Sailor Speak of the Week – Windlass

Anchor windlass aboard the sailing vessel Balclutha. The vertical shaft leads up to the capstan which manually powers the windlass.



  • A device for hoisting an anchor.


Probably earlier than the 17th century. Earlier spelling was windelas. From Middle English, windas, of the same meaning.


Early windlasses were mounted aft and used to control the backstays. I’ve always heard that the difference between a windlass and a capstan is that in a windlass, the drum is mounted horizontally, whereas the capstan is mounted vertically. As seen in the above picture, the capstan can be directly connected to the windlass, although not all vessels have capstans.


Rogers, J.G. (1985). Origins of Sea Terms. Mystic Seaport.

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