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A tale of two windlasses

Looking back on all that needed to fall into place to get us where we are today — swinging in the hammock at anchor in our underwear in Banderas Bay 10 days before Christmas — we are continually amazed at all the serendipitous events that have occurred along the way. Even now as we approach our 6-month cruising anniversary we have been blown away at the good luck? divine intervention? that is keeping us going. When our windlass decided to throw in the towel 300 miles south of San Diego we started scanning the horizon for luck as we sure didn’t have any idea what else to do.

Wondertime came equipped with a manual Simpson Lawrence Seatiger 555 windlass. (For the non-boaties: this is basically a big winch that lives on the bow whose job is to hoist up hundreds of feet of our anchor chain and our 55 lb. anchor when it’s time to move on. “Manual” means it uses arm power, not electricity, to get the job done.) These units are legendary for being bulletproof and trustworthy and offer up a nice upper body workout to boot.

We had the same simple windlass on our previous boat, Pelican; we always were happy with the unit as it never let us down and were glad that Wondertime came equipped with the same model. Over the past months of putting our current windlass into full time use, however, it became clear that either we weren’t as strong as we were in our 20s (probably true) or our trusty winch was getting crankier and crankier. It continually has become more and more difficult to hoist up the anchor chain. Michael would fill the unit with fresh grease and it would improve for a bit but the windlass has continually been getting stiffer and even starting to jam if cranked too quickly.

In San Diego we put “replace or repair windlass” at the top of the list. It’s true we did search online and phone a variety of used marine gear stores for a replacement Seatiger but came up empty-handed. These units are now out of production, however we could buy a new one from a fellow in Scotland who used to work for Simpson-Lawrence and keeps a stock of spares and occasionally has an entire new 555 for sale — for about $3200 shipped. With this price in mind we started looking at installing a new electric (hurrah!) windlass but since our Seatiger fits perfectly on top of our bowsprit we’d have to do quite a bit of engineering to fit a different model of windlass.

With all this taken into consideration we made the — rather silly in hindsight — decision to do…nothing. At the time it made perfect sense: since we couldn’t fix it now we’d fix it later. Really though, we just hoped it would crank the chain up a few more times until we could get somewhere in Mexico where we could take the unit apart and have it rebuilt, the most economical solution.

It really is more fun to work on your boat in exotic places, even if a West Marine is nowhere nearby

In Turtle Bay, however, it was agonizingly slow as the windlass jammed again and again when we hoisted our chain the day we needed to move to the south side of the bay in anticipation of a southerly blow coming through the bay the next day. Clearly, it wouldn’t be prudent to put the project off any longer; if we needed to leave an anchorage quickly, say strong winds blowing through in the middle of the night as often happens off Baja, we would have to pull the chain in by hand or possibly be forced to drop our anchoring gear if conditions were bad enough.

It was largely for this reason that we sailed directly from Bahia Magdalena to Banderas Bay, which contains a plethora of services for cruisers and where we hoped to get our windlass rebuilt. We pulled into the marina in La Cruz near our friends on Del Viento and after the girls ran off to play we mentioned to Del Viento Michael that our first job here was to fix or replace our windlass (now feeling more than a little depressed that we’d not taken the job more seriously in San Diego). He told us: “Hey, I think there was a guy selling that same model at the swap meet last weekend. I almost bought it — he was only asking $150 — it seemed to work perfectly!”

Our spirits buoyed, Wondertime Michael borrowed their dinghy to zip out to the anchorage where the seller was moored to see if he still had the windlass, but he wasn’t home at the time. The next morning we got on the 8:30 am cruiser’s VHF net and asked about the windlass and if it was still available to which another cruiser replied “Sorry, but I bought it!”


Our new-to-us Seatiger 555 is installed and we are anchored out again. (Why do we have toothpick-encrusted swim noodles strapped to our bow? Because pelican poop is really hard to scrub off the bowsprit and pelicans hate toothpicks in their feet!)

So we were quickly on to Plan B. After a few days at the dock we figured that we may as well go out and anchor, drop the chain with the windlass and then take it off to start the process of rebuilding it. We found a nice spot on the outer edge of the anchorage, set the hook well and then Michael got busy taking off the old Seatiger. He’d just got it removed when suddenly there was another boat right next to us. Turns out we’d anchored next to someone on 300′ of rode who had a WIDE swinging circle and we’d need to re-anchor.

This time, Michael did pull up the chain by hand and we promptly motored back to the dock as he swore he’d never do that again.

We pulled into a slip on dock 4 (the lower rent district, the marina office had informed us as we’d left dock 9 earlier in the day). Some nearby cruisers came over to help us with our lines.

“Oh boy!” one of the chaps said when he saw the mess on our bow. “You really do need that windlass more than I do!”

Turns out he was the one who’d bought the used Seatiger at the previous week’s swapmeet with plans to rebuild it one day. And he kindly sold it to us for the same price he paid. We were floored to say the least.

Our new-old Seatiger 555 is now securely mounted atop our bow and is as smooth as can be and hoists our chain and anchor up in no time. Another stroke of serendipity — not to mention the outrageous kindness of fellow sailors — and we’re ready to go again.

One Comment

  1. Greg says:

    Sweet! Man, that kind of thing is so great, and amazingly enough really does happen out there (where we wish we were). Thanks for the reminder. All hail the Seatiger!