Skip to main content

After 32 Years, It Was Time

We all are maintenance freaks, aren’t we?

Without fail and with enthusiasm, we poke and test in the engine room, renewing and replacing the things that may fail—V-belts, seawater pump impellers, protective zincs, fuel filters—well, before they can be expected to quit. We toss or give away frayed mooring lines that are still willing and able, replace flares before they are outdated, and buy new charts even though the old are mostly OK.

“If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” is popular nonsense among some auto owners. It has always been extreme foolishness at sea. So we work hard to assure continued, reliable performance of a host of important systems by replacing and renewing passionately and on schedule.
But what about that critical piece of gear up forward, the most important windlass? When did you last change the oil, service the electric motor, and check the gears? Could you pull the anchor and rode back aboard by hand if your windlass failed with the anchor buried deep in the mud?
My boat is 33 years old and I have owned it for 22 of those years. To the best of my knowledge the only time anyone has ever thought about the windlass was when it was needed to retrieve a couple of hundred feet of chain and a 50-pound anchor. It never faltered.
Several things prompted me to dig into my windlass:
First, about two years ago I was challenged by Brian Pemberton, who operates Northwest Explorations, a Bellingham, Washington firm offering a fleet of Grand Banks yachts for bare-boat charters. He recommended I follow his pattern of dismantling and checking windlasses every five years.
Then last season, I encountered a couple of boat owners with agonizing stories about windlass failure with the anchor down, which reminded me of Brian’s earlier suggestion. And—finally—a trickle of oil running from the windlass gearbox onto my teak deck forced me to acknowledge that the time had come for some TLC. It turned out to be a fascinating experience, and rewarding too, because I found the help of some skilled professionals when I found myself floundering part of the way through the rebuild process.
The first step was to identify the manufacturer. Strangely, there was no maker’s mark anywhere on the cast bronze windlass body. I scraped away several coats of paint, but found no label. I did find a row of numbers stamped into a flange covered by the motor cover that hinted of a model number, a manufacture date (June, 1979), and what might have been a serial number. But no name. A surveyor many years ago said it was a Delta, but it isn’t. Someone else thought it was a McMurry; fortunately, it was not a product of that long defunct Seattle-area company.
I emailed a photo to several shops that sell used marine gear. A return message produced a picture of a McMurry. It has one feature shared with my windlass: a pair of horns (some call them bollard) on the top. But it is flat on top, while mine is round. It had a boxy motor cover; mine has a cylindrical cover.

After exploring the Internet for firms specializing in deck gear, I sent a photo to Sea Chest Marine in San Diego about 3 o’clock on a Sunday afternoon. Surprisingly, the answer came at 8 o’clock that evening. Steve, who had the duty of returning emails that day, quickly identified the windlass as a model 9B (for bronze) built by RC Plath, a company still in business near Portland, Oregon. A phone call the next day told me that Plath still builds the 9B (it also makes a 9A in cast aluminum) and that all the parts needed for an overhaul were available. Plath also told me the company does not put a maker’s label on its small windlasses.
The 9A and 9B models were intended for boats up to about 35 feet, but are used successfully on larger boats. I don’t know about other units, but my Plath is powered by a 12-volt, 60-amp Honeywell motor.
With parts on the way, I pulled the windlass from its mounting block and separated the electric motor from the gear box, a trying task because it required close-quarter use of an Allen wrench.
Brian, who services windlasses on charter boats every five years, recommended taking the motor to Industrial Electric and Marine in Bellingham. Ken Pearson, a technician there, bench-tested the motor and seemed pleased that it still ran well and outlined his cleaning and servicing plan. But he warned it was going on the shelf at the end of a row of other motors requiring priority repair for service on farms and at commercial marine businesses. It was late October and I was in no hurry.
At home, I opened the windlass case and drained the oil. There was a trace of sludge on the case bottom, but no water. I replaced the oil seal for the motor drive shaft, but failed completely in trying to figure out how to get at the main shaft—deep in the case—to replace seals.
I turned to Carl Koals at Integrity Marine in Anacortes. He made it seem easy by simply removing the bottom plate, which created working space inside the case. He found the gear drive in good condition, installed the seals, polished the gypsy drive and the brake wheel, and painted the chain drive sprocket. At one point, though, he called Plath for guidance. Carl doesn’t guess, thankfully.
Industrial Marine delivered the motor to Carl, who bolted it to the windlass case. Ken reported that the motor was in good condition, requiring only cleaning and replacement of the brushes. Counting labor and parts, this was a $700 project.
Back on the boat I settled the windlass onto mounting bolts, connected the electrical cables, and stepped on the deck switch. It ran backward!
During installation, Carl simply rotated the motor 180 degrees from its original position. Not recognizing that, I connected cables to posts on the motor case as if its position had not changed. I may not have been the master mechanic on this project, but I knew how to make the motor run the other direction.
Wiring changed, I dumped the anchor overboard in my marina (in about 8 feet of water), stepped on the deck switch, and grinned as the chain and anchor came back aboard, seemingly good for another 30 years.