Offshore Log:
Winch Maintenance – Do It Now, Not Later

Always working on Calypso, we also take apart our Lewmar Superlock clutches, whose finish has chipped badly in just two years.


Maintenance aboard a cruising boat is truly never-ending. Twenty years of preparation for offshore racing have left us with an absolute fetish for the constant checking, cleaning and lubrication of things on deck and below. When racing, failure of a component due to poor maintenance can, at best, result in losing valuable time. When shorthanded cruising, failures can be seriously inconvenient at best, dangerous to life and limb at worst.

While in Venezuela, we continued our ongoing rigorous maintenance program, which includes cosmetic issues like varnish and polishing stainless, but also incorporates more serious work like overhauling deck winches and hardware. To paraphrase the old Navy saying, if it moves we grease it, if its wood we varnish it. I have yet to figure out what to salute, but I think Maryann would like it if I saluted her a little more often.

Because most modern sailboat hardware is relatively trouble-free, we tend to neglect it until something breaks or doesn’t work properly. This is a bad policy, and one which, I regret to say, we follow much more than is ideal.

A case in point is that of our horizontally mounted mast-mounted winches, which can trap water and salt, leading to poor operation and internal corrosion. We had our eyes opened when we pulled apart the reefing winch, which was absolutely full of salt. The halyard winches, fortunately, were not quite as bad

While we had these winches apart, we decided to remove them completely from the mast. While this is not necessary for normal maintenance, it is a good opportunity to check the condition of both the base casting and the mast-mounted winch pads.

Because virtually all winches utilize bronze base castings, it is essential that there be an isolating gasket of some kind between the winch base and the mast. In our case, there are thin Mylar sheets separating winches from the cast-aluminum mast pads.

Likewise, this is a good opportunity to make sure you can actually get the winches off the mast. Chances are very good that unless your spar builder was conscientious enough to use anti-seize compound on the fastenings, youre in for a real shock when it comes to trying to back stainless steel machine screws out of an aluminum mast.

Use heat on a stuck fastening as a last resort, since it could damage the mast tube. Instead, use lots of penetrating oil, and the biggest screwdriver you can find. Because our mast is only a few years old, we succeeded in removing the winches with only moderate effort and occasional fits of profanity. We then cleaned and greased everything in sight, except for the pawls and springs, which should get oil instead of grease.

The bearings were cleaned in mineral spirits to remove old, hardened grease. The main shaft got a good polish with emery cloth to remove any burrs or surface corrosion. Needless to say, when the winch was reinstalled, the fastenings went in with anti-corrosion locking compound. We use Duralac for this.

The final task was a good polish on the chrome drums, which not only makes the winches look better, but adds life to the chrome finish by sealing the porous surface.

As a last note, buy plenty of spares kits for your winches; they are a lot cheaper than new winches. All our winches are obsolete Barient and Barlow models, and we loaded up on spare parts when those companies bit the dust. We have at least two complete overhaul kits for every winch on board. With luck, they will last as long as we own the boat.

Lewmar Superlock: Works Great, Looks Lousy
We have a lot of line clutches installed aboard Calypso. Three clutches on the boom secure the reefing and outhaul lines. On deck, four more clutches control the genoa car puller tackles and the headsail and staysail reefing/furling lines. Another three sit in the hardware spares bag awaiting installation as spinnaker pole fore- guy controls and who knows what else.

While we have Antal clutches installed in the boom, our deck-mounted clutches are Lewmar Superlocks, which have proven to be excellent in use.

Cosmetically, however, the Lewmar clutches leave something to be desired. The culprit is the units cast aluminum handle, which sheds its nice gray coating very efficiently, resulting in a sorry-looking sight after only two years of use. While all our Lewmar clutches show some finish chipping, the one used to control the genoa reefing line-the most-used clutch on the boat-looked particularly bad. The last time we were in the U.S., we purchased rebuild kits, including handles and springs, for all our Lewmar clutches. Spare springs-which control the action of the line-gripping dominoes-are essential because of their tendency to leap overboard during installation or disassembly of the clutches.

While we had this clutch apart to replace the handle, we cleaned up the dominoes and other stainless steel bits, as the interior of the clutch tends to collect grunge.

We should note that the chipped handles are still fully functional; they just look bad.

Darrell Nicholson
Practical Sailor has been independently testing and reporting on sailboats and sailing gear for more than 50 years. Supported entirely by subscribers, Practical Sailor accepts no advertising. Its independent tests are carried out by experienced sailors and marine industry professionals dedicated to providing objective evaluation and reporting about boats, gear, and the skills required to cross oceans. Practical Sailor is edited by Darrell Nicholson, a long-time liveaboard sailor and trans-Pacific cruiser who has been director of Belvoir Media Group's marine division since 2005. He holds a U.S. Coast Guard 100-ton Master license, has logged tens of thousands of miles in three oceans, and has skippered everything from pilot boats to day charter cats. His weekly blog Inside Practical Sailor offers an inside look at current research and gear tests at Practical Sailor, while his award-winning column,"Rhumb Lines," tracks boating trends and reflects upon the sailing life. He sails a Sparkman & Stephens-designed Yankee 30 out of St. Petersburg, Florida. You can reach him at