An increasing number of new boats are offering electric winches as an option, or in some cases as part of the standard inventory. In part this is due to the growing size of new yachts, but that’s not the whole story. In addition to the convenience factor, there’s also a health reason – heart attacks after a heavy spell on the winches are more common than is generally realised.
The latter aspect means there are boats of little more than 30ft that may benefit from fitting electric winches, especially if the boat has a large genoa to winch in after every tack, and owner and crew are not in the first flush of youth. Newer yachts are more likely to have non-overlapping jibs that require much less effort to sheet home, however their larger mainsails can be heavier to hoist, which also points to a lot of effort both in setting the sail and in reefing.
At the other end of the scale, there’s almost no limit to the size of boat that can be sailed, even short handed, by a suitably experienced crew. For instance, large yachts in the 55-75ft range that are expected to be run by professional crew are set up to be easily run by two people, with a number of electric winches taking the effort out of handling the large sail area. Yachts of this size tend to have all sail controls located within easy reach of the helm, apart from halyards and reefing lines, which are often handled at the mast to help to minimise friction.
Get rid of friction first
Before deciding on fitting electric winches it’s worth checking that your existing set up is not creating unnecessary hard work. For instance, if you can use bodyweight to hoist the mainsail it will need far less winching than if you’re trying to hoist the sail by heaving on the halyard from back in the cockpit. Similarly, changing a boat’s sail plan from a big genoa to a smaller non-overlapping jib will reduce the effort required both for each tack and for reefing the sail, with little reduction in speed to windward other than in very light airs. For sailing on reaching courses the lost sail area – and more – can be replaced with a roller furling Code 0 or asymmetric spinnaker.
It’s also worth analysing your deck layout to assess whether there’s a large amount of unnecessary friction (see Easier sail handling: 5 steps to a better deck layout). Every time a rope turns through an angle friction is increased, and the bigger the angle the more friction you will encounter. In many cases it’s possible to reduce this, often quite significantly.
Finally, when were your winches last serviced? Most cruising sailors are guilty of not getting round to servicing winches until they are gummed up with congealed grease and friction has more than doubled. Successful racing sailors, by contrast, service their winches before every major event to keep friction at an absolute minimum.
In the past this was a perennial problem aboard cruising yachts, however, these days on any boat large enough to benefit from installing electric winches there’s no excuse for not having a decent size battery bank with multiple charging inputs, including an alternator with a smart charging system, solar and three- or four-stage shorepower chargers.
Power consumption therefore need not be an issue, although it would be wise to monitor batteries to ensure they remain will charged during any voyage in which electric winches are used extensively.
Choosing the right model
In theory the size of your boat’s existing winches will give a good guide as to the appropriate size of electric winch for each application on your boat. However, many boatbuilders fit the minimum size winches they can in order to save money, especially on budget cruising boat ranges. It may therefore be worthwhile selecting an electric winch that’s a size larger then the unit it will replace. In any case, fitting an undersized electric winch is invariably a false economy that will result in slower winching and a risk of premature failure of the motor. It’s also worth noting that some larger sizes of winches currently in production are designed so that a motor can be retro-fitted at a later date, saving both time and cost.
Intrusion below decks is perhaps a bigger concern for many boat owners, as the motors can reduce standing headroom, particularly in aft cabins. However, there are models, such as instance Harken’s ultra-compact single speed UniPower electric winch that offer a slimline design. In that case, the motor is partially embedded in the winch drum, which means only 105mm of headroom is lost below deck.
Electric winches, like windlasses, draw a considerable amount of electrical current. It’s therefore vital to plan the new system carefully to minimise power losses in the cables. Although it’s standard practice to fit an additional battery for a windlass in the bows of the boat this may not be needed for electric winches, providing they are located close to the main batteries so that cable runs are relatively short.
These should be carefully planned out so that they are kept as short as possible. In any case, it never harms to use a slightly larger size than the minimum recommended, noting that the longer the cable run the larger the cross-sectional area of the wire needs to be.
As with manual winches, the load needs to be spread over a wide area of the structure of the deck. If fitting larger winches than the originals make sure you add decent-size backing pads and remove any foam or balsa core in the deck in way of the fastenings.
It’s important to keep electric winches and their associated systems in good condition, so a degree of additional maintenance is inevitable. Fortunately all major manufacturers of electric winches publish service schedules and procedures on their websites.
An important difference compared to manual winches is in the on deck switchgear, which is prone to degradation in ultra-violet light and to water ingress. Given that the serious potential consequences of a self-tailing electric winch that won’t stop turning, it’s important to keep on top of manufacturers’ recommended replacement schedules – some are as little as four or five years. For the same reason, it’s also not recommended to hoist anyone up the rig using an electric winch.
If you like the idea of electric winches, but don't fancy investing too much, There is a possible alternative - see WinchRite: a viable alternative to electric winches?.