Sailing Winch Secrets: How To Use a Winch

Secrets of the Sailing Winch | Life of Sailing

Last Updated by

Capt Chris German

June 15, 2022

A winch can rip off your finger or save your back.  If you know what you're doing, nothing beats this modern convenience for hauling in a sail in heavy breeze.

One of the most conspicuous features of a modern sailboat is the high chrome shine of the winches. Your eye is drawn to their steely glow while your inner voice tells you that these things mean danger.

They really are one of the most dangerous pieces of equipment on a sailboat, but also one of the most utilitarian tools a boat may have. By following a few precautions and always keeping your bearings about you, you can use this tool for all sorts of functions and still keep all your fingers attached at the socket.


Table of contents

The Traditional Function Of A Winch

When I signed up for the sailing team at the US Coast Guard Academy, the coach walked in and asked who in the room had ever used a winch before? The quizzical looks on many of the  young swab faces must have  told him that he had very few real sailors in the newly minted class of 1994, and he explained, “You know that thing that looks like a coffee grinder that you wind around with a handle?”

Several faces lit up with that explanation and he immediately tapped those in the know for the big boat team. The rest of the young swabs would be sent to the dinghy team, while the select few would be elevated to relative stardom by joining on the crew to race the big boats in the weekend club series at area yacht clubs.

By being selected for the big boat team,  we would be allowed to leave the base most weekends of the fall and play with civilians at yacht club parties who would fawn over the fact that academy cadets were at THEIR party. That was my favorite function of the winch at that point, to get me into parties, but not really how a winch is supposed to be used.

Winches are however just as the coach described them. They look like big coffee grinders and you spin them around with a winch handle. They come in lots of sizes, but all pretty much have the same shape and function - to haul in the jib sheets to trim the jib on the upwind leg.

I have seen little brass ones no bigger than a cat food can on old sailboats from the 60s and I have seen huge drum sized winches on yachts that would make you puke with envy. Regardless of their size however, they all do pretty much the same thing - pull in the jib sheets.

How To Use A Winch

Winch operation is pretty simple too - after all, it is a simple machine. You wrap the line around the winch three or four times from the bottom up, pulling the line in with one hand and while you crank the winch with the other. On big boats or heavy breeze days, you can team up on a winch with a crew mate,  where one person is the grinder and the other person pulls in the line or “tails the winch”.

The friction of the line wraps around the drum of the winch which usually has some kind of ridges etched in it for better holding effect. As you pull the tail of the line out of the winch the winch spins on bearings and offers you a better purchase on the line than you would have if you were just pulling the line directly from the jib.

The person grinding (or your other hand) can assist your pulling hand or tailor pull the line in by manually spinning the winch with the winch handle. This is where you can exact revenge on a grinder by telling them to grind the winch without actually pulling on the line making them think they are doing work without actually doing anything. (You have to pull on the line for a winch to work).

That’s it - an elegantly simple machine doing a yeoman’s effort of work - better living through technology.

Winch Accidents

Who would think that something so elegantly simple could be so dangerous? Winches while rarely causing lethal injuries, have been known to make some pretty grotesque origami of fingers and hands of errant pit crew (the people who trim the jib in a sailboat race are called the pit crew because they work in the the cockpit and all they do is grind winches).

All too often, a tailor will allow their hands to get a little too close to the winch wraps on the drum and the line will suck your hand into the wraps, crushing, twisting and mangling your fingers and hands.

This is where the grinder can get their revenge by grinding your hands to pulp in the drum of the winch, but my hope is no one is  malicious enough to intentionally grind someone’s hand up into a winch on a sailboat.

There are ways however to avoid having your hands and fingers sucked into a winch. That  comes from how you hold the line. Grasping the line with your thumbs towards you and pulling hand over hand is the safest way to grasp a line. This keeps the finger that makes us human, the thumb, furthest away from danger and allows you drop the line in a hurry if things ever get out of hand.

Invariably however, some people hold the line the wrong way and that is when tragedy strikes.

Wrapping The Winch

The way you wrap a winch is key as one way will work and the other way will not. Most winches will be wrapped from the bottom up in a clockwise direction. I am a little dislexic when it comes to how to load a winch, so usually I will give the winch a turn with my hand before I load it to make sure I understand which way it turns.

Once you have wrapped your winch, it is ready to haul- so keep your hands safe as soon as you put the line on the winch. You’ll know it's time to load up your winch or wrap it, when the skipper says “ready about”.

The Tacking Process

With your winch loaded, your boat is ready to tack and you will tell your skipper that you're ready.  Helm over, the bow swings through the wind and at this point you will release the sheet by unwrapping the line from the winch and allowing it to run freely to the other side, where hopefully your grinder has preloaded their winch and are ready to pull in when the jib switches sides.

An effective tack requires the timing of the process to be exact. If you release your winch too soon, your boat will lose speed and fail to complete the tack. If you release your winch wraps too late, your jib can get stuck up on your mast or life lines and may make the boat over tack or turn too far down wind.

The only way to master the timing of the tack is to practice, but with time and practice you will get a feel for how your boat tacks and when you should release the jib sheet.

For more info on tacking please see our article on sailing maneuvers.

Other Uses For Your Winch

Alton Brown of The Food Network  has said that the only unitasker allowed in his kitchen is a fire extinguisher, and I would suggest that that thinking also applies on a sailboat.

The space is too small and efficiency is too imperative to allow any single use tools to have a place on your boat and as such the winch is no different. Did you really think that a winch could only be used for jib sheets?

Winches can be used for all sorts of other functions in a sailboat, many that have no relation to sailing at all.

I use my jib winch for hauling in spring lines or breast lines on breezy days when the wind is setting my boat off the dock. A  few wraps from a dock line and even the most ardent vessels will relent and come alongside a pier or bulkhead.

Winches can also be  located on the mast for hauling halyards and on the stern quarters for hauling spinnaker gear. It is this universal nature of the winch that makes it such a useful tool on a sailboat.

Other functions can include hauling a MOB over the side or cinching in a dinghy for stormy weather. The coupling of blocks and tackle with a well placed winch can turn a deck winch or a mast winch into an integral part of any emergency plan- so get creative.

Self-Tailing, Electric And Other Revelations In Winch Technology

Perhaps I am showing my age, but when I was a boy, winches came in one flavor, manual.

Today however, there are so many advancements in winch technology that you can navigate your vessel and trim your sails with an app on your phone below decks so that you don't even need sunscreen anymore.

Self tailing winches are winches that wrap the tail in a round jam cleat that is located on the top of the drum. When you crank the drum, the winch will pull the tail simultaneously eliminating the need for a crew member to pull your tail for you.

Electric winches go one step further where an electric motor grinds the winch for you while the winch self-tails, making it possible for you to raise and lower your main or trim your jib without ever exerting any physical effort whatsoever.

I have even seen aftermarket products that can turn a traditional manual winch into an electric winch by using a battery operated hand held motor to grind the winch for you. It may seem like cheating to some, but technology in winch grinding has made it possible for all sorts of people with physical limitations to enter the sport of sailing and/or continue to enjoy the sport of sailing well into their senior years.

Winch Care and Maintenance

I am told and have read that caring for one’s winch is very much a DIY project, but taking a winch apart has never been my favorite thing to do. One wrong move and the loss of one bearing makes a $3000 winch into scrap metal.

So to that extent, washing a winch with mild soap and lots of fresh water to keep salt and sand out of the gears is about as far as I go in caring for my winches. Then again, I have never had really expensive boats either.

I have seen lots of people also cover their winches with canvas and my feeling is while this is cute, it doesn’t do a heck of a lot to protect and may in fact promote rust and corrosion on your aluminum, chrome, stainless steel or bronze varieties. However, covering carbon or other composite types of winches may prolong the life of their finish as UV rays can degrade these varieties.

For more on how to disassemble a winch, how to grease a winch and how to install a winch, check out Google. Harken, West Marine and Ronstan all stand to make money selling you on taking  a winch apart because odds are if you do you'll have to buy a new one. I have sailed with winches that were decades old and worked perfectly without ever greasing them or taking them apart;so I will recommend sticking to soap and water. But you do you.

For now though, watch your digits when loading and hauling on your winch and don't get too intimidated by those barrel side jobs on the luxury sailboats. They are all just winches at the core and all they really do is make pulling in lines easier.

So do good, have fun and sail far.

Sailing Winch Secrets: How To Use a Winch
Capt Chris German

Capt Chris German

Capt Chris German is a life long sailor and licensed captain who has taught thousands to sail over the last 20 years. In 2007, he founded a US Sailing-based community sailing school in Bridgeport, CT for inner city youth and families. When Hurricane Sandy forced him to abandon those efforts, he moved to North Carolina where he set out to share this love for broadcasting and sailing with a growing web-based television audience through The Charted Life Television Network.

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