Deck fittings are a very important, if often neglected, element on any yacht. As with many aspects of boat maintenance, a little frequent attention will help to prevent larger problems and failures. Many deck gear failures can be traced to an ingress of salt and grit, so it makes sense to wash the boat thoroughly with fresh water whenever possible after sailing. While sailing it’s also worth periodically examining all deck gear for correct and smooth operation.

Sailing cockpit

It's worth periodically examining deck gear while sailing to ensure smooth and correct operation.

Modern low-stretch ropes can create new and unexpected problems, as peak loads that were previously absorbed when lines stretched are now transferred directly to deck gear, as well as to the boat’s structure. As a result, fixing points, blocks and other gear may have become over-stressed. In extremis this can destroy fittings that previously worked for many years without any apparent problems.

Servicing winches

Ideally winches should be serviced at the start and end of the season, as a minimum. However, many don't get anywhere near that much attention, even though frequent servicing is important to their reliability and failing to do so increases friction more dramatically than most boat owners realise.

Winch service

Servicing winches: always refer to manufacturers' instructions and take care not to drop any pieces of the winch over the side!

The procedure is essentially similar for most models, and takes only a few minutes once you’re accustomed to the procedure. The service instructions should always be consulted before starting work – these can normally be found on manufacturers’ websites. Similarly, all manufacturers sell spares kits covering different models and requirements, although these aren’t essential, providing you have a suitable supply of circlips, pawl springs, light oil and a waterproof grease.

Common mistakes when servicing winches include using too much grease, or greasing the pawls instead of using a light oil. In both cases friction will gradually increase as the grease ages and, in extremis, can lead to the pawls failing to engage properly. A useful tip when servicing a winch for the first time is to drape a sheet over the guardrails to prevent components being lost over the side.

Reassembly is a straightforward reversal of removal, checking as you go that each component operates properly. Electric models should also have the switchgear replaced as per the manufacturer’s recommendations. Finally, check the operation of the winch itself before subjecting it to use under load. For more on winch servicing read how to service your winches.

Deck fittings service: windlasses

These share many of the same design characteristics as winches, but are in a much more exposed location, prone to getting drenched in salty water and subjected to abrasive particles of mud and sand that come up with the anchor rode. As a result, they often have a shorter useable lifespan than winches, especially on boats where the anchor is rarely used and problems with the windlass therefore go unnoticed, often until the whole unit has seized solid.

Windlass service

The windlass is essentially the same as a winch but will generally be exposed to the elements more as well as mud from the anchor chain.

Such neglect can be both expensive and can result in safety issues if the anchor has to be used in an emergency, such as in the event of engine failure. However, if the unit is washed with fresh water after each trip, and serviced at the same time as the winches, its lifespan will be maximised and you can expect near faultless reliability for many years.

How to service blocks

In addition to washing regularly with fresh water to flush out salt and other debris, it’s worth examining each block on a regular basis. Modern low stretch ropes used in conjunction with older sheaves tends to cause a higher incidence of sheave cage collapse, meaning the block will simply stop running. This often goes unnoticed until you look closely at the block and find the rope is wearing a groove into the sheave.

How to service clutches

Just as many blocks are now subjected to higher loads than in the past, the same is also true of clutches. The problem can also be compounded when a clutch is asked to hold a higher load, but with a smaller diameter line that’s more difficult to grip. Many units have been re-engineered to reflect this, with a range of cams to suit different rope materials. The good news is that many can be retrofitted to replace an old and worn cam, making an older unit as good as new, but at significantly reduced cost.

How to service your rig

At the same time as dealing with deck hardware it’s also worth making a full check of the rig. At deck level look closely at the sheaves at the base of the mast, as well as the boom and kicking strap, including the sheaves for the reefing lines at each end of the boom. Also pay attention to the area around fittings, including swages, spreader roots, and rigging terminals. Spreader ends should be checked to ensure they are smooth. See our article on rigging and basic rig checks.

Filling screw holes

It’s almost inevitable that at some point you will need to change some deck fittings, either to replace a worn out item, or upgrade it to one of a higher specification. However, in many cases the holes for bolts or screws will not line up with the new fitting. If this is the case, never succumb to the temptation to leave open screw holes after removing old fittings, or to fill them with a silicone sealant. Once water finds its way into the fibreglass mouldings and reaches the foam or balsa core the structure will start to be weakened.

A proper permanent solution is to thoroughly dry the area, drill a hole a little larger in diameter than the screw thread, then fill the this with epoxy resin thickened with glass bubbles or microballons. On a boat with painted decks, the paint can easily be touched up, while a fibreglass deck will need the top surface to be finished with colour-matched gel coat. For more on deck service and maintenance, read about caring for teak decks and dealing with fibreglass deck leaks.

For more on maintaining and servicing the equipment on your boat, see how to maintain your boat

Written by: Rupert Holmes
Rupert Holmes has more than 70,000 miles of offshore cruising and racing experience, in waters ranging from the North Sea to the Southern Ocean and Cape Horn. He writes about all aspects of boat ownership and marine travel, including destinations, seamanship and maintenance, as well as undertaking regular new boat and gear tests. He currently sails around 5,000 miles per year and in the past couple of seasons has cruised from the UK to the Azores, as well as winning his class in the 2014 two-handed Round Britain and Ireland Race. He also owns two yachts, one based in the Mediterranean and the other in the UK.