When it comes to routine maintenance, sailboat winches are often overlooked for fear of what may be lurking inside. This servicing guide reveals the mysteries within.
When I bought my first sailboat years ago, a venerable Catalina 22 named Compass Rose, I didn’t know the first thing about winches, aside from the fact that they seemed to be perfectly placed to bruise ankles. Winches are marvels at multiplying your pulling power on lines. But Compass Rose’s winches hadn’t been used for several years and were so stiff they could barely be turned, a sure sign they hadn’t been serviced in even longer. It’s worth noting that a winch in good repair should, when not under load, be easy to turn by hand with an audible click, click, clicking sound.
Many sailors hesitate to open up their winches for servicing. But there’s really nothing to be feared inside, just mechanical parts that need cleaning and lubricating. Most winches, internally, are basically the same; larger ones are often two-speed and simply have more gears and bearings inside, but servicing them is still well within the average do-it-yourselfer’s range of skills.
Let’s Get Started
Overhauling a winch for the first time can seem daunting, but if the job is approached methodically, each one shouldn’t take more than an hour or so. Once you’ve done a pair of them, you’ll wonder why you didn’t tackle the job sooner. Most manufacturers recommend servicing every two years. You’ll need some rags, an old toothbrush, some solvent (kerosene or mineral spirits), a couple of screwdrivers, some needle-nosed pliers, and a snap-ring pliers. You’ll also want a small, soft brush for applying grease. A pair of nitrile gloves will keep solvents and grease off your hands. An old coffee can is great for cleaning dirty parts. Make sure to remove all the solvent from parts after cleaning by wiping them with clean rags.
Buy an aluminum roasting pan, cut a hole in the bottom the diameter of the winch, slip it over, and tape it down. This way, any small parts that try to escape during disassembly won’t be lost forever.
Major winch manufacturers sell kits that have the parts you need, although you may have to get grease for the bearings and oil for the pawls separately, as these may not be included in the kit. It’s best to use the grease and oil sold by the manufacturer. It may cost more, but you’ll get enough for a long time. Go easy on the oil and grease, and don’t apply grease to parts that should be only oiled. A light coating of either is all that’s needed. Too much will attract dirt and salt, and the works will gum up faster. Once you’ve gathered everything, follow this step-by-step guide, and you’ll be an expert in no time.
Winches from different manufacturers will differ in minor ways, but regardless, you’ll first need to remove the drum. For Lewmar models, unscrew the cap from the top of the winch. Some winches use a snap ring. If you must remove one of these, take care that the snap ring doesn’t take off through the air as you unseat it. Snap-ring pliers help. Harken uses a screw in the bottom of the winch spindle to hold the drum in place. If the winch is a self-tailer (as shown here), lift off the stripper arm. Because such an arm can stick, it might require a light tap with a soft mallet. Then lift off the drum carefully, as the bearings may stick to it and fall out at just the wrong time.
Remove the two half-moon-shaped retaining collets. You may need needle-nose pliers or similar tools to remove these easily lost pieces, but be careful not to mar them. On older winches, these may be seized and might require prying out with a screwdriver. If they are really tight, spray on a little penetrating oil. Don’t hit the collets with a hammer; they may distort in their seats, making them even harder to remove.
Insert your finger into the center and lift out the spindle. You may have to twist it slightly to release it from its seating. If you have a two-speed winch, you might need to use a small screwdriver to lift out the gear spindle and remove the gears. This is where you’ll be glad you put parts in the box in order.
Inspect the roller bearings for wear. If they’re loose in their housing, they’re worn and must be replaced. Otherwise, give them a thorough cleaning with your solvent and a brush to remove dirt and grime. Use a clean, lint-free rag to wipe off residue.
Separate the two halves of the gear assemblies. Check the condition of the pawls. Replace them if they’re worn or if they’re more than a few years old. If you bought the kit, replace the springs every time you service the winch. These vital springs, the smallest part on any winch, are the bits most likely to be lost, so take care. They can easily take flight as you try to reinsert them, in which case they may be gone forever. It’s wise to have several spare springs for each winch.
After a thorough cleaning in solvent, dry each part, then lightly lubricate the pawls and springs with oil — never use grease here. Return the pawl assemblies to the ratchet gear in the same order they came out.
Drop the gear-retaining pins back into position with the flat on the edge of the pin facing the winch spindle. These should slide right in and fit loosely.
Lubricate the roller bearings lightly with grease and refit them. Lightly grease the gear teeth inside the drum. Replace the drum, lightly grease the self-tailing arm and the top cap, and refit. Check the action of the winch before patting yourself on the back and moving on to the next one.