canal windlass

The Canal Windlass: The Ultimate Multi-Tool and Key to UK Canal Travel

Ever been for a run without your running shoes, or tried fishing without a rod? Of course not.

Well, try traveling the canals of the UK without a windlass. Without it, locks, swing bridges and lift bridges would be impossible to pass on your canal trip.

The canal windlass is the ultimate multi-tool.

But how did we end up with the windlass we know and love today?

A Brief History of the Windlass

The name “windlass” comes from an old Norse word “vindass,” which is derived from “vinda” meaning “to wind” and “ass” meaning “pole.” So, in short, a windlass is a winding pole!

They were invented to raise the paddles on lock gates to allow water to drain or flood the lock chamber, meaning canal boats climb or descend depending on their direction of travel.

Two spindle sizes attach to the winding mechanism: The smaller, more modern axle was updated in the restoration years of the canal system by British Waterways, in an effort to “rationalize” paddle gears. However, some lock gates still employ the larger spindles as they were unable to get upgraded.

Interestingly, when the British Waterways (now the Canal and River Trust) started this standardizing effort, they discovered there were almost 150 different spindle sizes. I presume it was a throwback to the days when canal companies owned commercial waterways and locks, so issued their employees with the correct windlass to fit the spindle, so only they could use that specific canal.

With so many variations, the number had to be reduced, which is why most newer windlasses commonly have two socket sizes.

Basic Design of a Canal Windlass

A windlass consists of an L-shaped handle, attached to a square socket that, in turn, connects to the winding mechanism on the lock gate.

As I said, some have dual sockets to allow for different sizes of the spindles on specific locks, and it’s even possible to buy a windlass with four sockets.

But there are two standard variations:

Long-Handled Windlass

As the name suggests, the long-handled windlass has a longer handle.

So, what are the advantages of having a longer handle?

Some lock paddle mechanisms are incredibly stiff or heavy. It’s worth remembering these locks are years old and have to withstand some severe amounts of wear and tear. Now, in an ideal world, they would be maintained and work like a dream, but hey, nothing’s perfect.

So, shifting a rusty axle can be an arduous task. That’s where the long-handled windlass comes in.

Short-Handled Windlass

Short-handled windlasses are more commonly used on the network. They’re easier to carry and great for everyday use, especially if you’re doing many locks in a single day.

Different Uses of a Canal Windlass

canal windlass

Lock Operation

If you’re traveling along a canal and the contours of the land mean that there’s an incline or decline, lock gates are an ingenious way to ensure the boat can still traverse safely.

So how does the windlass work?

Okay, so you approach the lock (we’ll assume the lock chamber’s empty), enter the lock with the boat and close the gates at the stern. Then you make your way to the gates at the boat’s bow.

Insert the windlass over the winding mechanism, or spindle, and lift the paddles on the gate. This allows water to flood your chamber, which raises the boat until it ‘s level with the waterway on the other side of the gates.

When water levels have equalized, the finely balanced gates can be opened to allow passage. For the descent, reverse the process by opening the paddles on the gate at the opposite end to the one you entered to enable the water to flow out of the lock.

Always remember to close the paddles before leaving the lock. The last thing you want is to be responsible for draining an entire section of the canal. A mistake like this will not make you popular with other boaters.

Swing Bridges

To stop swing bridges from being opened unnecessarily (or worse, vandalized), a large square-sided bolt is fitted, which screws into the floor of the bridge. The bolt itself is then attached to a hefty chain that’s fixed to the bridge’s bank-side. The windlass is designed to fit these bolts perfectly, so the operator of the bridge can remove them and activate the swing mechanism.

Once the bridge is shut again, the bolt must be replaced and tightened for added security.

Lift Bridges

Much like swing bridges, lift bridges also have a locking nut to keep the bridge in place.

Operating a lift bridge is very similar to a swing bridge; unscrew the bolt that locks it in place and then pull down on the lifting bar. This action raises the bridge.

Different Types of Canal Windlass

Steel Windlass

canal windlass

Steel windlasses are the most basic models and haven’t changed in design much since their introduction in the early days of the canals. They’re heavy to carry, so not favored much these days. But they will last forever! The other advantage is if you drop the windlass in the canal, you can get it back with a magnet.

Aluminum Windlass

canal windlass

The basic design is the same as the heavier steel windlass, but aluminum models are a lot lighter. Less weight makes them more user-friendly and less cumbersome to carry.

Don’t drop an aluminum windlass in the water; they’re not magnetic.

Carbon/Steel Windlass

canal windlass

Carbon fiber is incredibly tough and very light. This new generation of windlasses is a fraction of the weight of the old traditional cast iron or steel variety. When you’re doing the 29-lock Caen Hill flight, you’ll be thankful for that lightweight windlass.

Ratchet Windlass

canal windlass

The ratchet windlass is the easiest to use. It works like the ratchet set most people have in their garages; you set the direction of the ratchet mechanism depending on whether you’re raising or lowering the paddles.

To get the ratchet windlass to work effectively, you should pump the handle up and down at 45-degree angles.

The only downside with a ratchet windlass is the cost. A basic windlass will set you back about £15 ($20), but a ratchet windlass could cost as much as £130 ($167). That’s fine if you have the means, but drop it into the canal, and you’ll wish you had a basic one instead.

Rotating Handle Windlass

canal windlass

This windlass has a handle that spins as you raise or lower the lock mechanism. It doesn’t chafe or leave blisters on your hand, meaning it makes the work of operating a lock paddle easy.

There is a word of caution with all of the featured windlasses: Never leave them on the lock gates, as they can fall into the canal, and you’ll be fishing with your magnet to retrieve them.

Top tip: If you have some spare time and are near a lock, take along your sea magnet and drop it down into the canal. I’ve done this several times, and you’d be amazed at how many windlasses are retrieved.

Conclusion

The windlass, or lock key, as it’s sometimes known, is a pretty basic bit of kit. For that reason, it’s hard to improve what’s already near perfect, which is why they’ve stayed the same shape and design for hundreds of years.

Sure, the new kids on the block have moved the technology a bit further down the road, but not far. Other than adding a ratchet element to the design, little has changed.

They still have the same shape after all.


Mark Weir lives on a canal boat in the heart of England, with his wife, Julie, and his grumpy dog, Eric. Mark likes to travel the waterways in his wide-beam barge, filming his exploits as he travels. Julie paints the wildlife, and Eric likes to bark, mostly.