Electric Winch and Windlass Safety

I asked several reps about this, specifically switch locations, and they all said it was left up to the common sense of the installer. Given the history of gruesome accidents, a little safety talk seems warranted. Installation safety is not well covered in the manuals I read.


A decade ago a woman from Venezuela was hoisting her husband up the mast of their Amel Maramu 54. The winch was electrically powered, built by Lewmar, and became stuck in the on position. In trying to release the rope she became entrapped, losing her hand, part of an arm, and crushing her other hand (later losing fingers). A good Samaritan rushed over, also became entrapped, and lost seven fingers. In the words of one eyewitness, it was as a scene from “an abattoir, with body parts all over the cockpit.” In addition to the winch sticking on, there was also an override, interfering with her efforts to release the halyard. The winch was foot-operated, although this was not thought to be a factor.

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Drew Frye
Drew Frye, Practical Sailor’s technical editor, has used his background in chemistry and engineering to help guide Practical Sailor toward some of the most important topics covered during the past 10 years. His in-depth reporting on everything from anchors to safety tethers to fuel additives have netted multiple awards from Boating Writers International. With more than three decades of experience as a refinery engineer and a sailor, he has a knack for discovering money-saving “home-brew” products or “hacks” that make boating affordable for almost anyone. He has conducted dozens of tests for Practical Sailor and published over 200 articles on sailing equipment. His rigorous testing has prompted the improvement and introduction of several marine products that might not exist without his input. His book “Rigging Modern Anchors” has won wide praise for introducing the use of modern materials and novel techniques to solve an array of anchoring challenges. 


  1. A very good article. I’ve sailed and raced on boats up to 54ft – with and without electric winches, have 30+ years in USCG (Uncle Sam’s Confused Group) and I think this article needs to be read by all who use or plan to use electric winches. I really liked the note about OSHA (and also USCG) rules generally being based on accidents THAT HAVE HAPPENED. During my time as a Marine Casualty Investigator, one of my bosses once said at a national convention: “human error causes 95% of all accidents and people cause the rest”.

  2. I have electric winches on my boat. While you cannot feel the load, the sound of the winch will change as the load increases. As soon as the motor begins to groan, stop the winch. Something is going to break very soon. Ease the line a couple of inches to relieve the strain. Find out what is holding the line and resolve it.

    The thought that an electric winch can be stuck in the on position is beyond scary. On my boat the breaker is hidden behind a panel that takes some time to remove.

  3. Has the ABYC weighed in on this?
    Also, where does one get the proper training mentioned in the Anderson manual? This seems like something that would lend itself to a fine series of online videos.