Some manufacturers recommend to perform winch maintenance up to three times per season. Even though this might be a bit exaggerated for the average sailor, it is well worth to at least check the interior of your winches at regular intervals. By doing so, it is quite easy to see if it’s time to service the winch. This is mainly a safety aspect: If a pawl is jammed, the winch can spin freely and cause major injuries. In addition to safety, regular maintenance of winches increases the lifetime of these rather expensive parts of your boat.
In this article, we will show you how to keep your winches running smoothly. As an example, we will disassemble, clean, and grease an old two-speed non-selftailing winch. The principles are the same for modern, self-tailing ones.
Opening the Winch
In the first step, you need to open the winch. If you have the opportunity, it is best to unmount the winch and open it at home, in the cockpit or below decks. This is not always possible, so if you open the winch when mounted close to the side of your boat, make sure that no parts can go overboard. Especially in old models, small parts tend to fall out when disassembling the winch.
Tip: If the winch is mounted far outboards, it might be worth taping a trash bag or a piece of canvas to the hull below the winch and to the railing. This catches any part falling out of the winch.
Usually, only a few screws on the top side of the winch need to be loosened in order to take off the cover. After this you can usually pull up the drum as well.
Is a winch maintenance necessary?
Once the cover and drum are removed, it is quite easy to check the condition of the gears: Is the grease dirty and brownish or black? Are there rough dirt particles in the winch? Are there parts of the gears where the grease film has worn off? Has saltwater ingress caused salt deposits? Is the “clicking” sound of the pawls dull or otherwise different from a new winch? Then it is time to proceed and give the winch the servicing it deserves.
If, on the other hand, the grease is clean, evenly spread and the winch does not make any unusual sounds, you can probably hold off the winch maintenance for a bit. It does not hurt either, though, and a well maintained winch lasts longer, protecting your wallet from significant expenses for a replacement.
Disassembling the Gears
The precise steps for disassembling the gears depend on the manufacturer. For most winches, you can find drawings of the gear assembly online. In general it is quite straightforward though to figure out, which parts to remove next.
During the disassembly it is worthwhile to take photos of each step. This helps in the reassembly and you don’t have to ask yourself why there is a pawl left after the reassembly.
Generally, you should try to disassemble all parts. If this is not possible, go at leas as far as you need to clean all surfaces.
Cleaning the Winch
At first, make sure to remove any rough dirt with a toothpick and a rag. Then it is time to remove any of the old grease. As a solvent you can use either kerosene or naphtha (make sure to wear oil-resisting nitrile gloves). Some people use Diesel oil to remove the grease. This does not work as well as kerosene though. If you used kerosene or diesel, make sure to wipe off the remaining oil film with naphtha or a similar solvent. Otherwise, the grease might not stick to the surfaces as well.
Always make sure the room is well ventilated, especially when working with naphtha!
An old toothbrush can help to reach all parts of the gears and smaller parts can be completely submerged in a jar with the solvent.
Make sure to properly dispose of all solvents!
Replacing Worn Parts
All gears and pawls should be checked for wear once they are cleaned. When in doubt, it’s better to change them. Usually, the gears in winches are very durable, unless there has been dirt and salt grinding down the surfaces due to poor winch maintenance.
All springs should be checked as well. Do they still have enough tension? They should be replaced at regular intervals. Many manufacturers provide winch servicing kits. Every few years it might be worth replacing all parts that come in such a kit and keep the old ones as spares on board.
Greasing the Winch
After the cleaning, it is time to grease the winch. Only use synthetic, water proof grease! Put a thin film of grease on every surface that has friction. Too much will avoid a smooth movement and the grease squeaking out only collects dirt and dust. However, the thinner the layer of grease, the more often you will have to service the winch.
For the gears, it can be helpful to put some grease on the outside of each gear and then move it together with its counterpart. This will distribute the grease within the teeth. Then remove any excess grease.
The pawls are in particular prone to jamming, if too much grease blocks their path. Therefore, if you use grease on the pawls, make sure to use it extra sparingly and remove any excess! Some people recommend to instead use oil such as Ballistol on pawls and springs. When in doubt check with the maintenance instructions of the manufacturere.
Reassembly and Test
After the gears are cleaned and greased, it is time to put everything back together. Now it pays off if you took photos during the disassembly. After everything is back in place, make sure to turn the winch in all directions in order to distribute the grease evenly.
Make sure that the paws are properly holding by checking the sound. The should make a nice, crisp “click” and no dull, “slow” sound. If that’s not the case, reopen the winch to see what’s causing the problem.
With this kind of winch maintenance at regular intervals, you will have many years of fun with your winches. Fair winds!