Filed Under (Boat/Trailer Maintenance) by Debbie on 29-10-2009

We have finally done the yearly maintenance on our sailboat’s winches and considering we’ve had the boat four years that’s not too good.  Although, we think the last time they were done was maybe more like 15 years ago.  I have to say that cleaning and servicing the winches was not as hard as I’d expected.

So if you’re thinking about doing yours and looking for direction maybe this will help you.  I’ll start with a list of ‘stuff’ to gather before you get started.  By the way once again, thanks Alan for the class at RCYC!

  •  cardboard box
  • plastic tubs (like from the deli)
  • gloves-like the EMT’s use if you want to keep clean
  • rags- use an old tee shirt not towels as they don’t have lint
  • toothbrushes
  • small wire brushes
  • exploded diagram of winches – don’t have one?  Try looking here.
  • Allen wrenches (check your winches top first, I didn’t need any)
  • small screwdriver
  • bigger screwdriver (in loo of allen wrenches)
  • solvent-we used kerosene
  • winch grease
  • winch oil or a light 3 in 1 type oil
  • spare pawl springs
  • warm soapy water
  • warm rinse water
  • bath towel
  • clothes pins
  • digital camera

Before you get started on the actual work, take a few minutes to set up everything.  Are you taking your winches home or doing them on the boat?  We did ours on the boat over the course of two days.  We figured it would be easier to start with the small single speed non self tailing winches first and work our way up to the big self tailing ones.  It was a smart move as the smaller ones were not only easier but they were in much better shape!

So set up your work area with the solvent in the little deli plastic containers or what ever size containers you’re using.  Set up a paper towel to set gears, etc. on and cut up the tee shirt in to squares.  Work slowly and without interruptions as it’s easy to get lost at first.  Double check the batteries in the camera…this is your fail safe!  At least for us as sometimes the diagram didn’t make sense but the camera did.  Yes, there are pictures below and you can click on any to make them bigger and you can do ‘control +’ to make it even bigger.  Please, don’t leave comments or questions on the pictures…leave them below here, thanks!  Yes those pictures are of two different winches.  The first is a singel speed and the others are a two speed.

First you’ll want to hang your old bath towel from the life line and pin it in place with the bottom edge on the inside of the rail not hanging down over the water.  You’ll need this if something drops, hopefully the towel will catch it.  Then take one cardboard box and cut a circle out to fit over the winch, this is the first fall line in case things start falling out, the towel’s the back up.

Ok, deep breath and let’s get started.  Take a picture at each step you do.  Then if you need to you can flip backwards through them as you re-assemble the winch.  Also check the water to see if you’ve any waves coming.  Remove the clip at the top.  It looks like a key ring on the out side where you put the handle in.  We used a small screwdriver to work it up and out.  Then take off the top cap and drum.  Work your way down to everything off the winch.  Keep the gears together if you have one stacked on top of another.  Don’t remove anything attached to the fiberglass!

Winch Circlip 

Carefully take the box of ‘stuff’ to your work area, don’t forget to check the water before lifting up the box.  When you take apart the gears, line them up in order and as you clean them place them back in the same spot.  That way, you can re-assemble by coming back down the line placement.  If there are pawls, pay attention to how they are set in the gear (take a picture…you’ll forget if you’re like me).  There are wire springs in the middle of the pawls…try not to lose them.  Use the new spares if you do have one fly away.

Winch Top 

One part at a time goes into the solvent.  We used two containers of solvent.  One for the really gross dirty start and the second for a finish cleaning.  Scrub with the wire brushes or toothbrushes until clean.  Then wash in warm soapy water, rinse and dry with tee shirt.  Keep working on cleaning until all the parts are nice and clean.  Be sure to look for rust and scrub it off with the wire brush if you find any.

Winch Drum 

I’ll mention here:  A previous owner who did the winches last really over did the grease.  There was so much it oozed out everywhere (you can see by the pictures I’m sure).   We had a hard time ‘brushing’ it off the gears and ended up soaking them in the solvent and using a small screwdriver to scrape off the majority.  Then we were able to re-soak and brush it off.  This stuff was like dried on paste glue and very difficult to remove.  I’m sure next year it will be much easier to do the winches!

Winch Pawls and Springs 

Inside Winch 

When everything is nice and clean, start putting it back together.  When you oil or grease remember to go lightly.  You don’t need a ton in there just a nice thin coating.  Oil the pawls and wiggle them to help work the oil down.  Double check to be sure you’ve got them back in the same way they were.  Grease the gears, when you turn them the grease will spread out so don’t worry about ‘working’ it into each tooth.  Grease the roller bearing assembly and don’t forget to clean the drum and grease the teeth.

Winch Gears 

As a side note:  The roller bearing assembly could be a bit touchy.  All those little silver tubes can (and did) fall out.  This didn’t happen while cleaning for me but when putting the drum back on the center stem (the part attached to the fiberglass).  While someone thought we didn’t need the towel hanging down…he was glad we did when the rollers fell out.  The towel caught them and Neptune didn’t get anything!

Winch Gears Clean 

Once all the inside stuff is cleaned, oiled and greased, go out and clean up the center stem.  Try to work carefully as this made a big mess on our fiberglass.

Once everything is cleaned it’s time to re-assemble it.  Don’t force anything.  If it doesn’t go back together easily then something’s not right…double check your assembly.  Remember, work slowly…keep the box over the winch and the towel in place.  If you get lost look at the diagram or pictures in the camera.  If you still can’t figure it out look at the matching winch on the other side of the boat.  Also check on self tailing winches that you have the feeder arm inside the cockpit.

Inside Winch Cleaned 

It was a great feeling to have all the winches done.  I have to say, our self tailing work horse winches are working probably 75% better.  I think I maybe able to grind in those sheets now!  It wasn’t as hard as I thought it would be.  I’m really grateful to Alan for the class he did at the club.  He had great advice and hopefully I’ve managed to pass it along to you.

So if you haven’t done your sailboat winch maintenance, now’s the time.  It’s not hard.  Grease lightly and do them once a year.  If you found this helpful, please remember I have a real estate license and if you’re going to buy or sell I’d love to refer a local agent for an interview.  It costs you nothing and if you use them, they pay me a percentage which helps me keep this blog on the web.  I found it to be almost a ‘Zen’ thing and very pleasant to grease up my fingers and clean my sailboat winches.

6 Comments posted on "How to Maintain Sailboat Winches"
Chris on February 17th, 2010 at 10:45 pm #

Thanks for the tutorial, I was having problems figuring out how to get mine off. Turns out I think it was the clip on the top that is holding it all in.

Debbie on February 18th, 2010 at 10:06 am #


You’re welcome! I couldn’t figure it out either and thus the class I took at the club (blue collar yacht club) was really helpful.

The club member that gave the class didn’t suggest a camara but my brain doesn’t work well enough for the diagrams…pic’s are better for me.

Good luck on yours, the difference was amazing on ours!

Anne Carter on March 7th, 2010 at 12:50 pm #

I really enjoyed the tutorial but my winch is from 1962. It bronze and the handle slides into a slot at the top of the winch. I’ve taken off the top piece about the size of a quarter and can see the spring and pawls but have no idea how to get the rest of the winch apart to clean? any help?

Debbie on March 7th, 2010 at 6:24 pm #

Hi Anne,

Are there allen wrench holes? If you can email me a photo maybe we can see what it needs…or maybe someone from our club will know.

Mylo Mylo on October 10th, 2011 at 2:47 am #

Thanks so much for putting this on the web. I had no idea how to remove the top pin in order to move my winch to fix some old timber on a project. Seeing as I’m removing it, I’ll take your advice and give it a service!! Thank you so much

Debbie on October 12th, 2011 at 5:06 pm #

You’re welcome! Thanks for the kind words. You may be surprised at how much better the winches work, we sure were!