Winch maintenance made easy

Tips for the maintenance of sailboat winches are presented. The things needed in doing the task are environment-friendly solvents such as Simple Green, freshwater rinse, clean and lint-free rags, winch grease and light machine oil.

What’s the first thing that comes to mind when you think about routine maintenance on your boat? Chances are that “cleaning the winches” doesn’t top the list. As essential as winches are to making your sailing experiences successful, they’re some of the most typically neglected items on the boat. Regular servicing of your winches can dramatically increase their efficiency and minimize failure. While the level of winch maintenance will vary with winch use, most manufacturers suggest that winches be broken down and serviced prior to and once during each sailing season.

What’s Involved?

As routine maintenance, each winch should get a quick flush with a hose after sailing, particularly if you sail on salt water. This washes out salt and light dirt and helps prevent corrosion.

A quick check of a typical two-speed winch should only take about five minutes. Pull off the drum, remove the main bearings, wipe away grease on exposed surfaces, and examine parts for wear and damage (particularly pawls, springs, and gear teeth). If all appear fine, lightly grease and reassemble. If, however, the exposed grease is gummed up, loaded with dirt or sand, or the winch parts are dry, it’s time for a servicing overhaul.

A complete servicing overhaul requires breaking down the winch into its component parts, cleaning the parts with a solvent or degreaser, carefully examining parts for wear and damage, and reassembling after properly lubricating the moving parts. (With practice, a complete overhaul of a primary winch on a 35-foot boat should take about 30 minutes.)

How Do You Do It?

First, if you have them, read the manufacturer’s maintenance instructions. Next, lay out a towel or low-sided cardboard box on which you will place the individual winch parts. Let’s get to it.

You must remove the winch drum. It’s usually secured by a screw located in the handle socket, a threaded ring, or some type of snap ring. Have the necessary tools handy to remove the drum. Be careful to lift the drum up straight and slowly, as the bearings and individual parts may come up with it. Disassemble the winch parts and lay them in the box or on the towel in the order you removed them. This will make the reassembly process much easier. If you need to, make a sketch; this is the time to do it. Take a moment to study how the pawl and springs fit together and how to place the pawls in relation to the gears. If you’re servicing a set of winches, don’t take both apart at once. If you forget how the pieces fit together, you’ll still have a complete model to compare it to.

Now, let’s clean the parts. If the winch-component parts aren’t completely gunked up with grease, wipe them down with a doth and solvent. If they are heavily gunked up, soak the caked parts in solvent. (Don’t soak plastic parts in strong solvents.) When parts are degunked, rinse with freshwater and dry. When all of the components are dean and dry, it’s time to lubricate and reassemble them. Using a winch grease recommended by your manufacturer, lightly coat the bearings and gears, but don’t pack the winch with grease. Remember, don’t grease the pawls and ratchet teeth; these parts should be lubricated with machine oil. Once this is complete, reassemble all the parts in the reverse order of their removal, following the manufacturer’s instructions or your diagram. If the parts don’t slip into place fairly easily, something may be incorrectly placed. Be sure to reattach the stripper arm of a self-tailing winch in the correct position.

Once you’ve completely reassembled the winch, spin the drum and listen. The drum should turn freely and be fairly quiet and smooth. Listen closely for the click of the pawls; they should click solidly, in all the gears. If they do, you have successfully completed your winch-servicing session. You should be set for the season, but if you plan extensive racing or cruising, you may have to schedule more frequent servicing sessions. Don’t ignore those all-important winches; tackle them early and avoid the last-minute worry.


  • Manufacturer’s maintenance instructions (if available)
  • Two buckets: one for solvent, one for freshwater rinse
  • Solvent: environmentally friendly solvent like Simple Green are advisable, but solvents like Simple Green are advisable, but solvent such as kerosene or mineral spirits will also work
  • Clean, lint-free rags
  • Winch grease and light machine oil
  • Tools: screwdriver, Allen wrenches, pocketknife
  • Low-sided cardboard box or towel to place parts on during servicing

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