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Servicing your Winches (in this case, not your wenches)

Something that should be done at least once a year!

Winches are perhaps one of the more crucial pieces of equipment on a sail boat. Receiving almost constant use in the case of the sheet winches, and being essential in getting the sails hoisted up the mast, they are indeed important – particularly on a larger boat. They are unfortunately also possibly the one piece of equipment that sees the least amount of maintenance or attention. Beautifully engineered with seemingly complex systems of gears and ratchets, they are manufactured with a high degree of precision, and with a modicum of TLC, they will operate smoothly and efficiently for many decades.

Carefully scrubbing each part

Many sailors, even seasoned and experienced ones, have approached me while I was working on my winches in the boat yard, expressing concern and wonder that I was doing this myself. They expressed that their winches were expensive and far too complicated for them to service themselves. As it also tends to be a mite costly to have someone else service them, most will relegate their winches to the deferred maintenance list – not a good idea.

The root of the problem is that they are complex-looking pieces of equipment. Once disassembled they are seemingly impossible to put back together again. But no, they are not “Humpty Dumpty”, and as there is usually only one way to assemble them, they are in fact quite easy to put back together again. And how nice they sound and feel once cleaned and greased up.

The manufacturer will recommend servicing the winches every couple of months. For the full time sailor, I would certainly agree with this approach, but the weekend sailor, once a year (but not more than every two years) may suffice.

We once purchased an older boat that had done some serious mileage. She also had, as we soon found, a lot of deferred maintenance. This old lady came with a complement of 18 winches. Some big monsters for the headsails, medium ones for the halyards, and some small ones for less important tasks. All of them, except for one which was seized up, spun fairly freely but with a harsh rasping sound.

During our first season we admittedly had bigger fish to fry, and further deferred the maintenance on the winches. A badly leaking shaft seal that had us pumping all night on our delivery ‘till we found the point of water incursion, engine problems, pumps to be replaced, faulty electronics, you name it. However, that fall we started opening our winches up two at a time – and you will see that this will be our first tip. What we saw inside was both sad and appalling. It looked like we had plenty of sand from the Sahara, but nary a drop of lubricant inside them. Sand is, as you can imagine, quite abrasive and the insides of our winches were sadly quite worn. The gears, the pawls, the shafts were all abraded to one degree or another, and there was rust and corrosion everywhere. But no longer.

So what is the big deal? As I mentioned I will always work on my winches in pairs – unless I am in the middle of doing a batch and am really sure of what goes where. Why do I do this? Because, I have the same fear as everyone else of putting a bit in the wrong place, or upside down. If I have an assembled winch sitting there, it is a template for the one I have in bits. As special added assurance, I ask my wife Daria to take digital photos of my winch as I take it apart to make sure I have a record of ‘how it was’, and I have also downloaded the assembly instructions from the manufacturers’ websites.  So armed, I am confident, at least somewhat, of being able to clean, grease and reassemble the winch without any mishaps.

I figure about three hours for me to service large wench – oops, I meant a large winch - and less for a smaller one. This way three are a day’s work; and quite exhausting, though satisfying I might add.

First you have to remove the winch from where it lives. Usually this can be done in one piece, though we do have one that needs to be almost totally disassembled before it is removed. Often winches are through bolted on the deck or coach roof. Yes, this all has to come off, as there are bits that need attention inside that you cannot get at if you do not remove it. You will need screw drivers and Allen keys (hex keys) to remove most models. As parts come off, I place them in a bucket to carry it to where I am working. This is not only a handy means of transport, but also useful should a piece fall out while underway.

A completely disassembled and cleaned winch

The next step is to disassemble the winch. I do this and the subsequent cleaning in a large aluminum pan I found in a dumpster several years ago. For some winches you may require a mallet and punch to push out a pin. (Do not use a lump hammer as you will most assuredly damage something with the hard blows.)  At other times there is a split ring that holds the parts together. Often all you will need now is your Allen keys. Be careful when you remove the palls (the little ratchet thingies). They have a little stainless steel spring in the middle that just loves to jump away. Because of this tendency, I would strongly advise going out and purchasing a set of palls & springs, which are readily available at major chandleries. If a pall is worn, replace it.

Once I have everything disassembled, I wash it all thoroughly in some diesel, which we happen to have around. It is a light oil that will dissolve all the old grease. There are special oils/solvents for this, but diesel works fine. A small brass wire brush, an old tooth brush, and some rags are also needed. Do not use a steel wire brush as the bristles will rust if pieces wind up in the mechanism. Also do not use a tooth brush with rubber on the handle as this will dissolve. You can get suitable brushes at most marine or better hardware stores – and they do not cost a lot. We have also found them at our local euro or dollar store.

Scrub, wipe, and wash away until the parts are clean and shiny. Be careful to get all the old grease out of the bearings while you do this. Once it is all scrubbed, I lay all the gears and other bits out on a clean paper towel or newspaper to drip dry – like drying dishes. Just like when you clean your best china, you should now wipe all the parts down, removing any solvent (diesel) as well as any last remaining bits of grease.

Now comes the re-assembly. You will need some good quality marine (winch) grease as well as some appropriate oil (special winch oil or 3-in-one). Give the gears some grease prior to assembling them, making sure you have some grease everywhere. I also rub some grease on all the larger surfaces to protect them from the elements at this time. The bearings need to be well packed, as they do much of the work. There is no need to put in great gobs of grease, as this just makes a mess and makes for more work with the next cleaning.

The winch reassembled with all the needed tools

The hardest part is perhaps putting the pawls back in place. The pawls are oiled rather than greased, as the grease may cause them to stick. To reassemble them, position the little spring in its groove, with the circular part lined up with the pawl. Put the circular part of the pawl into the corresponding cutout in the gear until stopped by the spring. At this time, the groove the spring rests in should be partially hidden. With a flat screw driver gently push the spring into position while maintaining some pressure on the pawl. If everything stays put, it will easily now drop into place. If you do several winches you will surely get the hang of this.

Now, put the rest together, and you are done!  Well, almost. You still have to get them back on the boat in their place.  Piece of cake! And your boat will love you for your effort. I love playing with my wenches (blast – winches) when they rotate smoothly.

So where we live, 18 winches at 4 hours each total with removal and reinstallation would have cost us over 3,500 Euros (or $4,500, plus shipping) to service.  Instead, I am intimate with our winches, I know they were serviced well, and I can always fix things when they fall apart.  It cost about 20 Euros in grease, 40 Euros in spare parts (which I have yet to use), and gave me a great reason to spend hours in the fresh air in the garage all fall and winter.  And the wench didn’t even mind!

Further Reading:

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