What they do
Trailer winches provide mechanical advantage or electric power to pull boats safely onto and off of the trailer during ramp launch and retrieval.
How they work
Winches are mounted on a dedicated winch stand on the trailer tongue, on the support for the bow stop or temporarily on the tow vehicle’s hitch ball using an adapter plate (see Master Lock model 7792906 for this option). A reel or spool holds 20-50 feet of cable, rope or webbing, and has a snap at the bitter end. With the snap clipped onto the bow eye of the boat, the winch operator can either crank the boat onto the trailer or allow the trailer to slide backwards into the water at a controlled rate.
What to look for
Manual vs. electric: manual winches multiply your strength, allowing you to pull a relatively heavy boat against gravity and friction. They also have a ratchet to hold the boat at any point on the trailer so it doesn’t slide back into the water, allowing a normal person to retrieve a boat weighing over a ton, using a crank about a foot long and simple gearing. Larger models have a lower gear ratio to multiply your strength even more and two speeds for extra speed or power. For example, Fulton’s largest model of their aluminum F2 winch provides 5.1:1 and an extra-powerful 16.2:1 low gear.
Fulton re-engineered trailer winches with their unique and innovative F2 manual winch.
Electric winches use rugged DC motors, powered by your tow vehicle’s battery and electrical system, to do all of the hard work for you. Using low-stretch steel cable to connect to the boat, some electric winches use a pulley or block at the boat’s bow eye to double the pulling power (which doubles the cable length and halves the retrieval speed). Pulling capacities range from 1,500lb. for smaller models to over 10,000lb. for the most powerful models.
Size and power: choose a trailer winch to fit the weight, not the length, of your boat. Heavier and longer boats require more powerful winches with longer cables. The general rule is to select a winch with a capacity rating of at least half the combined weight of your boat, motor, fuel and gear. If you launch your boat on steep ramps or have a trailer equipped with bunks instead of rollers, consider up-sizing to a winch that’s rated closer to the boat’s actual weight. Remember that pulling capacity decreases dramatically as the incline of the ramp becomes steeper.
We also recommend Glyde Sliks or similar anti-friction pads on your trailer’s bunks, which help your boat slide. Most trailers have a standard winch assembly bolt pattern, so (in theory) upgrading to a more powerful winch is often easy if the current winch is inadequate. In fact, some of our customers report that they needed to re-drill mounting holes to install a new winch. Some of our trailers are old, non-standard models.
Power-in, power-out and free-spool: most electric winches power in and free-spool out. The electric motor hauls the boat onto the trailer, but you release a clutch to unwind the cable and let gravity lower the boat into the water. The clutch helps maintain control so the boat is eased, rather than splashed, off of your trailer. If your boat is heavy or you launch on a steep ramp and you need even more control, we recommend winches with a power-out feature. In this case the winch motor runs backwards, and controls how fast the boat slides off the trailer. TRAC and Master Lock winches allow either power-out or free-spool. Powerwinch products have single-direction motors and are exclusively free-spool out.
The Powerwinch RC30 is rated to move a boat of about five tons. Features include a wireless remote control, level-wind spooling and heat-treated gears.
Rope, cable or strap: Most electric winches use steel cable because they are handling larger loads. Better cable winches use a level-wind mechanism (similar to a fishing reel) to prevent cable snarls. Smaller manual winches designed for lighter boats use polypropylene rope or nylon straps similar to automobile seat belt material, which are easier on your hands.
Manual backup: Electric winches generally have a manual retrieve feature in case of electrical or mechanical failure. A simple crank handle is inserted into an access point on the winch to turn the gears manually. You might break a sweat doing this but at least you have a way to get your boat out of the water without outside assistance.
Wiring an electric winch
Electric winches draw substantial current when retrieving boats. The towing vehicle’s battery provides the power, but a dedicated winch circuit must be added to provide power to the back end of the tow vehicle. Wiring harnesses are included with our electric winches. The science of wiring electric winches to your vehicle’s 12V DC system is not complicated:
- When installing the wiring harness, make sure it is attached to the towing vehicle’s frame every 18" with good wire ties.
- Keep wiring harnesses away from exhaust systems or moving parts like the vehicle’s suspension that could damage the wiring.
- Always use the circuit breakers supplied by the winch manufacturer, located near the battery, to protect the wire and the winch motor.
- Never use the vehicle lighting circuits to power an electric winch. These wires don’t have enough current-carrying capacity. Use the wiring harness and circuit breakers provided by the winch manufacturer and don’t use the trailer light power socket on your bumper.
We like this heavy-duty nylon strap (rated for up to 10,000lb.) because it doesn’t scrape the bow of our boat or hurt our crew’s hands.
Trailer winch safety tips
- Trailer winches are not tiedowns. To prevent mishaps, use dedicated bow, gunwale and stern tiedowns to secure your boat on the trailer. Large boats add a safety chain to the bow eye.
- Make sure you have secure footing and proper leverage when using manual winches. Slips and falls by winch operators and injuries from winch handles that kick back are common boat ramp accidents.
- To avoid chafe on the winch line, be sure it doesn’t rub against any sharp edges on the winch stand or trailer. If frayed or worn spots appear, replace the winch line immediately with a new rope, strap, or cable of the proper type, size, and strength. Cable life can be extended by frequently lubricating it with wire rope lubricant so the strands of cable slide by each other with less friction. Lubricating your winch cable will also reduce the number of snags and frays in the cable.
- If you’re using an electric winch, keep your tow vehicle’s engine running while you’re winching to reduce the drain on your battery. We’ve heard too many stories about boaters not having enough juice left in their battery to start the truck after winching a heavy boat onto the trailer. Also, be sure your parking brake is set, and consider keeping someone at the wheel, in case the tow vehicle begins to slide down the ramp.