How to Service a Winch!

On board sailing yachts, winches fulfill one of the most important jobs. They allow us to pull considarable amounts of weight, that would be impossible to pull by hand.

During the summer season, they don't ask for too much maintenance. You just have to rinse them well with fresh water, to get the salt and dirt off. Easy as pie!

Winch on board

Then, during the winter months, we have to maintain them more thoroughly.

Once every year is recommended. If you sail a lot, do it more frequently, especially if you're into racing...

If you have one of the following problems, you have to do the maintenance straight away, because it might get dangerous to put loads on a faulty winch.

Red flags are:

  • If you can turn the drum in both directions, something's wrong. A winch should turn only in 1 direction and block in the other. Probebly the pawls or springs are damaged or they got stuck.
  • If the drum turns difficultly and doesn't spin freely, there might be a problem with the roller bearings, gears, springs or pawls.
  • When you turn the drum, you should hear it clicking very neatly. It means that the pawls jump into their slots to prevent the winch turning the other way and thus not-holding the load. If this ratcheting seems sluggish and you don't hear those proper clicks, then you have to service it too!

If you have never done this before, no problem!

What I recommend you to do is that:

  1. you only service 1 at a time. Doing several ones, even if they're from the same size and brand, at the same time, can mess you up.
  2. you lay every part next to each other, in that order that you took it off from the winch. Another smart tip is to take pictures with your digital camera every time you take a part away. Take your pics from the same angle and spot to avoid confusion.

Parts of a boat winch

Most of us will have winches from Harken or Lewmar, but there are other brands and every brand has its way of making one. No matter how they built it, take it apart piece by piece.

It's very simple!

If you take away a part, the next one becomes available to dismantle and so on...

1. Preparation

Before you begin dismantling it, get all the tools and spares you need. From the obvious screwdrivers, allen keys and so on, to clean rags.

The spares you will surely want to have onboard are the pawls and the springs. Most manufacturers have a special service and repair kit available.

You will also need special grease and pawl oil, like the ones shown above.

To clean all the parts, you need a solvent-based cleaner like diesel, mineral spirits or any commercial degreaser. Don't use gasoline, because it harms the plastic parts.

Get an old toothbrush to get the dirt out in those tiny places and between the teeth of the gears.

I also bought those cheap aluminium oven trays from the supermarket to put all the parts in. You can also do your cleaning in those trays and they make sure that nothing falls out of it!

2. Taking it apart...

When you start taking the whole lot apart, you can choose if you take it apart completly and then start to clean, or that you clean every part as soon as you take it off the winch. This doesn't matter, as long as you put them back in the right successive order.

Do check if every part is intact. Are all the teeth of the gears complete? If not, replace the gear.

Check for other wear and corrosion.

Especially the pawls and springs need to be in top-hape. Replace the springs regularly or when in doubt.

Servicing a winch

The moment you are ready to take the pawls with springs apart, be very carefull that they don't jump away. Close your hands around them, so that they can't go anywhere...

Also, have a look at the base. Cracks around the bolts aren't good...

3. Reassembling...

Now, that all parts are clean and dry, we have to put everything back in the right order and now with a coat of grease or oil.

You have to put a light coat of grease on anything, except the pawls and the springs. These last 2 you oil with the pawl oil.


Because the pawls and springs need to jump quick in place, and oil makes sure they do this. Grease sticks and will make them slower to react or even worse, immobilize them.

Put only a light coat of grease on the other parts, too much and you will have a thick paste that will get dirt and salt caught into it...

Check your pictures if you have doubts, when putting everything back.

4. Cover it up!

Once the job's done, cover it up during the winter and even better, also in the summer. You can find those standard covers in every good shipchandlery.

And that's all there is to it!

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