All but the smallest sailboats have winches. Some sailors expect their winches to work year after year with little or no maintenance; others seem to think they are too complicated to mess with and are best left undisturbed. But winches are expensive, have a hard life, and are often subjected to very heavy loads when they are needed the most. It pays to look after them, a fresh water wash down is a good idea occasionally to remove salt. Overhauling a winch for the first time can seem daunting, but if approached methodically it should take no more than an hour to service one. After you’ve done it once or twice, you’ll wonder what the fuss was about.
You won’t need much equipment for this job, but it pays to get what you do need ready beforehand. You’ll need plenty of clean rags, some mineral spirits or kerosene, and an old coffee can to clean dirty parts in. You’ll also need a couple of screwdrivers, one small and one medium size, and perhaps a set of needle-nose pliers for replacing small parts like pawls. All the major winch manufacturers supply overhaul kits, which include grease for the bearings, oil for the pawls, pawl springs, a small brush, and an instruction booklet. These are well worth obtaining. The Lewmar kit, for example, retails for around $25 and is universal to all their winches. All the major manufacturers also have helpful Web sites; Harken, for instance, has an online parts list for their complete line.
Once you’ve got all you need, follow this step-by-step guide. The photos show a small self-tailing Lewmar winch (the differences from manufacturer to manufacturer are minor). The major parts of all winches are very similar and should closely resemble those in the photographs.
Don’t be tempted to take your winches apart at sea unless it is absolutely essential. I once took a winch apart in the middle of the Atlantic and dropped some vital part over the side, rendering the winch useless for the rest of the passage. Needless to say, this did not make me the most popular crewmember on board.
1. All major manufacturers supply kits for servicing their winches. These usually include tools, pawl springs, and instructions. Winches should be serviced once a year
2 AND 3. On some winches the drum is held in place with a spiral spring clip that sits in a shallow recess in the top of the spindle. Use a small electrical screwdriver or knife to pry out one end and carefully ease it out of its groove.
4. First you need to remove the drum. Unscrew the collar from the top of the winch. If it’s stiff, free it by placing a block of wood in one of the dimples and giving it a sharp tap. Harken uses a screw in the bottom of the winch spindle to hold the drum in place.
5. The O-ring seal under the top cap prevents dirt and salt from getting into the gears. Check the condition of this where fitted and replace if at all suspect. You may have to cut out the old one with a razor blade if you cannot pry it out with a small screwdriver or knife.
6. If the winch is a self-tailer (as shown here), lift off the self-tailing arm. It is sometimes locked in place by salt and corrosion and might require a tap with a soft mallet.
7. Remove the two half-moon-shaped retaining collets. On older winches these may be seized and might require prying out with a screwdriver. If they are really in tight, spray on a little penetrating oil. Don’t hit the collets with a hammer; they may distort in their seats, making them even harder to remove.
8. Insert your finger into the centre and lift out the spindle. You may have to twist it slightly to release it from its seating.
9. Lift off the drum. Don’t be surprised if the roller bearings don’t remain on the bronze spindle; sometimes they remain wedged inside the base of the drum.
10. Remove the roller bearings and check for wear. If they rattle in the cage or are ridged, they must be replaced. Give them a thorough cleaning with mineral spirits or kerosene to remove dirt and grime. Make sure to use a clean rag to wipe off residue. Also clean the spacer O-ring shown at the bottom of the photo.
11. Use the end of a small screwdriver to lift out the gear retaining pins, which are simply drop-fit through the winch body housing. You can now remove the gears from the winch body for cleaning and inspection.
12. Separate the two halves of the gear assemblies and check the condition of the pawls, especially the springs. Any broken or tired ones will need replacing. These vital springs are the smallest part on any winch and are the bits most likely to be lost, so take care.
13. After a thorough cleaning in mineral spirits or kerosene, dry each part, and then lightly lubricate the pawls and springs with oil. Return the pawl assemblies to the ratchet gear in the same order they came out.
14. Drop the gear retaining pins back into position with the flat on the edge of the pin facing the winch spindle. These should slide right in and fit loosely.
15. Refit the O-ring spacer over the winch body and then the roller bearings, which should be lubricated with the special grease and brush supplied in your kit. Replace the drum then lightly grease the self-tailing arm and top cap and refit. Check the action of the winch before patting yourself on the back and moving on to the next one.
Andersen winches have the top plate retained by four setscrews