Winches allow you to exert force on lines by combining gear reduction and leverage. By using a longer handle which turns a smaller diameter drum, and by utilizing ratchets to keep the drum from turning the wrong way, winches let you tame sails that would otherwise be too hard to control. With routine maintenance and a little care, they’ll last a very long time, which is why we see so many “plastic classic” boats in our marina that still have Barient winches from the 1970s. Sooner or later, replacing your old winches will become necessary, and modern engineering makes sailing more fun.
Do you need a self-tailing winch?
Non self-tailing winches are less common today. They’re best for sportboats in applications that require constant trimming. For example, we use non self-tailing winches to trim the asymmetric spinnaker on an Antrim 27, where the sheet is in constant motion, and we only use the winch in heavy winds.
Self-tailing winches: We recommend self-tailers for most other applications, especially when sailing short-handed, because they make almost every job on board easier. Mount the stripping arm so that it points at the person grinding the winch, somewhere between the 5 o’clock and 7 o’clock positions.
Choose the Power Ratio/size you need
Most sailors can produce fifty pounds or more of tension on a line by pulling on it. When “jumping” a halyard, you can generally exert as much tension as your weight. But even with strong (or heavy) individuals, that amount of tension may not be enough. Large cruising and racing boats may have sheet loads in the 500 to 5,000 pound range, requiring us to multiply our otherwise inadequate strength. Therefore, we use winches to increase effectiveness.
Winches use both leverage (difference between the drum radius and the winch handle radius), and gear reduction (the number of times the handle turns for every rotation of the drum) to increase power. The combination of these two effects results in the Power Ratio, the theoretical mechanical advantage that comes from the gear ratio times the difference in the radii of the arcs that act on a line. We say “theoretical” because, as with almost everything mechanical, friction reduces overall efficiency.
Therefore, on a winch with a 10" handle length, 5" drum diameter, and a 6:1 gear ratio, the power ratio is (10/2.5) x 6 = 24:1. Higher numbers mean that your strength is multiplied more, and that the line will come in more slowly.
Winch manufacturers publish sizing charts online and in catalogs that cross-reference winch size by sail area and type of application, so you can find the recommended size for a mainsheet, spinnaker halyard or other common use.
Harken winches are the lightest, using a higher percentage of composite materials.
Lewmar EVO winches have a smooth top, can be taken apart without tools, and are simplest to service.
Andersen Winches are the all-stainless choice, with vertical ribs on the drum.
How many gears do you need?
One-speed winches: Turn one drum revolution for every handle revolution. Limited to small winches, these offer limited mechanical advantage. Least expensive of all winch types.
One-speed geared winches: The handle acts on the drum through a series of gears to increase mechanical advantage. The gear reduction allows the winch to exert more power than a non-geared winch. Handle ratchets when turned in the other direction.
Two-speed winches: Increase power available by changing speeds when the handle is rotated in the opposite direction. Turn the handle clockwise for a 1:1 gear ratio; turn it the other way for 5:1 or 6:1. A less expensive way of getting two power ratios in the same winch. NOTE: Jumps between first and second speed of 5:1 or 6:1 are generally considered too large, and two-speed winches are notorious for this.
Two-speed geared winches: Use gear reductions in both directions. First gear might have a 2:1 ratio and second speed might be 7:1. First speed (the fast speed) can be either clockwise or counter-clockwise, so watch out.
Three-speed winches: Popular on big racing boats, expensive and complicated. Three speeds accommodate both fast trimming and high power ratios.
Choose the material
Anodized Aluminum: Lightest and cheapest, and reasonably long-lasting. Black color looks good on many boats, but gets really hot in the tropics.
Chrome on Bronze: The durability of bronze with the good looks of chrome. Weighs up to 20% more than aluminum.
Bronze: Durable, long lasting, but requires frequent polishing to stay bright. Seen on traditional boats, but increasingly rare. Special Order only.
Stainless Steel: Expensive, but the most durable of any drum material. It looks great indefinitely. Andersen specializes in stainless steel.
Composite: Two types are available. Forespar makes a Marelon winch that is significantly lighter than bronze, less expensive and with no galvanic corrosion. Carbon fiber winches are a high-priced racing option.
Do you want an electric or hydraulic powered winch?
Electric winches are becoming more popular as the Baby Boom generation ages, and because they make sailing less demanding by taking the grind out of trimming sails or jumping a halyard. We’re also seeing more boats with hydraulic winches. All of our manufacturers are offering more choices with both modes of power. How do you select powered winches? Here are some questions to consider:
Power in only or power in-power out winches: Most electric winches grind the line in for you, and you ease as you would with a manual winch. Reversible winches, such as the Harken Rewind Radial, operate both ways. You don’t need to remove the line from the self-tailer. Harken’s winch is activated remotely by twin in/out buttons.
Motor placement: The main choice is whether you want above-deck or below-deck motor placement. Above-deck winches require less space under the deck and smaller holes to drill. Look for the Andersen Compact Electric Winches. There is also a great variety in sizes of below-deck motors. Harken’s UniPower 900 winches are the most compact, if the winch is located on the cabintop and you need to preserve headroom.
How many amps does the winch draw? Electric winches use a lot of power, with motors commonly in the 700- to 2,000-watt range. Amp draws between 80 and 150 mean that you should consider these products as you would a bow thruster or electric anchor windlass. Do the math regarding the capacity of your house battery bank, so that you aren’t required to run your engine too frequently.
Hydraulic winches: These are big-boat (over 50') products that will require consultation with our winch suppliers. They’re installed as part of whole-boat hydraulic systems.