Windlass Problems in Acapulco

By now it was about 10:00 am, so I decided to go to the Port Captain's office and check in, leaving the 1st mate on the boat alone. Before I left, I asked her to monitor the distance to nearby boats, and if there was a problem to "draw up" the anchor a bit (bring in some of the anchor chain using the windlass).

It took me about 1/2 hour to get to the Port Captain's office, another 1/2 hour to complete the paperwork, and about another 1/2 hour to get back to the dinghy to return to Rhapsody.   As soon as I got in the dinghy and rounded the corner out of the marina, I could see there was a problem as Rhapsody's motor was running, evidenced by the telltale exhaust water being emitted from it. And as I got closer I could see that my mate was on the bow and that there was a strange man at the helm and that they were driving the boat to and fro. I put the dinghy in high gear, and shortly was tying to the back of a moving target called Rhapsody as she motored around, with her anchor chain still out!

I briefly met the man at the helm. His said his name was Tony and he told me that he had seen that Rhapsody was in trouble and that he came over to help and that something had gone wrong with the anchor and the only solution was for him to be driving the boat around, with the anchor still down, trying to keep it from hitting other boats.

When I moved forward to the bow, I got the story. She said that she thought we were getting dangerously close to the boat behind us, and so had decided to draw the anchor chain up a bit. She had come forward to do so, and, using the windlass, had pulled in a bit of chain, gotten the bridal off the chain, and was in the process of drawing up a hundred feet or so, when all of a sudden the chain started running out uncontrollably. I guess I had not told her how to make sure that the clutch on the windlass was tight before doing anything. She knew to hand tighten the clutch but did not know that there was a special wrench in the chain locker for that purpose, to get it tighter than you can by hand. When the clutch slipped the chain and rope just ran out. If you've never seen it happen it's hard to describe, but trust me, you don't want to get your hands or feet anywhere near a chain that's going out at 20 miles an hour and accelerating!

Note that in addition to the 66 lb anchor, we have 350' of 3/8 chain, which weighs something like 2 lbs per foot, thus causing it to run out ever more quickly. Our rode is also backed by an additional 350' of 3/4" nylon rope which is much lighter. Before she could get control of the situation, not only had all 350' of chain run out, but an additional 75' or so of the nylon rope had run out as well. What must have happened was that when all the chain finally hit the bottom of the bay, the nylon was no longer heavy enough to pull itself out, so it more or less stopped by itself, giving her a chance to grab it and tie it to a cleat.

So that was the situation at that point. Tony, a guy I just met, was at the helm, aggressively driving Rhapsody this way and that, all of our chain was sitting on the bottom of the bay, there were about 70 additional feet of nylon out, and, oh did I mention that the wind was blowing 15 to 20 knots and that there were boats all around us?

So, while Tony was driving Rhapsody around, avoiding hitting the nearby boats, we pulled and pulled and got enough rode up to put the rope around "rope side" of the windlass. I then used the windlass to pull up the rope until the chain appeared over the bow roller. Of course, the "rope side" of the windlass cannot handle chain, so somehow we had to get it off of the "rope side" and onto the "chain side" of the windlass. It was quite a challenge to get enough chain up, with both of us heaving on the chain by hand, so that we'd have enough slack to get it around the chain wheel. Plus, we had to stuff the stupid rope down the chain hole by hand, actually pulling it in from inside the chain locker, inasmuch as it does not weigh enough to free fall into the locker, like the chain, while at the same time keeping tension on the chain to keep it from coming off the windlass. It was quite a trick, but finally after 15-20 minutes of huffing, puffing, and shouting back and forth to Tony, we finally had the chain on the windlass.


Then it should have been a simple matter to draw the chain up, with the clutch now tightened. In fact, what I planned to do at that point was to weigh anchor entirely, and find another place to settle down. So, I began drawing the chain up using the windlass. 350 feet .... 300 feet ... 250 feet, and so on until I finally got to 70 feet, at which point the anchor broke loose from the bottom, just like any other normal day when we pull up anchor.

Then, as there was only about 50' left out, as I could tell from the newly placed paint markings on the chain that we had done in Ixtapa, there was a loud BANG and, mother-father, sheeeesh, yikes, THE CHAIN RAN OUT AGAIN! I was like "oh shit" at that point as the chain wheel was free-wheeling and the chain was going out faster and faster, even though I knew the clutch was tight. This was not just a slipping clutch. Something had broken inside the windlass!!!   It took a few seconds for my mind to register the fact to assess the situation, by which time about 200 feet of chain had already flown out. In desperation, I grabbed the clutch wrench, reached under the chainwheel, and threw the "safety pawl" on the windlass into the lock position. The safety pawl is like a ratchet that allows the windlass to go in one direction only, and when I threw it into the locked position, the whole mechanism came to an abrupt stop with another loud BANG as the ratchet took hold and stopped the chainwheel, and the running chain, dead in it's tracks.

Whew again!

Fortunately, where we just happened to be at that point, where the anchor happened to fall, left us in a fairly good, if precarious position. We were farther from the surrounding boats that we had any right to expect, except thru extremely good luck. As I took in the situation, I decide to rest for a minute and think things thru. Rhapsody, pressed by the 17 knot winds, fell back on the chain, and the anchor took hold of the bottom, and things got quiet for a few minutes. I realized we were now apparently at anchor with about 200' of chain out, pretty much the situation when the whole thing started. Quickly, I put a "snubber", about 5' of 3/4" nylon rope with a chain hook on it, on the anchor chain, tied it off firmly to a cleat and decided that, for the moment at least, we were safely anchored, although I was intimately aware of the fact that the windlass was broken, so we were really actually kind of screwed. Nonetheless, at least now we had a little bit of time to think things through and come up some kind of a solution.

God bless Tony. As I explained the situation to him, and the fact that I thought we were safe for the time being, he mentioned that he knew a guy who had an available mooring and would likely come out and help us relocate to it. I prevailed upon Tony to return to his boat, call the guy, Vincente, on the telephone, and to stay in touch with us on VHF channel 22. So he did. Then Tony called us on the radio and said that in a few minutes Vincente (capt of MV "Mi Vida") would come out and see us.

Sure enough, about 15 minutes later a dinghy came out with Vincente, a beefy, strong-looking, Mexican man, along with his two sons. He said that he had a mooring available, pointed it out to us, and said that he would help us retrieve the anchor chain by hand and tie up to the mooring. Since the wind was still blowing 15-20 knots, and it was about 4:00 in the afternoon, I suggested we wait until about 6:00 pm when hopefully the winds would die down a bit. He agreed and said he would return to Rhapsody at 6:00 to help move her.

When Vincente got on the boat at 6:00, the wind still had not died down. But, since it was going to get dark soon, without further delay, he, I, and one of his sons went forward and proceeded to heave the chain up--by hand. Remember that the chain alone weighs about 150 lbs to the bottom of the bay. And then, when we got to the anchor, there was another 66 lbs, or about 220 lbs that we had to heft up by hand. Not to mention the effort to get the anchor unstuck out of the mud! It was really hard work and took us about 20 minutes, with several rest stops. Heave; heave; heave; heave!

We finally got the chain up, and with one last heave, got the anchor over the roller and safely onto the boat. After I tied it down, I took the helm and motored slowly over to Vincente's mooring. When we got there, Vincente's son dived in the water and we threw a line to him which he looped thru the mooring and passed back up to us. I tied it off and finally we were safe. Vincente's son swam to the back of the boat and re-boarded Rhapsody, we gave him a towel to dry off with, and everyone congratulated each other on solving the problem.

So, finally, at 6:00 that evening, we were safely moored in Acapulco.

The next day, starting at 7:00 am, in short order, I had the windlass off and in the cockpit and could see that some bolts had broken and that it would take some major work to get it fixed.

A quick disassembly revealed that when the bolts had broken, the housing had separated, allowing the main gear to slip off of the worm gear. The worm gear was damaged and the main, bronze, gear was badly stripped in one place. While I was trying to get internet access and contact Maxwell Windlass in Los Angeles, about 9:00 am, Tony came by in his dinghy and said that he was going to shore, knew a guy who could fabricate a new gear, and would take me there if I wanted. Though I was not quite ready, dirty, and in the middle of trying to contact Maxwell Windlass, Tony was insistent that he was going to that part of town right away and might not go there again for the foreseeable future, and that I should accompany him. I asked him for 10 minutes, got the Maxwell phone number from a manual, wrote it down, and decided that I would go with him.

It was very hectic.

So 10 minutes later, I'm in Tony's dinghy headed to shore. We parked his dinghy at the fisherman's quay and caught a taxi to the working man's part of town. On the way, I made a cell phone call to Maxwell Windlasses in Los Angeles and asked them if they could get replacement parts to me. They said that there were no parts for my windlass in stock, and that if any did exist, they were in New Zealand and would have to be shipped to me. The L.A. office volunteered to send an email to New Zealand and follow up on the situation. I gave them my name, email address, and phone number, and hung up the phone just as the taxi stopped and Tony and I got out.

We first went to a hardware store where we found replacements for the broken bolts. In disassembling the windlass, I had to destroy an oil seal, so we then went to several places trying to find a replacement seal, with no luck. Finally, we went to this machine shop, where Tony, an Italian who speaks fluent Spanish, did all the talking. Through Tony, I was told that the worm gear could be fixed by welding new material and cutting new threads, but that the bronze gear would have to be completely custom fabricated. The machinist, named Alfonso, said that he would have to order the special Bronze stock from Mexico City, that it would take several days to get it and then several days more to machine the new part. He said it would cost about $350 to get the work done.

For reference, the machine shop of Alfonso Alonzo Garcia, who had trained in Chicago, was called Maintenimiento Industrial Marino "La Propela", specializes in marine repairs, and is located at 18 de Marzo No 53. Their telephone number is (744) 486-8974, and they are located near the Sears, in a part of town that has lots of auto parts and other hardware stores that might be of interest to mariners.

We left the machine shop on Thursday, about noon. I decided to return to the boat and see if I heard anything from Maxwell Winches in Los Angeles before committing to having the custom parts fabricated. So, at that point, Tony and I took a cab back to the fisherman's quay and Tony brought me back to Rhapsody on his dinghy. I spent the rest of the day carefully cleaning and inspecting the various parts of the windlass and waiting for Maxwell to contact me.

By Friday morning, there was no word from Maxwell, so I went to shore. I went back to Alfonso, this time alone, and commissioned the work to be done, paying him half up front in cash. While in that part of town, I returned to the stores where Tony and I had tried to find the oil seal the day before. Surprisingly, one of the stores that did not have one the day before had one today, perhaps as a result of my more needy look, as I was no longer accompanied by the aggressive, fluent Spanish-speaking Tony. In any case, by noon I was back on Rhapsody with a full plan for getting the windlass fixed, and I felt somewhat better.