circumference on a horizontal plane, creating a turning force with a vertical axis. Today, you hear the terms windlass and capstan interchangeably. The difference: typically a windlass has a horizontal axis (drum on the side, axis pointing to the horizon) whereas a capstan has a vertical axis. Essentially both a capstan and windlass achieve the same purpose, and the terms today are interchangeable. Many manufacturers consider a modern capstan a power winch that mounts either on top a windlass or at a stern quarter. Its function is solely to haul on line and not chain. The capstan can be used on larger ships to tend docking lines in heavy wind.
Either of these specialized power winches will mount on deck in the bow. While a windlass is convenient on smaller boats, they are a necessity on larger boats to hoist heavy anchors and chain rode. Electrical types like Lewmar, Powerwinch and Vetus windlasses wire into the boats electrical system for easy push-button management. Electric and hydraulic models are popular on recreational boats. When selecting any capstan or windlass, certain features should be considered. Does the boat use a chain anchor rode, rope rode, or a combined chain/rope rode. Smooth drums are called a gypsy, and will accommodate a range of line diameters. Drums for chain are sized specifically to chain link sizes, to ensure the chain will notch smoothly into the drum, referred to as a wildcat. Also, note how much space is available in the chain locker, and try to match the appropriate vertical or horizontal windlass to meet the need. Vertical windlasses (axis or top of drum points to the sky) provide more of a complete wrap but require a deeper anchor locker for easy stowage.
Many people are confounded when first selecting a windlass due to all the variables involved. When it comes to choosing between electric and hydraulic, the main consideration is ease of installation. Boats which already have hydraulic systems and pumps onboard will benefit from plumbing in the windlass to the hydraulic system. Hydraulic motors don't build up heat like electrical motors, thus the motor has a longer lifespan and can run continuously considerably longer. A hydraulic unit is more powerful and more compact since the hydraulic motor is mounted separately. Smaller boats typically opt for electric windlasses since the power is more than sufficient and the expense of installing an entire hydraulic system, if not already in place, can be cost prohibitive. When installing electric windlasses and capstans, remember to factor in the drain on electrical systems and increase the battery capacity accordingly.
Any boat using a windlass should also be equipped with a chain stopper. The chain stopper or anchor lock is a fail safe to prevent anchor free fall at any point while the anchor is in the raised position. It is also needed to save strain on the pawl gearing inside the windlass. With a chain stopper in place, load can be transferred to the stopper once the anchor is completely up, and the tension eased from the windlass. When preparing to drop anchor, simply snug up the anchor rode in the windlass and release the chain stop so the chain is free to run.