Can you imagine what sailing was like before the winch came on board? Not me. Just the thought of hauling in a feisty genoa by hand makes my back hurt. It is easily the most versatile piece of equipment on the boat, and whoever invented this mechanical marvel deserves to be in the Sailing Hall of Fame.
Consider what the winch endures: It is placed under thousand-pound loads, doused with salt water, heat, and humidity as it hauls in sheets, halyards, anchors, even fish. It’s amazing how reliable it is and how rarely it fails.
The winch does, however, need regular maintenance just like everything else on board, and to put it off is asking for trouble at the worst possible time.
Most winch manufacturers recommend complete service at least two to three times during an “active season.” You may not like reading that — I didn’t — but it’s clear the winch deserves all the TLC it can get. And if done methodically, you can knock the whole job off in less than three hours.
As with most maintenance tasks, the key to success is preparation and, in this case, the willingness to get a little grease on your hands. Choose a calm sunny day, don your work clothes, and have the following ready in the cockpit:
Several old toothbrushes
Rags and old towel
Paraffin or mineral spirits
Spare pawls and pawl springs
Spread towel on cockpit seat and disassemble winch from top to bottom, making note of where the feeder arm is pointed. Be extra cautious when you handle these parts, they’re very expensive to replace. When removing the drum, be careful of bearings that may stick to it. Place all metal parts into a bucket and pour in enough mineral spirits to immerse. Gently swish the bucket around and let stand for 10 minutes. Pull each part out and use a toothbrush to scrub the remaining grease from gear teeth, soak in the second bucket full of hot water and set on the towel to dry. Visually inspect pawl assemblies, if they don’t spring back when pushed, replace spring. When complete, squirt machine oil on all pawls.
Now the fun part: squeeze a light smear of manufacturer’s grease onto the toothbrush and, with the exception of the pawl, work it into all internal parts. Carefully reassemble gears, drum, and replace feeder arm in same direction. Use canvas cover on winch to extend life of grease. Repeat for all, and pour used spirits into sealed container for proper disposal.
Now, turn the winch with the handle, feel the difference? That smooth spin makes the maintenance work well worth the effort.
Robert Beringer sails a Catalina 34 and lives in Jacksonville, Fla.