Features April 15, 2004 Issue

Winch Handles

Getting the most out of modern multi-speed, self-tailing winches requires strong, smooth-turning handles with good grips. Here's a scan of the crowd.

There are trimmers on the racing circuit who come aboard with their personal 8" winch handles. They claim short handles are faster. 

In the fan-shape, at the left, are some of Antal's handles. In the middle are Harkens. At the right are Lewmar handles, and at the far right is the gaudy rubber-coated translucent handle (made by Titan) that is called 'The Condor.' At the lower left are two unpretentious British-made Holt handles. At the lower right is a Sea-Dog.

That's true, of course, provided you have the speedy beef to take advantage of the smaller radius. Otherwise, the only reason you should buy a short winch handle is that you can't swing a standard 10" handle in the available space. (The usual problem is a retro-fitted dodger or bimini.)

Practical Sailor's market scan revealed that most manufacturers offer both 8" and 10" versions of their line of winch handles. Almost all come in locking or non-locking versions.

There's a tremendous price and quality range in the 28 handles collected for this evaluation. At the low end, there's a $24.50 plastic Bernard handle that would produce hardly any tears if it hopped overboard; Bernard Engraving (now owned by Beckson Marine but still operated separately), has been making and selling these babies for years. On the top stock end is a carbon-fiber Titan Viper, for $189.90.

At the custom-order top, there's a polished bronze Antal with a teak handle, a thing of beauty, that Antal will engrave with your boat's name. Drop one of these beauties in the drink and your skipper would, if he could, slam on the brakes and say, "Fetch."

Several decades ago, there was one of those all-too-unusual, independently arrived-at decisions within the marine industry—to standardize the holes on the tops of winches. Before that, the situation was chaotic, with handles with square pegs, five-point stars, ovals, insert slots, etc.

The only remaining hold-out is the Australian-made Murray winches, which are bottom-action. They are favored in classic boat circles. (In some applications a bottom-action winch is not a bad idea.)

The only other prior hold-out was the British company called Barton, which gave up bottom-action winches and handles with the recent introduction of a fine line of Nautilus winches. Being largely made of reinforced polymer (except for stainless steel axles, pawls, springs and drum bands), the three sizes (8:1, 16:1 and 23:1) weigh about half that of even equivalent aluminum winches…and they don't need greasing, which is a considerable advantage. Unfortunately, Barton for the moment has no U.S. distributor. The Imtra Corp., in New Bedford, MA, is the former distributor.

Except for the handles needed for the classic bronze Murray winches (they are gorgeous), handles now all have 11/16" (17.5 mm) octagonal star studs, with square locking plates operated with thumb-operated, spring-loaded levers.

Yet another great improvement in recent years was the development of better hand grips. The move toward more ergonomic (and two-handed) grips was pioneered by Harken and a company called Titan.

The remarkable Titan handles were introduced to Practical Sailor readers in the March 15, 1992 issue, shortly after their invention by an Australian named Geoff Cropley. At that time, we looked very favorably on the composite handles (half the weight and half the price of existing metal handles), but explained that the people Down Under didn't like us to call their handles "plastic."

These Titan handles are very popular now….so popular that Lewmar, not long ago, bought the company. That was a good idea because, at the time, Lewmar's handles didn't hold a candle to Harken and Antal handles.

Let's take a look at the current crop.

Most of these handles come in both lock-in and non-locking versions. Why anyone would buy a non-locking handle is a puzzle, unless you like to see a handle pop out of a winch, bounce once on the sidedeck, and flop over the side.

The chart (see link at the end of the article) lists the handles alphabetically. Shown are prices, details and a column of judgmental information.

Practical Sailor got a good work-out using the handles in a two-speed winch; all were run up to 200 pounds, at least three times, to see if we could note differences in smoothness, grip comfort, and effort required. Viewed in informal price groups, the differences were not remarkable. As would be expected, the Holt, Bernard and Sea-Dog handles did not feel as smooth or comfortable (especially as the load reached the upper limits) as the more expensive handles (Andersens, Antals, Harkens, and Lewmars).

For discussion purposes, these 28 handles will be divided into three categories—the lightweight but well-proven plastic models, the medium-weight aluminum versions, and finally, the stainless and plated bronze heavyweights.

Plastic Handles
Whether nylon, a composite, or carbon fiber, plastic winch handles have come a goodly way since they were introduced almost 15 years ago.

At that time, one of the big sales boasts for plastic winch handles was that they floated. A few really did—the Sea-Dogs and Bartons (which, other than the molded-in names, were identical). The early Titans barely floated, so Titan finally allowed that the "floating" feature was not a potent selling point. Titan still makes some handles that barely float. They are the boxy "Primary" and "Magnum" models, especially the non-locking versions. (The extra metal in any locking version somtimes makes a sink-or-swim difference.)

Of the plastic handles in our 28 samples, only the 10" foam-filled nylon Sea-Dog (made in Taiwan) really floats.

Speaking generally again, Bernard makes no bones about its low-end handles. They're not very strong. They are for light duty, perhaps on a one-design or small cruising boat. The company says, "…only under normal sailing conditions and should not be used in severe weather or for abnormal loads."

We're not sure what an abnormal load would consist of, but if a winch handle breaks under any significant load, there's likely to be an injury of some kind, at least a bruise. So it's hard to recommend the Bernard handles, even at their rock-bottom prices.

The Sea-Dog fiberglass-reinforced nylon handle, the "floater" referred to just above, is, at $48, a fair buy. The only misgiving: The Sea-Dog has a red nylon lock-in plate that, because lock-in plates take some abuse, seems not as preferable as metal.

The three plastic Titan handles range from the old style, inexpensive "Primary" and "Magnum" models (boxy foam-filled assemblies, of which they've sold thousands) to the slick new "Viper Carbon," which Lewmar claims is unbreakable. No matter, because all Titans are guaranteed forever. The Viper's price is—ouch!—like a snake-bite.

Of the non-metal handles, the Titans are, as they have been since first produced, the best, and deserve to rank with the best aluminum and bronze handles.

Aluminum Handles
If it's aluminum, it's Antal or Harken. Both are made in Italy, both of extraordinary quality.

Neither of the British makers, Holt and Lewmar, are tops in this game. Holt has but two handles, both gray-anodized, of fair construction, and inexpensive. Lewmar has a wide range of good-quality handles (especially since it bought Titan), but the Lewmar aluminum handles fall short of Antal and Harken.

Although Titan acquired fame with its plastic handles, it now offers a unique handle called the "Condor," which is aluminum, covered with a blue-colored, translucent, rubber-like material. It makes less noise—and damage—when you drop it on the deck. The Condor also has a transparent red plastic handle and lock-in lever. The Titan name is in block letters on both sides. You can call it eye-catching or gaudy.

Choosing between Antal and Harken is, for PS, not possible. You like black anodized? Harken. Gray anodized? Antal. Red trim? Harken. Yellow trim? Antal. Grip? Harken's "SpeedGrip" and Antal's "Ball Grip" are excellent. (So is Titan's elliptical top, which they call a "Maxi-Grip.")

Price? All the many versions are within a few bucks of each other.

If we were to pick nits, we could say we found that Harken has smoother-running ball bearings in it handles, while Antal's rubber grips are more comfortable. As for top knobs, after several hours of testing, PS developed a slight preference for the elliptical shape available on Titan's Magnum and Condor handles. None of these nits are deal-makers or breakers.

Bronze and S.S. Handles
Any self-respecting winch handle should be heavy enough to wake the off-watch if you as much as lay them on the deck.

None do it better than chromed bronze or stainless steel handles.

The stainless handle niche is occupied solely by Andersen. After all, the Danish hardware company makes stainless steel winches. Andersen has 8" and 10", single- and double-grip handles. Per Stalquist, president of Scandvik (the U.S. importer), called two of the three handles "old style." They're a bit crude; they're described as "profile pressed," which in workingman terms means "stamped." They also have one-way triggers for the lock-in. Very rugged handles, they're still being sold. Stalquist pointed out—very rightfully—that the "new style" handles are very finely cast and have two-way triggers.

The Andersen handles probably will last forever, as will the four chromed bronze handles in this report.

The chromed handles are from Antal, Harken, Lewmar, and Sea-Dog.

The Sea-Dog is not a thing of beauty, but then it's only $48. It's not an outstanding example of casting or plating, and the trigger in the one we used was very scratchy.

Lewmar didn't spend much time on what doesn't show much (i.e. the bottom side); the two-way trigger (on the one supplied for PS examination) hung up on one of the two positions, and the PowerTop, as Lewmar calls its ball on the handle, doesn't rotate independently of the lower hand grip.

Harken's chromed bronze handle is better, except that, like the Lewmar, the underside hasn't been given much attention. The trigger lock-in assembly on our tested handle was loose. The trigger worked fine, but it seemed peculiar to find something like that in anything from Harken. (The lock-in assemblies on the five aluminum handles were all excellent fits.)

That leaves Antal. Its chromed bronze handle is very close to perfect, for more money, of course. Antal's finish work is the best of all. The Ball Grip, nicely made in rubber, is smaller and less handy than Harken's SpeedGrip and it doesn't rotate independently of the lower grip, like the Harken.

Between Harken and Antal, as with the aluminum handles, it's a wash. So... how to go shopping?

The Bottom Line
For a small boats or small winches, a Titan Primary 8" lock-in, at $36.99 is rivaled perhaps by the Sea-Dog 10" fiberglass-reinforced nylon handle for $28.75.

Racers who regard weight as the essence of evil and money as no object could choose Titan's Viper Carbon. It might be effective simply to wave it at the competition while shouting "We've got a Viper Carbon over here! You might as well go home." In fact there's a good price spread among the Titan handles— something for everyone.

Among the higher-quality handles, it really is difficult to choose, and certainly not possible to judge by finish and function alone. Price must be factored in, and we suspect that on a given day any of the handles from Harken, Antal, and Andersen could come out ahead of the pack.

For everyday cranking, it's hard to beat single handles with knobs on top (whatever the trade names of the knobs), and it's nice if the knob can rotate independently of the vertical handle. If we were going out today to buy a handle, it would be the Harken 10" single-handle with SpeedGrip (model B10CSG) or the 8" model (B8ASG) if there were space restrictions. If we needed to save a few dollars, we'd have no trouble buying a roughly equivalant Lewmar or Titan single handle-with-ball offering, either of which would get the job done in style enough.


Also With This Article
"Value Guide: Winch Handles"
"Cranking Power"

• Andersen, 800/535-6009, www.scandvik.com
• Antal, 800/222-7712, www.euromarinetrading.com
• Barton, 44 (0)11227 273917, www.bartonmarine.com
• Bernard, 800/654-2094, www.bereng.com
• Harken, 262/691-3320, www.harken.com
• Holt, 888/390-3242, www.holtallen.com
• Lewmar & Titan, 203/453-5669, www.lewmar.com
• Murray, 360/385-3628, www.woodenboat.org
• Sea-Dog, 425/259-0194, www.sea-dog.com

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