Archive for the ‘windlass repair’ Category

The Longest, Worst Boat Project Ever (with Blood)

Clark January 10th, 2014

I realize that interminable, frustrating boat projects are the low country of boating conversation, but bear with me.

My electric windlass stopped working four months ago. It would power down, but not up. Sure it was the windlass control box, I tore into the anchor locker, removed the control box, then tested the windlass directly by touching the live power cable to each of the leads on the windlass. Again, power down but no power up, and this showed it was something in the guts of the windlass.

If this were a job for a customer, I’d like to think I would have had the good sense to say, “Let me remove and disassemble the windlass, then we’ll talk about how much this is going to cost.” But I probably would have said, “This has gotta be something simple since the motor still works. It should just take a couple hours.”

It took a couple hours just to remove the windlass from the deck. One of the mounting bolt heads broke off, leaving a stud stuck in the deck. As I removed the windlass, one of the power leads fell out, along with one of the studs from the electric motor.

The motor would have to be removed from the windlass and repaired, meaning total disassembly of the windlass.

If anyone is thinking I should have just replaced the whole windlass, this is a Muir Cheetah, made in Tasmania, which currently retails for over $7000 in the US! Madness. Check out here or here. This place is advertising it for more than $10,000. This is like half the insured value of my whole boat! Must be some international wierdness with a strong Aussie dollar, tariffs, or extreme purchase price parity imbalance (EPPPI). I bought it as a leftover from a boat show in 2001 in Sydney, along with 300-feet of new 3/8-inch chain, for $1800. Feeling very good about my bargain hunting.

Anyway, at that price it was definitely worth repairing.

I went to remove the bottom cover from the windlass, but of course all the stainless screws were frozen into the aluminum case, and would need to be drilled out. It had already been a long day, and I didn’t have my Hand Truck of Justice with me (windlass is heavy and it’s about a quarter mile to the parking lot) and it was getting late.

I came back another day with a drill. The first step was to drill out all the screws and remove the bottom cover:

Then I had to remove the rope drum, gypsy, and associated parts, which were all, of course, horribly frozen with corroded pins and keyways.

I’d already decided that if I was going to go to all this trouble I’d repaint the aluminum case while I was at it, and make her shine like new.

Once the hardware was removed from the ends of the shaft, I’d have to slide the shaft out of the windlass to get the motor and drive unit out. Try as I might, I couldn’t get the shaft out:

I’d have to take her home, where I have a four pound sledgehammer, and various rods and pipes for tapping out recalcitrant shafts. Once at home, I picked up where I left off:

In the photo above you’ll see the shaft coming out the left side of the windlass, and the socket extension I was using for the task coming out the right side. In the foreground is my four pound sledgehammer. I was making slow and frustrating progress when I hit my thumb with the sledgehammer. I didn’t cry, and I didn’t scream, but my wife came out moments later and said I looked pale.

I quietly went into the house, opened a beer, and lay on the living room floor with a bag of frozen peas on my hand.

My thumb didn’t get better. It was especially fun changing our infant’s diaper during the following days. He’d kick as hard as he could, hitting my thumb end-on. When I grimaced in pain I got the biggest laughs I’ve ever got out of him. I always felt a little shortchanged that others, even strangers, could get these big laughs out of him, but dear old dad could never really make him crack up. But making me fall to my knees, wincing in pain, made him laugh like a maniac.

Four days later I went to the hospital. They x-rayed it and the second segment of my thumb was broken, right in half, with the two halves of the broken bone now crossing at a 45-degree angle. They’d have to reset the bone. The first step was injecting Lidocaine into the major nerves going up both sides of my thumb:

This was very painful at first, with the broken thumb cramping up, then very weird and inexplicable. I told my doctor wife later and she said, “Like freezing and burning at the same time?” “Yes! Exactly! Like burning and freezing at the same time.”

All due credit to the orthopedic profession, but this gets medieval. First they put my thumb and forefinger in “finger traps”:

As you can see, they’re like those Chinese finger handcuffs, only stainless steel. Apparently there needs to be equal tension on both the thumb and forefinger when they reset the bone.

The physician’s assistant called out, “Hey! Julio, can you give me a hand?” Julio was about a 200-pound, tattooed orderly, who was soon hanging from my elbow. The physician’s assistant kept saying “harder, harder” until I think I saw Julio’s feet lift off the ground. Meanwhile the physician’s assistant was resetting the bone – snap, crackle, crunch – and I was babbling about I don’t know what, feeling no pain with the anesthesia, but knowing that if I fixated on what they were doing to me I’d puke.

Without releasing the tension from my thumb, the physician’s assistant wrapped a piece of hot fiberglass around my arm, and let it dry while holding my thumb bent and in traction:

They took another x-ray of my thumb, and the orthopedist came in to have a look. He said, “Looks good, IF it stays in place. IF it stays in place,” and darted out of the room.

I was to come back the next week. If it didn’t stay in place, that meant surgeries, stainless steel pins, and a longer recovery.

As the anesthesia wore off, my thumb hurt very much, and now it was stuck in this extremely tight cast. Extremely tight.

Going back the next week, I hoped the bone stayed put, of course, but a more urgent matter was getting the extremely tight cast off my hand. There may be surgery, there may be pins, but at least that very tight, temporary cast was coming off.

I got there, they took an x-ray, and the bone had stayed put. The physician’s assistant said, “Great, now we don’t want to change a thing. We want to keep it exactly as it is, but wrap it a bit tighter.”

Still, no surgery and no pins. Also no use of my hand for another month or so, and no work, and the Clark Beek Marine Electrician Company did not have a worker’s compensation plan. It turns out a broken thumb is a serious injury, and the doctors take it seriously. A thumb is kind of like a shoulder, a complicated joint that moves in all kinds of ways, and a permanent disability is very limiting. At this point I was feeling pretty stupid about hitting my thumb with a sledgehammer.

On that subject, it wasn’t actually that stupid. The shaft I was hammering was a good foot from my left thumb. My left hand was just bracing the windlass case, but the windlass case has a cleat cast into the top of it. I think my thumb must have been laying on this cleat, forming a little bridge between the cleat and the case. The hammer didn’t have to hit that hard to break the bridge. Re-creation:

So now I had a lot of time on my hand. I of course went back to hammering on that windlass, with one hand, and eventually got the shaft out:

The electric motor had to come off the drive unit, and the rotor had to come out of the stator:

Replacing the stud was beyond my one-handed ability, so I took it to my favorite electric motor shop and had them do it for $85. I destroyed a phenolic bearing on disassembly, so had to buy one of those from Muir, also for $85. Then I needed the two-pack paint, which was another $60. Luckily I already had the chromate metal etch primer and the epoxy barrier coat, with the three paint products composing the recommended system for metal coating from Interlux, Petit, et al.

But first I had to strip the aluminum windlass case down to bare metal. Bead blasting would be the best way, but I was doing this on the cheap. I found these pads on a four-inch grinder worked great:

I went through one pad on the windlass case; another on a bike frame I was refinishing at the same time. Always combine painting projects, when possible. Aluminum begins to corrode in the air just minutes after stripping, so it’s important to get the etch primer painted on immediately.

I eventually had my windlass case repainted and looking good. I’d rounded up all my parts and fasteners and was ready for reassembly. Wait a minute, what’s this?:

That’s oil leaking out of the drive unit, around the outer oil seal. Don’t want to reassemble the whole thing and mount it if it’s leaking oil, so I took apart the drive unit, cleaned up the mating surfaces for the oil seal, replaced the oil with synthetic 90W gear oil, then put it all back together again.

I ended up needing a new windlass control box, because this time one of the plungers in one of the solenoids had actually broken:

Installing the new windlass on deck, with all new cables and the new control box, was fairly quick and straightforward. Notice how the windlass case is now off-white, to match the color of my deck? That’s no accident:

After three months, many painful stretching exercises, and a few physical therapy sessions, my left thumb will never be quite the same:

You can see that the left one no longer bends as much as the right one, not so much a disability as an inconvenience. The physical therapist finally pointed out that the bone actually healed in a bent-backwards angle of about fifteen degrees. This is about as good as anyone would hope for, as far as healing, but means the joint would actually have to articulate fifteen degrees more than the right thumb to bend to the same angle.

About halfway through this process I was feeling very sorry for myself and my club thumb, when I stopped by to check on my boat. I walked down the dock and came upon my neighbor’s boat:

Everything’s relative.

How to Fix Your Electric Windlass 9 out of 10 Times

Clark January 4th, 2014

attachment 3626550438
If you have an electric windlass, eventually you will step on the foot switch, or flip the switch in the cockpit, and nothing will happen. Of course this can be caused by many problems, but the most common are corroded contacts on a solenoid. In a blog post a while back I discussed solenoids in general terms. If you don’t know what a solenoid is, or what it does, it would do you well to read this brief primer.

Here we’ll discuss windlass solenoids, or what they call a windlass control box, which is really just two solenoids in the same box and sharing some of the same circuitry. If your windlass just powers in one direction (up!) then your windlass control solenoid will be a simple one like this:

…or this:

…But if your windlass has both power up and power down, it’ll look something like this:

…or this:

…or this:

Hey, wait a minute, those last two look exactly alike. Yes, many windlass control boxes are made in Italy by the same manufacturer, and other companies brand them as their own. We must stop this evil Italian monopoly on windlass control solenoids!…or just address one problem at a time, like a windlass that won’t work.

Most windlasses are switched through a solenoid, like those ones pictured above, but some are switched directly through a high-amperage foot switch, with no solenoid between the foot switch and the windlass. In both cases, the problem and solution are the same: The solenoid in the control box, or your foot, presses a large copper bar against two contacts. Since this is a high amperage connection, this copper bar can spark, arc, and take a lot of abuse. Over time, the points of contact will become fouled, “carboned up,” as they say, and will no longer make good electrical contact.

There will usually be some warning: You’ll go to raise your anchor and the windlass won’t work. You’ll try a few times and it will work, then you’ll forget it didn’t work the first time, but the first time should serve as a warning that troubles are on the way.

The telltale sign is the solenoid clicking, or stomping on that foot switch, but the windlass still not working.

The solution is simple – clean the electrical contacts – but of course it’s seldom that simple. If yours is a solid state solenoid, as in many up-only installations, you simply can’t get at the contacts and the solenoid must be replaced (about $50). If you’ve got one of the Italian jobs, or one of their American (meaning Chinese) equivalents, you can get to the contacts and clean them.

During my ten-year circumnavigation this was an annual task, heralded by the aforementioned warnings.

Usually you’ll have to completely remove the control box and disconnect all wires. Note where everything goes: digital cameras and smart phones are great for this. Once you’ve got everything disconnected you can confirm your diagnosis by touching the power cable directly to the power lead(s) on the windlass. If it jumps to life, you’ll know your solenoid/control box is indeed the problem. If it doesn’t jump to life, your problem lies somewhere else.

Remove the screws that hold the lid on the the control box:

Inside, you will see something like this:

On both sides, down in the box, are the solenoids. Above are the contacts, the filthy, fouled contacts, which must be cleaned. But to clean the contacts you must loosen and remove the studs from the top of the control box:

Once everything is out and exposed, go to it with a wire brush. Don’t be shy: The fouling on the contacts can be tenacious, and require vigorous action with a wire brush or sandpaper. The copper contacts will probably be zinc plated, but the zinc may have to go bye-bye to make clean electrical connections again. This isn’t rocket science: It’s brute physical/electrical stuff, where copper bars have to come into contact with copper studs like a punch in the face:

Once the contacts are clean, reassemble the control box, reconnect the wires, and you should be up and running again. Yes, there are many other things that can go wrong electrically with a windlass, but in my experience it was this about ten times in a row, followed by something more serious (I’ll get to this later).

Most importantly, a new windlass control box will cost $150-$180 retail. Forty-five minutes in the most uncomfortable position imaginable in your anchor locker to deal with a faulty windlass control box…priceless.