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Winch servicing 101

2011 March 25

Start the season with your winches in good shape and you'll be set for the season

On this spring's to-do list you, being an ambitious soul, have added "service winches." Are you crazy? That's one of the worst jobs on the list. It is somewhere between turning yourself blue with toxic bottom paint dust and putting that new valve in on the leaky head. There is the black grease that will find its way onto anything white; there is the mystery green crud that coats the gears, but worst of all there is the complexity of getting the darn thing back together. But the truth is, it needs to be done and your winches may be the most neglected equipment on the boat. Ideally, you'll service your winches annually, so fitting out is a perfect time to tackle them.

Why would any smart person do this themselves when a little cash and knowing the right guy will also get the job done? Part of being a sailor is to be self-sufficient when out on the water, so when a problem rears its ugly head good sailors know how to correct the situation because they have some knowledge of how the thing works. Do you think if Joshua Slocum had a broken electric furler he would sail back to port to have a guy named Vinny fix it for him? So to be a well-rounded sailor, add servicing your own winches to your arsenal. It's a valuable skill to have.

Before you begin you are going to need a few things, so be prepared. By the time you're into it you will be too messy to hop into your white SUV and chase parts down. Other than winch grease, the only spare parts that are recommended to have on hand would be a pawl and spring kit. The pawl is the heart and soul of any winch. It is what makes the clicking sound you hear as the drum spins and prevents the drum from spinning backward. The springs live in the pawl and are very light and you need to be careful with them. They usually try to escape to a better life by flying away the second you are not paying attention. If you find the winch is going to need anything more than pawls and springs, such as a gear where the teeth are badly worn, it will most likely require a special order. So don't plan on servicing your winches the day before you set out on a big cruise because you never know what you'll find.

The other supplies you will need to service your winch should be able to be found around town. A box of shop paper towels, which looks like Paul Bunyan's tissue box, is great to have but a few rolls of regular paper towels will work too. The other key supply is some way to cut the grease. Mineral spirits works well but it can be a little harsh. A  better alternative is a gallon jug of citrus degreaser that has almost no fumes and can be used indoors without anyone passing out. Some people like to have a  box of disposable gloves because without a doubt you will have grease up to your wrists. The gloves are nice to help contain the black hand prints to just one area of the boat with the ability to whip them off before you touch anything else. The final item you will need to have at the ready is a bucket or tub where you can wash the parts in solution. It works well to have at least two tubs so one can be use with cleaning solution while the other is used to carry the parts back and forth to the boat.  Have your supplies ready to go before you crack open a winch.

Opening up the winch differs only slightly from manufacturer to manufacturer with the keystone being the handle socket that holds it all together. On Harken winches there is a slotted screw in the bottom of the handle socket, yet the old Barlows have a Cir-clip around the handle socket. Holmatro winches come with a key. On most Lewmar winches there is a slight indent on the top piece that accommodates a screwdriver used as a push tool to unscrew the whole works. Once that key top piece is loosened on the winch, the drum can be lifted, exposing the winch's mysterious insides.

With the drum removed you will be looking at the main housing that will have roller bearing cages around the main stem. The roller bearings simply pull straight off the top and into your waiting parts tub. At the base of the housing you should see socket head screws, which in most cases are metric, that need to be removed in order to lift the housing straight off. It is rare that anything goes wrong with the housing, but since it is removed anyway it doesn't hurt to give it a quick inspection. With the main housing removed you will be looking at a confusing array of gears and ratchets.

For the first-timer, working on a winch is a little like Indiana Jones discovering a new cave; the deeper he explores the more dangerous the situation becomes, but at some point he is going to need to figure out how to get back out. You too will also need to figure out how you are going to get out of the winch cave before you start putting the gears into the cleaning tub. Some people like to lay each piece out in a specific order therefore being able to put it back in reverse order. But in reality that is not a realistic approach because it doesn't take much to upset the order they go back. The best advice is to go to the winch manufacturer's website and download the parts blow-up then print it out so you have it ready to look at if things don't work out.

Another trick is to snap a couple cell-phone photos of the gear orientation. Unfortunately, with greasy hands a camera photo is not ideal to follow for reassembly, but it makes for a good insurance policy should you get into a real pickle.

Always remember, on most boats there is an identical winch on the other side that you can sneak a peak at if needed. The best rule of thumb for reassembly is if you have to force it together, even the slightest little bit, it is in the wrong orientation. Just take your time and think through the reassembly. It should not be as tough as it looks.

At this point all the gears are sitting in a neat little cluster and will simply lift straight out without having to loosen or unscrew anything. Pull everything out and place them in your tub for cleaning. As you are pulling the gears out you will come across the ratchet that houses the pawls. It is essential to inspect them to make sure they are not sticking, and if they are clean them up with a little scouring pad. If they are questionable you should simply replace them rather than chance a failure.

It is best if you can do your gear cleaning off the boat as it will get messy. Fill one of the tubs with degreaser and let the gears soak for a bit. If it has been many years since the winches were serviced and things are really crudded up, the gears may need to soak overnight. The next step is to take a stiff brush and clean out every little corner of the part followed with a quick rinse in water. The rinse is needed to remove the degreaser so it won't dissolve the new grease. 

Now it is time to reassemble the winch. There is no good way to memorize how the winch goes back together as each winch, even within the same manufacturer, is completely different. The best way to approach it is to think of it as a three dimensional puzzle and just think through it logically. Sometime the washers can trip people up, but just look for little clues such as wearing on one side or how big the hole is compared to the pin that is going through it. As it was mentioned before, it will only go together one way and if anything needs to be forced together you better have a second look at it. Again, it doesn't hurt to have a print out of the winch schematic just in case things don't go well.

Finally, before the main housing goes back in place, give all the gears and pins a light coating of grease. Most bearings are stainless steel and should receive a light coating of grease. If the bearings are plastic, as you'll find in some winches, do not grease them, as it will interfere with the winch's function. There is no need to put the grease on extra thick, and excess may melt out in the hot summer sun across your deck. Make sure you avoid putting grease in the pawls as grease is a little too sticky and will prevent them from clicking. Only oil is required on the pawls. Motor or gear oil works great. A three-and-one oil is probably too light.

There are a lot of neglected winches out there on the water and it is amazing that they still work. But like anything on a sailboat, preventive maintenance goes a long way.  Winch service is a ugly job, so just bite the bullet and take care of it.