Ideally winches should be serviced at the start and ends of the season, as well as up to two or three times during the year and they should be a regular part of your boat maintenance schedule (see our feature How to maintain your boat). However, many don't get anywhere near that much attention and only receive attention when problems can no longer be ignored.
Yet frequent servicing is vital to the reliability and free-running of these crucial items – for this reason top racing yachts may service their winches every six or seven sailing days. This is the only way to guarantee they give 100 per cent performance, with the minimum of unwanted friction.
There are also safety issues at stake – imagine hauling a crew member up the rig using a winch with a broken or sticking pawl spring. The winch will appear to operate with no problem, but the ratchet will be compromised and the consequences could be devastating if a second spring were to break.
Winch service procedure
The basic procedure is similar for all models, and takes only a few minutes, although larger and self-tailing versions are a little more complex (see below for illustrated step-by-step guide). In all cases, the service instructions for the winches on your particular boat should be consulted before starting work. Don’t worry if you don’t have the original documentation – the manufacturers tend to be very helpful in this respect, even for old models. Harken’s website, for instance, has manuals and parts drawing of all its winches produced since 1992, see Harken Winch Manuals. If your winches are earlier than this, you can still contact the company for a diagram.
Winches are designed to be easy and logical to service, so the biggest problems you may find are relocating the small parts in exactly the right positions (the diagram will be useful here) and ensuring nothing is allowed to slip or ping overboard when the winch is dismantled. The first few times you strip a winch it’s worth draping an old sheet over the rail to stop components being lost over the side of the boat.
Normally the only tools needed are screwdrivers and Allen keys, plus small brushes to clean parts and reapply grease. Parts and materials needed are waterproof winch grease, light lubricating oil, cleaning solvents and spare pawl springs. Winch manufacturers sell a number of spares kits covering different models and requirements, which means you can be sure of having everything necessary.
First time service
If stripping a winch for the first time, consider placing the components individually in the cleaning solution, so that the job is done stage by stage. This means there's no chance of losing track of the location in which each item must be replaced. Similarly, if servicing a number of winches in the same session, don't mix up the components of different models – there may be subtle but important differences.
A citrus-based parts cleaner is ideal for cleaning winch components, using a small brush if necessary to remove all the old grease from bearings. After cleaning, pawls and springs should be given a spot of light engine oil, while other components – gear teeth, bearings and any other parts subject to metal-to-metal contact – should be given a thin smear of a waterproof grease suitable for use in bearings.
Reassembling a winch
Re-assembly is a straightforward reversal of removal, checking as you go that each component operates properly. Start by replacing the parts in the base, followed by the spindle. Give the shaft and gears an occasional spin to make sure everything’s okay as you reassemble the unit. If anything doesn’t drop easily into place it’s a sure sign that something’s wrong, so don’t try to force parts together. Finally, spin the drum by hand – if should spin freely, with the pawls making their distinctive ratcheting sound.
Regularly washing with fresh water and drying with a cloth is all that’s needed to clean the external drum. A liquid non-abrasive cleaner may be used occasionally on chrome and stainless steel drums, but should not be used for aluminium models.
Pawls and ratchets: small, but vitally important…
The ratchet action of the winch relies on the correct functioning of the pawls – one of the smallest components. They must spring instantly into place as the drum rotates, otherwise there’s a risk of the drum backwinding under load and causing injury. A common mistake is to apply grease to the pawls and their springs, but this will always cause problems – they should instead be lubricated with light oil.
Check the condition of the pawl springs during the service – if in any doubt they should be replaced. Make certain pawls are replaced in the correct orientation – the ends should sit squarely against the housing. If they do not do so, they’re the wrong way round.
Servicing electric winches
Exactly the same principles apply, but it’s also important to check electrical connections for corrosion or signs of water ingress. The most common problems are found with on-deck switchgear, which should in any case be replaced every three or four years.
Illustrated step-by-step guide to servicing your winches
Other useful features in our 'How to' section include How to choose the right antifouling, How to maintain your boat and Preparing a boat for sale.
Rupert Holmes has cruised and raced more than 60,000 miles, between 60 degrees north and 56 degrees south. He writes about all aspects of boat ownership and marine travel, including destinations, seamanship and maintenance, as well as undertaking regular boat and gear tests. He owns two yachts, one currently based in the Aegean and the other in the Solent.