Tips for servicing your sailboat winches

Published on January 26th, 2023

Rust never sleeps (thanks Neil Young) and boat maintenance lives between you and a good day of sailing. If your boat has winches, you have the skills to clean them. Here are the simple tips for servicing your winches from Darrell Nicholson at Practical Sailor:

We continue to knock down the list of boat projects in anticipation of launch day in the northern hemisphere summer (yes, Florida and Caribbean sailors, we know you sail year-round, so rub it in). This week we’re moving onto hardware, winches in particular.

If you haven’t serviced your winches in a couple years, or you notice squeaks, groans or slips as you grind, it is high time to tackle this project. We like to inspect our jib-sheet winches every year, but we sail our boats hard and they are exposed to some pretty harsh freeze and thaw cycles.

Fortunately, winch servicing is a pretty easy, and for the wanna-be watchmaker who marvels at moving parts, it’s fun—until you start dropping parts overboard. Thus, our first bit of advice: make sure you have the right winch servicing kit, including pawls and springs, before you start pulling your winches apart.

Not only will you be happy you did this when a precious pawl springs start bounces down your cockpit drain (cover them before disassembly!), you will need the kit to determine the level of wear in your existing pawls. (Pawls are the essential, spring-loaded stops that prevent a winch from rotating backward—see image above.)

While using the right winch grease is important, servicing the winch before the grease turns to gum, washes out, or the pawls start to hang up is more important. Makers recommend annual servicing, but racers and full-time cruisers may go one to three years, and weekend sailors might stretch it a bit further.

Three years really would be the max, unless you can live with increased wear. If you go any longer, you risk increased wear and even damage. If the pawls hang up and the drum releases, parts can break, and people can get hurt as the winch handle whips around.

Here is a quick review of the basics of winch servicing. Most major manufacturers offer handy videos and guides like this Harken winch servicing video that can help guide the project. We highly recommend you refer to those before taking apart your winch: click here

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