So much emphasis is put on servicing winches. At every marina and regatta, you will see many crews with winches in bits, cleaning, tinkering, and reassembling. It’s one of the bits of maintenance that always seems to be at the forefront of every boat owners mind. If not done it can it can easily ruin your race or day out on the water or worst case cause serious injury to yourself or members of your crew. But is this maintenance being done properly?
First, it’s important to know why winches fail. Improper use is the obvious one and easily corrected. Making sure everyone onboard knows how to use the winches properly is a sure way to keep your gear working properly. One thing that many people forget is winches are set up to pull loads in a specific direction, loading up the winch in a different direction other then the one intended can easily cause you problems down the line. Especially if you are using the winch to pull a high load, typically seen when mooring in high winds. This also links into using your winch as a mooring cleat. There’s nothing wrong with using your winches to help with mooring but it’s important to transfer your mooring lines onto other strong points around your boat so as not to have your winches loading and unloading for days or weeks. Also, trying to pull loads that are too high for the type of winch you have is a sure way to cause a serious problem. Winches are often designed with “fuse” gears in them that will deform over the designed load causing the winch to stiffen or even seize which although annoying is better the winch releasing or worse "back winding". This is where the full load of the line being pulled is able to reverse the winch and can cause serious harm to anyone holding the handles.
Lack of care can also cause problems with your winches; how many times have you seen crews walk away from a boat after a day on the water without rinsing the boat down or putting away kit? Giving your winches a good wash will help to stop salt building up inside the winch and keep them turning smoothly. And if you’re leaving your boat for an extended period of time, it’s always a good idea to cover your winches or if the boat is coming out of the water for the winter, removing them from the deck altogether. This simply stops dust and dirt getting into your winches.
So, how do we get the best out of our winches? Regular maintenance is the key. The frequency of maintenance will differ for every boat owner. Racing boats will service their winches before every race, whereas boats used for weekend trips in coastal waters may only service their winches two or three times a year. Whatever your intended use, it’s important to give your winches a full clean and service at the start of every season, and before every long passage, for example, deliveries to Europe or across the Atlantic. Taking every piece apart, giving it a good clean with a good degreaser and inspection is crucial. This will allow you to see any damage or wear. Replacing parts is also important. Where the gears are very durable, the pawls, pawl springs and bearings can wear easily and replacing them is cheap and easy.
Using the right products is also important, using proper winch grease and pawl oil in the right places is key to properly functioning winches. Grease in Pawls will make them stick which could result in the winch “back winding”. The grease and pawl oil have specific properties required for the different jobs the pawls and gears do. It is important to apply enough grease without applying too much. The thickness of the grease is what is relied on to keep the gears covered but if too much is applied this can clog the gears and produce friction. On Grand Prix boats, where servicing happens every race, no winch grease is used to reduce the friction in the winch whereas with ocean racing boats where the winch will to thousands of miles between servicing more grease is applied to make sure the winch doesn’t wear excessively.
Ultimately, your winches are some of the toughest bits of kit on your boat, but if they’re not taken care of or used in the right way, they can become frustrating, expensive and worst of all dangerous.