Winch Servicing Basics


While using the right winch grease is important, servicing the winch before the grease turns to gum, washes out, or the pawls start to hang up is more important. Makers recommend annual servicing, but racers and full-time cruisers may go one to three years, and weekend sailors might stretch it a bit further. Three years really would be the max, unless you can live with increased wear. If you go any longer, you risk increased wear and even damage. If the pawls hang up and the drum releases, parts can break, and people can get hurt as the handle whips around.

Here is a quick review of the basics of winch servicing. Most major manufacturers offer handy videos and guides that can help guide the project:

1. Read the instructions. Most winches come apart by loosening a single screw or removing a clip, with little risk of losing important parts. If in doubt, tape a cardboard box around the winch to catch any strays; the caged bearings can stick to the drum and fall out when it is removed. Note the orientation of the line stripper. Move the parts to a safe work area.

2. Work on one winch at a time. Seemingly identical winches a few years apart in age can have significantly different parts. Weve wasted a few minutes figuring this out.

3. When disassembling the winch, keep track of the order you take things apart in; a phone camera can be helpful for this. Specifically, watch out for the pawls and pawl springs. If you are working on the boat, a cafeteria tray (or similar) is very handy.

4. Degrease the winch parts with mineral spirits. A paintbrush, tooth brush, and lots of rags are helpful.

5. Replace the pawls and springs if they have seen more than a few rebuilds, if they seem worn, or if the motion is not crisp. These are lubricated with oil, not grease, since grease can thicken and cause them to hang up. A manufacturers winch-servicing kit may contain special oil, but motor oil works well, too.

6. Grease all of the gears and bearings before assembly. They don’t need to be generously packed the way vehicle bearings are, since excess can run down into the pawls; they just need to be lightly coated with good surface coverage. Wipe a very thin coat of grease on all internal parts to prevent corrosion.

7. When reassembling the winch, be certain to face the line stripper in the correct direction.

8. Add canvas winch covers. They may reduce wash-out, and we know they protect UV-vulnerable plastic parts.

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